For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
As a Protestant, I have a deep appreciation for what our tradition brings forward that Catholic and Orthodox traditions do not. Yet, I am deep ambivalence about my own tradition. This is not an ambivalence that points me to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, but in fact, it is an ambivalence that points in the reverse. What I feel best expresses the vital center of the Protestant Reformation wasn’t the doctrines of justification by faith and the five Solas, but more so the spiritual reality that they pointed to. Ultimately, the Christian life is rooted in one’s relationship to Messiah through the Spirit, not a magisterium or to a collection of ethical and theological traditions. While the fellowship of those genuinely led by God’s Holy Spirit would through time come to a common understanding that would resemble and affirm the traditions of orthodoxy Christianity, at the heart of the Christian faith is, I would say, a dynamic relationship with the living God who teaches and directs us by His Spirit to be conformed to Christ, which we received through our faith. I feel the strong conviction that the Protestant Reformation pointed to this spiritual dynamic and reality, even if it was not fully understood and explicated upon, in a way that the Catholic tradition did direct its adherents towards.
Yet, at the same time, I think there is a dissonance between some of the theological formulations of Protestant theology and this vital Pneumatological and Christological dynamic of the Christian life. The doctrine of justification by faith is one of those places. In designating salvation as a result of faith rather than human attempts to obey God, it set up an antithesis between human effort and God’s work that treating salvation as a passive process. With this in tow, it becomes a logical outworking of this soteriology to move towards a more Reformed/Calvinistic conception of faith, as salvation against the binary division between God’s agency and human agency. Yet, as a Wesleyan, I have a strong appreciation for the union of divine and human agency, but it always stood in antithesis to the traditional Protestant concept of justification. The solution within Wesleyan circles was to emphasize the two-stage nature of salvation, with it starting with justification as a pure gift of God’s agency and then moving towards sanctification as the place where human agency cooperates with divine agency.
However, what if Paul’s doctrine of salvation and justification by faith isn’t about the contrast between God’s agency and human agency, but a contrast between God’s pedagogy and human pedagogy? Let’s look at Abraham, the prototype of Paul’s doctrine of justification. What if Abraham’s faith wasn’t about some exchange for being forgiven by God, but about his reception of God’s word and promise to him that directed his own life? Faith here is about Abraham’s willingness to live in accordance with God’s word because he trusting God’s word to be true and will come to fruition. Faith thus represented the fundamental way in which Abraham was open to the direction of God, thereby making him a righteous sort of person who lives faithfully to the God who calls him. In this way of reading the Abrahamic narrative, God may be compared to a teacher, giving direction to Abraham and even asking Abraham to fulfill a difficult task (offering up Isaac) all with the purpose of leading Abraham to receive the promise and to be in an entirely open relationship to God.
Yet, the roadblock to such a reading might be found in the word “gift” that Paul uses in Ephesians 2.8. The logic that is often explicated is you don’t do something to receive a gift. True enough, but it is often assumed that salvation itself is the gift, with the implication that nothing a person does impact their salvation. Thus, going back to the Abrahamic narrative, this would suggest that how Abraham responds to God isn’t instrumental in Abraham’s righteousness, but that Abraham’s justification is seductively attributed to simply the act of faith in God, over and against human agency, as the condition for obtaining the gift of salvation. Yet, perhaps this is not what Paul meant in Ephesians.
Ephesians 2.8 reads as follows in Greek:
τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον
The demonstrative τοῦτο is crucial to understanding what the gift (τὸ δῶρον) is. It is a neuter demonstrative pronoun (“this”), which means it does not refer to any of the nouns in the previous sentence (χάριτί or πίστεως). That means that it most likely refers to the verbal action of the sentence, that is the state of being saved (c σεσῳσμένοι; “you are saved”).
