Ephesians 2:8-9 (RSV-CE) states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God— not because of works, lest any man should boast.” Based on misinterpretations of this passage, many have erroneously deduced that works play no part in salvation. However, as we will see below, grace is given without cost, but not without responsibility.
Grace and Faith
Some Protestant churches, using this passage as a “prooftext,” insist that good works are not necessary for salvation. Let us examine why their interpretation is wrong.
First, Ephesians 2:8-9 has been solidly and consistently proclaimed by the Catholic Church for 2000 years. Grace is a free gift from God and is not something we could ever earn. However, it is something that requires a response once God infuses us with it. Grace gives us the ability to have faith in God and to do good works in his Name. Accordingly, we could not have faith in God if He did not give us the grace to do so.
Second, we are indeed saved by God’s free and unmerited gift of grace through faith. In other words, God gives us grace and we respond through faith. Faith is the intellectual and willful (belief and trust) response to grace. God does not force himself upon us. He is our Father, not a dictator.
Grace requires a response from the human soul, and the soul has two chief powers, the intellect and will. The early Christians saw Jesus’ miracles, heard his teachings, and believed. Jesus even said that if they did not believe him, believe him because of his works (John 10:38). Thus, Jesus gave them reasons to believe. In other words, Jesus engaged their intellects with reasons to believe and trust in him.
But where do works come in? Eph 2:9 says, “…not because of works, lest any man should boast.” This is also solid and consistent Catholic teaching. We cannot do good works without God’s grace. If we did good works without faith, they would count for nothing.
Remember, baptism is how sanctifying grace is initially communicated to the Christian. It is free and unmerited. The minister pours the water the person to be baptized or submerges him in it, and he speaks the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” God communicates His grace. That’s it. You did nothing but have faith and show up.
Some Protestant churches, though not most, teach that baptism is not necessary for salvation because it is a work. Unfortunately for them, the Bible and 2000 of Christian history say it is (see 1 Peter 3:21 and Acts 22:16). Titus 3:5 gives us an excellent explanation of how baptism works. Paul says that God saved us, not because of our deeds, but by the washing of “regeneration” (i.e. born again) and renewal in the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ that we might be justified.
The idea that good works are not necessary after initial justification comes from an incorrect interpretation of Bible verses, Ephesians 2:9 being one of them. This passage does not say that a person does not have to do good works, it says that grace (not works) saves us through faith. This is solid Catholic teaching. The misinterpretation lies in the idea that works done after initial justification are not necessary. But this is not what the passage, or any other passage in Scripture, says or implies.
Rather, God gives us the gift of salvation in Baptism. We do nothing to earn this gift except having faith in God’s saving actions. Once in this state of justification, we are required to do God’s work, the work He has called us to do from eternity. Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
Now we have a decision to make. Do we walk in the good works for which we have been reborn, or do we resist? Either way, the soul’s will is engaged. Either we will to do good or refuse to do it. If we refuse, the entire soul is not engaged in the holy will of God and will darken from sloth.
Very quickly on the role of love – Love perfects faith. Without love, faith would simply be an intellectual assent alone, or it would be accompanied by a reluctance to do good works. This is why Saint Paul said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). He also says, “… faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). And, “…if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). Thus, we love God by responding to his grace with faith and joyfully doing the good works were are call to do.