For by grace you are saved through faith. This is not from yourselves, but it is the gift from God. [It is] not from works, so that no one may boast because we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus, because of the good works which God prepared earlier so that we would walk in them.
If there is a part of Paul’s epistles that is more defining of Protestant theology than any other part, it is Ephesians 2.8-9. Without using the seemingly more theologically weighty terms of justification and law/Torah, people see this passage as perhaps the most concise, simple statement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While there are other verses where Paul talks about faith in contrast with works, it may be fitting to suggest the whole course of Protestant history has been determined by how Ephesians 2.8-9 has been read and interpreted.
The underlying Protestant reading of Ephesians 2.8-9 can be summarized as follows: Paul is concerned to contrast human agency to obey God with God’s own agency to bring us to salvation. The two prepositional phrases οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν (“not from yourselves”) and οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων (“not from works”) have been taken as being ultimately synonymous, with the former focusing on human agency and the latter focusing on the fruits of human agency. Then, faith is taken to contrast with the human agency to obey God, looking instead to God’s agency. Even though the concept of agency is not explicit in the surrounding passage, it functions as a basic metaphysical assumption.
Certainly, it is true that there is an emphasis by Paul on divine agency, especially when he says salvation is the gift from God (θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον). However, what if Paul’s discourse has a (mostly) implicit construal of divine agency that can provide further understanding of the contrast of grace and faith with ourselves and works? What if the nature of the agency isn’t that of what we do in obedience to obtain salvation, but a pedagogical agency?
It seems to me that Paul is trying to say something along these lines: “You are saved because God graciously taught you in Christ. You didn’t teach yourself the right sort of things to do, but instead, God created you so that you would do the good things God purposed for you to do.” At first blush, this reading might not seem apparent, but I would suggest it is because it is mostly an implicit sense of understanding that would have been shared between Paul and his audience. Yet, there are a few hints that Paul does have the nature of instruction in mind.
Firstly, the word περιπατέω, as used in 2.2 and 2.10, was commonly used as a pedagogical metaphor among Jewish circles. For instance, in Mark 7.5, the Pharisees asked Jesus “why do your disciples not walk (οὐ περιπατοῦσιν οἱ μαθηταί) according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” We see it used similarly in John 8.12, 11.9-10, 12.35. It is likely used in that way also in 1 Corinthians 3.3.
Secondly, we see plenty of markers of pedagogy and understanding in Ephesians 4.17-24, which parallels Paul’s words in 2.1-4. In talking about their past behavior that the Gentiles still participate in, he describes this behavior as something the Gentiles walked in (v. 17: περιπατεῖ). Additionally, they were said to lack understanding (v.18). Then he clarifies they did not learn Christ in this way (v. 20). Instead, they were taught (ἐδιδάχθητε) in Christ. If we notice the comparison between Ephesians 2.1-10 and 4.17-24, the observation can be made that Paul makes the pedagogical nature of the Ephesians life in Christ explicit in the latter whereas it was mostly implicit in the former, sans the usage of περιπατέω.
So, what is Paul describing in Ephesians 2.8-9? Paul is clarifying the origins of this new life that the Ephesians participate in. It didn’t come from their following of the instruction of the present historical era of the world (v.2 περιεπατήσατε κατὰ τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου). Nor did it come from Paul’s fellow Jews when they were simply doing whatever their body and minds wanted (v. 3: ποιοῦντες τὰ θελήματα τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ τῶν διανοιῶν). Neither the past learning of the Gentiles nor the former Jewish way of living and thinking had any semblance and understanding of life. So, to say it didn’t come from themselves (οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν) was to say it didn’t come from previous instruction as part of Greco Roman society. Similarly, to say it didn’t come from works (οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων) is an abbreviated reference to Jewish prescriptions that Rabbis gave to get people to obey Torah. God had given them the specific gift (note the article in phrase θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον) of Jesus Christ.
Faith, then, is the means by which believers receive this direction and instruction from God, recognizing in Christ’s death and resurrection a new way to live that God has given them and the whole world. All this was done with the purpose that God would instruct all people as to how to live as humans in one single way, rather than the commandments and ordinances of the Torah that the Rabbis used to distinguish Jews from the Gentiles (Eph. 2.15). Because of Christ, the Torah has become invalidated, not as a faulty method of salvation that relied upon human agency, but as a former gift from God in Israel’s history that got wrongly used to create hostility between Israel and the world. Paul and his fellow Jews had become people who lived in great anger towards their Gentile ‘overlords’ (v. 3: “children of wrath”/τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς), thereby creating hostility with the Gentiles that God never intended.
Paul’s point, in other words, is this: that God is teaching the world in the cross of Christ rather than from any specific cultural or ethnic ethos. God is creating a new humanity who lives in a dramatically new way from the world, which does not lead those who believe to be living in wrath against the world around them. Grace defines our new human nature; love characterizes the way we are to use our body.
Put simply: God is our teacher, not ourselves.