A few years ago I joined a ministry called 289 DESIGN. As you might guess, the name comes from Ephesians 2:8-9. Our mission to produce materials that share the clear message of God's grace with the world. If you've read it before, there is hardly any verse in the Bible that is as transparent about the inner workings of grace than Ephesians 2:8-9. Over the past few years, I've had a lot of time to think about those few verses and what they mean for the believer.
Those that claim salvation and discipleship as one and the same will often avoid this verse. Paul sets out a stark contrast between salvation and what follows, discipleship. He uses the words faith and works to etch that difference in stone. He attaches ‘faith' to the salvation experience while he attaches ‘works' to the experience of discipleship. Take a look at the following verses in Ephesians 2:8-9 as we consider the first of these two ideas; faith.
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 boast1.
How could it be any more clear? By grace, you have been saved. Grace means unmerited favor. Right out of the gate his word choice shows us that salvation is not deserved. He's going to reiterate that idea a few words later.
He goes on to say that we are saved by grace through faith. It could be said that grace is the gift, while faith is the mechanism. Faith or belief in Jesus is the only condition that must be fulfilled by a person to receive this grace.2
In case that wasn’t clear enough he reminds us that it is “not of yourselves but the gift of God.” Although it’s a little redundant, he seems adamant about getting the point across. He doesn’t want anyone to mistakenly think that they earned the gift of salvation. That’s why I like to say it can’t be earned, returned, or lost. It’s not a gift if it can be earned. He then goes on to repeat this idea from another angle.
He says, "not of works." Is it sinking in yet? It's a free gift. It can't be earned. It can't be worked for. It's not a gift you give to yourself, but it's from God. He then wraps up the idea with this: "Lest anyone should boast." Just in case we missed the half dozen times he's clarified, he wants to add that we can't boast about salvation since it is not from our merit or work. Salvation is a free gift given to those who have believed in Jesus. It's plain and simple. So faith is a salvation issue.
I used to wonder, "if salvation is a free gift by faith, why does Jesus give so many instructions in the New Testament?" At that time in my life, I would have answered it by saying, "Salvation is free, but we have to PROVE we have it by doing good works." Even then, that bothered me. I was no philosopher, but I could see that the logic was broken. If salvation is a free gift given to those who have faith in Jesus, but they have to do good works to prove they have it, then that means good works are required for salvation. Some have tried to do intellectual acrobatics to make the two fit together, but it always bothered me, until I realized that salvation and discipleship are two separate things.
Paul uses the word ‘faith' in reference to salvation, but then he turns around in the next verse and uses ‘works.' By now, I bet you can guess why. That's right; he immediately jumps from talking about salvation in verse eight and nine to talking about discipleship in verse ten. The shift is so sudden that many have failed to notice it. It would be easy to lump it all together and call it salvation, but that would confuse the whole message. Read the verse that immediately follows what we just looked at in Ephesians 2:10.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.3
Notice that this verse starts with the word, "For." That means he is connecting this verse to the last few. He just finished telling us that salvation is a free gift for those who have faith in Jesus. Now he is going to tell us what should come next: discipleship.
Who is he talking about here when he says, “we are His…"? He wrote this letter to the church in Ephesus. He's talking to believers (plural), specifically the church. So the church was created in Christ, as he puts it, to do good works. The church is a do-gooder organization. It does what it's supposed to be doing when it is full of people working. Work is a discipleship issue, not a salvation issue. So the church performs its God-given purpose when it's full of committed working disciples.
It's easy to think the church is just here to lead you in some worship music and teach you a little about the Bible. That's valuable stuff, but the purpose of the church, and in general, disciples, is to do good works. Jesus created the church to do stuff that He wanted to be accomplished in the world, and He created you to be part of that mission.
If someone gains salvation but then decides to abandon discipleship, they are missing out on a great adventure. They are narrowing their horizons so drastically that it could be said that they are not doing what they were created to do. On an individual level we are created to be disciples, and in a corporate sense, the church is created to do good works. Once again, we see that discipleship is the ultimate goal for believers and the church. The church wouldn't work if it were only full of saved people who don't pursue discipleship. In the life of any local congregation, as the number of lazy believers grows the effectiveness of that body decreases. The church functions well when the highest percentage of saved people are also working for Christ.
Notice this phrase once more,
… Good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.4
Although it may feel as if we dreamed it up, the good we do as disciples is something God planned in advance for us to do. My father-in-law started 289 DESIGN, the ministry I am working with right now. Even though it felt like it was his idea, if it is a good work, and I think it is, it was planned by God beforehand. No matter what kind of good work you decide to do as a disciple, it was God's idea. That's a humbling thought. Nothing good originates with us, but it was in the heart of God beforehand for it to be accomplished.
Now imagine the believer who has received salvation by faith. They have that free gift; it can never be returned or taken away from them. What if that same believer decides to neglect his own discipleship? Rather than chase the kingdom of God and pursue good works, he squanders his time and resources. Think of all the good works that God could have led him to do. Think of all the good works that God would have prepared for him to do had he been willing. What a tremendous sadness it is to miss out on discipleship. Salvation through faith is an incredibly valuable gift. How much more valuable it is when a saved person also pursues discipleship.
1 Ephesians 2:8-9.
2 John 3:16.
3 Ephesians 2:10.
4 Ephesians 2:10.