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As I have written in previous articles, a good English translation can go a long way in helping the reader of God’s word understand the text, but there are times where a consideration of the original language can help that same reader go even farther. One such text is Ephesians 2:8-10. It reads as follows in the UASV:
Ephesians 2:9 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
9 not a result of works, so that no man may boast.
Ephesians 2:10 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
The question, which is often raised by interpreters, is to what the pronoun “this” refers to. The natural reading of the English would indicate that it refers to the word “faith” in the preceding sentence, since normally in English the pronoun would refer to the nearest noun to which it can refer. However, an examination of the Greek brings up a difficulty with this reading, which makes that interpretation nearly impossible. Before I explain in-depth, however, I have to go over some details of Greek grammar, which will help make this discussion intelligible to those who have not studied Greek.
Greek nouns have the qualities of number (singular or plural), case (the noun changes it’s ending depending on whether it is the subject, object, or some other usage), and gender (masculine, feminine, neuter). English nouns really only have the first quality, number. Nouns in English reveal their usage dependent on word order. In the sentence, “The students learn Greek” we know that “students” is the subject and “Greek” the direct object based on their placement in the sentence. Switching the word order would make nonsense out of the sentence. In Greek though, you could interchange the word order of the two words, and the sentence would mean exactly the same thing. English nouns also really do not have grammatical gender. They are either personal (he or she) or impersonal, (it). Grammatical gender in Greek is also quite arbitrary. The word for “tree” is neuter but the word for “field” is masculine. There is nothing mystical or meaningful about grammatical gender. It is simply a grammatical category.
Now that leads us to pronouns. Pronouns in Greek have the same qualities listed above as do nouns in order that the person hearing or reading the language may know in each instance to what noun the pronoun refers, the pronoun’s antecedent. The general rule is that the pronoun will have the same number and gender as the antecedent, but it will get its case ending from the way it is used in its own clause. This means that normally there is very little ambiguity as to which noun a pronoun refers to. If the noun is masculine singular, so will the pronoun be. If the noun is feminine plural, the pronoun will match it.
Now the problem with the pronoun this (Grk., τοῦτο, touto) is that it is neuter. That means that it cannot refer to the word faith, because the word for faith in Greek (πίστις, pistis) is feminine. Making it refer to faith would then violate this basic rule. So to what noun does the pronoun refer? Now we run into real trouble because the word for grace (χάρις, charis) is also feminine. So to what does the neuter pronoun refer?
Several theories have been advances to explain this. One is that it is possible in Greek for a neuter pronoun to refer to an antecedent that has a different gender. It is rare, but it can happen. As Wallace points out, though:
While it is true that on rare occasions there is a gender shift between antecedent and pronoun, the pronoun is almost always caught between two nouns of different gender. One is the antecedent; the other is the predicate nom. In Acts 8:10, for example (οὗτός ἐστιν ἡ δύναμις τοῦ θεοῦ), the pronoun is masculine because its antecedent is masculine, even though the predicate nom. is feminine. 
We do not have such a construction here (“gift” is the subject of an implied “is,” and so is not a predicate nominative), so a “gender shift” is highly unlikely.
Another explanation is that while there is no preceding noun in the context that is neuter, there is a noun following in the next clause that is neuter, the word for gift (δῶρον, doron). However, while word order does not make much of a difference in the overall meaning of a sentence when it comes to the subject or direct object, it does matter in this case. “This” would have to be in the same clause as gift and be directly preceding it to mean “this gift,” which would further require rewriting the prepositional phrases to make better sense of this meaning.
Others have argued that what Paul had in mind was the verbal idea contained within the idea of faith, or grace, or being saved. However, having a pronoun, which agrees with the actual antecedent in gender, would remove any ambiguity and emphasize the verbal idea of the noun just fine. This explanation is also highly theoretical, with no parallels at least within the NT, and none of which I know elsewhere in Greek literature.
There are two other explanations, which are much more likely. The first is that we do not ignore the word and (καί, kai), before the word this. The combination is sometimes used adverbially to mean “especially.” If this is the case, then we should render “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this especially is not from yourselves, but is the gift of God.” This is a plausible explanation of the grammar of the passage and resolves the problem by declaring that “this” is not actually a pronoun but used as an adverb. It also emphasizes the fact that “being saved” is not something that arises on the part of “you,” but the source is God.
The second of these is that “this” refers to the entire preceding clause. It is a regular feature of Greek grammar to use the neuter to refer to a complex of ideas, sometimes called a conceptual antecedent. Grammatically this is often a preceding clause. In this case, it is being saved by grace through faith that is seen as not from “from yourselves, but a gift of God.”
What I would like to point out here with regard to these last two is that there is very little difference in meaning and application between the two. Both emphasize that salvation is God’s free gift. The major difference is the source of faith. If we follow the adverbial construction, then whether or not faith itself is a gift must be determined from other passages of Scripture. The passage would not exclude faith as part of the gift, but neither would it directly state it. If, however, “this” refers to the entire preceding clause, then faith is clearly included as part of the gift.
I believe that there is a preference for the latter interpretation, for the simple reason that the adverbial use is somewhat rare and using the pronoun of a conceptual antecedent is more common. Another consideration is the parallelism of the passage (though this is an exegetical consideration, not strictly one of Greek grammar and syntax). Since “it is a gift from God” is parallel to “you are saved by grace through faith” and “this not from yourselves” is parallel to “not from works” one would expect “this” to have a specific antecedent, and not to be adverbial.
Whether we take the adverbial or the pronominal interpretation here, by considering the Greek, we gain a better appreciation for the range of interpretation allowed by the passage, and the fact that as Christians we owe thanks to God alone for our salvation.
CPH NOTE: The whole arrangement for salvation is an expression of God’s grace that is not deserved. There is no Scripture in the entire Bible that tells us that the offspring of Adam can gain salvation on his or her own. It does not matter how grand or impressive their works might be. Salvation is a gift from God given to anyone who puts faith into the ransom sacrifice of the Son, Jesus Christ. Faith is active and living, it is not so much something Christians have but rather something Christians do. – Edward D. Andrews.
Some Related Articles
- Why Is the Greek Verb Pisteuo (faith, Believe, trust in) Rendered Differently at Times?
- How Are We to Understand Faith Without Works is Dead?
- CHRISTIANS Saved Through Faith
- THE APPALLING SIN OF UNBELIEF IN JESUS CHRIST
 Wallace, D. B. (1999). Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics – Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (334). Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software.