There are some verses of Scripture that ought to be a bastion of our faith and yet they have become difficult either through poor translation or dubious exegesis: Ephesians 2:8 is certainly one of those verses. The verse plainly speaks of the basis and mechanism of our Salvation. The very mention of it should fill our hearts with an unspeakable glee. Instead this verse has become a source of contention that, combined with others, has caused a huge divide within the protestant church.
In my opinion much of this contention has been caused by the English rendering of the underlying Greek which is not wrong; but it is ambiguous. The English states:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.
The issue revolves around the use of the pronoun 'it' within 'it is the gift of God'. Perhaps the most natural reading of the English would tie the 'it' to the word 'faith'. This verse now appears to exclude man entirely from the mechanism of salvation. God provides the grace, God provides the faith and thus God produces the salvation. Some have even gone so far as to claim that a given person might not be aware that they have been saved in this manner as God did it when they weren't around.
Of the commentators Barnes, Clarke, British Family Bible, Matthew Poole, Peoples New Testament Commentary and Robertson all assert that the Greek insists that it is the salvation that is the gift of God and not the faith. Jamieson-Fausset-Brown and William Burkitt claim that it is the faith that is the gift of God although they provide no technical substantiation of their claim. John Wesley takes a somewhat middle ground by claiming it is the whole preceding clause that is referred to as the gift.
I am not a Greek scholar, but having traced the respective arguments it appears to me that anyone that approaches this from the text toward the argument, rather than the reverse, reaches the conclusion that the gift of God is salvation. This of itself should not be a shock but should be a delight. The God of heaven gave you and me salvation. We didn't earn salvation, we are not working towards salvation; it has been given to us. Further we were not given this by someone that didn't have the right to do so. We haven't been given it by someone that might change their mind. We have been given salvation by the Alpha and Omega and thus we can be sure it was His to give and thus ours to keep.
Having established that the end of salvation has been given to us by God one can profitably tackle the mechanism by which it has been given to us. This verse seeming provides two different answers and distinguishing between them needs careful attention to prepositions. The first answer and corresponding preposition is 'by grace'. The fact that we are saved by grace is actually drawn out three verses earlier. I suggest that this shows that grace is the fundamental basis upon which our salvation rests. In the same manner that man was made by God then salvation was by Grace.
Grace is easily a deep enough subject to warrant an essay of its' own yet for the purposes of this verse I shall attempt a working definition: unmerited favor. Of course the children's Sunday School is taught that it is "God's Riches At Christ's Expense". I don't think I would wish to disagree with that definition but I do think the subject is a little too important to place the construction of an acrostic ahead of the construction of an accurate definition. Whilst the Grace of God was rendered just by the sacrifice of Christ the character of God, who is gracious, was not changed by Calvary: it was simply displayed. I propose therefore the simpler definition that God didn't want revenge. From within Himself was the desire to take an object that should be an object of wrath (me) and to place that object into a position of divine favor (as a son of God). To fulfill that desire Christ died.
Having therefore established the basis of salvation and that the end of salvation is the gift of God one is merely left with the question as to how the gift is appropriated. Is every person naturally endowed with it? Does God roam around picking certain people that can obtain it? The answer is provided in the second noun and preposition. Salvation comes through faith. Note it doesn't come by faith or from faith but through faith. It is not the faith that is moving, it is Grace which is moving. But the Grace is moving through the conduit of faith. It is at that point that man believes that the Grace becomes efficacious for him and He receives the gift of salvation.
I believe a metaphor may express my opinion more clearly. Suppose a person has a serious heart defect and is in need of a new heart. No dead donor can be found but the doctor discovers that his own son has a suitable blood type and astonishingly the son agrees to donate the organ. The doctor then goes to the patient, informs him of the availability of the heart and of the doctors willingness to put the heart in place. The patient now has to believe that the new heart will do him good and consent to the surgery. In just about every reasonable sense any onlooker would say that the doctor and his son and made all of the sacrifices and done all the work. Yet it was only through signing the consent form that the required operation was performed.
Whilst the argument is a little oblique I believe that Eph 2:9 also casts an interesting light upon why it is necessary that faith should have a human component. We are told that the reason for salvation being a gift is to prevent man boasting. This is important as it reminds us that the purpose of eternity is to bring all things together in Christ. This purpose would be defeated if each of us could display our own reasons for having arrived there. But equally the participation of the Bride of Christ would be significantly less flattering of the groom if her participation was as part of an arranged marriage or worse if she didn't even know why she was there! The glory that she brings to Him is that He chose to die for her and that she in turn chose to devote herself to Him. It is a mutually loving relationship.
In summary this paper has essentially boiled Eph 2:8 down to 4 nouns and two prepositions. Salvation is the gift of God. Grace is the substance by which salvation is produced. Faith is the conduit through which Grace flows to produce salvation. I believe this understanding leaves the sovereignty of God intact whilst leaving man free will. Above all I hope that this explanation will have done some small part towards making this verse precious rather than controversial to the reader.