For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)
At least for me, there are few passages in the Bible that are more significant than this one. Yet it also seems to be one that engenders much discussion. In particular over the identification of the gift of God. What is this gift that God has given to us? The intent of this article is to share my thoughts on this passage. I know that many will disagree with me. But if so, I hope you will at least understand why I hold the position that I do.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Table of contents
The Process of Gifting
Before looking more specifically at this passage, I want to spend some time looking at gifting. Just what is involved in the process of giving and receiving gifts. And I want to look at this from three perspectives: the gift, the giver, and the receiver.
A gift is something that is given by one entity and received by another. A gift is most commonly a tangible object, but sometimes it is more intangible. In addition to a physical object, we might give our time, a listening ear, or a word of encouragement.
A gift is also something that is freely given. There is not a two-way exchange involved, whether trading or buying. If something is expected in return, then it is not really a gift. If it is given in return for something else, then it is also not a gift.
When the person on the other side of the counter hands me a hamburger, it is not a gift. I am expected to pay for it. When I received a paycheck at work, it was not a gift. It was something that I had worked for and earned. But when my wife gives me a wrapped package at Christmas, it is a gift. It is not something that I worked for. Nor is she, typically, expecting something back in return. It is freely given.
A gift is always given by someone, or some group. The choice to give the gift is solely up to the giver. And the actual gift itself is also at the discretion of the giver.
There is no obligation involved in the gifting. The giver can give the gift if they choose. Or they can withhold the gift. The initiation of the giving process starts with the giver.
The person receiving the gift might anticipate that a gift is coming. But they have done nothing to deserve it. If they have, then it is a reward, not a gift. Nor are they expected to give anything in return for the gift. If they are, then it is a purchase, not a gift.
The gift’s receiver may or may not be worthy of the gift. The receiver may be leading an exemplary life of service to others. Or they could be nothing but a burden on the people around them. What matters is that the giver has chosen, for their own reasons, to give a gift to them.
Another thing to point out is that the receiver is generally under no obligation to accept the offered gift. While the giver freely gives the gift, the receiver also has the freedom to either receive or refuse the gift.
The concept of being saved has two different ideas for many people. In general usage in the world at large, being saved has the idea of rescue or deliverance. That rescue could be anything from a situation that would lead to death to something that was merely unpleasant.
For example, if a person falls falls off a boat in a storm, they are in grave danger. Salvation for them means that they have been plucked out of the waves and wind and brought back to a place of safety. We would say that they have been saved.
But in Christian circles, we tend to use the word in a different way. We focus more on the consequences of being saved, eternal life, and less on what we are saved from, eternal punishment. But I believe that we miss much of the meaning of salvation when we do that. As believers, we are rescued from something much worse than drowning in a storm. Jesus’ coming to earth was really a rescue mission, rescuing us from destruction.
Back to the Passage
So, if what I have said about gifting and salvation is true, what can we learn from this passage?
The Giver and Receiver
The gift giver is clearly identified in this passage. Paul says that, whatever the gift is, it is the gift of God. God has chosen, through his own free choice, to give a gift. Not something that has been earned in any way. Nor something that has strings attached.
Who is receiving the gift of God? It is the audience that Paul is writing to, the believers in Ephesus. This gift of God has been given to them. And, as Paul explicitly shares, it was not because of anything they had done to deserve it. It was a gift freely given by the sovereign God to an undeserving people.
But What Is the Gift?
There are two different views concerning the identification of the gift. There are some who understand the gift that God gives us as being faith. And that is understandable because, in most of our English translations, it is what most closely precedes the claim of a gift being given.
Others understand this gift to be salvation. And that understanding comes from the Greek this passage was originally written in. Greek is one of those languages where nearly everything has gender, unlike English. And the genders of the terms suggest, but do not demand, that the ‘gift of God’ is more closely associated with salvation than it is with faith.
And that is how I understand this passage. That it is salvation that is the gift of God. God offers me this gift of salvation, of rescue from the destruction I otherwise would have faced.
To be clear, in this debate over the identification of the gift, either faith or salvation, both sides acknowledge that salvation is an undeserved gift of God. And many who believe that this passage refers to salvation as the gift specified here still understand faith itself to also be a gift of God.
The Role of Faith
Return for a moment to the example given under the discussion of salvation. A person falls overboard into the stormy seas. Their prospects are bleak. They are incapable of saving themselves. They need someone else to step in to rescue them. Fortunately, there is someone watching who throws them a life ring and hauls them into safety.
The person who had fallen overboard and was drowning was me. I was perishing with no hope of deliverance and no chance of saving myself. But God stepped in and did for me what I could not do. He threw me a life ring and hauled me to safety. He saved me from perishing in my sin and rebellion. And that salvation was a gift. He did not have to do it. I had not earned it. I could not repay him for it. He freely chose to do it.
But what role did faith play in this scenario? I believe faith equates to my reaching out and grabbing hold of the life ring that then hauls me to safety. But is that not work on my part? Does that not somehow imply that I had earned, or helped to save myself? I do not believe so. No one in their right mind, after being pulled back up on the boat, would claim that they had helped to save themselves. All of the credit would go to the one throwing out the life ring and hauling the victim back to safety.
God’s Gracious Gift of Salvation
God has offered each of us the gift of salvation. And he did this because of his grace toward us. This gracious gift of salvation is offered freely to all who will receive it. That some refuse and drown does not mean that God was incapable of saving them. That others accept the gift does not make them in any way worthy of the gift. All of the glory in salvation goes to God alone. He alone is able to save. And save completely.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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