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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
A few days ago, I talked about how many evangelicals have a contractual view of the gospel, except that in place of works, they have substituted faith as a condition of the Contract. Even so, the Works Contract Mentality remains with many of them.
Much of Western Christian theology has imagined some sort of works contracts in our relationship with God. That we were supposed to keep the rules and do the works, but we failed disastrously and broke the contract. That Christ came and kept the rules and the works perfectly, making up for where we had failed, and then at the cross paid a penalty for our failure to keep the contract.
This sort of thinking can be seen in how merits and penances are thought of, at least at the popular level in the Catholic Church, as credits and debits. And many in the Protestant tradition have turned the penalty they imagine Christ paying into one that is paid to God one our behalf because of our failure to keep the rules and do the good works, or because of the bad works we have done.
The works contract mentality persists even further when it is turned into a system of rewards for the redeemed: doing good works for added honors or benefits. That is nonetheless works-oriented thinking, the supposed contract being that, if we will perform good works, God will give us special rewards as a sort of bonus to our salvation. In that thinking, we are saved by grace through faith, but additionally rewarded for individual merit. Whenever we are talking about earning anything from God, however, we are no longer talking about grace but about something earned — and that misreads the gospel and the life of faith in Christ.
The apostle Paul, however, speaks very differently about good works. In Ephesians 2, he sets aside any idea that we are saved by Law-works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but also any idea that we ever earn anything from God. He understands that we are God’s workmanship, not our own, and that we are created in Christ Jesus by God, not by ourselves (Ephesians 2:10). We are God’s work, so any good that comes from that is God’s good, and any merit that comes from that is God’s merit.
In another letter, Paul tells us that it is God himself who is at work in us, not only doing through us the things that please God, but also working in us the very desire to please God (Philippians 2:13). It is God’s work from first to last — and that’s grace. So, Paul can declare, as he does in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”