Is it by "Grace" You are being Saved? Some Fragmented Thoughts on Ephesians

In John Barclay’s new book Paul and the Gift, he explores the dynamics of “grace” (χάρις) within Romans and Galatians. He argues “against modern notions of ‘altruism,’ we found that benefits were generally intended to foster mutuality, by creating or maintaining social bonds. This expectation of reciprocity, with its (non-legal) obligations, created cyclical patterns of gift-and-return, even where there were large differentials in power between givers and recipients.”[1]

In Ephesians, there are two key texts that are often used to support the argument of “grace.” These are Ephesians 2:5 and 2:8. The Greek word χάρις is usually—if not always—translated as “grace,” and this is often seen as something “freely given” or bestowed with no strings attached. Since the Reformation, Ephesians 2:1-10 has played a large and somewhat helpful role for defining certain doctrines. However, I want to suggest an alternative reading based on my own research and the research done by John Barclay.

So, here are the two texts in question:

2:5 – καὶ ὄντας ἡμᾶς νεκροὺς τοῖς παραπτώμασιν συνεζωοποίησεν τῷ Χριστῷ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι

“And we being dead by the offenses are made alive by means of Christ—by grace you are being liberated” (NRQT).

2:8 – τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως. καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον

“For in grace you are being liberated through faithfulness; and this not from you, [rather it is] God’s offering gift” (NRQT).

Now there is much to say, and I don’t want this to turn into a term paper, so I will limit myself to three observations.

First, the phrases are identical: χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι – singular feminine noun in the dative + plural verb + plural middle participle. There is a debate amongst Greek grammarians about middle versus passive tenses. For instance, if a participle is in the middle voice, it has the action of the actor in mind. Ex: humble yourselves. If it is passive, then it referring to an external action being placed upon the actor. Ex: you are being humbled. The problem lies in the fact that σεσῳσμένοι in both verses is technically middle/passive. So which option works best? The arguments most often boil down to context. I suggest that the entire pericope is bracketed by two specific verbs from the περιπατέω word group (they mean “walk” or “live,” in the sense of conducting yourselves ethically). Both are in the aorist tense, suggesting active conduct on the part of the Gentiles being addressed. So the entire framework seems to assume a sort of participation. God exhorts people, elects people, adopts people, and their participation is required. Thus, σεσῳσμένοι likely includes an active component that is contextually necessary.

Second, because of Barclay’s current conclusions regarding χάρις, it seems that it is best to read these two verses as follows.

2:5 – “And we being dead by the offenses are made alive by means of Christ—by the gift you are being liberated” (NRQT).

2:8 – “For in the gift you are being liberated through faithfulness; and this not from you, [rather it is] God’s offering gift” (NRQT).

This works well for two reasons. First it seems to be a better historical fit, especially in light of the mutuality inherent in the concept of “gift-giving.” Second, 2:8 concludes with a verb less clause: θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον, and δῶρον is actually the specific word for “gift” or “offering gift.” So 2:8 begins with χάρις and ends with δῶρον, and while these terms are clearly not synonymous, they do reflect well together the concept of an “offering gift.” Thus, the use of τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ in 4:7 (“the gift of Christ” or “Christ’s gift”) is coordinate with the idea of “gift giving” and helps us reconsider “grace.” The “gift” of God is the principle point of theological focus for Gentiles in Ephesians.

Third and finally, the genitival phrase διὰ πίστεως in 2:8 includes an active component as well. The preposition διὰ can be variously translated as “through” or “by means of.” So here, since πίστεως is an active noun likely referring to “faithfulness” (as it flows nicely with the bracketed language about περιπατέω: see above), this genitival phrase flows nicely with the rest of the verse: καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον. God offers the gift of Christ, and Christ actively offers himself in the same reciprocal manner, in order to illustrate what God is doing for the Gentiles. The reciprocal nature of our “faithfulness” and God’s “gift” illustrates the dance humanity is invited to participate within.

In summation, much more could be said about this, but allow me a few concluding thoughts.

First, χάρις is not free. It costs God something, and it is a gift that demands human participation διὰ πίστεως. All things "cost" something, especially if the "gift" is given to those who are not wealthy or are socially maligned. It costs God's "honor," even though God does not appear to care much for his own glory sometimes. God gives χάρις to all people regardless of their social status, their gender, or their ethnicity. However, this χάρις is not without 'strings' or 'demands' or 'obligations.' There is no discrimination, but there is a high demand for participation and reciprocity. 

Second, Christ stands at the center of action, as agent, as Messiah, as Liberator, and as Son of God. Thus, the origination of the gift resides in God and not in us. However, the demand for “imitation” (5:1-2) and mutual responses reveals a God who desires a human response to his offering. The "gift of Christ" did not originate with us, and this illustrates that we are to participate within this "gift." God, as wealthy, can afford to give the "gift" to all.

Third and ultimately, God’s offering gift of Christ to Gentiles reveals a God who can restore people from the dead, even those who were lost and forgotten among us. We respond to God’s gift, and this gift is not “free” – it cost Christ his own honor, it cost him his body, and ultimately it cost him his life. Our life, then, is to yield ourselves and act with Christ.

Is it by "grace" you are being saved? No. It is because of God's in Christ's offering gift that we are being saved, and it is in Christ that we reciprocate God's gift through imitation (4:25-5:2). Christ's faithfulness is our imitation. Thankfully, we may have life in his name if we imitate Christ and participate in God’s plan for the restoration of the world.

We "live" and "walk" by faithfulness, by the Gift, by Christ.


*post script*

I had some twitter friends and colleagues (April and Thomas) offer some helpful push back. Particularly of the phrases οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν ("not from you" - 2:8) and οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων ("not from works" - 2:9). I offer some thoughts that the originational aspect of "gift" lies with God, and is not from us. God as 'wealthy' gives Christ to the poor, and these verses do not exclude human participation but rather point to the source of the gift: God and Christ. Just in case this was not clear, and I thank the Revs. April and Thomas for their thoughts again. This reveals, of course, that Ephesians is Theo-centric and there is much mystery to be explored!

[1] John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 562.