by Isaac Barrett
The goal of this review is to demonstrate that Piper’s interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 is incorrect. First this review will summarize the possible interpretations of what the gift is in verse 8. Then, each section of this analysis will restate and identifies problems with Piper’s arguments. Timestamps have been included to encourage readers to listen to Piper’s video for themselves.
First, the text of Eph 2: 8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.ESV
What is “This”?
The main question is: What does this refer to? “This” is a demonstrative pronoun. Paul is demonstrating that something, this thing, is a gift. He’s pointing at something he just said in the previous phrase, “For by grace you have been saved through faith”, and he saying “this thing is a gift”. But what is Paul referring to as a gift? To help answer this question, let’s repeat this passage with the Greek word, gender, and number displayed:
For by grace [charis, feminine, singular] you have been saved [sesosmenoi, masculine, singular] through faith [pistis, feminine, singular]. And this [toutō, neuter, singular] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
There are six possible interpretations for the gift. Based on the grammatical structure of the verse (seen above), four interpretations will be ruled out. They will be ruled out because ancient Greek authors used the gender and number of pronouns to make it clear to their reader which noun the pronoun is referring to. Here are the six possibilities:
1: The gift is “by grace you have been saved through faith”
2: The gift is “by grace you have been saved”
3: The gift is “been saved through faith”
4: The gift is only grace
5: The gift is only salvation
6: The gift is only faith
You’ll notice that the pronoun “this” [toutō, neuter, singular] does not match a single one of the previous nouns in question; neither “grace”, nor “saved”, nor “faith”. If Paul wanted to say only one of those was the gift, then all he would have had to do was match the gender and number of “this” with that noun. But he chose to make it match none of them. So the gift can’t be only the grace, nor only the salvation, nor only the faith.
Even though it’s not possible, interpretation six, that only faith is the gift, is often argued because faith is the last thing referenced. Most who quote Ephesians 2:8-9 to claim that ‘faith is a gift’ are arguing from this position. This seems like a natural interpretation to English readers because…that’s how we would denote which noun to which the pronoun refers. The problem is: Paul didn’t write in English. Piper, as well as many other scholars, correctly understand that this interpretation is impossible due to the grammatical formatting of the Greek.
In Greek, pronouns must agree with their antecedent in gender and number. English somewhat does this with pronouns like “he” and “she” but other pronouns like “they” and “it” are more difficult to determine. No so in Greek. All pronouns in Greek have gender and number, and they must always agree in gender and number to the noun they are pointing to, whether it is masculine, feminine, or neuter.https://redeeminggod.com/bible-theology-topics/ephesians-28-9/
In the verse, “this” is neuter, meaning that it must connect two genders: Feminine, masculine, or neuter. Faith is a feminine word. The word “this” would need to be written as feminine for it to refer to faith. While interpretation 6 is quoted often, it can safely be ruled out. Interpretations 5 & 6 can be ruled out for the same mismatched gender problem. The remaining three interpretations are discussed by Piper and will be analyzed in the arguments below.
Faith Is Not From You
Piper asks the why Paul didn’t simply write “for by grace you have been saved through faith, not from works, so that no one may boast” but also added “And this is not from you; is the gift of God“? Piper asserts that the “And this is not from you; it is the gift of God” part is unnecessary unless Paul is attempting to respond to something specific. Therefore, Paul must be thinking ‘people are going to attribute faith to our own capacities as humans to create, when in fact [I] want to rule that out’. Therefore, Paul must be writing that “grace” is not from you, “salvation” is not from you, “faith” is not from you. The extra statement is in reference to each of the parts individually. Paul must want to rule out boasting by saying ‘faith is a gift’. He must be stressing that faith doesn’t boast because it didn’t come into existence on its own. Piper is arguing for Interpretation #6.
Grammar Is A Sticky Wicket
The problem with this argument is that we simply cannot ignore the grammar Paul chose to employ. The grammatical structure of the verse contradicts Piper’s argument. In order for “this” to mean each part individually, Paul MUST write in a plural form (i.e. these). Paul did not, he wrote it as singular, which means that he is referencing one thing or concept. In Greek, the gender and number must match. Interpretation #6 violates this as it is mixing singular with plural. You cannot exegetically interpret this passage as ‘each of the parts separately’. As we are relying on Sola Scriptura, we can safely say that the words are inspired and that Paul didn’t accidently make a mistake. Therefore, “this” does not mean each of the parts individually.
The other problem is that it is “by grace” (means), “being saved” (result), and “through faith” (receiving method). Under Piper’s assertion, he’d be saying that the method by which we receive grace is a gift. In other words, the fact that God picked faith to receive grace vs animal sacrifice. This does not communicate that faith itself is effectually given to us by God. This would only indicate that the ability to receive grace through faith is a gift. It wouldn’t mean that faith itself is given.
