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This answer on C.SE referenced Eph 2:8-9 to support the idea that faith comes from God.

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. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

I'm trying to parse out what specifically the "it" refers to in the phrase "it is the gift of God".

Keeping the grammar especially strict, "it" could properly refer to either grace or faith. Allowing Paul a bit more freedom, though, "you have been saved" could fit as well, with "it" meaning the salvation-event, or salvation-act. So to parse it out in each of these ways, we could have any of the following. I apologize for the repetition; I find it helpful personally to see each option replacing "it" in the context of the full verse.

  • "For by grace you have been saved through faith... it is the gift of God", that is, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And it is not your own doing; [that grace] is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast".
  • "For by grace you have been saved through faith... it is the gift of God" or "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And it is not your own doing; [faith] is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
  • "...you have been saved... it is the gift of God" or "you have been saved... [salvation] is the gift of God"

Honestly, looking at all three laid out, they all are pretty reasonable. I don't see anything in any of those statements that would contradict other scripture.

I am least convinced by the first. It seems too much a matter of course, almost tautological, to be what Paul would have in mind here. This would make this whole statement focused on grace "By grace you are saved... grace is a gift... grace is not a result of works."

In the third case, Paul would be pitting salvation based on works against salvation by grace. This rendering seems to yield the most cohesive argument.

The second case seems to be making more of a point in the second statement, where the others use the second statement as a clarification of the first. This would have Paul saying that we are saved by faith, but even that faith itself is a gift. It strikes me as an especially Pauline approach.

So, those are the options I see--what is intended here as the gift of God?

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"It" doesn't refer to either noun, but to the verb "saved." That ridiculously obvious. When referring to a whole process, nobody ever picks out one noun and says "it," but "it" refers to the whole process. Anyone trying to make "it" either grace or faith, is doing it totally from doctrinal bias. –  david brainerd Jun 9 at 2:42

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted
+50

Examining the Text

The Greek text gives a fairly clear clue as to what is being referred to (its just one's theology that tends to get in the way of seeing it). There is a textual variant here, but it is not relevant to the discussion. The variant is found in the majority text and will be noted here by asterisks, like so: τῆς. Since the article follows a preposition, the addition of the article is rather insignificant (as a word used with a preposition can be and often is deemed definite even without the article).1

Note I've use the old English "ye" to reflect the 2nd person plural nominative form, and "you" as the objective form of the plural (like the KJV, which modern English has lost distinction of with the "you" being both singular and plural).

8 τῇ γὰρ χάριτί   ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι    διὰ     *τῆς* πίστεως, καὶ τοῦτο  -  οὐκ ἐξ  ὑμῶν· 
  -  for by grace ye have been saved through *the* faith,   and this  [is] not of  you.  
θεοῦ    -   τὸ δῶρον· 9 οὐκ ἐξ ἔργων, ἵνα           μή  τις    καυχήσηται. 
Of God [is] the gift:   not of works, in order that not anyone may boast.

There are some verbless clauses here, represented by the inclusion of "[is]" in the above translation. It is the second of these verbless clauses that is translated "it is" in the ESV translation you give (neither the "it" nor the "is" are in the text). But verbless clauses are very common in Hebrew,2 and since Paul thinks in Hebrew, he (and the other NT writers) do such in Greek as well.3 English uses them too, and can reflect this here, a bit awkwardly, like so:

For by grace ye have been saved through faith, and this not of you—the gift of God! Not of works, that no one can boast.

Three Keys to Unlock the Answer

Three key things help determine what the gift from God is:

  1. χάριτί (grace) has a grammatical gender of feminine in Greek.
  2. πίστεως (faith) has a grammatical gender of feminine in Greek.
  3. τοῦτο (this) has a grammatical gender of neuter in Greek.

Greek syntax matches gender of pronouns to the antecedent it refers to.4 So if "this" referred to either grace or faith individually, it should be in the feminine gender—and there is no reason it would not have been had such been the intention. Such a form would be ambiguous, since it could refer to either grace or faith, but likely be referring to the nearest referent, and thus faith.

However, the neuter gender is used for the pronoun. This is the common gender used when a phrase or clause is the antecedent.5 So "this" refers to the whole previous clause, "By grace ye have been saved through faith."6

So this fact expressed by the clause, that only by grace through faith have any who are saved entered into that state of salvation, is a fact that is not something that comes about from oneself, not "of you." Rather, this is an "of God" thing, it is "the gift" of God that such is the way of salvation, by grace through faith.

