Ephesians 2:8-9 is one of the most popular verses Protestants and Evangelicals use against the Catholic Church. Specifically, these verses are used to support the Protestant doctrine of sola fide or faith alone.
From a Protestant perspective, Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly show that we are saved by faith and not works. Catholics, it is thought, don’t believe this and instead believe that we are saved by faith and works — and thus are following unbiblical doctrines.
So how do Catholics explain these verses?
Firstly, Catholics actually do believe we are saved by faith and not by works. Yes, you read that right. The Catholic Church teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ Jesus and not by our own works. We just don’t believe that we are saved by faith alone.
For some, however, that doesn’t clear up the problem so let’s look at Ephesians 2 a little more closely.
Saved by Grace, Not Works
In Ephesians 2, St Paul writes that God made us alive with Christ, raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in order to display the riches of His grace. The central thrust of Ephesians 2 is that this salvation is by grace and not because of works.
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Grace, and not faith as such, is the key theme of Ephesians 2:1-10. St Paul writes that we have been saved by grace so that God might show the “immeasurable riches of His grace”. Our salvation is a gift from God — we are saved by His grace and not because of works. We don’t work to earn our salvation; it is a gift from God.
Boast in God, Not in Ourselves
For St Paul, it is important to stress that we are saved by grace so that we will not boast in ourselves but glorify God. God’s saves us by His grace so “that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace” (Eph 2:7).
St Paul contrasts salvation by grace with salvation from or of ourselves. You’ll notice that St Paul never says we’re saved by faith here, but through faith. That’s because faith is how we receive this gift of grace. It’s God who, by His grace, does the saving. It’s our faith that enables us to accept that gift. Indeed, in a sense, faith is a side issue here.
The real question isn’t are we saved by faith or by works but are we saved by the grace of God or by ourselves?
In contrast, if we are not saved by grace but because of works, man would have reason to boast about how awesomely great he is. Salvation is “the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:9)
These works are the antithesis of grace. Indeed, in the Greek, the phrase “not because of works” (Greek: ou ek ergon)(Eph 2:9) is paralleled to the earlier phrase, “not your own doing” (Greek: ou ek hymeis). The two basically mean the same thing. As such, we can assume the works St Paul is rejecting here are the works that would be our own doing and which would give us reason to boast.
But does this then exclude works altogether?
Good Works and Self-Works
Immediately after verse 9, St Paul goes on to say:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)
God wants us to do good works. He saves us by grace through faith so that we will walk in good works. The three: grace, faith, and works of love belong together.
The confusion is because some people equate the works “of your own doing” in Eph 2:8-9 with the “good works” in Eph 2:10 which were created for us to do. But these aren’t just any works. They are good works (Greek: agathos ergon).
The difference between works “of your own doing” and “good works” is the grace of God. I think of these as grace-works and self-works. With self-works, it is our own doing and for our own boasting. With grace-works, it is God’s doing (“we are His workmanship”) and for His glory. (Eph 2:10)
So What’s the Problem with Grace that Works?
The irony is that there’s nothing here that a Protestant would disagree with. Protestants and Evangelicals understand that we are saved by God’s grace, through faith, to do good.
The real problem is that Protestants wrongly believe that the Catholic Church believes we have to earn our salvation apart from God’s grace. They believe that Catholics teach that we have to do self-works as well as receive grace through faith. That is not and never has been true.
The Council of Trent reiterated the Catholic Church’s teaching, declaring in 1547:
We are therefore said to be justified freely [i.e. by grace], because that none of those things which precede justification — whether faith or work –merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.
So along with Protestants, Catholics believe that we are saved by grace and justified freely, not because of anything we’ve done or earned by ourselves, but because God is gracious.
But it can never end there. God saves us by grace so that we can walk in that grace, doing the good works He prepared for us. The Catholic view of grace looks beyond how we are saved (by grace!) to why we are saved: to become masterpieces of grace, “created in Christ Jesus for good works”. (Eph 2:10)
We glorify God best when we receive His grace that saves and then walk in that same grace.
In the end, as St Thérèse of the Child Jesus pointed out, tout est grâce.