It is not often that I hear a clear exegetical error in a sermon in my church. But I heard one last night. The preacher at the evening service, not the pastor, claimed that faith was a gift of God, and appealed to Ephesians 2:8 for support:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God …
Ephesians 2:8 (TNIV)
Well, it is not surprising that the preacher interpreted the verse in this way. (I don’t remember which Bible version it was quoted out of, perhaps NIV whose wording here is quite similar to TNIV’s.) In the English it certainly looks as if “this” refers back to “faith”, or else perhaps to “grace”.
But in the Greek text of this verse the word translated “this”, touto, cannot refer back to the words for “faith”, pistis, or “grace”, charis. That is because touto is a neuter pronoun, and cannot agree with either of the feminine nouns pistis and charis.
If you doubt that this can be so clear, consider this English sentence: “With John’s help Mary gave me what I need – it was wonderful.” If someone (probably someone who didn’t know much English) said that “it” here referred to Mary, or to John, then we English speakers would immediately know this was wrong, as “it” cannot refer to a person – and so in this sentence must refer to the whole situation.
Similarly in the Greek of Ephesians 2:8 the neuter pronoun touto can only refer to the whole situation. What is described here as the gift of God is not faith, or grace, but the entire process of the readers’ salvation.
The problem is really with how this verse has been translated. As English does not make gender distinctions in the same way as Greek, a straightforward English translation of this verse is misleading. RSV, NRSV and ESV do somewhat better than NIV and TNIV here, with “this is not your own doing”, as “doing” cannot easily refer back to faith. But to make the point really clear the whole verse needs to be rephrased, perhaps like the following:
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.
Ephesians 2:8 (NLT)
Now our preacher last night was not using this verse to prove Calvinism or something similar. But it has in the past been misused in this way. There is a possible argument from 1 Corinthians 4:7 (already used by Augustine of Hippo) that faith is a gift. And certainly faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:9 – but this faith is usually understood as something different from saving faith in Jesus Christ. However, if you want to argue this point, that saving faith is a gift from God, you need to find evidence other than Ephesians 2:8.