Why we all need the Spirit, again and again

Ephesians 2:8-9 says that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, verse 9 highlighting the point by negative contrasts. Verses 8-9 summarise verses 1-7. Verse 10 says “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV)  For about the first 42 years of my Christian life I thought this verse was about balance: yes, we are saved by God’s grace, but we must not forget that works have a place, we are not saved by them but we are saved for them – the necessity of love and obedience to God in the Christian. I still believe that doctrine. And for a long time whenever I read verse 10 I thought Paul was guarding against any belief in cheap grace that doesn’t change our hearts and lives, any faith that is alone and thinks it can just glide along without conflict or effort; or at the very least that Paul was saying, “In order to rejoice in the grace alone of verse 8 you must check to see that this grace is producing good works in your life; here is a test.”

Now, I still believe in the necessity of good works, and that it’s our duty to love God and obey him, indeed that if we love Christ we will obey him and do so willingly. And I also still believe that there is a sort of balance or correct proportion in true piety between faith and effort. We do not just glide through the process of sanctification by faith alone – 2 Peter 1:5ff and a sermon I heard by Jim Packer in 1976 cured me of that error. 

I taught this balance and this shield against practical antinomianism as the meaning of Ephesians 2:10 for many years, including in homiletics classes at London Seminary, where I often set verses 8-10 as an exercise in identifying the Big Idea in a passage (the one main burden of a potential sermon). However, the wording of verse 10 never seemed quite to fit the point we were making, at least not well: If either of the above interpretations (“but we must press on in good works” or “here is a test of your faith’s reality”) were right, why did Paul say “for” rather than “but”?

Then I saw it – it was about 3 years ago: verse 10 is not balancing faith or grace or verse 8 at all!  Rather, it is further support for the main contention of verses 1-9: Even the good works that Christians do to some extent do (which are the natural follow-on from repentance, and which Paul here is not pressing on readers but taking for granted) – they are all, 100%, the product of God’s grace. You are saved by grace alone, through faith alone; and yes, faith leads to love and good works, and you are doing them, albeit imperfectly; however, don’t for a moment think that this is any contribution or anything additional to God’s grace; it is all just a product of his saving grace. “All the good works which we possess are the fruit of regeneration. Hence it follows that works themselves are a part of grace.” Paul “intends to show that we have brought nothing to God, by which he might be obliged to us; he shows that even the good works which we do have come from him. …. His whole object is to prove that we are what we are completely by the grace of God.” That’s it! Somebody somewhere has written a book about this; it’s not just me. (Attribution is coming).

I looked today through the commentaries on my shelf, the ten I respect the most, having recently come across yet another batch of theological students who incline to the balance-caution view of verse 10. The eight modern, theologically conservative commentaries were all, with one exception, hopeless – they either did an entire “balance” interpretation, or else mixed that up with something about grace, or they admitted that even verse 10 was about grace, yet felt a need to exhort the reader not to be slack in good works. There was no wondering at grace, as in the above quotations. Truly hopeless, as bad as I had been for 42 years. F F Bruce, who is a sort of semi-conservative, you could say, was the exception; he was excellent though brief. And my ninth modern, Andrew Lincoln in WBC, not a conservative evangelical since he denies Pauline authorship, was first rate. It’s a funny old world.

Then I wandered over the shelf to pick up Calvin, thinking “these evangelical commentators must have used him; they clearly do usually read him; he must have had a bad Friday afternoon that week, when he wrote on Ephesians 2:8-10, and led them all astray.” Instead, as often, though not as always, he was magnificent; the above quotations are from his treatment. And he completely refrains from any moral exhortations to avoid sin or slackness – beautiful. He just asserts and revels in grace, like Paul. It’s as though he actually trusts the Spirit, in our union with the living Jesus, to sanctify us. Wonderful.

Two reflections:

First, how amazing is God’s grace, that he chooses us, sends Christ to die for us, gives us faith, justifies us freely the moment we believe, and then changes us, creating, maintaining and growing love and obedience in our lives!  It is all 100% from him, we are his handiwork. Praise God!

Secondly, how come we find it so hard, even as evangelical Protestants who theoretically believe in salvation by God’s grace alone, to see God’s free, outrageous, dangerous grace in the Bible – even to see it, let alone rest in it and rejoice in it and live by it all the time? What frightened, cautious, self-reliant hearts we have. I thought I saw grace in 1971 when I was converted – and to some extent I’m sure I did. I thought I saw it more clearly between 1988 and 1995, partly through agony of soul and partly through the writings of H Bavinck.  But I still need the enlightening work of the Spirit every day in order to know what is the length and breadth, the height and depth of the love of Christ. And so do you.