Updated: Jan 1, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters will point to Ephesians 2:8-9 as their "silver bullet" Scripture verse to attack the Catholic understanding of faith and works. The verse says this, "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." Protestants will emphasize that the text says that salvation is "not because of works," and that only "faith" is mentioned as saving us. However, this verse is saying that works have nothing to do with *pre*salvation.
Let's look at the context of Ephesians 2 to understand this verse. Back up a few verses and read Ephesians 2:5, which says, "even when we were dead through our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ." St. Paul is emphasizing to the Ephesian community that they used to be living in sin, separated from God (Eph. 2:16), and devoid of Christ's life-giving Spirit. However, even though they "were" (past tense) dead, God came and gave them life. Paul preached to them about Christ coming to reconcile God to man, and the Ephesians believed this message. They took Christ as their teacher, got baptized (Eph. 4;5, 5:26-27), and became Christians.
With this background, let's look at 2:8. The text says that when the Ephesians were saved, they were saved by "grace." Grace, meaning that it was God's gift to them, through Paul. The Ephesians did not do any works to "get" Paul to preach to them. They did not do any works to "get" Christ to die for them. It was simply a present from God for them to be reconciled to Him. Catholics agree with this, for the initial grace of salvation is completely unmerited.
From here, the text says that the Ephesians were saved by grace through "faith." Again, Catholics agree with this as well. To be saved, the Ephesians entered into the Christian faith by believing Paul's Gospel message to them. God's gift of salvation from sin and death was immediately received first by faith. It was not because of how good and godly the Ephesians were, so they have zero ability to boast. The Gospel is offered free of charge to absolutely any person, regardless of their goodness. This is Catholic teaching.
As seen, Ephesians 2:8-9 has to do with the immediate transfer of the Ephesian people from death to life, from pagan to Christian. That transfer had nothing to do with works, for as the Council of Trent said, “None of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace itself of justification” (session 6, chapter 8). The grace came as a gift, and was received through faith.
However, this does not mean that works are unnecessary AFTER coming to faith. For let us remember, the Greek word for faith, "pistis," means BOTH "faith" and "faithfulness" (Strong's Concordance). The Ephesian people received the gift of salvation by believing the Gospel AND by staying faithful to that Gospel.
For, if they were to act unfaithfully towards that Gospel, then they would destroy that present from God. Paul says, "Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph. 5:5). Staying faithful to the Gospel maintains your salvation. Staying unfaithful to the Gospel damages your salvation.
If works are necessary, though, then wouldn't that contradict Paul's words about not boasting (2:9)? No, for Paul is referring to the works done before justification. He also may be referring to the Jews who sometimes tried to boast over the Gentiles. For Paul addresses this issue in Romans 3:27.
The context of Ephesians 2 seems to be about Jew-Gentile relations as well, for 2:11 Paul addresses the Gentiles, 2:14 he addresses the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles, 2:15 he addresses Jews and Gentiles being one new person, 2:16 says they are one body, and 2:19 says they are one household.