The word of the day is “works.” In today’s reading of Ephesians 2:4-10, St. Paul proclaims the works of God for 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 for the Faithful
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 to do “good works” for their salvation. One side claims that we can must do “good works” without divine grace to merit God’s grace. The other side claims God give us divine grace without “good works.” Another says that divine grace and the human effort to do good must go together.
We Are Christ’s Workmanship
But note who is doing the “works” in our reading. Paul stresses that we are Christ’s workmanship (vs. 10). The apostle emphasizes that the believers in Ephesus 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).
The apostle reminds the Ephesians that in the former life they “walked according to the course of this world” (vs.2). That is, they lived in conformity to the “age of this world,” that is, this present era (Strong’s #165, 40). They were under the power of the “desires of the flesh and the mind” (vs. 2). And they lived “according to the prince of the power of the air,” the devil. Therefore, they were “sons of disobedience” (vs. 2-3). As long as they were bound to the world that Satan controls, they could not perform “works” that were pleasing to God and their attempts to merit their salvation by doing good just increased their alienation from God.
The Possibility of “Good Works “
But Paul notes that the Ephesians had turned to the Lord for mercy. By God’s grace, they were freed from bondage to the devil. Now Paul teaches that they are called to turn from the ways of Satan to live according to the way of Christ. Thus, the apostle encourages them to perform acts of devotion to God and charity to their neighbor.
The Orthodox Study Bible shows us how to apply this teaching to ourselves. Its article on “Works” teaches, “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”). Likewise, in Romans, Paul says that in our baptism, we have died and have been raised 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.” There is no conflict, that is, if we do our “good works” in Christ and for Christ. The baptized can perform acts that are pleasing to God provided that 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’s reading encourages us to observe the Nativity Fast with a variety of “good works.” The Orthodox Study Bible lists: “fasting, vigils, prayer, psalmody (singing of hymns), acts of charity, and hospitality, etc.” (OSB “Works’ in Paul’s Writings”). Paul assures us that these disciplines are right, proper, and beneficial. They will bring us closer to the realization of our hope, the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.