It is here, at this point, however, that we may overlook some of the nuances of the Greek grammar. We might be inclined to read salvation as the gift itself here, that God bestows salvation as a specific entity to the person as a gift. Yet, the periphrastic combination of ἐστε of (“you are”) with the perfect participle σεσῳσμένοι (“saved”) highlights not the act of salvation, but rather that the audience has achieved this state. Strictly speaking, the grammar of Ephesians 2.8 does not describe God “saving” people. That is, rather, an interpretive gloss that we assume is implied, and for good reason, as God is portrayed throughout the Scriptures as saving people. However, there is no necessary grammatical reason to *directly* associate the status of being saved with the gift of God, as the gift is referring to salvation itself. One could just as easily fill in the grammatical gaps and that salvation is a consequence of a gift, with Paul referring to something, or rather someone, as the gift that then leads to salvation. Simply put, there is no need to identify salvation as the gift.
In fact, it is most likely Paul is referring to a chain of causality in Ephesians 2.8-9, in which case Paul would be describing the gift as something that leads to salvation. Gift is semantically associated with grace (τῇ χάριτί). τῇ χάριτί is a dative noun in relation to the verbs, suggesting that grace is the means or instrument of salvation as is a common use for the dative. In other words, the grammar is more consistent with grace and gift and salvation being casually linked, thereby reinforcing that the gift is not to be identified with salvation.
What is that causal link? It depends on what specifically Paul has in mind by grace and gift. Most likely it is a reference to the union with Christ mentioned in Ephesians 2.5-6, which is where Paul first uses the phrase “by grace you are saved.” In fact, in the Greek, the phrase seems to be an amplification of συνεζωοποίησεν τῷ Χριστῷ (“made alive together with Christ”), which would coordinate salvation with being made alive together and grace with Christ. Thus, the gift is the person of Jesus, through whom we can then be said to be made alive, raised, and seated with Christ in heaven. In other words, Jesus is the source and cause of spiritual blessings that can be said to typify salvation.
This provides a basis for considering a different reading of Ephesians 2.8-9. Paul isn’t saying that salvation is the gift we do nothing to receive, but that salvation comes from the gift of the person and presence of Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 1.3-14, Paul repeatedly emphasizes the spiritual blessings are “in Christ.” Then Paul refers to the presence of God in Christ, whose body contains the fullness of God (Eph. 1.22-23), highlight that God is present in Christ. Paul later describes believers as being built together as part of the holy temple that is located in Christ and that inhabited by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2.21-22). Paul prays that Christ would dwell in the Ephesians’ hearts (Eph. 3.17). Then, Paul describes the work of God through various offices appointed by Christ to guide people into maturity in Christ so that they will reach the fullness of Christ, in whom the fullness of God resides (Eph. 4.11-3). The Incarnation as God’s presence in Jesus Christ is demonstrably a central theme in Ephesians. Thus, for Paul. the grace and gift of God is best understood as the Incarnation. As Jesus was crucified and resurrected, by being joined to Christ believers themselves are being brought into a new life. Jesus, His bodily life, His bodily death, His bodily resurrection, and even His bodily ascension contains the fullness of God that believers are being united to so that the fullness of God may come to dwell within us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. So, it makes sense for Paul’s discourse about grace and gift to be identified as God’s gifting of Himself in Jesus.
The upshot of this is that salvation is something that emerges from our relation and response to this grace of God in Jesus. Hence, Paul says people are saved through faith. Nothing suggests that Paul was intending to give a minimalist, bare-bones description of what one has to do to be saved. Rather, it seems more likely that Paul is describing the attitude with a person receives grace so that salvation becomes realized in their life. Yet, such an attitude of trust in God who has demonstrated in power in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1.19-21) would entail that we would learn from Christ that leads us to a new way of life (Eph. 4.20-24). There are things that Jesus calls us to do and that the Holy Spirit leads us to do that we need to do to experience the spiritual blessings of salvation.
