Are we saved by grace or by works? It is a question of grace vs. law. On the one hand, we are told that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any should boast” (Eph. 2.8). On the other hand, we are told that “you have purified your hearts in obeying the truth” (1 Pet. 1.22). Does the grace of God save us or do our works save us?
Endless debates have divided Christendom as theologians, scholars, and clergy study their Bible’s on grace vs. law. Typically, there are two extreme positions.
As is usually the case, studying the Bible on the subject of grace vs. law finds that the answer is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Study the Bible on grace vs. law, and we quickly find that we are saved by grace. However, we are to respond to God’s grace by our obedience to His commands. There is God’s part where He saves us by His grace. There is also man’s part where we reach out to accept His grace.
If you open the Bible and consider the subject of grace vs law, Ephesians 2 is where you begin. Ephesians 2 is the most comprehensive chapter in the Bible on the subject of grace. If you want to learn about the subject of grace, this is the chapter that you want to study.
There are three questions that are answered in Ephesians 2 in reference to grace vs. law.
The chapter begins by telling you why you need the grace of God. In the first three verses, it tells you that you have acted in a way that is shameful to God.
This verse says that you were once dead in trespasses. The word that is translated as “trespasses” is two different Greek words put together.
When you put the two words together, you have this idea of one who has fallen to the side. God has dictated the narrow path of righteousness that you are to travel, and you have fallen off to the side of it. The description in verse 2 elaborates by saying that we were walking according to the course of this world.
This verse also says that you were once dead in sins. The word “sin” is translated from the Greek word “hamartia.” It means “to miss the mark.” You have a target, and you want to aim and shoot the arrow so that it hits right in the middle. If your aim is off, you will miss the bull’s eye either by overshooting it or by coming short of it. That is the word “hamartia.”
God has given to you a target. He has given you a law to follow and commandments to keep. Instead of hitting the target, you overshoot the target by doing what the Bible says not to do. Sometimes you come short of the target by failing to do what the Bible says you are supposed to do. In 1 John 3.4, we are told that sin is breaking God's laws.
You are dead spiritually because you fell to the side of the path of righteousness and broke God's laws. If you continue reading, you will find that the reason you are dead in trespasses and sins is because you conducted yourself in the lust of the flesh and of the mind.
We lusted over the things of the flesh. The things that we passionately wanted were that which satisfied the desires of the flesh. It may be something that we want to taste. It may be something or even someone we want to touch. It may be something we want to see. But there was this desire for the things of the flesh.
Let’s put it together.
Ephesians 2.1-3 tells us that we have set our minds on the things that our flesh desires, and then we go about fulfilling them. In doing so, we have fallen off the path of
righteousness and have missed the mark failing to keep God’s commandments. For this reason, we are spiritually dead and in
need of the grace of God.
We make a mess out of our lives because of the sorry decisions
we make to satisfy our sinful desires.
This is why we need grace.
In reference to grace vs law, Ephesians 2 also tells us how grace is defined. We have seen why we need grace, but what is it that we need? In Ephesians chapter 2, the word “grace” appears three times.
In Ephesians 2, there are also three words that are connected to the word “grace” and help explain how grace is defined.
All three of these words describe how God feels toward us and is the reason why He has offered His Son for our salvation.
We have made a spiritual mess out of ourselves with trespasses and sins.
This is grace. Grace is God expressing His feelings toward me.
When you keep studying grace vs law in Ephesians 2, you will find that the name of Jesus is mentioned multiple times. This is because Jesus is the One who made grace available. If you go through these verses and identify all the places where you read the name “Jesus” or a pronoun referring to Jesus, you will notice some interesting things.
Verse 5 says that we have been made alive together with Christ. Just as Christ was made alive through His resurrection, so we are made spiritually alive through a spiritual resurrection (Rom. 6.1-5).
In verses 6 and 7, we have read that the grace of God is found in Christ Jesus. If you want the grace of God, it has been made available in Christ Jesus. You have to be in Christ to enjoy the grace of God (Eph.1 7).
God is kind, loving, and merciful. Because of how He felt toward us, God sent His Son, Jesus, so that we can be saved. Jesus is the focal point in our salvation. The grace of God that saves us is centered around the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. There is no other way. There is no other provision. Without God sending Jesus there would be no salvation. Without Jesus offering Himself on the cross there would be no salvation. Without His blood being shed on that cross there would be no salvation. It was absolutely essential for us that God was so loving, kind, and merciful that He was willing to give us the gift of salvation by allowing His Son to come and die for us.
Having a better understanding of grace sets the groundwork for the role of law. It is important to understand that...
You will not do enough of anything that God commands you to do that will compel God to grant you salvation. You cannot be saved and go to heaven without the grace of God made available through Jesus. We have salvation because of Him.
When we read Ephesians 2, we come to verse 8 and 9 and begin to see how grace is related to law.
There is not one thing that you can do to earn God’s grace. You are saved from my trespasses and sins because of the mercy, love, and kindness of God made available through Jesus. It has nothing to do with how right you are and has everything to do with how loving God is. You can never do enough to earn salvation.
