By grace are ye saved through faith

Understanding the contextual framework of the times should also deepen our appreciation of the powerful concepts that Paul is speaking about in the following reference: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto (for) good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:8-10).

In this place, Paul is again speaking of God as a generous benefactor, who offers saving grace to all upon the basis of nothing more than their individual faith. There are no other criteria other than believing, responding to, and remaining faithful to the gospel message (Mark 16:15-16; 1 Cor 15:1- 2; Rev 2:26-27). Moreover, almost immediately, Paul reminded his Gentile readers that “at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:11-12). In such a state it is self-evident that they could ONLY be saved by grace, and not by meritorious works. Like Israel of old, they had not received this gift because of their personal virtue, glory or righteousness (Rom 5:6-11).

Paul also says that it is incumbent upon the recipients of this grace to allow God to work in their lives, for they had been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10 NKJV ). In other words, as a result of this gracious gift, they were to respond in a way that brings honour to God, their benefactor. They were to do this by inviting God to work in their lives. Ultimately, this is God’s work not ours, and like Israel’s experience, it comes after the gift of grace, not before.

The New Testament writers and Paul, in particular, emphasise the fact that the gift of salvation is not based upon works which we have done, but upon God’s work in and through His own Son (Eph 2:9; Tit 3:5-7).

While it is true, as a universal principle, that none of us are saved because of our works and that God is not indebted to any (Rom 11:35), Paul’s comments about “works” should generally be understood within the context of the first century Jewish-Gentile problem. The ongoing problem was that certain Jewish-Christians were seeking to impose parts or all of “the Law”, as necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1-2; Gal 2:16, 3:1-5 etc). In this context, therefore, the “works” that Paul refers to are generally “works of the law” (Gal 2:16, 3:10).

In response to this challenge, it seems that Paul is basically arguing along these lines—that the extreme Jewish-Christian view means that they are seeking to secure God’s favour for themselves on the basis of their own works of Law, while over-looking the vital fact that Christ was the object of the Law (Col 2:17; Rom 10:4; Gal 3:19,23-25). Like their Jewish brethren, ultimately this meant that they were seeking righteousness “not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law” (Rom 9:32). This amounted to a vote of no confidence in Jesus’ ministry, his sacrificial death and in his mediation. It was also a rejection of the Father, who “sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world” (1 John 4:14).

In Paul’s rationale, Jesus is God’s Son and the one who has the special relationship with God his Father. He is therefore described as our mediator with God (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). It is for this reason that Paul repeatedly emphasises the fact that Christ is essential to our new relationship with the Father. He writes of Christ: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph 1:7). In another place he likewise speaks of God “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim 1:9, or “in advance of Eonian times1).

We have access by faith into this grace

Importantly, Paul writes that it is by Christ that “we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom 5:2). Faith is therefore the criterion that allows us to individually enter into a type of patron-client relationship with God, whereby we are the recipients of His continuing and special grace. One of the blessings of this new relationship with God is that we can now “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:16 NIV). This describes a closeness of relationship that was not possible before we entered into this state of grace, and it also speaks of God’s ongoing grace, which has been made available to us.

Grace provides us with many wonderful benefits, and we now also wait in earnest expectation for an even greater gift of grace, “That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace, in his kindness toward us, through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7).

Our objective has been to show the significance of “grace” from the perspective of its cultural context. Once we recognise the patron-client model, we will find echoes of it in many other places in the New Testament writings. We suggest that any exposition of biblical grace should take this framework into account. However, we agree that our understanding of “grace” should NOT be limited to the context of Greco-Roman cultural practices.

Conclusion

When writing to the believers in Rome, Paul told them that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand” (Rom 5:1-2). These words speak of the importance of Christ’s role as our mediator (1 Tim 2:5; Heb 9:15).

The Father has reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ and qualified us by means of our faith in the gospel message (2 Cor 5:18-19; Col 1:12; Rom 1:16). In saying that our faith has given us access into God’s grace, Paul has described the dramatic nature of the change that has occurred in our relationship with God, our Father. For grace describes not only God’s favour to us, but also a change in our relationship with God. We are no longer strangers and foreigners (Eph 2:12-13), for by faith and baptism into Christ we have now entered into a unique relationship, and now live as the recipients of God’s continuing grace.

As a great benefactor, God has given us many assurances that He will do all that He has promised. The greatest is that “he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him (Jesus) from the dead” (Acts 17:31). Moreover, God is presented as a reliable and “faithful Creator” (1 Pet 4:19; 1 Cor 1:9), who “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).

A certain clarity comes from viewing this subject within its historical framework. We should not think of it through the lens of 16th century polemics (disputes), which were often written against a theory of earning salvation by means of pious works. Increasingly, many modern scholars are abandoning that perspective, and now often characterise it as medieval thinking.

In the first century context, clients would express their gratitude in the form of honour and loyalty, as well as in services performed for their patron. It is here that good works and the pursuit of virtue are inseparably linked to the reception of God’s grace (Matt 5:20; 1 John 3:7; Heb 12:14). A life of obedience to Christ’s teachings and a continual devotion of oneself to living by the apostles’ teachings is NOT offered to gain favour with God, but rather to express our gratitude and thankfulness for the grace we have already received. To refuse to respond this way is to refuse God, who has given us all things.

