Take the challenge. What did Paul mean when he wrote: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, … not as a result of works so that no one can boast” Ephesians 2:8,9? If we assume that by faith he was referring to our faith in Christ, which of the following is most accurate?
- Did he intend to convey that salvation is a gift made available to people upon their belief in Jesus and you can not earn salvation by doing something?
- Or did he intend to communicate that salvation is a gift made available to those who rely upon Jesus and you can not earn salvation by demonstrating your own goodness?
Does it make any difference? Yes. Not only are different messages being heard from the text, but these differences manifest themselves in significant ways.
For example, the first excludes by definition the possibility of baptism being necessary for salvation and is commonly quoted to support that conclusion. On the other hand, the second leaves open whatever response to Jesus may be necessary in order to trust in him, including being baptized.
Is it possible to identify what Paul intended? I believe it is. But first, consider the following matrix which contrasts two ways to interpret Paul and the four subsequent suggestions.
Suggestion #1 – a positive presentation of Paul
For Paul, faith versus works is the contrast between relying upon one’s own efforts to demonstrate goodness by fulfilling the Law verses relying upon Jesus in order to be declared righteous.
Paul’s purpose in writing about justification by faith was not to inform Christians how to trust in Jesus, but to defend the principle of relying upon Jesus and not upon our own goodness.
Many texts reveal that Paul’s concept of faith did not separate belief from action. For example, he described his missionary purpose in leading people to salvation as being to help them respond with the “obedience of faith.” (Romans 1:5).
Furthermore, he described entering salvation, that is being set free from sin, as a result of “obeying from your heart that form of teaching,” (Romans 6:17,18).
For Paul, both faith and works could include doing something. The difference between them is not action, but whether someone is acting in faith to rely upon Jesus or trying to demonstrate or establish one’s own righteousness.
Suggestion #2 – problems with column 2
Whenever we assume column 2 definitions, we will discover that the New Testament begins to contradict itself. Or to put this in more sophisticated terms, difficult texts requiring explanation appear. From this mindset, all of the verses about being saved or justified by faith are interpreted to mean that by genuinely but simply believing in Jesus we can accept him in order to be saved.
But, then difficulty arises because many verses do describe salvation and its forgiveness as well as entering into belonging to God as the result of obedient action or obeying a message. These verses include the faith response of baptism.
Suddenly the New Testament writers have become theologically schizophrenic in affirming that we are saved by just believing and not doing something, but then in the next breath they insist that doing something saves us. The problem is with our definitions of faith and works, not their message. Their message is unified.
Suggestion #3 – the nature of faith
When someone says, “trust in me,” “have faith in me,” or even “believe in me,” they are calling upon us to rely upon them. By themselves, these phrases do not inform us regarding the details about how we need to respond in faith if we are going to rely upon someone in that situation.
The story may reveal that faith was expressed by simply believing (Abraham), moving (Abraham), marching out and standing still (Judah), building (Noah), touching (bleeding woman), crying out, “Son of David have mercy on me” (blind man), opening a roof and then lowering a friend (friends of paralytic), going to show oneself to the priest (ten lepers), or being baptized (Galatian Christians).
But it is the story’s context which determines how someone must express their confidence in that situation, not the word faith. Accordingly, the context of the gospel includes calling upon those outside of Christ to begin to rely upon Jesus (begin to exhibit faith) by being baptized.
Suggestion #4 – the nature of baptism
With baptism, someone is acknowledging their utter dependence upon Christ for salvation. Baptism is an act of faith to accept the salvation and lordship Jesus is believed to have offered to the world.
The Bible never degrades baptism by calling it a work, because it is not an effort to demonstrate my righteousness. While containing symbolic elements, scripture never limits baptism to merely being symbolic.
Can we know what Paul intended? Sure. Consider how Paul taught that people needed to express their faith in Christ to receive the benefits of salvation in Romans 10:9,10; Colossians 2:11-14 and Galatians 3:26,27.