Sola gratia, by grace alone, was one of the leading Protestant cries of the 16th century. Martin Luther—and a cohort of other Protestant reformers—stressed that salvation does not come through one’s good works, but rather solely through God’s acts on behalf of human beings. This is grace, a free gift God offers to humanity.
Over the years, the debate around salvation by grace alone has often become a debate between grace and works, placing the two in opposition to one another. We choose to believe in one of two perspectives: either a person experiences salvation through God’s grace or through the good works that she does. But which is true? In practical terms, it becomes an either/or conversation.
This Reformation-era conversation still echoes today, where some Christians stress God’s grace so strongly that they resist any call to do good works out of the fear that we deceive ourselves into thinking we’re saved by these good works and the credit we’re racking up before God. Still other Christians—and I would hazard that many Brethren might be more likely to fall into this camp—so strongly stress a particular manner of living that we fail to recognize our fundamental dependence on God’s unmerited grace.
Both groups risk falling into a ditch on either side of the narrow way, overlooking a vital element of the Christian life. Perhaps, though, this isn’t a question of balance, but of order—Christ is Savior first and then he is Lord. But he must be both. One flows into the other.
Ephesians 2:4-10 puts salvation, grace, and good works in conversation with each other. In Ephesians, Paul is clear that God has blessed both Gentiles and Jews alike and is attempting to address the concerns of both groups. In this early part of Ephesians, Paul stresses that those who were once dead in sin are now made alive in Christ. Animated by grace, God enables us, as new creations, to do good works. Grace not only implies forgiveness for sins but also re-creates humanity into something new in the model of Christ.
Verses 1-3 of the chapter highlight the problematic human condition. In short, humans prior to grace live in rebellion against God, focusing only on worldly concerns and giving in to our own desires. In verse 4, however, Paul emphasizes that God intervened in the situation to reverse this living death and make believers alive in Christ. The verse begins with the words “But God . . . ,” highlighting God’s loving and merciful intervention on behalf of the believers. God is the active subject of the sentence. Love is the basis of God’s proffered grace and mercy.
God’s intervention is all about giving life, as highlighted in verse 5, when the new life in Christ and the experience of grace connect to Christ’s resurrection. Interestingly, there is no mention of dying with Christ in this passage, but rather a focus on new life and what that new life will be like for the believer. What God did in Christ in his resurrection is what God does for all believers by raising them with Christ. This act of liberation serves as an encouragement amid the struggle to live the life of faith.
The climax of the passage comes in verses 8-10, highlighting the idea of salvation by grace and the purpose of salvation. Those who were once dead are now alive. Unlike other Pauline letters, here Paul does not talk about salvation as justification or as a forensic/penal event. Instead, the emphasis is on grace: a free gift God bestows upon us.
Salvation is liberation from sinful oppression—external and internal—in the here and now. God’s faithfulness rescues us who previously only knew death; thus salvation by grace places the impetus on God. God is the actor. God gives the gift—the grace—to humanity, not as a result of our own initiative or works. Humans, in their living death of sin, could not do works, but God acted, rich in liberating love.
Finally, in verse 10, we see the outcome of this act on God’s part: the saved are a product of God’s creative work through Christ. Salvation re-creates humanity into a work of art. And what art, in turn, do these newly created believers produce? Good works. Let’s be clear, however, that these works are not simply good deeds or virtuous exhibitions, but rather they are things we do to build up the body of Christ and transform the darkness of this world into light.vThe good works are God’s gift, as well; they are the grace that flows through the human who experiences salvation. They are God’s works through us. God gets the credit for the good works, not the person who performs them. Not to do good works is a rejection of God’s re-creative power.
So what does this mean in the age of pandemic? This question has been on my mind as I have sat in my home over the past few months. In an atmosphere within both church and society where we are often tempted to give into either/or thinking—grace or works—this passage invites us into a both/ and framework. As I have watched friends on social media tear each other apart because of disagreements; as I have watched care for the unemployed pitted against care for the dying; as I have watched the challenges faced by small churches and large, I have wondered what it means to embrace God’s grace joyfully with abandon and also to embrace others graciously: to receive love and to then love others.
It seems to me the heart of this passage is that grace, ultimately, is God’s freely given gift, so that we might give of ourselves in ways that mirror God’s own liberating and life-giving love. Just as God makes each of us believers into beautiful new pieces of art, worthy of any gallery or museum, we are to show that beauty to the world. We are to exhibit graciousness to others.
In a world that seems to be short of grace these days—as tempers flare, as we wrestle with issues of economic instability, as we mourn the loss of so many lives in such a short period—how can we be gracious? How can we openly exhibit the grace that God has freely offered and show that beauty to the world? Perhaps it is through extending a life-giving word by phoning a neighbor who can’t leave home right now. Maybe it is through sewing a mask to protect others, or through growing a garden to show God’s bounty. Could it also be voicing our legitimate concerns about racial inequality, injustices that the pandemic has further exposed?
Good works are not the things we do that make us look good, and they are certainly not what earn us salvation. But they do display in both loud and quiet ways how God is creating new life in and among us. How is God’s grace creating new life for you?
Denise Kettering-Lane is associate professor of Brethren Studies and director of the M.A. program at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana.