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Doctrinal Matters: Salvation

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Question & Answer: Faith a Gift from God?

by  Eric Lyons, M.Min.

Q.

Does Ephesians 2:8-9 teach that faith is a gift from God?

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

A.

For centuries, various Bible commentators have differed on the precise reference of the pronoun “that” in Ephesians 2:8. Does “that” (touto) refer to faith, as many have stated (e.g., Augustine, Chrysostom, Lenski, et al.), or, does “that” refer to salvation from sin? Is faith the “gift of God,” or is this gift salvation by grace through faith?

Admittedly, from a cursory reading of the passage in Ephesians 2:8, it may appear that the relative pronoun that has faith as its grammatical antecedent. Those who advocate the view that faith itself is a gift (i.e., a miraculous imposition) from God, often point out that in this verse, “faith” is the nearest antecedent of “that” (“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God”).

However, when one examines Ephesians 2:8 in the language in which it was originally written (Greek), he learns that the pronoun that (touto) is neuter in gender, while the word faith (pistis) is feminine. Since the general rule in Greek grammar is for the gender and number of a relative pronoun to be the same as its antecedent (Mounce, 1993, p. 111), then some extenuating linguistic circumstance, special idiomatic use, or other similarly mitigating factor would need to be demonstrated to justify linking “that” to “faith.” If such reasonable justification cannot be made, then one is compelled to continue studying the passage in order to know assuredly what “that” gift of God is.

When no clear antecedent is found within a text, Greek scholar William Mounce wisely recommends that the Bible student study the context of the passage in question in order to help determine to what the relative pronoun (like “that”) is referring (1993, p. 111). The overall context of the first three chapters of Ephesians is man’s salvation found in Christ. Examine, for example, the following passages from the remainder of the book.

  • “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (1:7).
  • The heavenly “inheritance” is found in Christ (1:11).
  • After believing in, and acting upon, the good news of salvation through Christ, the Christians in Ephesus were “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (1:13).
  • Sinners are made “alive with Christ,” and are saved “by grace” (2:5).
  • Sinners are brought near to God “by the blood of Christ” (2:13).
  • Paul became a servant of Christ “according to the gift of the grace of God...by the effective working of His power” (3:7).

Not only is the theme of salvation the overall context of the first three chapters of the book of Ephesians, but the immediate context of Ephesians 2:8-9 is salvation, not faith. These two verses thoroughly document how a person is saved, not how a person believes.

  • Salvation is by grace.
  • Salvation is through faith.
  • Salvation is not of yourselves.
  • Salvation is the gift of God.
  • Salvation is not of works.

Paul was not providing an exposition on faith in his epistle to the Ephesians. Rather salvation was his focus. Faith is mentioned as the mode by which salvation is accepted. Salvation is through faith. Just as water is received into a house in twenty-first-century America through a pipeline, a sinner receives salvation through obedient faith (cf. Romans 1:5; 16:26). The main focus of Paul’s message in Ephesians 2:8-9 was salvation (i.e., the living “water that springs up into everlasting life”—cf. John 4:14), not the mode of salvation.

Admittedly, faith might be categorized as a gift from God in the broad sense in which all things come from God (e.g., the bread for which we work is an indirect gift from God—cf. Matthew 6:9-13), but faith is not a direct gift from God given to some and not to others. As Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Rome, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Faith in Christ as the Son of God is found only in those who have first heard the Word of God, and then believed (cf. John 20:31).

REFERENCES

Mounce, William D. (1993), Basics of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).




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