One of the darkest times in the life of the Jewish people was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile of the people of God. According to the Chronicler, this was not an action God wanted, “but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” Only then did the Babylonians come.
And the Babylonians came with fury. They killed young and old alike “and had no compassion on young men or young women, the aged or the feeble”; the wealth of the king was looted and brought to Babylon; the Temple was burned to the ground and the walls of Jerusalem broken down; and those who were not killed were taken into exile in Babylon to become servants.
It was as they were weeping by the rivers of Babylon that God came to the exiled Jews and told them to go home. This return was brought about by the conquerors of Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia and his army, “in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.” Out of the darkness came light.
It was not the case that God’s salvation came because the lives of the Judeans were now lived in perfect righteousness, but because God looked in mercy upon his people. We know from Ezra, Nehemiah and Haggai that the people needed to return to the forgotten law of God, reform their lives and rebuild the ruined Temple. God did not wait for them to achieve righteousness but allowed the conditions for righteousness to flourish.
This is precisely the point made by the author of the Letter to the Ephesians, traditionally thought to be Paul, who speaks of God reaching out to humanity “even when we were dead through our trespasses.” God reached out to reward us not because we had achieved the necessary level of righteousness but because God is merciful and desires to seat us “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” This all takes place through God’s gracious initiative.
Ephesians says that “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” This could not be clearer: salvation is gift, salvation is grace. Yet we are also told that we are saved “through faith” (pistis), which is itself a part of the gift. Salvation cannot be earned, bought or bargained for, but faith is the essential human response. Faith in God’s gracious gift allows us to be conformed to God’s image, since we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works [ergois agathois], which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
In John’s Gospel Jesus tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The word translated “believe” in Jn 3:16 is the verbal form of pistis, the same word translated “faith” in Ephesians. All who have faith (pisteuôn) in God’s Son are on the path to conforming themselves to God’s image in order to share in eternal life or, in the language of Ephesians, to share Christ’s life in “the heavenly places.”
It is this faith that allows us, even in our sinful state, to see that the “light has come into the world” and “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds [erga] have been done in God.” Ephesians tells us that we have been created for “good works,” while the Gospel of John says those in the “light” do their “deeds” in God. The same Greek word (ergon) lies behind “works” in Ephesians and “deeds” in the Gospel of John.
God’s salvation is an undeserved gift that begins with faith. But our response to God’s grace naturally blossoms into good works, “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” These deeds are not the means to merit salvation but the joyous response to God’s merciful gift of salvation.