Two Tensions in Ephesians Two

April 10, 2018  |  Seth Troutt

As we are preaching through Ephesians 2, we find two passages that, on the surface, appear to contradict other parts of Scripture. Below we will see that these passages do not actually contradict one another, rather, that they compliment one another and together clarify a more nuanced understanding of how God has been at work in history.

Faith or Works?

Ephesians 2:8–10: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. In contrast with James:

James 2:24: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Here, it is important to notice that Paul and James are answering two different questions. Paul is asking this question: “Are we saved by Grace through faith or are we saved by works?” Whereas, James is asking this question: “if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14).

James is asking which type of faith savesand his conclusion is the faith that results in works is the faith that is “saving faith.” Many in the Christian tradition have tried to say that Paul and James were contradicting one another, but when we recognize that they are answering two different questions, we see that they are preaching the same message: true faith results in salvation and is evidenced by good works. So, James 2:24 is about a person’s faith being justified, or proven, to the community; saying “I have faith” is not sufficient evidence for whether or not someone legitimately believes. “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26).

Abolish or Not Abolish?

Ephesians 2:14–15: For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two. In contrast with Jesus:

Matthew 5:17Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

So, here we see Paul saying that Jesus abolished the law, but Matthew records Jesus saying something that seems to be infer the opposite. Let’s look closely at the differences in the texts: Paul is speaking of “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” whereas Matthew is speaking of “the Law or the Prophets.”

In Matthew’s text, The Law refers to the Book of Moses or the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) and the story, instruction, and promises found therein. In this context, Jesus is not abolishing the Jewish history or what the Jews viewed as the means of obtaining the promises of God, rather, he is himself perfectly embodying the Jewish Way and thereby fulfilling the need for an obedient covenant-partner in order to see God’s promises realized (Exodus 19:5). Jesus is not wiping away that reality, rather, he is the fulfillment of what the Jews were trying (and failing) to be.

In context, Jesus is reminding his disciples “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), which is not a new commandment, but is the same instruction given to the Jews in the Prophets “you are a light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). So, the Messiah coming to earth does not eliminate the responsibility of the people of God to be a holy people pointing the whole cosmos back to him.

In the Ephesians text, Paul is speaking preeminently about the division between Jew and Gentile: circumcision. The Gentiles (everyone not Jewish) were called “uncircumcision” whereas the Jews were called “circumcision.” Jesus is abolishing circumcision (the ordinance) as was foretold within he Law itself: “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Circumcision was always meant to be a temporary sign setting apart Israel until some future time in which Israel would faithfully obey God (Deuteronomy 30:2-3).

Jesus sees himself as perfectly obeying in Israel’s place, and is himself, the One True Offspring of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). Thus, Jesus abolishes the ordinance of circumcision, which had alienated Jews and Gentiles, without abolishing the Law itself (which is what Matthew 5:17 is clarifying). This work to eliminate circumcision not “Plan B”, but was the goal of the Law along.

Context, Context, Context

Often, what seem like contradictions, are actually different Biblical authors showing us texture and nuance within the grand Biblical Story. Looking to the immediate, covenantal, and whole-bible context of the texts we are examining is the key to seeing how our God is enfolding a beautifully simply-and-complex story in history.