So the "it" your question refers to is the English added subject of the verbless clause in Greek, which subject is pointing back to the "this" preceding it. Which "this" refers to the entire clause preceding it.

And it is the gift of God in order that it is "not of works" (because none would achieve salvation then, for no sinful person can be as righteous as God, Rom 3:10), and it was so done in order that no person might boast of saving himself or herself through good works. Indeed, good works is what a person is obligated and designed to do anyway, and why God saves anyone at all, so that His will for such to be done is done (v.10).

Conclusion

Theological views make this passage ripe for eisegesis instead of exegesis. But the answer is that God gave a way of salvation that does not include works, as this way is by grace through faith. There are then two direct implications from that:

  1. Having faith is not a work (else the contrast would be meaningless).
  2. Whether faith is itself given by God or simply is the humble, passive acceptance of truth by man is simply not addressed in the passage—either could fit the language (neither can be boasted of, because either way, faith is not a work), so other evidence from Scripture needs to be advanced to resolve that well known theological debate.7

NOTES

1 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 247.

2 Ronald J. Williams, Williams' Hebrew Syntax, 3rd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 206-207.

3 Some examples in Wallace, 54-55, 269-270.

4 Wallace states, "The basic rule for the Greek pronoun is that it agrees with its antecedent in gender and number, but its case is determined by the pronoun’s function in its own clause. This concord principle, however, has many exceptions" (316). For some of those exceptions for demonstrative pronouns (325), such as used here, see 329-335—which do not match the characteristics of the passage here. The argument for shifting of neuter gender to try and refer to faith (feminine) is that "the τοῦτο has been attracted to the gender of δῶρον (dṓron) [which is neuter], the predicate nominative," which Wallace states is unlikely because "δῶρον is not the predicate nom. of τοῦτο, but of the implied 'it' in the following clause" (334).

5 Wallace, 333.

6 For discussion of this passage by Wallace, see 334-335. He states of this passage that the issue "cannot be solved by grammar alone" (as I have advocated here; mainly because there is a slight possibility of seeing it otherwise). He does conclude, however, that while possible, "it is doubtful [emphasis added] that either 'faith' or 'grace' is the antecedent of τοῦτο," and rather far more likely it refers to "the concept of a grace-by-faith salvation" (as I argue above) since "τοῦτο regularly takes a conceptual antecedent" (335). He does give a fourth adverbial view, where it could mean "and especially" (335). As a final footnote to his discussion, he gives this info (emphasis added):

An examination of all 22 instances of καὶ τοῦτο in the NT (not including Eph 2:8) yielded the following results: 14 or 15 had a conceptual referent (e.g., Luke 3:20; 5:6; John 11:28; 18:38; John 20:20; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor 7:37; Phil 1:9; Heb 6:3 [Phil 1:28 was probable]); four were adverbial (Rom 13:11; 1 Cor 6:6, 8; 3 John 5 [Heb 11:12 is listed by BAGD as adverbial, but the plural is used (καὶ ταῦτα), following more closely the Attic idiom]); three involved the same gender (Luke 2:12; 13:8; 1 John 4:3); no clear examples involved different genders (though Phil 1:28 was possible)

7 Wallace also concludes "Whether faith is seen as a gift here or anywhere else in the NT is not addressed by this [passage in Eph 2:8]."

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I take your third option as the best because we are saved, or justified “by grace through faith,” which is how we receive Jesus Christ and his obedience on our behalf. In case we do not get it, the opposing competitor for such salvation is stressed so that it is absolutely clear.

Works is not a competitor to grace, or faith, but to justification and salvation. Salvation is “not of works, lest any man should boast.” Salvation is not of works, yes this is the gospel. The gospel does not try to argue that grace or faith is not of works, but always argues that salvation is not of works. Faith produces works, so it would be confusing to say that faith is not of works without further explanation.

The ‘works’ that the Apostle is ‘excluding from our salvation’ are works from Christians. That is why he naturally transitions after this to the idea that we are his workmanship. This is to say that salvation is free and the works it produces in us have nothing to do with our salvation (justification) but are his work for his own pleasure.

The apostles basic method is always to separate works from salvation not always to create the doctrine of irresistible grace, though that doctrine can be argued in various ways from other places. I think this is the most face-value interpretation of the words and delving into the Greek does not help, as the questions pertains to ‘this’ – ‘this grace’, ‘this faith’, or ‘this salvation’ as you have succinctly shown in the question.

Once again you have forced me to make up my mind about a particular that I had not decided before – thanks again for the great question.


Here is some additional analysis (the longer version) as requested by a user:

Looking at the Greek one can easily see that all the common English translations are fine without any controversy leading to one answer or another:

For [γὰρ] by grace [χάριτί] you are [ἐστε] saved [σεσωσμένοι] through [διὰ] faith [πίστεως] and [καὶ] this [τοῦτο] not [οὐκ] of [ἐξ] yourselves [ὑμῶν] God's [θεοῦ] - [τὸ] gift [δῶρον] not [οὐκ] of [ἐξ] works [ἔργων] that [ἵνα] not [μή] anyone [τις] might boast [καυχήσηται].

Either grace χάριτί is the gift, or our being saved σεσωσμένοι is the gift, or our faith πίστεως is the gift – that is ‘not of works that no anyone might boast’. Therefore that the Greek can’t help as the common English translations are already accurate without controversy and do not indicate which word is 'the gift'.

Therefore we turn to the internal logic of scripture that transcends human language.

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (NIV 1 Corinthians 2:13-14)

Obviously grace, faith and salvation are the kinds of words Paul refers to as ‘spiritual words’. We must therefore look for the maning of these words in humility and with faith and with the study of the Bible's overall arguments, especially those of the Apostle Paul.

The only question to answer then is 'Why using an understanding from Paul’s arguments, would one choose ‘salvation’ as the gift rather than ‘faith’ or ‘grace’?' Certainly all three can be seen as gifts, but not all three are constantly set up by the Apostle as being opposed to God in terms of how we are saved and in terms of how it derives a foolish kind of boasting. Paul always argues that 'salvation' or 'justification' is not of works, he does not say 'grace is not of works under the law', or 'faith is not of works under the law'.

'Works' is something in the New Testament as causing (primarily the Jews) a reason to ‘boast’ based on ‘works of the Law’. (Romans 2:17). The purpose of those works is to become ‘justified before God’ giving a man a reason ‘to boast’. (Romans 4:2). Now justification is nothing more than our salvation, so the question is, 'Are we justified/saved by 'works' or by 'faith' in Jesus Christ? Well typically Paul say’s:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. (NIV Romans 5:1-2)

So we see the idea; salvation is either a result of faith (giving us access to grace which justifies us) or by works under the law (from which we can boast). With faith our boast changes into the glory of God, and not of ourselves.

What then is 'not of our own doing'? Clearly it is our 'justification', because by works of the law the Jews tried to justify themselves and boast. Paul does not say that the Jews by works of the law sought to obtain faith. Paul does not say that the Jews by the works of the law sought to obtain grace. The Jews did not boast in grace, or faith to obtain justification but works. Clearly justification which is 'being saved' is either obtainable by 'works' or is given as a 'gift'. This the Apostle constantly puts as competing principles, either one or the other must stand or fall. The Jews were not trying to obtain grace, or faith by works. Therefore the 'gift' that is opposed to works is 'justification/salvation' and not faith or grace.

In this way we could read the original text like this:

For by grace you have been justified through faith. And this justification is not your own doing under the law; it is the gift of God by grace, not a result of works under the law, so that no one may boast in themselves. (My Paraphrase)

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It occurred to me after writing the question that "grace" and "gift" are likely the same word in Greek--χάρις. But, I just looked it up, and it's not. The far less-common word for "gift" used here is δῶρον, with χάριτί for "grace". I'm not well-enough informed to form a solid argument about what that implies, but I do think it lends support to rejects the first option ("it"=="grace") –  Ray Jul 31 '12 at 12:01
3  
This is a good theological answer to the question but would you be willing to revise this answer to include a bit more analysis of the text to support its theological suppositions and assertions? –  swasheck Aug 10 '12 at 17:31
    
@swasheck - Sure, I added a longer version to more fully explain the deeper reasoning that I originally summarized. Cheers. –  Mike Aug 11 '12 at 3:13
τῇ γὰρ χάριτί ἐστε σεσωσμένοι διὰ τῆς πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν Θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον.

There is no "it" in the original greek text. The English translators had to put the word "it" as an idiomatic pronoun to make the sentence in English "complete".

Idiomatic use of pronoun "it" is very common in English. For example,

It is not in my intention to offend you.

What is the pronoun "it" in the above sentence?