Appreciating this will help us understand how hearing AND doing the Word of God (Luke 8:21, 11:28; Matt 7:24), also called “works”, must be a part of our life. Therefore, Jesus instructed the recipients of God’s favour to imitate God’s beneficence to others (Matt 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36). Paul understood how full our response should be, for he speaks of us offering ourselves as “a living sacrifice” to God (Rom 12:1).

Therefore, we are to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matt 6:12, 14-15, 18:23-35; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13), to love as we have been loved (Eph 5:2; 1 John 4:11), and “because he laid down his life for us… we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16-18). As Peter said,“As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10).

This is also why James can say, “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:21,24), and “that faith without works is dead” (James 2:17,20,26). James is speaking in the context of a man who has received abundant and wonderful grace from God, and yet is unwilling to show that grace to others. James’ rationale is based upon the scenario he outlined earlier, namely; “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:14-17).

In this place James repeatedly emphasises the fact that we are “justified by works” (James 2:21,24). He is writing about the faith of the saints being outworked in their attitude and help to others (James 2:14-17). To explain his argument, James cites Abraham, and says that although his faith was counted as righteousness when he believed (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:2-5), he stresses the point that it was when he offered up Isaac that he was “justified by works”; “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:21-24 NKJV; Gen 22). If we consider where James is quoting from, then it is not too difficult to understand what he is saying. While Paul was writing about the justification of ‘the ungodly’ (Rom 4:5), James was writing about the justification of saints.2

This is the balance that Brother Thomas wrote about. Justification for the saints is based on our faith being alive and being seen to be alive through “the obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26). While it is true that we will never be fully obedient and will all inevitably fail, that doesn’t mean to say that we are not to try to do God’s will and to thereby work out our salvation with fear and trembling, with God’s help (Phil 2:12-13).

It is important to note that the works that we are encouraged to do in the New Testament do not refer to works of law, but works that are done for the benefit of others. In this we are to imitate Christ’s own example. Although ‘works’ are both important and essential to our faith, no where is it suggested in the New Testament that we are saved by works.

However, many have unfortunately been influenced by Protestant theology on this point, and they overlook, discount, or misunderstand James’ teaching on justification by works. Luther called James “an epistle of straw” that came from an earlier time before the gospel of grace was made fully known by Paul. Like many others, he unfortunately misunderstood the subject.

Appreciating the cultural background of the times will hopefully expand our understanding of the New Testament writings, and of what God has done for us. It will also help us understand how we stand by both faith and grace (2 Cor 1:24; 1 Cor 16:13; Rom 5:2; 1 Pet 5:12). If we are to please God, then faith must be our response to the gospel message (Heb 11:6; Rom 1:16), while grace, clearly, comes as a gift from God.

Not only is God portrayed as a public benefactor who gives freely to all, but He is also our personal benefactor who cares for us. As Jesus said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). As a loving and generous benefactor, He has graciously invited us to be part of His family, to share His own Son’s inheritance as adopted “Sons of God”, and joint-heirs with Christ of the kingdom to come (Rom 8:16-17; Col 1:12-14).

Paul sums up this new relationship by saying, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Therefore, by Christ, “let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name” (Heb 13:15), and let us “walk in the light, as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7).

Declarations of God’s grace are able to move our appreciation of grace to the higher level of God’s love, which makes it superior to its secular counterpart. As we noted earlier, God said that he saved Israel out of Egypt “because the Lord loved you” (Deut 7:8, 23:5). Similar declarations of God’s love toward Israel are repeated by the prophets, such as “I have loved thee with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3; Isa 43:4; Mal 1:2).

In like manner, the New Testament describes love as one of the core characteristics that defines God. John uses the word “love” as a noun that describes God when he writes, “for God is love” (1 John 4:8,16). Jesus himself defines God’s motivation in similar terms when he famously says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life“ (John 3:16). Naturally, therefore, we find that grace is closely associated with love (2 Cor 13:14; 1 Tim 1:14; 2 John 1:3). Likewise, Paul speaks of both God’s love and His grace when he writes,“But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved)” (Eph 2:4-5).

Moreover, God’s grace is designed to motivate us to manifest God’s love to others. As Jesus said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). Peter says that we should “love one another with a pure heart fervently” (1 Pet 1:22). John adds, “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Love motivated God, love motivated Christ, and love ought to motivate us, for it is the perfecting of the grace principle.

Lastly, while the historical context outlined here is significant, we believe that the meaning of “grace” can be understood, in general terms, without fully understanding Greco-Roman culture. One only has to put ALL the various Scriptures together, and allow them to speak in harmony, to arrive at a similar conclusion.

References:

  1. Perhaps a reference to the Age or Eon to come, and not to the beginning – i.e.: Genesis. See The Eonian Life Bible of the New Testament – Christopher Sparkes.
  2. Eureka Volume 1, Page 359 of the PDF Version “They are Worthy” – Sardis. “But in relation to justification, we rather think that “the evangelists” have misunderstood Clement. …… Sinners are justified from all their past sins in the way stated, and so become saints. As saints, “faith alone” will not save them. James teaches this clearly. “By works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” He is writing of a man, who, like Abraham, had already become a saint. The saints are justified by works, but the saint who seeks to be justified by, or pronounced “worthy,” by faith alone, is like faith, “dead;” for “faith without works is dead” – dead as that of the many in Sardis.”