8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.Ephesians 2:8-10
We all know that Paul tells us that salvation is a matter of God’s grace. We are saved by grace – that is, it is God’s initiative – and it is received through faith, that is to say we contribute nothing to it. In case we don’t get that to be his meaning – faith being the opposite of doing anything for salvation and contributing to it – Paul underlines it by insisting it is ‘not from works, so that no one can boast.’ Indeed, he goes on to insist we are God’s workmanship (so made by him), created in Christ Jesus (that is, brought to life in Christ) for good works, which God himself prepared earlier for us to do. Paul insists salvation is God’s work start to finish. A point he makes forcefully elsewhere too.
But what are the good works that God has prepared for us to walk in? Is Paul saying that God has a specific plan for our lives and has determined which good works each of us will do? Is he saying that he has told everyone what the good works he wants done are in the Bible, and these are the things we are saved to do? Is he saying something else? What are these good works?
I think we are helped by seeing the flow of thought in Ephesians 2:1-10. In 2:1-3, Paul emphasises that we can do no good works in our natural state. We were once dead in trespasses and sin. We operated according to the same spirit of disobedience at work in unbelievers. We had no interest in doing good works but rather indulged “the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts” that are set up as the opposite of that which is good.
In 2:4-9, the emphasis fall squarely on God’s initiating work in salvation. Despite our sin, Paul says, God made us alive together with Christ. Paul keeps repeating, you are saved by grace. In spite of your sin, God saved you by grace. This is not a matter of your working for salvation, you received it by faith. God graciously saves you, despite your sin, and you receive it through faith contributing nothing to salvation. This leaves no room for boasting. It is all a work of God, start to finish.
This, I think, is the context of 2:10. Okay, someone might say, I contribute nothing to my salvation. But what about my good works after I am saved. Surely I contribute those, right? Well, Paul says in 2:10, that’s not right. You don’t even contribute the good works really. We are God’s workmanship, made alive by him in Christ, to walk in the good works he has prepared beforehand for us to do. I think Paul is saying that even the good works we do are ultimately planned by God. Even the good works we do as those made alive by Christ have ultimately been prepared for us to do by God.
Now, if we were simply following the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts before we were believers, as we were dead in our trespasses and sin, something similar is going on now we are made alive in Christ. God changed our inclinations. We now follow the inclinations and thoughts prompted by the Spirit who has made us alive in Christ. We still ultimately do what we want, but what we want is more closely aligned to what Christ wants. God, by his Spirit, changes our thoughts and inclinations.
The good works that God prepared for us to walk in, then, are simply those things that we do as believers. God prepared them – as he prepares everything – by causing us to believe in Christ, changing our will, and then organising and orchestrating the world around us so that we do the good works he has prepared for us to do. I am not convinced the good works God has prepared amount to us having to figure out some secret plan. Nor am I convinced that the good works are those things that we read in scripture and specifically commit ourselves to do in obedience (though they are no doubt included). The good works are simply the things we do as believers in the ordinary run of our lives. Having been made alive in Christ, having been made holy, the good works God has prepared for us to walk in are simply the things we do as believers. Our whole lives are to be lived to the glory of God and the good works we are to walk are the ordinary, every day things of being a believer living one’s life coram deo.
The good news about that is, the same God who determined whom he would save, is the God who has prepared works for us to walk in. The same God who will bring our salvation to pass, will also bring the good works he wants us to walk in to pass as well. He does it by changing our thoughts and inclinations to the things he would have us do. He orchestrates the world so we will want to do the things he would have us do in the circumstances he puts us. In the end, if we live our lives as believers – seeking to honour Christ through obedience – we will inevitably walk in the good works God has prepared beforehand for us to do.