We need to be careful lest we conclude that doing the right thing and living the right way somehow merits our salvation. It does not! God extends His grace to you, not because of who you are, but because of who He is.
Verse 8 tells us that “it is the gift of God.” You can be saved simply because God wants to give salvation to you. God has chosen to give you salvation, and He does not expect anything in return in terms of merit. It is the gift of God.
Are we saved because we heard, believed, repented, confessed, and was baptized? Not at all. One is saved because God, out of His mercy, love, and kindness, decided that He wanted you to have salvation as a gift (Rom. 3.24). It isn’t something that you deserve because of what we do.
Remember back in Ephesians 2.1-3? We were dead in trespasses and sins. How can we think that we deserve God’s grace?
This can be a difficult verse for some of us. We believe that this verse gives substance to the idea that you don’t have to be obedient.
Contextually, this is a reference to the works of the Law of Moses. There was a mindset among the ancient Jews that they were the people of God because they were circumcised.
They believed that keeping the Sabbath, various Jewish feasts, and other Old Testament works made them eligible to be the people of God. Paul writes that being the people of God was not because of their works, lest they should boast. Your salvation is not because of how well you have performed the works of the Law of Moses. Your salvation is a gift from God though Jesus Christ.
Do we not have the same mindset today in reference to the
law of Christ that they did in reference to the Law of Moses? Do we boast that we always go to church? Do we boast that we have sacrificed our time,
money, and energy to help others? Do we
boast that we are saved because have obeyed the commands of God and thus He has
rewarded us with salvation?
You were dead in trespasses and sins. You determined in your mind to fulfill the carnal desires of your flesh. You have walked according to the course of this world. How can you say that you have done enough good to warrant salvation? How will you ever do anything that will compel God to reward you with salvation? We are not saved because of what we have done. We are saved because of what God has done.
The grace of God is universally offered, but it is not universally received. How do we receive the grace of God so as to be saved? Ephesians 2.8 tells us.
It isn’t just God having feelings of mercy, love, and kindness toward us. It is God having those feelings toward us, and then offering this free gift of salvation on the condition of faith.
There is something that we must do that is essential to our salvation. This is such a critical point, because it is on this point that we find so much religious division. Most in the religious world will agree that we are saved by the grace of God. However, it is at that point that we go our separate ways in terms of religious conviction. That makes it critical that we understand what the Bible teaches.
Paul says is that we are saved by grace through faith. How does faith come? Faith is produced by hearing the word of God (Rom. 10.17). If we want to receive the grace of God we have to receive it through the action of faith. Before we can receive it by faith, we first have to hear it.
When you take all these things, they can all be summed up by a single word: Obedience. When the Bible refers to obeying the gospel, these are the things the Bible says we need to do (Heb. 5.9).
When we start talking about obedience, things that we must do, it makes a lot of people nervous. It sounds like works based salvation as opposed in being saved by grace. The Bible says that we are saved by grace. However, when the subject of obedience to the gospel is discussed, many are afraid that we are teaching that you have to earn your salvation.
When we talk about works, we are referring to the works of faith. We are saved because the works that we do are in response to the grace of God. The works of faith are part of what God says we have to do in order to be saved. It is this kind of work that James writes about in James 2.24.
It isn’t a matter of grace vs law. It is not a matter of either doing works or accepting the grace of God. We are accepting the grace of God by doing what God tells us to do. We are not earning our way to heaven when we are obedient to the gospel. Obeying the commands of the gospel is a response of the individual who believes.
While all the things expected of us are important and necessary, they do not equal to the grace of God. Having faith cannot save us without Jesus in whom we believe. Confessing the name of Jesus cannot save us if there was no Savior to confess. Being baptized cannot save us if there is nothing into which we would be baptized. Without the grace of God demonstrated through Jesus, obedience to the commands of God would do nothing for us. We are saved because of God’s grace which we receive when we do what God says we must do.
There is a man drowning in the middle of a lake. Someone just happens to pass by in his boat and sees the drowning man. Out of love, mercy, and kindness, he gets a rope and ties it to the end of a flotation device. He throws it out to the drowning man and pulls him out of the water and into the boat saving his life.
What saved this drowning man? The rope saved him. The flotation device saved him. The fact that this man saw the rope and the flotation device and reached out and took hold of it also played a role in his salvation. If he had ignored the rope he would have drowned. All these things were necessary components in this man’s salvation.
What is the most significant and most important part of this man’s salvation? When that man is pulled onto the boat who is he going to thank? Is he going to bow down and thank the rope for saving him? Is he going to thank the flotation device for saving him? Does he take credit for himself because he reached out and took the rope? He owes his gratitude to the one who was loving and merciful and stopped to throw out that rope.
It is the grace of God that saves us. While there are necessary steps that we must take in order to receive the grace of God, we cannot forget that we are saved by grace and that it is not of ourselves, but the gift of God. When we obey the gospel all we are doing is accepting the grace of God by meeting the conditions that He has laid forth. God has done it all.