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 2:8-10
Anyone who has ever tried to grapple with Paul’s letters will know that there are times it can be hard work.
What does such-and-such a verse mean? Why is this argument so hard to follow? People are sometimes asked in interviews, “If you could sit and have a conversation with some figure from the past, who would you choose?” Well, for me, Paul would come pretty near the top of such a list – oh to be able to ask him for a bit of clarification!
But this is what makes it so refreshing when you come across a passage (and there are plenty of them; he isn’t all difficult!) which shines out like a clear, steady light. I think Ephesians 2:8-10 is a perfect example. If you like to decorate your walls with challenging and encouraging words to read while you brush your teeth, I don’t think you could do better than make a poster out of this luminous little passage.
In verses 8 and 9 Paul bangs fairly and squarely on the head any notion that our salvation is our own doing. No! – “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – not by works…”
Then in verse 10 he sums it all up by telling us pretty much everything we need to know about ourselves…
First, he tells who we are: “God’s handiwork”.
I know someone who is a talented artist. All right, you won’t see his pictures in some famous gallery, but to the untrained eye they are impressive, seriously impressive.
Perhaps you are good with your hands – making things, doing home improvements. In which case you will know the feeling when you stand back and look at what you have done and think “Yes, not bad, not bad at all! That’s my handiwork!”
Handiwork. This is the word Paul uses to describe how God sees us. You could translate it, “We are what he is making us.”
Do you think of yourself as God’s handiwork – a beautiful living work of art, a renewed human being remodelled on the likeness of Christ?
Second, Paul tells us how we’ve come to be what we are. It’s because we have been “created in Christ Jesus”.
God’s original creation went badly wrong, starting with the sin of Adam and Eve in Eden. So he plans to make a new creation. And this was begun on the morning of Christ’s resurrection – he is “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), a second Adam, a new Adam.
And the great thing about putting our faith in Jesus is that, as a result, he gathers us into himself, so to speak – we become part of him. If you read Paul carefully you find that often he describes God’s people as being “in Christ”. And that is why he says here that we have been “created in Christ Jesus”.
Do you see yourself as not only a new creation in yourself personally, but as part of the whole new creation that God is bringing into being in his Son?
Third, Paul tells us what it’s all for: we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.
Notice what he doesn’t say… Not that we are created in Christ Jesus so that we can rejoice that our sins are forgiven and that we are reconciled to God (wonderfully true though that is)… Not that we are created in Christ Jesus so that we can be sure that when this earthly life is over we shall be eternally with him (wonderfully true though that is too).
No. We are created in Christ Jesus “to do good works”, and these are works pre-planned by God precisely for us: “prepared in advance for us to do”. That could be translated “pre-planned so that we might walk in them”, where “walking” suggests a whole new way of life, and the good works are part and parcel of it.
But what sort of good works does Paul have in mind? Is he talking primarily about prayer, evangelism, mission? Is his emphasis purely on the “spiritual” needs of men and women?
I don’t think so. Vitally important though those things are, I suspect he has in mind deeds of Christ-like love, for which opportunities crop up every day. People aren’t simply souls to be saved, they are human beings who need to see – and to experience – the love of God in practical ways.
You could sum up Paul’s message in these three verses: Good works can never lead to salvation; but they are bound to lead from it.
People can’t eat prayer… and nor can they understand a gospel that isn’t demonstrated in deeds. Is this a truth we need to take to heart?
Lord God, thank you for making me a new person in Christ. And thank you that you have prepared good works for me to walk in. Help me to earn the right to speak your gospel to those who don’t yet believe – and to do so by filling my days with those good works. Amen.