CLAIM: Ephesians 2:8-9 claims that we cannot earn salvation through good works, but here, Paul writes that good works can earn us salvation. Which is true?
RESPONSE: Both are true. Romans 2 is theoretical, while Ephesians 2 is realistic. Theoretically, if someone was morally perfect, they could go to heaven. Realistically, no one is morally perfect, so no one can go to heaven. In Romans 2, Paul is arguing that God would give eternal life to anyone who is morally perfect. But, there’s just one problem: no one is morally perfect! Later in Romans 3:9, Paul writes, “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.”
Jesus used this logic, as well. In Luke 10:25-28, we read:
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27And he answered, “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND; AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” 28And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; DO THIS AND YOU WILL LIVE.”
It’s clear that no one can follow the law (Jas. 2:10). Jesus knew this, and so did Paul (Gal. 3:10). Jesus said that if you were angry at your brother, you would go to hell (Mt. 5:22). He said that if you had lust in your heart, you would go to hell (Mt. 5:28-29). Jesus never believed that anyone could fulfill the law –except him (Mt. 5:17-18).
Why then do Jesus and Paul offer this as an option for gaining eternal life, if they knew that no one could possibly do it? The answer is clear. The crushing weight of the law shows us our need for Christ. Paul writes, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24 NASB). The weight of the law shows us our need for grace. Someone could come to God hypothetically through good works, but no one can come to God actually through good works. Someone could come to God through their good works in theory, but they could not come to God through their good works in practice.
Consider it this way. Jesus and Paul were saying that humans can either go to God in Plan A or Plan B.
Plan A: You can approach God by earning salvation through good works. If you can meet God’s standard, you will earn eternal life.
Plan B: You can approach God by trusting Christ for his good works and death on the Cross. No one meets God’s standard, so you desperately need Christ.
This is an excellent way of explaining the gospel. Their logic breaks down like this:
Pick either Plan A or Plan B.
Not Plan A.
Therefore, Plan B.
Paul has two purposes in writing this section. First, as we have already seen, Paul is trying to crush his audience with the weight of God’s law (and justice). And, second, Paul is writing this to show that God is fair in judging every person, whether Jew or Gentile, whether they have the law or not. All are under sin (3:9). Therefore, God is just in judging everyone on Earth. In effect, Paul is saying, “God would never judge someone, who is innocent. He only judges sinners. But, by the way, everyone is a sinner (3:20). Therefore, God is going to judge everyone.”