In Ephesians 2:8, the apostle Paul is exceedingly clear that salvation comes to us from God's grace, which we receive through faith (trust): "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (NIV).
Then Paul adds in verse 9, "not by works, so that no one can boast" (NIV). This seems like an odd inclusion, given that Paul is writing primarily to Gentiles who do not seem to be troubled by the issue of salvation by works of the Jewish law (Eph. 2:11; 3:1). This issue is a major one in Galatians and Romans, where Paul was confronting those who claimed that justification (salvation) comes through works of the law. But we have no reason to believe that the recipients of this letter to the Ephesians were dealing with this particular problem.
Notice that Paul says "not by works," leaving off the characteristic end of this phrase, "of the law" (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). It's clear that he is not dealing with the Jewish tendency to see salvation as a reward for keeping the Torah. Rather, the use of "works" casts a broad net, snagging any of us who might think that we can earn our way into God's good favor. One of the common features of most (all?) religions in the Greco-Roman world of the first century A.D. was an assumption that you can enter into fellowship with the gods by doing the right things to please the gods. Gentiles, as well as Jews, would be inclined to see salvation as a result of their efforts, their works. But this, Paul says, is not true.
Our works do matter to God. But we must never think of them as a means to earn what God freely gives: grace, mercy, love, salvation, new life. Good works come as a response to the activity of grace in our lives. Yet, we must always remember that our salvation does not come by our works. This means, among other things, that you don't have to get it all right to be in a relationship with God. You don't have to be perfect, or even close. You don't have to have perfect, unfaltering faith. You don't have to have perfect theology, as if this were possible for fallible humans. Rather, you need only to receive God's grace in faith and allow it to transform your life.
Mark Roberts is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He writes digital daily devotions atLife for Leaders. This article is adapted with permission from his original article "Why Does Paul Bring Up the Subject of Works?" at TheHighCalling.org. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures quoted are taken from the New Living Translation.