The greek text is very straight-forward (afai understand and with the little bit of greek that I still recall),

{
  the
    {
       {because-of benevolence y'all-are those-saved-thro-the-believing}
       and
       {this is-not out-of y'all}
    }
  god
}
the-gift

Let me attempt to analyse the synthesis here (which may involve quite a bit of fraud on my part)

Θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον = {god} {the-gift}

{god} is acting as a descriptor on the subject {the-gift}. Like "green house". Therefore, {the gift} of {god}.

However, the phrase does not say

{Θεοῦ} {τὸ δῶρον}.

It says

{complex descriptor of which {god} is a component} {the gift}.

Meaning

{the gift} due-to/associated-with {complex descriptor of which {god} is a component}

Further dissection of the descriptor phrase,

{the gift}
exists due-to

{ 
  yet a complex descriptor
}
god

Further,

{the gift}
exists due-to

{ the
    {because-of benevolence y'all-are those-saved-thro-the-believing}
    and
    {this is-not out-of y'all}
}
god

Alternatively,

the  {
   { because-of benevolence y'all-are those-saved-thro-the-believing}
   and
   {this is-not out-of y'all}
}

{{the gift-of} god}

That is,

the {
  {the gift-of} god}
  due to 
  {
    { because-of benevolence you become {those-saved-thro-the-believing}
    and
    {not due to your own accord}
  }

}

Could a koine greek expert care to comment or correct me?

Paleontological Exegesis

Anyway, the word gift is δῶρον, from which I believe we derive the English word dowry. So I searched Wikipedia for "dowry". It turns out that dowry as a price for the bride is indeed practiced by ancient greeks.

So, here Christians should take a very focused note on the significance of dowry. That Paul is giving the allegory of bride-price for salvation. He meant to say that

Salvation by believing is not due to your innate attributes
but is dowry paid as a proposal to you in marriage.

This verse is a continuation of the previous verse. Possibly,

(7)You will be shown exceeding ... benevolence blah blah ... 
(8)which is the dowry of the god of (your being saved
thro your believing and not due to your own accord).

I am not a Christian and do not believe in the whole Christian salvation thing but as an outsider I believe this is what the language means. My advice is avoid concocting a whole thesis out of a non-existent pronoun.

So the actual argument should focus on whether the dowry/proposal to marriage is

  • being shown exceeding ... kindness
  • or the benevolence of being saved by believing
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1  
I'd comment, but by the time I get to the bottom of your post I forget what I'm going to say. A technicality is that you're reading cause into the dative τῇ ... χάριτί. This is normally understood as a dative of means ("by"). ἐστε is present, active, indicative, 2nd plural which is simply "you are" but when combined with the perfect participle it's "you are having come to be saved." The entire phrase is "For by grace you (pl) are having come to be saved." –  swasheck Aug 10 '12 at 17:07
1  
"It", as you rightly pointed out, is an addition as an English convention to smooth the reading. I feel that it makes perfect since without "it" though. I am going to +1 you for this analysis, but would slightly disagree that "it" would refer to "the gift." Instead, I would tend to see the English "it" as implicitly introducing a content clause ("that you are having come to be saved") which is the referent object for the subsequent τοῦτο in the next phrase. –  swasheck Aug 10 '12 at 17:32
    
thanks for your comments shwasheck. –  Blessed Geek Aug 15 '12 at 5:09
    
This was an excellent answer until the anachronistic etymological section under "Paleontological Exegesis", which appears to read the English meaning of the word back into the Greek then justify it because they had the practice that came to be referenced by the English word. –  maj nem ɪz dæn May 30 at 19:14

Τῇ γὰρ χάριτι ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως· καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἐξ ὑμῶν, θεοῦ τὸ δῶρον·

Ephesians 2:8 For by Grace you are saved through faith and this is not of yourselves,God's Gift. (This is what the Greek texts says)

It's explicit that the Gift is Faith because the demonstrative pronoun THIS( τοῦτο) refes to the immediate antecedent which is FAITH.

Also, it's contextually plausible that God's gift is referring to Faith because we are told in verse 9 that we are saved "not of works" and we know that Faith is a 'verb' in any English dictionary therefore Faith must be a gift from God so that we have no contribution of works in our salvation.

Salvation is "God's work"(John 6:29).It is a finished work(John 19:30) that whoever believes have(present tense) eternal life.(John 3:16)

Ephesians 2:8 For by Grace you are saved(past tense) through faith and this faith is not of yourselves,it's God's Gift.Not of works lest any man should boast.

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1  
(nitpicky) you should more clearly bring out the aspect of the perfect tense verb. –  swasheck Sep 4 '12 at 14:32

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