“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
God’s grace saves us through our faith. We did not and indeed cannot save ourselves. Rather, our salvation is a gift from God (cf. Romans 6:23). That’s the basic point of the Ephesians passage.
Yet, many have questions about Ephesians 2:8-9. Probably the one most asked is whether Ephesians 2:8-9 is teaching that we are saved by works. In answering this, we must remember that the entirety of God’s Word is truth (Psalm 119:16) and thus be very careful to take into account all of what the Bible says about this and every other religious topic if we want the full, unvarnished truth. There are more biblical passages to take into account than Ephesians 2:8-9 when it comes to our works and their place in our salvation and justification.
First, notice that Paul said we are saved “by grace,” but also “through faith.” What is faith? God’s Word has a lot to say about faith. For one, we must have faith in order to be saved (Mark 16:16). The writer of Hebrews said, “Without faith it is impossible to please God…” (Hebrews 11:6a), and defines faith both as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (11:1) and believing that “(God) is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6b).
Does faith have anything to do with works? Let God’s Word answer. Scripture says, “What does it profit…if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?…Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 1:14, 17). So we see that one must have works in order to have a faith which pleases God, a faith which He considers to be living rather than dead.
So what does the Ephesians passage mean when it says that we are saved by grace through faith and not of works? Go back to that passage and look at the next verse, verse 10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We were created by God for the purpose of doing good works. What are those? Basically, any action that would obey what God has told us to do. Solomon wrote that the whole purpose for our existence, “the whole duty of man,” is to “fear God and keep His commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). When we do “works” – i.e., obey God – we are only doing what we were created to do, what we were supposed to be doing in the first place (Luke 17:5-10).
However, none of us have ever obeyed God perfectly. We all have sinned, and by sinning we have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Because of our sin, our just God requires a penalty for that sin (Romans 2:8-9). That’s where Jesus comes in. Out of love and grace, Christ paid that debt on the cross (John 3:16). We could not pay it because it is our sin that requires the debt to be paid in the first place. It is for that reason that no works of obedience on our part could ever by themselves save us. Our sin cancels out those works. That’s where God’s grace comes in.
That said, God still requires us to obey Him if we want to be saved (Hebrews 5:9; Matthew 7:21-27). This is true even though He has offered us His grace (Romans 6:1). So if we truly believe that He “is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6), our faith will prompt us to obey Him (James 2:14-26). That’s how we are saved not only “by grace,” but also “through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).
God’s grace saves us, but that grace teaches us to live righteously (Titus 2:11-12). If we have strong faith, we will do so. If our faith is weak or non-existent, we will live unrighteously through our unrepentant disobedience and thus will not be saved by His grace in the end (Revelation 21:8).