For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2.8-10.
What is “grace?” We in the Western church tend to define it in terms of “the unmerited favour of God,” but our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox church would regard that as more of a description of God’s mercy than of his grace. “Grace,” in their understanding of the term, means something far more active and dynamic. In short, for them, it is nothing less than “the empowering presence of God” in a person or in an event or in a situation.
There is much to be said for such an understanding of the term. Take John 1.14, for example, where Jesus is said to be “full of grace.” Was he full of God’s undeserved and unmerited favour? Hardly so; but he was certainly full of the empowering presence of God. Or take Galatians 5.4 where Paul says that those who have gone back to trying to earn their salvation have “fallen away from grace.” How can someone disqualify themselves by their behaviour from something that their behaviour never qualified them for in the first place? They cannot; but they can cut themselves adrift from the empowering presence of God.
Just so, here, in Ephesians 2.8, “grace” carries a clear sense of something powerful and active. God’s unmerited favour may rest upon us but it is his dynamic presence in our lives that liberates us, restores us, remakes us and transfers us from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light.
And what is it that enables that “salvation” to take place?
Ah, so here’s where we come into the picture. God supplies the grace and we supply the faith and then the miracle of the new birth happens? No, no, no … God supplies the grace and God supplies the faith too: that is the very point that Paul is making. It could not be more obvious in the Greek. “Grace” (charis) is a feminine noun and so is “faith” (pistis) but the “this” in “and this not of yourselves” is neuter. That, according to the rules of Greek grammar, means that the “this” refers to everything that has gone before. It is all the gift of God – the undeserved favour, the power that comes to save us, and the faith that opens us up to that favour and power.
If we supplied the faith – if faith was something that we generated and brought into being – then it too would be just another “work;” something that we might be tempted to take credit for and see as the thing that has merited our salvation. But it is not. As Paul makes it very clear, “works” do not come into it. Our salvation is all of God from start to finish. At the end of the day, says Paul, you will no more be able claim credit for what you are than can the painting hanging on your wall. The painting owes everything to the artist. And God is the artist who painted you and me into existence and has now restored us and repaired us and made us new. “We are God’s handiwork,” says Paul; and he uses the word poiēma from which we get our English word “poem” – a work of art.
But that leads Paul to a final thought, and it is this. It is what God has made us that now determines what we do – how we think, act, speak, behave. If I am a poem that God has written, then the rest of my life will be the reading of that poem out loud. If I am a piece of music that God has composed, then now, each day, I will inevitably play the notes of the score in all I do and say, and people will hear the melody. So there can be no boasting. If I now do things that are pleasing to God, I can no more be proud of them than my PC can be proud of having just put these words on the screen in response to the pressure of my fingers on the keypad. Indeed, if Paul had been writing today, he might well have said that we are God’s “apps.” God has now reprogrammed us for goodness and brought us into union with Christ, so all that appears on the “screen” of our lives is simply the result of that.
Thanks be to God.