There is a great effort by many to soften the meaning of Eph 2:8-9 by suggesting that verse 10 means that while works are not the means of salvation, they are the necessary result of it. For example, Francis Foulkes writes, “But probably it is the whole course of life that is on view here. The nature and character of the works and the direction of the Christian’s daily walk are predetermined” (Ephesians, Tyndale Series, p. 86).
In the ICC commentary on Ephesians and Colossians, Abbott goes even further, saying concerning Eph 2:10, “Here erga agatha [good works] are not the object of the new creation, but are involved in it as an inseparable condition” (p. 53).
Many are afraid that if a person believed that simply by faith, apart from any works at all, that he was saved once and for all, then he would not be motivated to live for God. He would be inclined to indulge the flesh and instead become an adulterer, liar, cheat, drunk, and so forth.
So, they suggest that Paul was implying that one must have a life characterized by good works, and he must persevere in good works until the day he dies, or else he will not get what they call final salvation.
Can you see what this does to assurance of salvation?
How could you have assurance of salvation if your perseverance in future good works is required for you to have final salvation? (By the way, isn’t salvation final at the moment of faith as Eph 2:8 says?) You could not have assurance of everlasting life under that scenario until after you died.
There are several clear indications that this is not what Paul meant in Eph 2:10.
First, notice that Paul had already said, “you have been saved” (Eph 2:8). The perfect tense indicates a past event which has an abiding result. So, they were saved in the past, and they will remain saved forever. That is a done deal. The readers did not understand verse 10 to be saying that maybe they hadn’t been saved. They knew they had been saved once and for all. The Apostle Paul said so in Scripture.
Second, Paul admitted in 1 Cor 9:27 that he himself was not sure that he would persevere. In 2 Tim 2:12 and Col 1:21-23 he indicated that believers may or may not persevere (note the word if in both passages). How could he guarantee in Eph 2:10 something he denied was guaranteed in 1 Cor 9:24-27, Col 1:21-23, or 2 Tim 2:12?
Third, the change in pronouns from verses 8-9 to verse 10 shows that the discussion is shifting.
There are three persons in pronouns: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.
The pronouns in Eph 2:8-9 are second person plural: “by grace you have been saved through faith…not of yourselves…”
The pronouns in verse 10 are first person plural: “we are His workmanship [or, masterpiece]…that we should walk in them.”
Why the shift in pronouns? We can see why by looking at how Paul used the second and third person pronouns in the rest of chapter 2.
Here is how Paul uses the second-person plural after Eph 2:10:
- You, once Gentiles in the flesh… (v 11)
- You were without Christ (v 12)
- You who were far off (v 13)
- He preached peace to you who were far off (v 17)
- You are no longer strangers and foreigners (v 19)
- You also are being built (v 22).
The second person plural pronoun you refers to the Gentile readers, both before and after they were born again.
Here is how Paul uses the first-person plural after verse 10:
- He Himself is our peace (v 14)
- He has broken down the wall of separation (v 14)
- He created one new man from the two (v 15)
- He reconciled them both to God in one body (v 16)
- Through Him we both have access to the Father (v 18)
The first person plural pronoun we refers to Jewish and Gentile believers, united in the Body of Christ.
Paul was not saying anything in verse 10 about whether all believers persevere in good works. As noted above, he did not teach that (cf. 1 Cor 3:1-4; 9:27; Col 1:21-23; 2 Tim 2:12; 4:10). He was saying that the Church, the Body of Christ, was designed by God to produce good works. By extension, every local church should produce works that glorify God.
So, while we are not saved by good works, local churches are designed by God to produce good works.
Could we apply Eph 2:10 to say that every individual believer is designed to use his or her gifts in a local church and to glorify God with his or her life? Of course. Local churches are made up of people. Only the people in local churches can do good works. But Paul is not here discussing the 80-20 principle. Studies show that 20% of the people in most local churches do 80% of the giving and 80% of the work. Nor is he saying that all people in local churches are spiritually mature. Compare 1 Cor 3:1-4 and Heb 5:12-14. Paul elsewhere taught that people in local churches sometimes stray and stop attending church and stop doing good works (1 Tim 1:6, 19; 6:10, 21; 2 Tim 2:18; see also Luke 15:1-32; Jas 5:19-20).
Paul was simply saying that God put Jews and Gentiles together into one magnificent new Body, the Church, and that every local church should glorify God and produce good works.
The message of Eph 2:8-9 is clear. Paul was not taking away in verse 10 what he had just said in verses 8-9.