The General Outline of Ephesians
As with most of St. Paul's other epistles, Ephesians consists of two major parts. In this particular case, these parts divide the letter neatly in half. Chapters 1-3 deal with the content of the faith—the Gospel message of Christ's redeeming the world and through God's grace resurrecting our souls and enabling us to have a covenant, family relationship with God and with all people in Christ. Chapters 4-6 provide teaching on the Christian response to that adoption into God's covenant family: the structure of that covenant, and its obligations to a moral life. In fact, it can be summed up in the terms used to refer to the spheres of authority of the Church: Faith (ch 1-3) and Morals (ch 4-6).
St. Paul begins with a prayer or hymn to God's goodness and his grace given to us in Christ Jesus. He then elaborates on the sinful state of humanity devoid of this grace, which is God's very life within the soul, vivifying it. This treatment carries us into the first few verses of chapter 2, which itself is divided into two even parts. Verses 1 through 10 summarise how God's grace resurrects the one who is dead in sin, and how that one is saved and raised up with Jesus, through the life-giving power of grace, through the response of faith, making that one a child of God. The second half of chapter 2 shows how that grace makes a person a sharer in God's covenant, and unites him or her with all those who are in Christ, whether they are Jew or Gentile, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Chapter 3 sees St. Paul elaborating on the mystery of the New Covenant with an assertion and an appeal to his own apostolic status and ministry. This chapter ends with a prayer to God that the Christian community to whom St. Paul is writing would continue to grow in their faith and love of God.
Chapter 4 begins with an appeal to live a life worthy of the great grace given to us in Christ Jesus, and continues with an appeal to the unity of the Church, under the authority of the Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers, showing that it is their authority and teaching that will protect the Christian from being led astray by false teachings, and enable them to grow and mature in their faith. He continues by contrasting the sinfulness of the fallen world with the expectation of righteousness and virtue for the Christian made alive by the Holy Spirit. Chapter 5 continues this theme in practical terms, giving warning against specific sins. St. Paul then exhorts mutual submission to each other and to the Church, and discusses the right attitude of the Christian to civil authority, and to spouses—providing the theological understanding of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Chapter 6 continues these practical instructions in righteousness, obliging children to be honouring of and obedient to their parents, and parents to be respectful to their children. Lastly, in the sphere of relationships, St. Paul treats of masters and slaves. He then moves on to an exhortation to perseverance, using the Roman soldier's armour as an analogy for the Christian life and the tools needed to live it faithfully. He then concludes with closing greetings and a doxology.
We see, from this overview, the balance in the Christian life—that is, through God's grace, we participate in the life of the Covenant, centred in the Church, lived in justice and in ordered, loving relationships. When one loses sight of the ecclesiastical nature of the Christian covenant, and of the obligation to persevere in a faith lived out in obedient virtue, one loses the entire thrust of the message of the epistle—indeed, of the very Gospel.
The Controversy: Ephesians 2:8-9 and the Doctrine of Sola Fide
However, at the time of the Reformation, it was precisely this message of Ephesians that was lost, both the ecclesiastical nature of the New Covenant, and the understanding of how faith cooperated with God's grace through good works. The Reformation hung on the undermining of these two notions by establishing two counter-pillars: Sola Scriptura militating against the first, and Sola Fide against the second. Claiming to base itself upon Scripture, à la Sola Scriptura, Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers used biblical texts such as Ephesians 2:8-9, wrenched from their contexts, to proclaim a Gospel wherein our salvation was dependent upon only our faith response to God's grace—and that this faith prompted God to declare us righteous by imputing to us Christ's righteousness. This imputation did not make us actually righteous, but only acted as a legal decree. Theologian Sinclair Ferguson describes it this way:
The glory of the gospel is that God has declared Christians to be rightly related to him in spite of their sin. But our greatest temptation and mistake is to try to smuggle character into his work of grace. How easily we fall into the trap of assuming that we only remain justified so long as there are grounds in our character for that justification. But Paul's teaching is that nothing we do ever contributes to our justification. So powerful was his emphasis on this that men accused him of teaching that it did not matter how they lived if God justified them. If God justifies us as we are, what is the point of holiness? There is still a sense in which this is a test of whether we offer the world the grace of God in the Gospel. Does it make me say: "You are offering grace that is so free it doesn't make any difference how you live"? This was precisely the objection the Pharisees had to Jesus' teaching!9Dr. Ferguson asks some rhetorical questions to which he provides no answers. He dismisses them merely by saying that the Pharisees asked the same questions and made the same accusations to Jesus. However, the Catholic finds these questions rather to the point, and demands an answer. Moreover, the Catholic finds very little evidence in the Gospel that the Pharisees made this particular accusation to Jesus, and very little in the Gospel to suggest that Jesus taught that character and obedience to Him had so very little to do with justification. The Catholic Church, in contrast to this teaching, maintains that Justification is God's work of detaching one from sin, which follows upon His merciful offer of forgiveness. It involves the forgiveness of sin, and sanctification—that is, actually making us righteous through the merits of Christ. Unlike the Reformed understanding, Justification for the Catholic is more than simply a legal declaration, and further, it actually establishes in the person the ability to cooperate with God's grace, and so actually do good works and increase in grace and holiness.10 The corollary, of course, is that if one does not cooperate with God's grace, one can indeed lose this justification.
9. Quoted in Ankerberg, John and John Weldon, The Doctrine of Justification. (http://www.ankerberg.com/Articles/Salvation/Salvation%20PDF/salvation-justification.pdf, accessed Dec. 6, 2012).
10. Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., paras. 1989-1995.
(Category: Soteriology: Justification)