Does Ephesians 2:8-9 Really Teach Sola Fide?

Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901), “Luther at Erfurt”
Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901), “Luther at Erfurt” (photo: Public Domain)

One of the proof texts Protes­tants very often cite in order to defend their doc­trine of sola fide—that we are jus­ti­fied by faith alone—is Eph­esians 2:8–9. Here is how it reads in the RSV-CE:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.

The topic of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is admittedly very large and com­plex, has a lot of nuance, and involv­es a great many texts of Scrip­ture; and so for this post I will limit myself to this one text in Eph­esians and show (1) that it is not suf­fi­cient as a proof text to estab­lish sola fide; (2) that it is entirely con­sis­tent with the Catholic under­stand­ing of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, as it is developed in the Council of Trent. In other words, Protes­tants should not con­tinue to bring it up as though Catholics are unaware of it and will be unset­tled or refuted by it.

Indeed, one great problem with a proof-​texting approach to the Bible is that it is easy to find verses that could be said to prove some­thing very dif­fer­ent. For exam­ple, 1 Peter 3:21 says, “Bap­tism now saves you.” James 2:24 says, “A man is jus­ti­fied by works and not by faith alone.” No one reads these texts and tries to set up a doc­trine of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion by bap­tism alone, or by works alone. Like­wise, it is also false to read Eph­esians 2:8–9 as though it were teach­ing faith alone. If you proof text in this way—if you read pas­sages in iso­la­tion from the entire wit­ness of Scrip­ture, not to men­tion in iso­la­tion from their own con­text—you will very quickly go far wrong.

Catholics are often accused of believ­ing in works salvation—that you can work your way into heaven, that your works can earn sal­va­tion for you. But in fact, any such idea was con­demned as heresy at the Coun­cil of Trent. (It was condemned much earlier in Church history too, at the Council of Carthage and the Council of Ephesus. Trent’s Decree Con­cern­ing Jus­ti­fi­ca­tion can be found here.)

Canon 1. If any­one says that man can be jus­ti­fied before God by his own works, whether done by his own nat­ural pow­ers or through the teach­ing of the law, with­out divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anath­ema.

It is only “by divine grace through Jesus Christ” that we are enabled to do good works at all. And Trent also says that jus­ti­fi­ca­tion begins only from “the pre­dis­pos­ing grace of God,” who calls us “with­out any mer­its” of our own (Chap. 5). Thus when St. Paul writes to the Eph­esians that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God,” that is entirely con­sis­tent with the teach­ing of the Church at Trent.

But jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, in the Catholic under­stand­ing, does not begin and end there. It is a process that can be divided into the fol­low­ing stages.

  • Ini­tial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, which takes place upon con­ver­sion to the Chris­t­ian faith;
  • Con­tin­u­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, which occurs as a per­son grows in faith, in good works, and in right­eous­ness;
  • Final jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, which takes place at the final judg­ment on the Last Day.

(This is why the cor­rect answer to the ques­tion “Are you saved?” is: “I have been saved; I am being saved; I hope to be saved.” It is a process; St. Paul says, in Philip­pi­ans 2:12, “Work out your own sal­va­tion with fear and trem­bling.”)

Works (that is, works of charity, not the works of the law) have a nec­es­sary role in our con­tin­u­ing justification—by them we increase in righteousness—but they do not in any way earn salvation it for us: That is not Catholic teach­ing; we do not work our way into Heaven.

And so when Paul tells the Eph­esians that they are saved “by grace” and “not because of works,” he is prop­erly under­stood to be speak­ing of our ini­tial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. To see that this is so, it is nec­es­sary to go back a few verses, to Eph­esians 2:1, and read the full con­text.

And you he made alive, when you were dead through the tres­passes and sins in which you once walked, fol­low­ing the course of this world, fol­low­ing the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of dis­obe­di­ence. Among these we all once lived in the pas­sions of our flesh, fol­low­ing the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature chil­dren of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our tres­passes, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heav­enly places in Christ Jesus, that in the com­ing ages he might show the immea­sur­able riches of his grace in kind­ness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.

Paul is speak­ing here of the time before our con­ver­sion, when we were still dead in our sins. At that time, God through his grace alone makes us alive in Christ, with­out any mer­its or works on our own part. That is what the Coun­cil of Trent teaches:

The holy coun­cil declares first, that for a cor­rect and clear under­stand­ing of the doc­trine of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, it is nec­es­sary that each one rec­og­nize and con­fess that since all men had lost inno­cence in the pre­var­i­ca­tion of Adam, hav­ing become unclean, and, as the Apos­tle says, by nature chil­dren of wrath, as has been set forth in the decree on orig­i­nal sin, they were so far the ser­vants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death, that not only the Gen­tiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very let­ter of the law of Moses, were able to be lib­er­ated or to rise there­from, though free will, weak­ened as it was in its pow­ers and down­ward bent, was by no means extin­guished in them. (Chap. 1)

This chap­ter (and the ones imme­di­ately fol­low­ing) speak of the pre­cise stage in the Christian life that Paul is address­ing. But jus­ti­fi­ca­tion does not end there, it only begins there. And those who cite Eph­esians 2:8–9 as though it were a proof text for sola fide must not leave out verse 10:

For we are his work­man­ship, cre­ated in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre­pared before­hand, that we should walk in them.

Good works are what God’s grace save us for. It is only by under­stand­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion as a process, not a once-​for-​all event, that we can rec­on­cile Eph­esians 2 with Romans 3 with James 2 with 1 Peter 3. When James 2:24 tells us that we are saved by works and not by faith alone, James is speak­ing of our continuing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, after our ini­tial con­ver­sion: His sub­ject is growth in right­eous­ness.

We are saved by faith, we are saved by grace, we are saved by bap­tism, we are saved by works—but we are saved by none of them alone. Eph­esians 2 gives us only one part of the pic­ture, and for that rea­son is not a proof text for sola fide.