the word of the day is “works.” In today’s reading of Ephesians 2:4-10, St. Paul proclaims the works of God’s grace on behalf of those whom He has chosen for salvation. The Apostle has already recounted the mighty works of God who raised the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and seated him at His right hand. Paul has already revealed that the Almighty has put all things under the rule of Christ who now is Head of His Body, the Church (Eph. 1:19-23).
The Mighty Works of God
But now St. Paul rejoices in the works of God that apply to the members of the Body of Christ. We note that he describes them in terms of contrasts: dead and alive; children of wrath and objects of mercy; dead in trespasses and alive together with Christ; raised us up and made us sit; and the gift of God and not of the reward of works.
All of these speak of the marvelous transformation by which the Almighty has changed us from one kind of relationship to Him to another. The focus is entirely on the invincible activity of God’s unmerited grace.
Perhaps the most astonishing turnabout concerns the matter of “good works.” Over the centuries, a debate has raged over the human capacity and obligation to do “good works” for salvation? Is it human works without divine grace? Is it divine grace without human good works? Is it divine grace and human works?
We Are Christ’s Workmanship
In contrast to the focus on human activity, note who is doing the “works” in this reading? Paul stresses that we are Christ’s workmanship (vs. 10). He emphasizes that we have been created “in Christ” (vs. 10). Elsewhere Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, old things have passed away, behold all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17).
In the former life, we once “walked according to the course of this world” (vs.2). According to the original Greek, we once lived in conformity to the “age of this world,” that is, this present era (Strong’s #165, 40). Then we were under the power of the “desires of the flesh and the mind”(vs. 2). We lived “according to the prince of the power of the air,” the devil. And we were “sons of disobedience” (vs. 2-3). Those under the control of this spiritual condition of cannot perform “good works” that merit salvation.
The Possibility of “Good Works”
But now our situation has changed. A new epoch has arrived. In so far as we live “in Christ,” “good works” are now a possibility. The Orthodox Study Bible notes, “If we are joined to Christ and cleansed from the dishonor of the past, we become a ‘vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work’ (2 Tim. 2:21)” ( OSB “’Works’ in Paul’s Writings). In Romans, Paul says that in baptism, we die and rise with Christ “so that we should also walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). That “walking” in New Life is a life that “abounds” in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).
Therefore, there is now no contradiction between grace and “good works.” No conflict, that is, if we do “good works” in Christ and for Christ. “Good works” are only possible if we live “in Christ.” The baptized can do such good things if they “abide in Him.” This is the promise of the Lord Jesus who said, “He who abides in me and I in him, bears much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Today is the beginning of the Nativity Fast. Our reading encourages us to begin this special season with such “good works” as the Orthodox Study Bible lists: “fasting, vigils, prayer, psalmody (singing of hymns), acts of charity, and hospitality, etc.). Our reading assures us that these disciplines are right and proper. They will bring us closer to the horizon of our faith, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ who once came in humility but soon will come in glory.