Grace, Faith, and Works
The second reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is from Ephesians 2:4-10. This passage is often used by both evangelicals and Catholics in apologetic contexts. Ephesians 2:8-9 is cited by evangelical Christians to fortify a position that salvation is by faith alone, and not by works. Aha, say Catholic apologists in reply, you stop one verse too soon; read verse 10, which suggests that our life is to be immersed in good works, which, as the NRSV translates, "God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." I sometimes have a queasy sort of feeling about apologetics in general, though I acknowledge that, as 1 Peter 3:14-15 argues, there is a role for it: "But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense (apologia) to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." Yet, 1 Peter speaks of a bold defense of Christian belief in light of persecution and suffering. I pray that in such a situation all Christians would be able to stand side by side and proclaim our conviction that Christ is Lord. Much of modern apologetics, though, is a bit of a cottage industry amongst fellow brothers and sisters, a high stakes game of "gotcha!" on the basis of, sometimes, specious proof-texting and pulling bits of passages out of context. More than that, it reduces the Bible to a contest of one-upmanship, in which biblical apologists see who can draw their pericopes fastest and so vanquish the adversary. Should not the Bible point us to deeper truths than, "I win; you lose"?
There ought to be a spirit of humility and gentleness amongst Christians, such as is called for by…why…the author of Ephesians! "I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all" (1:1-6). Whether this author is Paul, as I believe, or a follower of Paul’s writing after his death, as many, if not most, scholars maintain, is of no consequence for the teaching contained throughout this Epistle. Humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another ought to be the mark of both biblical interpretation and dialogue with one another. This is not a call for sophistry, relativism or a soft equivalence in belief amongst people who hold genuinely opposed positions; one must defend the truth and not sacrifice it is a sop for potentially hurt feelings. It is a call to enter into dialogue with the Bible and fellow Christians in a spirit of truth-seeking, not point-scoring. I can point to numerous Catholic friends who have told me that they were lead to a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church and its teachings by evangelical friends who challenged them, in love, to explain their faith and who deepened their knowledge and love of the Bible by their genuine devotion to the Scriptures.
When Ephesians 2:8-10 is used to score points in inter-Christian interpretation fights, the beauty of this passage goes missing. If there is a tendency for some to focus on the essential grace of God (vv.8-9) to the exclusion of our response to God’s grace (v.10), there can be a concomitant focus on our response to God’s grace (v.10) while passing over the centrality of God’s grace (vv.8-9). Our reading of the Scriptures should always be inclusive, wholistic, and within the context of the teaching of the Church. The passage in Ephesians begins with God’s mercy and love for us, so that "even when we were dead in our transgressions," he "brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved" (vv.4-5). Who would want to pass over the profound depth of God’s grace through Christ Jesus which has brought us to salvation? The Catholic Church does not – "The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification" (CCC, 1999).
In fact, Ephesians goes on to state that it is through this grace that God "raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus" (vv.6-7). These verses, which draw us to the description of Christ exalted in Ephesians 1:20, proclaim that Christians even now share in Christ’s resurrection and exaltation, though the future dimension of this exaltation is also maintained at the same time ("that in the ages to come…"). As the next verses explain, the grace by which we have been saved through faith in Jesus’ redemptive act on the cross, his resurrection and exaltation "is completely a divine gift, not merited, earned, or accomplished in any way whatsoever by human effort and deeds" (Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdman’s, 2004. 510). And yet, as Gorman continues to explain - in light of verse 10: "for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (NRSV) - "this text does not in the least minimize the role of "works" or deeds. In fact it stresses them in an extraordinary way, for in verse 10 Paul says that the very purpose of this resurrection experience, or (new) creation in Christ, is to walk in (NAB, "live in"; NIV, "do") good works, which God has prepared (cf. 2 Cor. 5:15; Rom. 6) "to be our way of life" (NRSV). Even the forgiveness of sins is not the (sole) purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection; forgiveness without new life is no redemption! The question, then, is not whether deeds matter, but rather how – not as the cause of salvation, but as its purpose and proper result" (Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, 510-11). Our deeds matter as the purpose and the result of our redemption. One of our deeds might be to defend our faith, to make an account of our hope, to interpret and explain what we believe for friends (or for enemies); another of our deeds might be always to defend our faith with humility, gentleness, patience, in love, "making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4:2-3).