Now we come to those famous verses that so many have committed to memory: “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” (2:8–9).
Having worked through the argument of Ephesians 2:1–7, we can now see how these two verses fit in. They are simply the inevitable conclusion of the argument Paul has been making since verse one. It must be true that we are saved by grace, because we were spiritually dead—unable to save ourselves—and God made us alive. Why did he make us alive? Because of his mercy. Because of his great love for us. Not because we impressed him. Not because we earned it. Not because we were especially attractive zombies. We are saved purely by grace. This is the gift of God. We are not saved by works, nor by anything we have done, nor by any merit of our own.
But what exactly does “grace” mean? It is best expressed at the end of verse 8: “It is the gift of God.” Grace is pure gift. But sometimes our understanding of gift-giving does not offer the best picture of grace. We often give gifts out of expectation. If it’s my birthday, you may feel obliged to give me a birthday present. Or think about Christmas. There is an inaccurate expression sometimes used at Christmastime—“the exchange of gifts.” If gifts are “exchanged” are they really gifts at all? Isn’t it just an exchange? Aren’t we simply swapping our stuff? I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the point. It’s why you feel embarrassed if someone gives you a Christmas gift but you didn’t get that person anything. That shows there is an expectation to “exchange gifts.”
Instead, consider the gift that someone gives you for no apparent reason. You say, “But it’s not my birthday! It’s not Christmas. I haven’t just graduated. Why are you giving me this gift?” And the answer is simply, “Because I love you.”
That’s what the grace of God is like. Salvation is not given to us out of expectation. It is not exchanged for something else. It is pure gift. Why does God give us salvation? Simply because he loves us.
The gift of salvation is truly spectacular. Rather than receiving the wrath we deserve (v. 3), we are forgiven of our sins. We are adopted and brought into God’s family, adopted to be his sons and daughters. We receive eternal life in perfect peace, joy, and love together with him. For all eternity we will enjoy being together in his presence, rejoicing and giving him thanks. It will be a life without sin, without trouble and hardship, and without suffering and pain. Moreover, our salvation brings a multitude of blessings for this life too. We truly know God and are known by him. We instantly become part of a worldwide family. Our identity is transformed from being dependent on achievement, success, the praise of others, money, and status, to being grounded in Christ. Truly the gift of God is remarkable and precious.
But you may know all that perfectly well. You may be quite familiar with the teaching of salvation by grace through faith. You know you are not saved by your works or by anything you contribute. You understand what the gift of God is. And yet sometimes we can know something and yet not truly know it. We might have knowledge of a certain truth, but that truth has yet to really sink in. It has not yet permeated our entire being, down to our core. It’s in our head, but not our heart. Can you relate to that?
Some believers know that salvation is by grace. They may have even shared that message with others. But if they’re honest, they’ll recognize that deep down there’s a part of them that is still depending on their good deeds to be right with God. They still hope to impress God with their goodness. They really hope that they’re good enough for God. What they know intellectually and how they live their lives don’t match. The evidence demonstrates that what they really believe is that they must do something to impress God, to either earn or repay their salvation.
In the movie Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams plays Sean Maguire, a therapist whom the young prodigy Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, is court-ordered to see for counseling. Will has had a violent past, and his last fight landed him before a magistrate. While Will should have been imprisoned for his actions, Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) has arranged for Will’s freedom on the condition that he meets with a therapist every week.
They get off to a slow start, as Will is not interested in letting his counselor into his inner world. But slowly their relationship develops. Toward the end of the film there is a moving scene in which Sean raises the fact that Will had endured years of physical abuse as a boy. He says to Will, “What happened to you was not your fault.” Will says, “I know that.” But Sean presses the point, “It’s not your fault.” “I know.” Sean continues, “Look, son, it’s not your fault.” “I know!” “Will. Listen to me. It’s not your fault.” At that point Will breaks into tears and hugs Sean. He finally knows that the abuse he suffered was not his fault.
While we can know something to be true, sometimes we don’t know it truly. It can take a while to really sink in. We may know it intellectually, but we have yet to accept it. We have not yet allowed the truth to shape us at the core of our being. God loves you, brother or sister. He loves you. No, listen to me: He loves you! And because of his love, we are saved by grace.
If we are saved by grace through the gift of God and not by our own works, there is no basis for boasting (v. 9). No Christian can be proud of their salvation. In fact, every single human being stands guilty before God. No matter what we may have done—whether we are law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes and are generally nice people, or convicted criminals serving a sentence for armed robbery—we are all in the same boat before God. Guilty. Even the friendliest, most compassionate and honest person cannot boast before God. All are humbled by the grace of God, since it confirms the reality outlined in verses 1–3. Before we received God’s grace, we were mindless zombies under the control of the evil one. Only fools boast of their own goodness!
Rather than being about what we have done—our impressive performance, or our “nice guy” credentials—this is all about what God has done. In verse 10, Paul says “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Notice he says that we are God’s handiwork (v. 10). We are God’s product. We are the result of his work. This is a deliberate turnaround from discussing our works. Salvation cannot be earned by our works. Instead, the very opposite is true! Our salvation is the work of God. He is the one who has raised us from the dead with Christ. He has raised us up to be seated in the heavenly realms with Christ. He has saved us by grace. We are God’s handiwork.
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