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.


The Christ Gift: A (Brief) Exegesis of Ephesians 4:7

Ἑνὶ δὲ ἑκάστῳ ἡμῶν ἐδόθη ἡ χάρις κατὰ τὸ μέτρον τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ.

“And each one of us has been given favor according to the content of the gift of Christ” (NRQT).

The language of “gift” in Paul has recently undergone a major overhaul in light of John Barclay’s book, Paul and the Gift. While Barclay’s work centers on χάρις, here I think the use of the genitive construction τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ nicely fulfills Barclay’s proposal: χάρις is better rendered as "gift."

V.7 is the concluding statement of vv.1-7 that comprises a pericope or block of text. Beginning with παρακαλῶ, Paul exhorts his Gentile audience to live into their calling (4:1), and goes on to utilize a (possible) baptismal formula or creed that stresses unity within a corporate community by the repeated use of εἷς (“one”). Paul’s conclusion stems from all urging a community of mutualism and care in one body, and this is “according to the content of the gift of Christ.”

The issue with genitive phrase τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ is whether or not Christ is ‘possessive.’ Is Christ the actual gift given by God, or rather is the gift belonging to Christ, which in turn is given to us? Most translations and commentators render the phrase is the normal sense, “gift of Christ.” For my part, I think it could go either way, especially in light of 5:2 where Christ “hands himself over” (παρέδωκεν) or in the previous phrase in 4:23 where God “granted” (ἐχαρίσατο) to us in Christ. There are many other verses to explore, but the point is that Christ is both object and active agent in Ephesians and there does not appear to be any attempt by Paul to systematize this imagery.

How, then, does this work? I suspect both are true in various respects. Christ is given to us (4:32), and Christ as Messiah and Lord is the one who actively came for us (Phil. 2:6-8). This articular δωρεᾶς harkens back Psalm 68:18 (LXX) where God is the one who ascends the mountain and gives gifts. However, Christ is the one here to seemingly gives gifts, which also include people within the church (c.f. 4:11-12). Thus, I suspect this δωρεᾶς is Christologically oriented and Christ functions as the one who ascends and descends. In the LXX the word for gift is δόματα, a similar word to the one under consideration.

Thus, one could say that Christ is the one who gives gifts, including himself, to the people of God. He does this as the Incarnate Lord, the suffering servant, and as the victor over sin and death.

Most of all, he does this because the Messiah “loved us” (ἠγάπησεν ἡμᾶς: the aorist tense does not refer to a once and for all act, but to an ongoing state that has no fixed stoppage). Christ’s love and gift are linked together, and we are all called to participate in this “gift.” This 'Christ Gift' includes sacrifice and love as its currency, and for those who are bankrupt, this is indeed good news.


Justification and Life for All in Romans 5:12-21?

After a fun-filled time of great plenaries and a random guy who prayed for my fertility--and keeping Nick from shouting profanities--I gave my first paper presentation at the Rethinking Hell Conference. Basically, this is a super long academic paper that primarily makes an exegetical case for universal accessibility to salvation, not universal salvation. At the end I conceptualize universal accessibility (argued from the text) from the vantage point of a conditionalist theological framework (not an argument for conditionalism).

In my opinion, any time someone announces they are going to do a "Calvinist" or "Egalitarian" reading/exegesis of a text they are doing exegesis + theology. For better or worse I decided for fun to separate exegesis from my larger theological position and announce and integrate it at the end!  --AQ