“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, NOT OF WORKS, lest anyone should boast.”Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJV
The phrase “not of works” in this text is a reference to the unconditional election of God’s chosen people. We can know and be sure of this because the Apostle Paul uses a similar phrase in a larger discussion regarding election in Romans 9–
“And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, NOT OF WORKS but of Him who calls),”
Romans 9:10-11 NKJV
I address this point because I see many Arminians give lip service to the statement that salvation is not based on works, but is of the grace of God. However, when Arminians use the phrase “not of works” they are not referring to unconditional election and free and sovereign grace, they are referring to some idea that you can now opt into salvation if you pray a prayer and believe that salvation is freely given to all who pray the prayer. They will insist that they believe that salvation is not of works, but what they really mean is that because their false christ allegedly died for all men, salvation is obtainable upon the completion of a condition. For a moment in time, you can “cease working” because salvation is “free.” Of course, immediately after that, they will tell you that the responsibility to stay saved is now on you, and that if you backslide too much (how much is purely a subjective determination) you will lose your salvation. So much for salvation being “not of works.” This is blasphemy.
The reason that salvation is not of works is because God predetermined, before creation, for whom Christ would act as a substitute and savior. That people was chosen before creation to ensure that their works would not be considered when God made the choice about who to save or who to condemn. The reason God chose before creation was so that His purpose in choosing who to save and who to condemn would prevail, and that there would be no confusion about the Source of those decisions. The “not of works” that Paul mentions is to remind believers that their salvation is not because of them being particularly good, or particularly bad, or special in any way.
Rather, the “not of works” is meant to stress the immeasurable grace of God shown to people who did nothing to earn it, or lose it for that matter. It is there to remind them that salvation is a free gift from God, who in the richness of His mercy chose some to save, and that there was NOTHING in them that God looked at when He decided to save them. Salvation is 100% of the Lord. He chose to whom He would be merciful, and to whom He would not show mercy, all of this is to His glory, and He is worthy of praise.