In Ephesians 2:8 Paul says, “for by grace you have been saved… not from works.” Does that mean our works mean nothing?

by Father Gregory Haman

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“…when Paul writes that ‘works of the law,’ or other times just ‘works,’ have no power to save a person, he is talking about something specifically Jewish.” – Father Gregory Haman

That’s a good question, but hard to answer because the answer is both “no” and “yes.” Let me explain. We might get a little technical.

Let’s go to the passage itself. In Ephesians 2:8, St. Paul writes, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”

Now initially it seems that Paul says nothing we do can save us. God saves anyone who simply believes in Jesus. That seems great, and so simple. It’s largely true. A life-long sinner might be lying in bed in the last minutes of his life when, through the ministry of a priest called at just the last minute, he is completely reconciled to God with his many sordid sins forgiven. Dying shortly thereafter with no time to do a single thing for the love of God, he would nonetheless find himself on a one-way road to heaven. No matter the sins in his past, he would be on his way. That’s how grace works.

Hopefully, most of us don’t repent only on our deathbed, and for us there’s more to the story. Let’s go back to St. Paul to understand his perspective.

In two other letters, Romans and Galatians, St. Paul says more about “faith” and “works.” In Romans 3:20-22, St. Paul writes, “No human being will be justified in [God’s] sight by works of the law… The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law… through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Galatians 2:15-16 is very similar: “We ourselves… know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”

These passages make it sound clear – faith is all that matters, no actions or “works.” However, take note that Paul doesn’t say “bodily actions,” he says, “works of the law.” The law is something specific.

Paul was Jewish, and for the Jews the law was everything. The law was given through Moses when God formed a covenant with the Hebrew people. God promised his special love if they would keep their end of the bargain, following the regulations he was giving. That law was extensive, governing the Jews’ religious and civic activities. It stipulated the sacrifices they would make in the temple, the ways to wash before prayer or participate in the temple, the food they ate, the clothes they wore, their sons’ circumcision, etc.

Christ came to fulfill the law. Through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the Apostles needed to figure out exactly what responsibility the new followers of Christ would have toward the old Jewish law.

Therefore, when Paul writes that “works of the law,” or other times just “works,” have no power to save a person, he is talking about something specifically Jewish. The regulations that governed so many actions in the Jewish world would no longer apply. That’s not to say that the followers of Christ could live however they wanted. After all, “the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” (Galatians 5:14) which, for anyone who has tried, is a very difficult thing to do. Elsewhere, St. Paul lists all kinds of actions that do not correlate with a relationship with God. Sincere love requires action. Love spoken but not lived is hypocrisy (or a lie).

For us today, far removed from Paul’s Jewish backdrop, it’s still the case that no actions without Christ can save us. Sometimes we think that we will try to follow some personal list of honorable deeds while certain others are marginally important. “I don’t make it to Mass very regularly, but for goodness’ sake, I carry a certain elderly neighbor’s groceries into her home so it all evens out. I’m a good person.” Or even like the rich young man in the gospel of Matthew who claimed, perhaps honestly, that he fulfilled all of the commandments from his youth, but when Jesus invited that young man to sell his goods and follow him, the man walked away sad and unwilling.

So let’s sum up St. Paul’s perspective. The Jewish religious and civic stipulations that Jesus fulfilled benefit the Christian none whatsoever. Other noble deeds that fall under the category of “love your neighbor” also mean nothing unless or until they flow out of our obedient relationship with Jesus. Only surrendering our lives to Christ, “repent[ing] and be[ing] baptized,” brings us that grace.

Then, with Christ dwelling in us, we’re called to conform our actions to Christ’s will. To the extent that we do, grace increases. To the extent we don’t, grace will decrease or be lost entirely (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1990-2010). Living fully for Christ will radically change our activities and infuse them with a meaning and a purpose that is deeply fulfilling. No amount of good actions without committing oneself to Christ suffice. No excuses or substitutions. Good, obedient living must be a natural part of a Christian’s life.

Father Gregory Haman serves as pastor of Holy Rosary Church in LaMoure.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.