For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10
It’s a dated reference, but for some reason I thought of Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extraterrestrial as I began reflecting about Paul’s affirmation in Ephesians 2:10. For those too young to remember, E.T. is a creature who comes from the sky, gets separated from his spacecraft, is pursued by menacing government authorities, is taken captive, dies, and then rises from the dead. As he prepares to return to the skies in his glowing spacecraft, he sticks out his little glowing finger, touches a young boy named Elliot and says, “Be good.”
For Christians, part of the story sounds familiar. I think it illustrates two pretty important points about the secular world in which we live. First, try as the world might, it can’t hide from its spiritual impulses. Spielberg reworks the story of Christ into a space myth, but E.T. is not just a science fiction story.
Second, and for our purposes more importantly, Spielberg captures what the secular world thinks about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s about being good. Some stereotype Christians as evil moralizers who want to impose their mean-spirited beliefs on the world. In their view, it’s a power-play on our part, pure and simple. Their reaction is, typically, “Keep your morality away from me.”
On the other hand, some see Christianity (or what’s left of it) as a tool for advancing their own moral agenda. Whether it’s advancing the cause of equality, the environment, economic justice, or some other good cause, religious belief is a simply a vehicle for advancing that cause. Faith is a means to an end. You get the feeling that many of these folks would be willing to drop the religious facade if they could achieve their goals by other means. The causes may be good or they may be misguided, but either way, they are not the gospel.
The gospel is not primarily a message about how we should live. First and foremost, the gospel proclaims that God has done something in Jesus.
Salvation by Grace
Ephesians 2 starts with the truth that we are NOT good.
Ephesians 2:1-3 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, (2) in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. (3) All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
Let me categorize these three verses around four themes:
- All were transgressors and sinners (v. 1)
- All were under the influence of an evil spirit (v. 2)
- All by nature (phusis) were under the influence of the sinful or unredeemed nature (sarx or “flesh”) (v. 3)
- Death (v. 1) and deserved destruction (v. 3) were the result (v. 3)
Nevertheless, by God’s grace, that is, by God’s freely chosen actions in Jesus we are now:
- Holy and blameless, forgiven through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 1:4-8)
- Sealed with God’s Holy Spirit (Ephesians1:14-18)
- Bearers of a “new self” (kainos anthropos) created in righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24)
- Alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5)
By God’s grace, those in Christ possess a new standing in God’s eyes, a new spirit, a new human nature (present alongside the old) and a new destiny.
The Cosmic Christ
God’s grace, however, is not just the story of individual salvation. The Jesus of Ephesians is a “Cosmic Christ.” In Ephesians, Paul spends a lot more time discussing the universal impact of Christ’s actions than he does, for example, the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross for individuals. Here’s a sampling:
- God’s eternal purpose is to bring all things together in Christ (Ephesians 1:10)
- By the power of the resurrection, Christ will reign over all creation (Ephesians 1:19-23)
- The Holy Spirit is the seal of God’s ownership of us and a down payment on the age to come (Ephesians 1: 13-14)
- The church is the sign and the first taste of the redeemed creation. Paul saw the breakdown between Jew and Gentile in the church as the manifestation of the “new humanity” (kainos anthropos) (Ephesians 2:11-22)
All of this is grace. From God’s intention in creation – to the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Christ – to the gift of the spirit – to the creation of the church – to the final redemption of all creation. It is all grace
That’s what all the predestination language is doing in Ephesians (for example, Ephesians 1:4-5, Ephesians 1:11, Ephesians 2:10). Whatever else “predestination” means, it means that God’s grace is responsible for all the good things Paul describes. I cannot begin to fathom the hidden workings of the universe. I can, however, understand that salvation is God’s work, from beginning to end.
So when the world thinks of us as do-gooders, for good or bad, some Christians respond, “Being a Christian isn’t about being good, it’s about being saved.” And so it is, if by “saved” you mean the big, all encompassing picture that Paul draws of the salvation of the world.
Created for Good Works
But not so fast. We still haven’t wrestled with verse 10.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
You were created in Jesus Christ to do good works!
That bears repeating. You were created in Jesus Christ to do good works. The language is as clear as day.
What kind of works does Paul have in mind?
In chapters 1-3 of Ephesians, Paul lays his theological foundation. In chapters 4-6, he gives us the “therefore” of his theology. Here, Paul gives us some idea of what kind of good works he has in mind.
Works of Service in the Church
Paul starts by talking about the church.
Ephesians 4:2-3 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. (3) Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
In verse 12 he specifically mentions one type of good works:
Ephesians 4:11-12 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, (12) to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
The church is God’s creation. Paul’s us of the passive voice indicates that God is the one who does the building through the gifts he gives us.
Works of the New Self
Paul follows with a series of “not this but that” contrasts between the old life and the new. Again, here is a sampling.
Ephesians 4:25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
Ephesians 4:28 Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
Ephesians 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
Ephesians 4:31-32 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (32) Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 5:1-3 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children (2) and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (3) But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people.
Ephesians 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, (19) speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, (20) always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
All of these are specific applications of a more general principle
Ephesians 4:22-24 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; (23) to be made new in the attitude of your minds; (24) and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
The old self is who we are by nature in this present evil age (Eph 2:3). The new self – or new human – is who we are in Christ. The new self is the one who will live eternally into the age to come. The old self is the part of us that must eventually die. The works of the “new self” that Paul describes beginning with Ephesians 4:22-24 are those which properly belong to the age to come. The Christian is to let the “old self” die now and start living today by the values that he or she will carry into eternity. Both the death of the old self and the birth of the new are gracious acts of God.
So, when Christians describe what it means to be good, we’re not making a list of arbitrary actions that earn God’s favor. We know God’s favor cannot be earned. Rather, we are proclaiming what real life is all about. The Christian’s good works are what eternal life looks like in this age.
Works in the Christian Household
Next, Paul talks about living as Christians in the home: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants. Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9 is about transformed domestic relationships. Christians are to see them in relation to their life in Christ.
The Work of Standing against Evil
Paul concludes his letter in Ephesians 6:10-20 with instructions to stand firm in the face of the evil that characterizes this age.
Ephesians 6:10-11 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (11) Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
Again, this is ultimately a work of God and the power comes from God. It is God’s power, truth, and saving activity that will carry the day. Faith, hope, prayer and proclaiming the word of God are the major human activities. All of this fulfills God’s intent that church should make known the truth of God through its life and witness, not just on earth, but to the spiritual powers in heavenly realms (Eph 3:10-11).
All of Grace
So, Paul talks about four kinds of good works in four major subdivisions of Ephesians 4-6.
- Building up the church (the body of Christ ) (Ephesians 4:1-16)
- Living Christ-created, new-self lives in the world (Ephesians 4:17-32, Ephesians 5:1-20)
- Relating to the members of one’s household in Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33, Ephesians 6:1-9)
- Standing against evil in the strength of the Lord (Ephesians 6:10-20)
All of these good works are born in God’s grace.
Christian life is from faith to faith, from beginning to end.
Romans 1:17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
Christian life is of the spirit from beginning to end.
Galatians 3:3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?
God created us for Good works, and our new Creation is His work. He prepared good works in advance (there’s that predestination language again), that we should walk in them.
So it turns out that being a Christian is about being good. It’s not that God points his finger at us and says, “Be good.” No, God in his grace forgives us, gives us life and brings us into his kingdom despite our not being good. But the new self that God creates in us is equipped by the power of the spirit even now to do works that belong to the age to come.