Photo by foundinbklyn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Good works and salvation: What’s the connection? (Ephesians 2:8–10)

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Lionel Windsor
Lionel Windsor lectures in New Testament at Moore College, Sydney.

A church in rural Australia recently sent a letter of thanks to some of its financial donors. The donors had contributed to an appeal to restore the church’s 150-year-old building. Instead of the traditional thank you letter, the church wanted to do something a little different. They decided to play on the idea of “indulgences” (a practice from medieval times where the Catholic Church raised money for buildings by selling reduction of punishment for sins). So, tongue firmly in cheek, this rural Australian Anglican church sent its financial donors a letter providing them with priority access to heaven. The letter said:

To: Saint Peter, Border Control, Pearly Gates.

The bearer of this letter has helped to keep God alive in Yea by contributing to the restoration appeal for St. Luke’s Anglican Church.

We hope that this good deed might enable the bearer to be acknowledged and given access to the priority lane for entry through the Pearly Gates.

[Note:] We cannot guarantee entry into heaven as other factors may apply.

This 16th Century Indulgence Chest is on display in the Lutherhaus Wittenberg. Money was raised to pay for (among other things) church buildings by selling pardon for sins.

I have to presume that this letter doesn’t represent the actual views and teaching of the church who wrote it—after all, it’s designed to be a joke.[1] But still, the joke works because it taps into some common assumptions and stereotypes that many people really do have about God, heaven, and good works. And so it raises some important questions—not just for the financial donors, but for all of us. Can our own contributions help “keep God alive”? Do our good deeds give us access to heaven, priority or otherwise? Can we ever be guaranteed of entry into heaven? If so, what other factors might apply?

Scala Sancta. Photo by foundinbklyn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Indulgences are still offered today. This is a photo of the “Scala Sancta”, the “Holy Steps” in the old Papal Lateran Palace in Rome. An indulgence (i.e. a reduction of punishment in purgatory) is offered by the church in Rome for those who climb the steps on their knees, under certain conditions. Photo by foundinbklyn on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

These are very significant questions for our relationship with God and our future hope of eternal life, aren’t they? In fact, it was opposition to the medieval practice of selling indulgences that sparked the Protestant Reformation more than 500 years ago, giving rise to Protestant churches (Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.). The protesters claimed that the medieval Roman Church had got these very important issues quite wrong. They claimed that the Roman Church wasn’t teaching rightly about the place of good works when it comes to salvation (i.e. “being saved/rescued” from sin and God’s judgment), and that this wrong teaching about good works had serious consequences for people’s assurance before God. The protesters went back to the Bible to make their point.

In Ephesians chapter 2, the Apostle Paul addresses these questions directly. Here, the apostle is talking about salvation, heaven, and the place of good works. It’s worth paying close attention to what he says. We will focus especially on verses 8–10, although the verses that come just before that are also important.

For it is by grace that you are saved, through faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not from works, so that no one may boast. For we are his product, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre-prepared for us to walk in.

Ephesians 2:8–10

Saved by grace

If we look at the prior verses (verses 5–7), we can see that they answer quite a few of the questions I mentioned above. These verses talk about salvation as God’s “grace” or his “gift” to us.

So—can our own contributions help “keep God alive”? No—in fact, it’s the opposite. Verse 5 says that while we ourselves were “dead because of our offences”, God who is “rich in mercy… made us alive together with Christ”. This is what salvation by grace means. We were dead, and God made us alive. We can’t make him alive, and we can’t keep him alive.

Do our good deeds give us priority access to heaven? No, they don’t. Verse 6 says that “God raised us together with Christ, and seated us together with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”. Christ is the one with absolute priority access to heaven. Christ is God’s victorious, risen Son. He’s seated at God’s right hand, ruling over everything (see chapter 1 verses 19–21). And those who believe in Jesus Christ have this priority access too. This priority access doesn’t come to us because of our good deeds, but because we’re with him. Jesus has died for our sins and risen from the dead. And if we’re with him, we have all the priority access we need.

So can we be guaranteed entry into heaven? Yes, we can. This is the point of verse 7. God’s actions for us now have a future dimension: God has raised us with Christ so that “in the coming ages he could demonstrate the outstanding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”. We can be secure now and forever, in Christ. That’s what being saved by grace means. How amazing and comforting this grace is! And in verse 8, Paul repeats this, just to make sure we get it: “For it is by grace that you are saved”.

But there’s still a question that remains: Can our good works contribute at all to our salvation? Maybe our works are another factor that may apply in some way? After all, the idea of “grace” might include works, mightn’t it? The word “grace” means “gift”. So maybe God gives us the gift of good works to do so that we can earn his favour and receive heaven as a reward from him? Theoretically, if we understand grace that way, this could be true. But this is not what God’s grace means. And in these verses, Paul goes out of his way to rule that idea out.

Not from works

Paul doesn’t just say that we are saved by grace. He says that we are saved by grace “through faith”. The word “faith” is another form of the word “believe”—i.e. the gift of God comes to us through believing in Jesus and trusting in Jesus. But hold on, you might ask: maybe this “faith” actually involves good deeds in some way. Maybe “faith” involves our own “faithfulness” or “allegiance” to God, and so maybe “faith” also means doing good deeds and being rewarded? This is what Paul rules out next.