Why Didn’t Paul Just Say The Thing?
If Paul was concerned about anybody thinking that faith is something that you’re supposed to do, he would have simply written ‘faith is a gift’ somewhere in one of his many letters. Since Paul never wrote this, we cannot exegetically assume that this was his motivation. Paul could have said “these” to mean all three individually or he could have just added a sentence somewhere that clarified it. Claiming that this is what Paul was thinking or worried about is unsupported by any of his work.
Paul Wrote About Faith, Grace, Works, and Boasting Elsewhere
In order to make any claims about the motivations of Paul in regards to faith and boasting, we must take a close look at the other passages were Paul addresses these issues. As a matter of fact, several years before writing his letter to Ephesus, Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. In chapter 3 & 4, Paul goes into great detail about the relationship between salvation, grace, faith, works, and boasting. Since these chapters are much more explicit than Ephesians 2:8-9, we must incorporate them into our interpretation. Here are some snippets of his writings, but go read these chapters for yourselves and then read Ephesians 2:8-9.
“the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith . . . It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law“Romans 3:24-25 ESV
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
“For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all”
“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.””Romans 4 ESV
Paul makes it extremely clear that his concern for boasting lies in who is the justifier of our salvation, who powers it, who does the work. Paul spends all of this time communicating that promise must “rest on grace” and that this is accomplished only through faith as the means. If we are the justifier through works, then God is not glorified. Nowhere in the long exposition of Romans does Paul say that ‘faith is a gift’. Paul invalidates Piper’s argument by saying that our boasting from being justified by faith “is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”. Using Piper’s own reasoning, Paul could have easily said “Boasting is excluded because faith is a gift”. But instead he says “Boasting is excluded because of faith” . Faith is non-meritorious and is not worthy of boasting. No one can exegetically claim that faith is a work. If faith is not worthy of boasting because it is not a work, where is Paul’s concern that we ‘create faith’? Why does Paul say that “Abraham believed God”? This seems like the perfect place to drop this supposed additional information about faith being effectually given or that you are unable to put faith in God. Nowhere in the entire Bible does it say that man is unable to believe, repent, or put their faith in God unless effectually given faith. This concept has to be read into the text. If putting faith in God is boast worthy, why didn’t Paul address it as clearly as he addresses faith not being a work?
Does faith rob God of his glory? Romans 4 says no. Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God”. The text doesn’t say God made Abraham grow strong in faith. Instead, the text gives Abraham credit for his faith. If this was a concern of Paul’s in the slightest, why would Paul write it this way? Paul clearly writes that salvation through faith gives God all of the glory. Where is Paul’s concern? Piper’s argument that faith somehow takes glory from God is an attempt to turn faith into a work. One can only boast if it is under the law of works. Assuming that Paul holds this concern is completely unfounded by his work.
All Other Interpretations are Absurd
Piper then takes a stab at creating an entire new class of Christians who interpret Ephesians 2:8-9 as saying that “faith” is not a part of the gift of God in any way and indeed they must exclude the “through faith” phrase in their interpretation. These Christians don’t know what to do with the “through faith” phrase and so they end up reading the passage something like “And through grace you have been saved, and this is not from you…”. I have never met these Christian exegetes and I’m quite confident you have not either. Even proponents of Interpretation #2 (The gift is “by grace you have been saved”) would acknowledge that faith is only possible if that gift is given. This seems to me a round about way for Piper to poison the well of opposing interpretations to make them sound as absurd as possible. And no one wants to sound absurd, so you might as well be a Calvinist.
He actually shoots his own interpretation in the foot by putting sarcastic parentheses around “through faith” [see below] as a way to say “see how absurd it is to portion out a phrase like this?” but indeed that’s exactly what a phrase is. It’s called a prepositional phrase and they are, unsarcastically, modifiers to the main sentence that ought to be treated that way. The prepositional phrase that Piper has so kindly marked out for us modifies the main subject-verb-object sentence “You have been saved”. The other prepositional phrase “by grace”, Piper strangely does not mark out in the same way.
He bookends this argument by giving his opinion that “I don’t think Paul would say something this obvious”. But wouldn’t he? Wouldn’t Paul need to be as straightforward and simple as possible with his explanations of the Gospel to a people and a culture in which the very concept of receiving a gracious gift through faith goes against both Roman and Hebrew religious thought and practice?
