Other than “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16), which is probably the most famous verse in the Bible? If you said, “For by grace you have been saved through faith…”(Ephesians 2:8), you’re probably right. What, however, is this verse actually saying?
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)
Since the Bible is God’s message to us and we know that Scripture does not contradict itself, we can clearly draw some conclusions as to what this verse is NOT saying.
The first thing this verse is not saying is that since salvation is a gift we are free to live a sinful lifestyle. We know this because Romans 6:1-14 tells us otherwise:
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound [should we feel free to sin because forgiveness is free]? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God For sin shall not have dominion over you…”
I John 3:4-9 further tells us, “Whoever abides [stays] in Him does not sin [as a way of life]. Whoever sins [as a way of life] has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.”
A Christian does not sin as a way of life, so today’s verse clearly does not say it’s okay to keep sinning because God forgives.
Furthermore, today’s verse also does not say that it is possible for a Christian life to have no evidence of saving faith—no obedience to God, or fruit as it is sometimes called. James 2:14-26 explains:
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart is peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, o foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
So are we justified by works, or not? The answer is not an issue of semantics—of playing games with words—but of what real faith in God is. Yes, salvation is through faith; we are not saved by anything we do—it is not of us but the gift of God. Yet, when we truly believe everything God says, our lives are changed and there is evidence of our genuine faith in what we’ve read and heard and learned—there is obedience to what God says, what God calls fruit. And, of course, God commands that we are to love others and do good.
So while some may incorrectly conclude that by doing the good works we somehow earn our way into heaven, that is putting the cart before the horse. The Bible says that there is nothing good in us. To the contrary, Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way…” Good works are what “grows out of us”—like fruit from a tree—once we recognize our utter inability to look good in God’s eyes, accept the path of forgiveness and salvation He has provided (Jesus Christ), and submit to His authority in our lives. Fruit is the evidence that we really do believe Biblically, because not all “belief” is saving belief, as the passage in James reminds us, “Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19b) Simply believing Jesus is a historical figure, or even mentally acknowledging that perhaps He did die on the cross for our sins isn’t enough—we must submit to Christ’s complete authority over us. This is saving faith. And it is this kind of faith that generates evidence of its existence!
But why does today’s verse go to such lengths to explain that salvation is by grace, through faith, not of ourselves, but completely a gift from God? The reason is that otherwise we would be tempted to feel we deserve it—that somehow we’ve earned it.
The irony of human nature is that we don’t look for a solution unless we first recognize a problem. If I don’t come to see how utterly incapable I am of earning God’s forgiveness and salvation on my own, I will never look to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. If I can do it, why do I need Someone Else? Clearly, I wouldn’t if I could do it on my own.
Yet regardless of how good a person I am; regardless of how honorable my family is and how many genuinely wonderful things I’ve done during my life, in the eyes of God, I fall short of His holy standard. It’s like trying to jump high enough when the only acceptable jump is clear up to the ceiling—it isn’t going to happen, no matter how well I do. I may or may not be “as bad as” someone else; that is completely irrelevant, because God doesn’t grade on a curve. The Bible simply says, “The soul who sins shall die,” (Ezekiel 18:4d) and each and every one of us has sinned—somewhere, somehow, at some point in our lives, some of us many times each day.
Yet the love of God is such that He is willing to forgive us all of our imperfections, our mistakes, even our very serious sins—because even though sin is evil and deserves a very real punishment, Christ has already paid it. So while forgiveness is free to us, it isn’t really free because it was very costly to Him. And while He does readily forgive, He forgives those who take Him seriously. Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins [Jesus’ atoning work on the cross—our only hope of forgiveness], but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.”
This is a truly frightening verse if you think about it, but God said it because we need to understand it, like all of what He says, is true. It is a warning to take God and the salvation Jesus earned on the cross seriously, not frivolously. Real faith stops sinning as an ongoing pattern of life. Real faith has fruit—evidence of obedience to God, a changed life. And ultimately, real faith is a gift from God because it is He who has allowed us to hear and understand.
Thank You for the faith that You have given us. Help us to realize how costly it was to You and take You seriously, recognizing that not everyone is entering through the narrow gate. Help me to not sin as a way of life; help my life show proof of my faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.