"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them." (Ephesians 2:8-10)When Luther made his first translation of the Bible into German, he translated such verses from Paul as stating that we are saved by faith alone, stipulating that, while the words "alone" as not in the Greek text, it was implied by the Greek language which Paul used to write his letters. This is further justified in that no where else did Paul even hint that our salvation required anything from us other than our faith. However, this translation, and the adding of the word "alone", became an opportunity for calumny from the Roman Catholic church in declaring him a fraud and heretic; accusing him of perverting the translation with added words to further his heresy. For centuries this debate between the necessity and the role of faith and works has raged on. Paul, seeming to have foreknowledge of this debate, addresses both faith and works in this one passage to the Ephesians.
First, faith. Paul makes and emphatic statement that we are saved through faith and that this salvation is a free gift that requires no corresponding work on our part to receive it. This gift comes to us through the gracious favor of God and there is nothing we can do to earn it, nor is there anything we can do to merit it. It is offered to us for no other reason than God delights in offering it to us. Some say they are too lost or too sinful to be saved, but this merely demonstrates the exceeding richness of God's grace towards us in that no matter who we are or what we've done, His grace is still offered as a free gift for our taking. Some say that faith itself is a work, but even our faith is from Him and not of ourselves. Paul writes that, "God has allotted to each a measure of faith." (Romans 12:3) The only act required from us is that we receive this gift of salvation. It is only by receiving it that it becomes ours in all its richness, benefits, and promises for the future. I could offer you a gift of one million dollars thus making you very rich, but unless you take the one million dollars, you will stay just as poor as you are already. To many this free gift is offered, but far less choose to receive it unto themselves.
How does one determine when their attempt at salvation is through faith or works? If, in the end, you find something you've done that is worth boasting about, then you are operating in works. Under the Law, there was always opportunity to boast; boasting in one's obedience, will power, and one's strength and persistence in keeping the commands of the law. One could be proud of what they accomplished in regards to the measuring stick of the law. Unfortunately, all those works, while great in and of themselves, did not serve to win anyone salvation or the right to eternal life, When it comes to salvation, works are useless. There is no work that can merit us salvation and, consequently, since salvation can only be received as a free gift, there is nothing we can boast about in possessing it.
So what about works? To say salvation is by grace through faith and not by works does not mean that there is no place for good works in our lives. Paul wrote to Timothy saying, "Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share." (1 Timothy 6:18) Works are important, they just don't earn us salvation. In fact, until we are delivered through salvation and are born again by the Spirit, then we are bound up against good works by our slavery to sin. God created us for this very purpose, for good works; for the working of faith through love. Even much of the Law was given to teach us how to live in love towards one another. To perform good works is to live the life for which God created us. However, even here we lack all reason to boast. Not only has God created us for good works, but He has also gone before us, preparing those same good works that we might walk in them. God creates us for works, then gives us the works to do, and simply calls us to be obedient.
So what about works? Works are the natural fruit of a life that has been reconciled to God and restored to its rightful condition of living. It is only through salvation that we are set free to fully engage in good works. The key is understanding the order of events: faith leads to works, not works to faith. In the end Luther was right, salvation is by faith alone. However, and what every reformer also testified to, living a Christian life is a life spent in good works.