Friday, January 10, 2020

Not by works "so that no one may boast"? (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I talk a lot about Protestant proof texts, but by far the most popular is Ephesians 2:8-9. As readers know, I don't ever advocate running to James 2:24, but rather address Protestant proof texts head on. So in this post, we will look at how to use Ephesians 2:8-9 against the Protestant position, to not only disarm them of their precious few proof texts, but also prove the Catholic position.

Most Catholics will try to 'counter' a Protestant appeal to Ephesians 2:8-9 by pointing to 2:10, where Paul says God prepared us to do good works. They think that since Paul says "good works" in the next verse, that "good works" are part of being saved in verse 2:8. But I don't think this is a good argument to make, since we cannot have Paul contradicting himself by suggesting we are not saved by works but then we are. It's more reasonable to say Paul is putting these "good works" in a stage of your life that comes after being "saved". Rather, I think the true understanding of Eph 2:8-9 comes through understanding what Paul means by "so that no one may boast".

Protestants assume that the "boast" here is a person can brag before God that they "played a role in saving themself". But what does such a claim really even mean? Is a person going to stand before the Judgment Seat and brag to God's face that God must let them into Heaven because they lived a perfectly obedient life without His help? Not likely. Is a person going to brag that God owed them forgiveness because they lived a life without sin? That's illogical. So what kind of bragging to God's face is even possible? I honestly cannot think of anything, and thus I doubt Paul was suggesting people though they could brag to God's face that they saved themself without His help.

If a person says they did something God commanded, such as repent, be baptized, etc, to get forgiven or receive some saving grace, then that's not really a point of bragging. Anyone can do these things, and they are things God has commanded, so it's not unreasonable to expect God rewards a person who was obedient to Him. The Bible is full of promises by God that He will reward and praise those who were obedient to Him. Jesus has no problem saying to us: "Well done good and faithful servant, enter into the Kingdom." God has no problem rewarding us for good works done out of love for Him. Furthermore, nobody is going to boast before God that they got Baptized so God is now required to save them, at least that's not what anyone I've ever met has approached Baptism in that manner. And given that most people are Baptized as infants by their parents, what really can the baby do to brag about that since they literally had no say in the matter?

Thus, the "boasting before God" theory really does seem flimsy from a logical perspective. At the very least, if a Protestant says this is what "boast" refers to, we would need to demand some exegetical support for such a claim, because for now it's merely an assumption. If there is one piece of advice that I would give any Catholic when talking with a Protestant, it's to make sure that the Protestant is actually proving their case from the text, rather than projecting what they think onto the text and having you unknowingly agree with their projection. Most of my apologetics methodology is centered upon exposing Protestant assumptions that are projected onto the text! And in this case, I would say that I'm not aware of any Biblical example or scenario of someone (potentially) bragging before God's face that they got to heaven on their own. The obedient angels who didn't follow after Satan don't brag that they saved themselves, nor is there any reason to think Adam would have bragged had he remained obedient.

The only kind of boasting that I can think of is bragging to others about how great you are. I can think of various types of bragging in real life and in the Bible where this takes place. People brag to others about their wealth, their family, their looks, their intelligence, their accomplishments, etc. In most cases, I would even say people brag about things they didn't even earn themselves, they were simply born into it. Such 'non-earning' people brag about being born into a powerful family line, or inheriting a lot of money, or genetics giving them great beauty. It is important to emphasize that they didn't personally earn these gifts, they just received them, because this realization deals a heavy blow to the Protestant mindset of salvation being about "I did it myself". In other words, if Paul is trying to prevent bragging entirely, then Paul didn't actually address the bigger problem of people bragging about what they were born with and didn't need to personally "work" for at all. Recall the infant baptism example, is a baby really going to brag that they saved themself?

In terms of the Biblical testimony, here's where I ultimately make my apologetics case, since this is the only thing Protestants claim to accept - though they don't usually accept what the Bible actually says when they're proven wrong from the Bible. First, the very context of Ephesians 2:9 is verse Ephesians 2:11 (and following), wherein Paul begins speaking of Jews versus Gentiles. Between these two camps, there was very much a boasting problem.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace
The context is plain, connected even by the use of a "therefore". The Jews saw themselves as racially more privileged than the Gentiles. The Gentiles lacked the OT sacraments; they did not have circumcision. The Gentiles were called "the uncircumcision" in a condescending way, just as Christians call the unbaptized people "pagans". The Gentiles were separated from Christ, alienated from God's family, strangers to the OT covenants, without hope, and didn't know Yahweh. That's a terribly sad position to be in. We can definitely see how boasting could creep in and need to be addressed. The Jews could brag to the Gentiles that the Gentiles weren't part of God's plan of salvation, that they weren't promised a Messiah, weren't promised forgiveness of their sins, weren't God's children, etc. And some Jews and Jewish Christians were acting this way towards the Gentiles.