Paul, Captain Obvious
This also seems like a flawed assumption as Paul, in Romans 3, wrote super obvious again. Piper is arguing Paul must have something deeper in mind when he wrote Romans 3:24 because he should not have included “as a gift” when talking about being justified/saved by grace because that’s just too obvious. The verse reads “[all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith”. In this passage, Piper’s exegetical pen drawings are in trouble because Paul specifically excludes “receiving by faith” from the gift, as he put faith at the very end of the sentence. Here the gift is solely about being justified/saved by grace. Romans uses the same structure of saved/justified by grace received through faith that is later found in Ephesians.
Compare Romans and Ephesians using Interpretation #2 (The gift is “by grace you have been saved”)
Romans: “[we] are justified by his grace as a gift… to be received by faith”
Ephesians: “for you have been saved by grace [as a gift] through faith”
If Paul specifically wrote the gift this way in his previous letter, why we would assume that his current letter is teaching something different? Why would we assume that Paul has new concerns or new doctrine for his readers to consider? Interpretation #2 matches grammatically with both gender and number, and is identical to Romans. It is valid and is the strongest of the available options.
Why Interpretation #1 Is Also Valid
The remaining option, Interpretation #1 (The gift is “by grace you have been saved through faith”), is where the entire package is the gift. This interpretation says that the way we are saved is the gift. God could have picked a different means by which we could receive grace, but He picked faith. He picked something that anybody could do. Faith isn’t the gift in this interpretation, but rather the gift is being able to receive grace through faith and thus being saved. The package wasn’t created by us and is not controlled by us. This interpretation does not need for each item in it to be effectually caused by God. God could have said “for you have been saved by grace through [animal sacrifice]. And this is not of you, but is the gift of God”. The animal sacrifice would not have to be effectually given to us by God for the package to be from God. In this interpretation, the path to salvation is the gift. This interpretation is very similar to #2. It is valid and strong, matching grammatically with gender and number, but it does change the focus of the gift from Romans 3. Under this interpretation, “being saved by grace” would still be a gift due to Romans 3. This means that Interpretation #2 is true even if #1 is also correct.
Interpretations #1 and #2 have absolutely no need for additional clarification about faith. As explained in Romans 3 & 4, faith cannot be boasted about because of its very nature. If Paul can credit Abraham for believing and growing in his faith, then we can assume that there is no conflict with faith being a part of this package. In no way does it appear that Paul is attempting to teach or clarify doctrines of determinism or free will. If we find ourselves reading these doctrines out of this text, it is likely because we are eisegeting them into the text.
Most individuals claiming that this passage teaches ‘faith is a gift’ don’t understand how the gender and number works in Greek. They don’t understand that Greek pronouns must agree with their antecedent in gender and number. It is improper to interpret the passage as faith being the gift because of the gender mismatch. It is improper to interpret the gift as each of the parts individually due to the number mismatch. In this case, the Greek doesn’t translate well into English, because of the limitations of the English language. This makes Ephesians 2:8-9 easy to misunderstand and misuse. There are only two appropriate interpretations. The first interpretation is that the whole package is the gift. The first means that the process by which we are saved is a gift. The second interpretation is that being saved by grace is the gift. The second is consistent with Paul’s previous writings and is the strongest interpretation.
Ephesians 2:8-9 does not plainly state whether “faith is our creation” or “faith is God’s creation and is effectually given”. You can’t conclude that the gift of “by grace you have been saved through faith” is somehow teaching “faith is effectual” or even “faith is a choice”. The point of the passage is not about determinism vs free will, it is about the Gospel. If Paul, or any inspired writer of the Bible, wanted us to believe that Faith is a gift, they would have written it plainly. Paul had plenty of opportunity to, as he wrote faith and grace, but he never did. Paul’s writing in Romans appears to completely contradict the majority of Piper’s assertions. Paul’s alleged concerns about boasting are invalidated by Romans 4. Paul explains that faith by its very nature isn’t something that can be boasted about. Claiming that Paul had a concern, when Paul already addressed his concerns about boasting, is improper and speculative.
If we are either given faith or passed over, then we have little hope. This belief assumes that there is absolutely nothing an individual can do to change their eternal destination. A person can no sooner change the color of their skin or eyes, then they can change whether they will go to heaven or hell. It would require a miracle for you to even be able to have faith. This position can be clearly heard by the now Reformed Atheist, Derrek Webb. Derrek was previously the lead singer for the Calvinist band Caedmon’s Call. Webb’s conclusions are tragic, but appear to be supported by Piper’s assertions.
To claim that Piper’s arguments are proper exegesis of this text, that faith is an effectual gift, would be gravely inaccurate. These are simple arguments based on human logic and assumption, but are not read directly out of the text. They infer definitions and concepts into the text. The plain reading of the text says that God’s gift is the gift package, including the means of its’ reception, by which we are saved. This passage should not be used to teach “faith is a gift”. The passage should be used to teach that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, and that we could never receive this without Him. The simple reading of the passage should be the standard interpretation.