Words And Things: All About “This” (Part 5)

“This” is not very interesting. In fact, when studying a foreign language “this,” “that,” and “the other” are the kind of words that are easy to overlook and hard to memorize. Like “who,” “what,” or “why?” Why? In isolation, they seem abstract and hard to pin down. But in context, “this” and its brethren can sometimes be quite important for interpretation as in Ephesians 2:8 in particular. Let us look at the main meanings of “this” first, then at its use in the Ephesians passage.

“This” is called a “near demonstrative pronoun” or simply “near demonstrative” for short (Greek houtos). It is “near” because it points to something close at hand in the context rather than to something farther away. One uses the far demonstrative, “that” (Greek ekeinos) for the more distant thing. For example, both “this” and “that” are used together here: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These (things) you ought to have done, without neglecting those (things)” (Matt 23:23). The near demonstrative “these (things)” refers to closer “justice and mercy and faithfulness,” while “those (things)” refers to tithing which is farther away (see also both in James 4:15).

Sometimes, though, the Greek near demonstrative may substitute for a simple personal pronoun (as in John 1:2, “He was in the beginning with God”). This is the case when an author wants to avoid emphasis which the personal pronoun may sometimes convey (as in John 2:25, “[F]or he himself knew what was in man”). In other cases the near demonstrative may be used with a derogatory tone of voice: “But they all shouted out as one: ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’” (Luke 23:18).

Normally, though, the near demonstrative has a pretty plain function to point to something near at hand. This is the case in Ephesians 2:8, a favorite of Calvinists (or more properly Augustinians) to show the fact that all of our salvation originates from God. Let us turn there now.

Ephesians 2:8–9 reads as follows with our target word highlighted: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from you, it is God’s gift, not from works, so that no one may boast.” The main question is: To what does “this” point in this verse?

Calvinism holds that faith itself is a gift from God as the fruit of regeneration. We do not deny that we believe of our own volition, but in ourselves we cannot believe without God’s enablement. Hence, it would be attractive to take “this” as pointing to “faith” in Ephesians 2:8 as follows: “. . . saved through faith, this (faith) is not from you, it is God’s gift.” But this option does not work because Greek nouns and pronouns have gender forms (like many modern languages), and “faith” (Greek pistis) is feminine while the near demonstrative in Ephesians 2:8 is neuter in form. But we Calvinists still see faith as God’s gift in this verse as we will see.

Some interpreters point out that the word “gift” (Greek dôron) is neuter, and take “this” as pointing to God’s gift as so: “. . . this (gift) is not from you, it is God’s gift.” While this is possible, it still leaves us with the question: What gift—faith, grace, salvation, or what?

The solution to all these questions is actually quite easy to produce, because the neuter near demonstrative pronoun “this” is fairly common in this situation and has an exact English equivalent. Let me illustrate with this example: “If you visit San Diego, make time to go to Mission Bay and rent an outboard fishing boat. Get some live anchovies from the bait barge nearby, and fish right around the barge. I once caught a big barracuda there. This is sure to be the highlight of your trip.” To what does “this” refer here? It would be incomplete to say it refers only to one element of what was said; it refers to them all: going to Mission Bay, renting a boat, buying anchovies as bait, and fishing near the bait barge. (I really did catch that barracuda there by the way!)

You will see “this” used to point to a whole statement in many places in the New Testament, but particularly interesting examples in Paul’s writings are: Ephesians 6:1; 1 Corinthians 6:6, 8; Philippians 1:22, 28; Colossians 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 5:18; and 1 Timothy 2:1–3. Here is what is happening in Ephesians 2:8–9: “this” refers to the whole statement—the “gracious salvation that comes through faith” is all from God as his gift, it does not originate with us. Even our act of believing is part of God’s gift, as is actually said more explicitly in Philippians: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29; ESV). The clincher for us on this position is what Paul has emphasized in the earlier verses of Ephesians 2: we all were dead in our transgressions and sin and imprisoned in the grim army of the evil prince of darkness (Eph 2:1–3, 5). The amazing love of God delivered us and enabled us to believe while we were his hopeless enemies (cf. Eph 2:11–12) by making us alive together with Christ and seating us at his right hand in glory (Eph 2:5–6). In the end, what really animates Calvinism and Calvinists is this glorious, gracious gospel.

© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved. Reprinted on the Heidelblog by permission.

This article was first published on the WSC Blog in 2011.

You can find the whole series here.


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One comment

  1. Excellent analysis, especially pointing out the neuter gender of “touto” compared to the feminine gender of “pistis.” I am slowly recovering my Greek after decades of neglect and particularly appreciate pointers like this.

    The final interpretation/exegesis is also well done…since I don’t see any other neuter noun close enough by for “touto” to point to. Thank you for this! More like it, please.

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