Paul says that “this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”. The point is that whatever this saving faith involves, it doesn’t come from ourselves. It’s God’s gift.[2] Then Paul says even more clearly: “it is not from works, so that no one may boast”. The source or basis of our salvation, in other words, has nothing to do with our own actions. Faith doesn’t come from works, and so salvation doesn’t come from works. By saving us in this way, by faith, God has ruled out the possibility that we could “boast”. That is, there is no way we can take pride in any achievement when it comes to our salvation. We haven’t contributed to it, so we don’t have any grounds for boasting.

But for good works

Where do good works fit in then? Does that mean good works have nothing at all to do with our Christian lives in any way? If good works don’t contribute to our salvation, does that mean good works are just an optional extra for living our Christian lives? No! Why? Because there is a very important place for good works. Yes, our salvation does not come from works. But we are saved for works.

In verse 10, Paul says that we are God’s “product” (that’s my translation of the word here just to make it clear—many modern translations have “workmanship”). In other words, God hasn’t just saved us so we can run away and do our own thing. He’s saved us for his own purposes—we’re his product. You make a product for a reason. What has God made us for? We’re “created in Christ Jesus for good works”. We’re rescued from God’s judgment so that we can live as God’s new creation, doing good works for God’s purposes. Of course, not even this is something we can boast in. These good works are something that God “pre-prepared for us to walk in”. It all comes from God in the first place—this is his plan for us. Instead of walking along the path of “offenses and sins”, and so being ruled by Satan (see verses 1–2), God has made us walk along a new path, marked out by him. This is the path that God has made us for, and our job, as his new creation, is to walk in it.

Well then, you might ask: If this is the place of good works, what incentive do I have for doing good at all? Can’t I just get forgiven and take the free ticket to heaven and then live however I want? We need rewards and punishments, otherwise there’s no more incentive any more, is there? If you think that way, you haven’t really understood what it means to be saved by God’s grace. The idea of “incentives” is the kind of thinking that belongs in the workplace or the economy. It’s the way you think and act when you’re caught up in some kind of impersonal economic system. But we don’t relate to God through an economic system. Rather, we relate to him as the adopted children of a loving heavenly Father. Very close to the beginning of Ephesians, Paul says that God:

chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his presence; in love he predetermined that we should be adopted through Jesus Christ for himself

Ephesians 1:4–5

God is not some distant boss or supreme being dispensing incentives for good works. He has chosen us to be holy, and he has adopted us as his children. If God is your loving heavenly Father, you can be secure in his care, now and in the future. You’re free to be holy. And that means you have a whole new life to live for him. This is a wonderful truth, isn’t it?

Sadly, there are very bad fathers in the world. This might be your own experience. But God is not a bad father; he is a good father: in fact, he is the perfect father. A bad father might relate to his children in terms of economics; he might say: “I will only accept you if you perform, so my incentive is: shape up or you’re out of the family”. But a good father says to his children: “I love you, I forgive you, and you are my child. I want you to become more and more like me—holy and blameless—because that is good. And if you fail—and I know you’ll fail—then I love you, I forgive you, and you are my child, and I want you to grow and become more and more like me.” God is the perfect Father. God forgives—entirely by his grace. And God has created us for good works.

Community Chest from 16th Century Wittenberg.
This is the community chest of the town of Wittenberg. It was used to collect money from to use as a central fund to pay not only for pastors but for the care for the poor and sick, as well as to grant community loans to craftsmen and provide financial support for education for low-income families. This is one of the differences the Reformation made in this town: when people realised they were saved by grace through faith, they were freed up to give willingly for the good of others. The indulgence chest disappeared, and was replaced with the community chest.

Grace: not from works, but for works

So God’s grace in saving us through faith doesn’t come from works, but it is for works. We need to get this right, because it shows us the place of works in our Christian lives. If we forget that our salvation doesn’t come from works, then we’ll think that we have to achieve salvation—but we won’t ever really measure up, we’ll live lives of guilt, and we’ll never be sure of any guarantee of entry into heaven. We’ll take our eyes off what Christ has done for us, and focus on ourselves and our achievements. On the other hand, if we forget that we’re saved for works, then we will end up thinking that salvation is some kind of free ride—a ticket that we can present to the pearly gates at the end of our lives for free entry without it making any difference to the way we behave. And if we think that, we don’t really know God, and more than that, we’re denying the very purpose that we’re created for.

Our salvation doesn’t come from works. But we are saved for works. This is no joking matter. It’s fundamental to our Christian lives.

For reflection

Salvation does not come from our good works. How does that change the way you relate to God and live for him?

God has saved us for good works. How does that change the way you relate to God and live for him?

[1] I’ve contacted the church’s leadership to check this with them, but they haven’t as yet replied to me.

[2] For an excellent detailed discussion on how “faith” fits into this passage, see this article by Matthew Olliffe.

Audio podcast

Want more?

This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.

The academic details behind these reflections

Reading Ephesians & Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ's Mission through Israel to the Nations

In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.