Today I want to address the age old question of what Paul refers to as being “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” in Ephesians 2:8-9. When I first became a Calvinist I fell into the same trap as many others of seeing Calvinism all over the place. So when I came across a verse that says, “faith…not of yourselves,” I thought, “Yes! Faith is from God, not our free will! Let me add this to my list of cross references!” This is the common interpretive mistake of letting systematic theology guide our exegetical theology instead of the other way around. It is true that other scriptures teach that faith is a gift from God (Phil. 1:29). It is true that the analogy of Scripture ought to be brought into consideration during Bible study. Yet every text must be examined by themselves to determine the original meaning the author intended. This is what we shall do now with Ephesians 2:8-9.
First let us look at the position that the faith Paul mentions just before is the gift of God. Of all the commentaries on Ephesians I own, only Charles Hodge favors this take on it. We shall use his work as the standard for the opposing view. There he gives four reasons why he thinks this is the correct understanding of the passage.1
Arguments in favor of faith being the gift of God
1. He feels that it fits the passage’s purpose better in showing just how much grace is involved in salvation. Not only are our works not involved, but the faith itself that does save is not our own.
Yet I would say Paul does a mighty fine job teaching sola gratia without having to say our faith itself is a gift also. If Hodge’s argument is to hold any water we must accuse Paul of weakening this doctrine any time he fails to mention that faith, on top of everything else in salvation, is God’s gift. It is incorrect to assume that if Paul is trying to teach the graciousness of salvation, he must make it absolutely as gracious as possible in every case.
2. He accuses the opposing view of being tautological. In essence, he construes our position as Paul saying, “You are saved by faith. You are saved not of yourself. You are saved by God. You are not saved by works.” Rather, he would put “and that…of God” in paranthesis and have the flow be “saved through faith (…) not of works,” which he feels would remove the repetition.
This is a straw man, for this sentence is not a tautology. Also, can we really place the unnecessary burden upon the authors of Scripture that they must always follow every rule of grammar and argumentation?
3. He feels his interpretation preserves Paul’s common doctrine of salvation by faith not works.
However, he fails to state how the other interpretation lessens the strength of Paul’s argument. How is it less convincing for Paul to say that our salvation is not of works and also a gift of God and not of ourselves? It seems that Paul, in the tautology of which he falsely accuses us, is piling on more and more terms to clarify that we ourselves play no role in our salvation.
4. He backs up his interpretation with the analogy of Scripture. He cites 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Ephesians 1:19, and Colossians 2:12 as other examples where faith is shown to be a gift of God.
However, of these three cross references, only one actually supports his view. First Corinthians 1:26-31 teaches that “it is by His doing that we are in Christ,” which does refer to (among other things) His irrestibly drawing us to Him, even to he point that we cannot boast of our believing. Note, however, that even in that passage which he correctly cites, “faith” is not explicitly mentioned.
As for the other two, he is guilty of the same exegetical fallacy as he is here in Ephesians 2:8-9. He must take the “these are” which are “according to God’s might” in Ephesians 1:19 to refer to the “believing” just before. But clearly it is a reference to the glorious blessings he mentions in the preceding verses, which become ours through faith. The flow of thought is not that our faith brings about these blessings and our faith is brought about by His power, but that His power has brought about these blessings and we accrue them by faith.
As for Colossians 2:12, he must mean that the “in the working of God” refers to our “faith” which is mentioned just before. However, again it is obvious that Paul is referring to the believers’ union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection being accomplished by God’s power.
Further, to say that a specific interpretation is correct because of the analogy of Scripture is only valid if the opposing interpretation is not supported. Such is not the case here, for other passages call salvation a gift of God (Rom. 6:23) and not of ourselves.
That salvation is the gift of God
We have already seen that there are no valid arguments against this position. That is a negative arugment. For a positive argument, let us see whether or not salvation being the gift is the natural reading of the passage.
We gain insight, first, from the parallel between, “not of yourselves,” and, “not of works”. Whatever Paul refers to as being “not of works” most naturally is the same thing that is “not of yourselves”. That is evident. The repetition of not is to add emphasis and further description of its subject. Thus, to make “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God,” paranthetic is to neglect the context. With this necessary connection in mind, “faith” as the subject does not fit. It is nonsensical to say that “faith” is “not of works”; therefore, the “not of” statements refer to something other than faith.
There is another important parallel between the “by grace you have been saved” here in verse 8 with the exact same phrase in verse 5. If the first parallel we looked at was not evident, certainly whatever Paul meant by “by grace are you saved” in verse 5 is the same as in verse 8, with one expounding the other. When the phrase is used in verse 5 it is the summary of Paul’s statements about God quickening us to life out of our state of spiritual deadness. In the statements preceding verse 5’s “we are saved by grace,” we see both the elements of a gift of God and that it is not from within ourselves. The graciousness of our salvation is seen in the fact that God does it (i.e. a gift). We could not in a million years escape our deadness and make ourselves spiritually alive (i.e. not of ourselves). Thus, it is natural to take “not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” with salvation since Paul has already shown that salvation contains both the element of God’s gift and our inability.
Also, the sentence following also points toward this interpretation (Eph. 2:10). There are similarities between his statments here and his words back in verses 1-5. He says that we are God’s “workmanship”. This does not mean masterpiece in some sentimental, don’t-let-anyone-call-you-ugly way, but the word simply means that God has worked on us. This again points to our salvation as God’s gift, since in this case also it is His doing and not our own. The idea in this verse is not that God has given us faith in Christ, but that He has brought us to life in Christ, similar to the preceding verses.
There is also the linguistic argument concerning the words’ genders. It is commonly argued that “that” cannot refer to “faith” because the former is neuter while the latter is feminine. I am not so sure that this argument settles the deal indisputably, however, but take it for what it’s worth. Consider the words of J. Armitage Robinson: “The difference of gender is not fatal to such a view: but the context demands the wider reference.”2
1 Hodge, Charles Ephesians The Crossway Classics Series, eds. Alister McGarth and J. I. Packer (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 78-79