By Grace Through Faith or Why Prepositions Matter
Pastors are used to hearing complaints about the big words of our theological vocabulary: words such as atonement, propitiation, and eschatology. I defend these “big words” because they carry so much good news. But it is just as important to argue for the little words of theology. After all, it was Jesus who insisted, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18).
Some of the most important little words in the Bible are its prepositions. Prepositions are links that show the relationship between other words. We often use them spacially. In John 4, we learn that Jesus came “to a town of Samaria called Sychar,” and then was found sitting “beside the well” (John 4:5-6). When it comes to theology, prepositions define the logical relationship between terms and ideas. So giving careful attention to prepositions will help us to think clearly about the gospel.
As a classic instance, we know that grace and faith are related to our salvation. But what role is played by each of these and how do they relate? This is hardly an academic question, for our answer will say much about our practical religion. What does grace do for us? Which comes first, grace or faith? Is it grace that produces faith, or is it faith that gives us grace? We know that we must believe on Jesus to be saved, but can we trust our own faith to save us? If so, what does grace really mean? This confusion experienced by many people can be relieved by appeal to the prepositions in key Bible texts.
In one important salvation text, the Apostle Paul uses prepositions to relate grace, faith, and salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). Salvation results from two things: grace and faith. So what is the role that each plays? The answer is found in the prepositions by and through.
The first preposition concerns God’s grace: Paul says we are saved by grace. This prepositional phrase is constructed by use of the Greek dative case to signify agency. “By grace” means “by the agency of grace.” This answers the question, Who saves us? Paul’s answer is that God saves us by his grace. Paul has insisted that we “were dead” in our “trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), so that we are not able to do anything to initiate our salvation. Paul thus explains the agency of our salvation: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). So “by grace” means “because God graciously saved, making us alive with Christ.” This is why Paul literally writes, “by the grace you have been saved.” It is not by grace as a principle that we are saved, but by the particular grace which God has given us in Christ that we gain salvation.
So what is faith’s role? To answer this, Paul continues, “through faith” (Eph. 2:8), that is, faith “in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). The key preposition for faith is “through,” expressed by Paul’s use of the preposition dia. In the construction used here, dia refers to the means or instrumentality by which we are saved. We are saved by God’s grace—grace is the ground and agency of our salvation—through faith, which is the means by which we receive the gift of salvation. Faith is viewed as a channel, so that just as water flows through a pipe, God’s gracious gift of salvation is received through our faith.
When we line up the relationship between grace, faith, and salvation in terms of these prepositions, we discover a glorious gospel. It is because our salvation is “by grace” that we may rest all our hopes upon God. God does not and can not change, and so his grace is completely reliable. God’s gifts—and salvation by grace means that salvation is God’s free gift—are never taken back (cf. Rom. 11:29). If we have been saved by grace, we have been saved by God, and what God begins he always finishes (cf. Phil. 1:6). So instead of worrying about our salvation we are freed to devote ourselves to praise. By grace! By God! What praise he deserves from us!
But how do I know that I have received this grace? The answer is “through faith” in Christ Jesus. We see this teaching again in Paul’s great statement of Romans 3:23-25: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” In this longer formula, Paul adds another prepositional phrase involving through and by: “through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Redemption is the means by which God gives us grace—salvation is through redemption—and Christ is the agent who provided this redemption—redemption is by Christ. Putting it all together, we see that our justification is by God’s grace (God is the giver) through the redemption (redeeming blood is the means by which God gives his saving grace), which came by Christ Jesus (Jesus is the one whose blood is redeeming), and is received by actual sinners through faith (our faith is the instrumental means by which we receive God’s saving gift).
So what are we to trust? Are we to trust our faith? Not at all, for as Paul explains, “this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Even our faith is God’s gift, graciously given for our salvation. So does our faith matter at all? Yes, it matters very much! For without the faith that God gives, his grace cannot be received. Through faith, we can know that God has saved us by his grace.
Thank God for prepositions! Let’s pay attention to them, for in these little words we gain big truths for our growth in Christian truth.