So what do "works" have to do with this? There's no indication here or elsewhere that the Jews were trying to live perfect lives or "earn their salvation". That's an unbiblical Protestant projection. It is abundantly clear that most of the blessings mentioned here the Jews were born into, and had nothing to do with themselves personally earning! Rather, it is clear that the "works" here are what Paul speaks of in Eph 2:14-15 (cf Col 2:11-17), which are the Mosaic Law regulations about how to live separately from the Gentiles. The Mosaic Law was intended to create a "wall of hostility" (2:14) that kept God's people (Israel) segregated from sinful corruption of impure Gentile living. This "wall of hostility" would last until the arrival of the Messiah, who would then break down that "wall of hostility" (i.e. take away the Mosaic Law). Thus, "works" are really to point to which group of people is the privileged race, and thus "works" provided a means of boasting that you were born into a privileged family. It's kind of like how the "works" of a teenager driving around in an expensive car is a boast about how wealthy his family is. The teenager isn't bragging about how he earned the car by his own hard work.

The above claim I'm making is so reasonable that one Reformed pastor recently had the chutzpah to tell me that Ephesians 2:11 was not in the context! So much desperation. I think if you ask most Protestant opponents, they will hesitate and even deny that Ephesians 2:8-9 has anything to do with Ephesians 2:11-15. And such resistance is understandable, because it does quickly undermine their reading of the text. But here again, we simply see that Protestants are less concerned about what Paul actually says and more worried about not being Catholic. Yet Ephesians 2 is a mere two brief paragraphs long, yet Protestants think only one brief sentence is all there is to it.

I think this provides a coherent understanding of Paul's efforts to oppose Judaizing, as well as further prove things like Baptism are not a "work" in Paul's mind, and really to show that "faith alone" misses the actual theology of Paul's view of salvation.

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Appendix: Turning to the "Scripture interprets Scripture" principle, we can see that Paul speaks of boasting by works in terms of a Jewish racial superiority over the Gentiles. Consider the following:
  • Romans 2:17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God 18 and know his will because you are instructed from the law; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind [Gentiles], a light to those who are in darkness [Gentiles] 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”
  • Romans 3:27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one - who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
  • Romans 4:1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
  • Galatians 6:12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
  • Philippians 3:2 Look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

In these examples, the clear theme is that the Jews were "boasting" about being a privileged race. I wrote about this in another post (HERE) where "works" is directly related to ancestral linage, not about individual human effort. Furthermore, the Protestant idea that our sinfulness is what prevents "works" from saving us is simply not taught by Paul, and I wrote about this (HERE).


nannykim said...

Thanks ;-)

Agellius said...

This is insightful and very helpful. It's a new way of looking at the word "boast" in this context. It's not easy to see at first, but you give enough examples that it starts to sink in. I need to continue pondering it but it rings true to me.

Thanks for the good work!

Talmid said...

Very interesting, Nick, but can't the protestant say that "boast" in this context means something like putting the merit of your new good behavior in Christ in yourself and not the power of The Lord? Like the pharisee on the tax colector parable, this seems what they would had in mind when the word "boast" is used: people that thinks they are good because of their own effort alone.

Of course, this interpretation is at most possible and no way the only one, but we need to be prepared to face it.

Nick said...


That is a good point to bring up. Someone boasting before men they are better than others due to their own hard work. In the Parable of Pharisee & Tax Collector, the Pharisee does seem to acknowledge God's blessing in some sense when he says: " God, I thank you that I am not like other men..." But he also says he did things such as tithe, fast, etc. I think Paul does address this kind of boasting throughout Corinthians (where he speaks a lot of the rivalry boasting in that congregation).

I think the main reason why this 'third' form of boasting wouldn't be what Paul is thinking of in Ephesians 2:8-9 is because it wouldn't address the more prevailing argument of that time by the Jews, which was their boast of biological superiority. I don't think there was a widespread problem of Jews boasting in front of other Jews that one of them worked harder and so God saved them rather than the other. The Pharisee & Tax Collector issue was a minority issue, that of one small class of Jews (Pharisees) against a group of public sinners (Tax Collectors, Adulterers, etc). This isn't a good representation of the mainstream Jewish behavior. In fact, Jews were very collectivist in their thinking, so they often saw themselves as collectively righteous or unrighteous, and not so much as individual Jew-vs-Jew.

And from a logical perspective, Paul saying "faith not works" in Ephesians 2:8-9 wouldn't make sense if the issue was that grace was behind both faith and good works. In other works, Paul should have said we are saved by both faith and works, and the reason why nobody can boast because grace is behind both faith and works. Works are a basis for boasting only if grace isn't involved. If grace is involved, then works are part of salvation, you just cannot boast as if you did them on your own.

Talmid said...


Yes, agree with you that this interpretation does no justice to the Scripture, is just that this seemed to me the best the protestant could do to save his argument,so attacking it now would save time, so to speak, hehe.

Porphyry said...

Nicely done. It drives home the one salient point that seems to tie all of these various arguments together: The Reformers had an anachronistic tendancy to take Pauline expositions about covenants and read them as if they were soteriological tracts. The first century Church was, at the time of these writings, still finding its identity as a separate thing from Judaism. To read this as a side concern, as most protestants do, is to completely miss the point. Paul is not first and foremost trying to tell you about some generic human predicament which can be remedied on an individual basis by accepting Christ. All of that is the assumed backdrop of the gospel message. What Paul is doing is clarifying the ways in which the new covenant is continuous with, but distinct from, the old covenant. Not to see this as the dominate concern is to misread Paul entirely, and sadly, that is exactly what most in the reformed camp do.