“Saved by grace through faith” is a phrase that all Christian have heard. While it is important to study the meaning in details, here we are going to simply look at the context as it gives sufficient details on what is being taught.1
We were not saved by our works (ergon, ἔργον).2
The meaning here is that salvation cannot be attained by human efforts.3 The election was done before the creation of the world (1:4). Christ’s death happened before we were even born. All that is needed for salvation has been accomplished before we even exist, so how could it possibly be our works/efforts?
We are his handiwork (poiema, ποίημα).
A lot have been said about this word, usually emphasizing on God’s workmanship and masterpiece, but the word that is translated “handiwork”4 here is really not that much different from the word “work” before it. The comparison here is not between the smallness of our work (ergon) and the greatness of God’s handiwork (poiema).5 The real contrast here is between ours and God’s. That is also why we have “this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (v. 8).
In other words, when we look at a saved person or a saved community, we do not see how good they must have done to attain their salvation, but we see how great God’s work is in giving them/us the salvation. That is the reason why we have the long praise to God for our spiritual blessings (Eph 1:3-14), followed by the long prayer that we may truly see God’s works (Eph 1:15-23), and then the description of God’s work in raising us while we were dead, including the description that we are to be shown for generations to come as the riches of God’s grace.
We are to do good works (deeds).
Verse 10 says that we are God’s handiwork, created to do good works, followed by an interesting description, “which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In the eternal past God had planned our salvation and had the purpose of our life prepared: we are to do good works/deeds in response to his great work of saving us.
So let us give praises to God who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (1:3), and let us live a life worthy of the calling we have received (4:1)!
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 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 2:1-10 TNIV)
- A systematic approach where one studies all passages related to the same topic is important so that we can understand the teaching of the whole Bible on a topic, but at the same time we ought to remember that the readers of a letter have only the letter in front of them, so we cannot explain a passage with another passage which the readers would not have known of or understood. Given that Paul has taught in Ephesus for more than 3 years, we can assume that he has taught them a lot, so a reasonable balance must be considered when we read a book such as the Ephesians. ↩
- The word ἔργον (ergon) means work in general, but it is also used very often to mean deeds. ↩
- While Paul argued about the work of the (Old Testament) Law vs. the work of the Holy Spirit in other epistles, notably Romans and Galatians, note that here he simply said “works” and not “works of the Law.” Perhaps the problem of Judaizers was not present in Ephesus, or perhaps he was generalizing and teaching that salvation was not attained by any human effort. ↩
- Also translated as work, workmanship, accomplishment, making, creation, work of art, masterpiece, etc. ↩
- The idea that God’s work must be a masterpiece is of course theologically sound, but it does not come from the word meaning and is not really the point here. The word ποίημα (poiema) can mean anything “which is made, work, or creation” (BDAG, 6016). In Septuagint, even sinful acts can be described as sinful ‘poiema’ (see “evil deeds” in Ezra 9:13). We also have the works of God described by both poiema and ergon in a parallel fashion (see, for example, Ps 92:4; 143:5. It might not not very obvious in English, but both poiema and ergon are used in these passages). So the contrast is not between ergon and poiema but between ours and God’s. ↩