What Paul is rejecting is that salvation is found in anything that was taught within the Greco-Roman world and Jewish ethical reflection. The Ephesians’ allegiance to Zeus as the highest God, who could be said to have power over the air (Eph. 2.2), did not provide a mind that could perceive and live out God’s truth. Likewise, Israelites who were defined by their anger and wrath towards their Gentile ‘overlords’ (Eph. 2.3: τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς; “children of wrath by instinct”) just like the rest of the world. Thus, they were just as imprisoned to passions of the flesh, which they judged Gentiles for. Neither of them had understood, received, and lived the life and righteousness and truth of God. All that was taught by the priests, philosophers, and teachers of their cultures, including the Jewish tradition of the elders that prescribe a series of works, could not save them.
So, Jesus as the gift is how God brings forth understanding and insight to a world blinded, who were living with a paltry version of life that could only be described as being dead in one’s sins. New life and true righteousness are revealed and demonstrated in Jesus Christ. In that way, Jesus is celebrated much as the gift of God’s instruction/Torah was celebrated as the words that give life (Psalm 119, especially vs. 97-112). Torah was a gift to lead the people of Israel and now Jesus is the gift from God to form Jews and Gentiles together as one, unified humanity who alike have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2.14-18).
To give an analogy, Valentine’s day is right around the corner. A a man may admire and love a woman from a distance and may choose to buy her a gift of flowers. The flowers as a gift are an expression of the man’s heart and are not something that is earned, but they are given with the hope that she may feel similarly and respond. The gift doesn’t make the relationship, but the flowers are a demonstration of the man’s love. A relationship forms and deepens when she accepts and receives the gift as an expression of love. She learns of the man’s love and responses to the love symbolized in the gift. The love is not earned, but any relationship will take work to build by the man and woman being attentive and responsive to each other. However, if the woman doesn’t pay attention to the way the man expresses his love, but instead thinks love only looks like what she has seen on television, movies, and in other relationships, she may overlook the specific character of his own love for her. His love is a love that may not look exactly like the way the rest of the world loves, so she would need to be attuned to the way he expresses and acts on his love.
Similarly, Jesus is the gift of God’s grace and love, but it will take our response to God, where because we trust God we are attentive to how He makes Himself known in Jesus and the Holy Spirit to bring us into the spiritual blessings of salvation. However, so often times, we instead try to fit God’s love into what our culture teaches us about God, righteousness, life, etc., as if we know something about God independent of how God demonstrates His love. Here, we may make the Christian life about following a bunch of rules and expectations that are more a reflection of our culture and not the actual Word of God.
Thus, I would put forward the point of Ephesians 2.8-9 isn’t to say human agency has no place in salvation. Rather, the point is that salvation only comes when we come to know God and experience His blessings through the specific way He has demonstrated His love, power and righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ, that is to learn a new way of life by Christ (Eph. 4.20-24). Greco-Roman culture and Jewish ethical instruction didn’t lead people to the spiritual, heavenly blessings and life; both actually pushed them further towards disobedience and deep anger. Yet, in mercy, God showed the nature of His grace and love, so to be saved one needs to receive and respond in faith to what God has made known of Himself in the gift of Jesus. Human agency and action is indeed part of the process of salvation, but human agency saves us only insofar as it is done in following the word and example of Jesus and the leading of the Spirit. Just as Abraham trusted God and (imperfectly) lived with God’s direction and promises in mind to obtain the promises, so too does the spiritual blessings of salvation come through the way believers in faith allow the gift of God in the Incarnation to direct their lives while providing the promise of resurrection.
To that end, the Protestant Reformation pointed towards the vital relationship that believers have with Christ. While certainly this learning in Christ is in part realized through the apostles, prophets, teachers, and pastors that Christ has called to bring people to maturity, it is ultimately the believer’s relationship to God Incarnate, not to human teachers and leaders, that allows salvation to come to a person in the first place. Hence, even as I critique the specific theology of the Protestant Reformation and push back against the way it strong predilection to treats works to be about any and all human agency, I am bound to the deeper logic of the Protestant Reformation. What the early Protestants discovered they did not fully understand, and so they distinguished themselves from Roman Catholicism in a way I would not, but they were on the right track in my mind.