You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Last year we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This passage is a key Reformed text – “by grace you have been saved through faith”. Lengthy tomes have been written on the meaning of the key terms in the phrase in English and the Greek original.
The trouble is, as anyone who speaks more than one language will know, that even more difficult than translating and explaining conceptual words such as ‘grace’, ‘save’ or ‘faith’ is translating the small words – ‘by’ and ‘through’ – each language uses them differently. As it stands in the NRSV, our salvation is achieved by grace – it’s God’s doing – and conveyed to us through faith. The English sounds very different if you say swap them round and say “through grace you have been saved by faith”. This would mean that the salvation is achieved by faith – it’s my doing – and conveyed to me through grace.
Paul is aware of the danger of misunderstanding here as he dictates (he spoke at least two languages, remember, and probably more), so he adds – “this is not your own doing – it is the gift of God”. How odd then that so many Reformation celebrations said that Luther had discovered – via Paul – that we were saved “by faith alone,” and some wrote hymns to that effect.
I am neither Biblical scholar nor theological historian. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Luther believed we are saved BY faith. It would have made ecumenical discussions so much easier if others had not imputed this belief to him. It would also have avoided much guilt amongst Protestants who came to attribute all kinds of ills to their own lack of faith – the lack of salvation, or assurance of it, was their fault. All because of one little word.
Loving God, I worry that I don’t believe enough or I don’t believe the right things or I don’t have faith enough to move mountains or that my mustard seed of faith has got lost. Help me to hear Paul’s words afresh, to know that my salvation is wrought not by my faith, but by your grace and so depends not on my feeble efforts or my fickle understanding but on your unchanging love. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is National Assembly Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.