The New Living Translations of Ephesians 2.10 says “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”
I’ve often heard this verse extolled as a sort of self-affirming mantra to fall back on when you’re feeling down about yourself. Most recently I encountered it in this tweet from Joel Osteen: “You are not average. You have been custom made. You are God’s masterpiece.”
Before we discuss the issues with being “God’s masterpiece,” let’s rebel a little and take a look at what the text really says.
The word the NLT translates as “masterpiece” is ποίημα, which means, according to BDAG: “that which is made, work, creation.” This meaning is clearly reflected in every other English translation of Ephesians 2.10. Of the 38 translations I surveyed, only the NLT used the word masterpiece. The most common word used in other translations was “workmanship,” as reflected in the NAS: “For we are His workmanship.” The NIV uses “handiwork,” the NRSV opts for the woodenly literal “what he has made.”
Ποίημα pops up two other times in the Bible, in Romans 1.20 and in the LXX in Psalm 143.5. The NLT translates these occurrences as “everything God made” and “what you have done,” respectively. In those same instances the NIV uses “what has been made” and “what (your hands) have done.”
So, simply speaking, ποίημα means something God has made. As Christians, God made us again in Christ. But does that mean we’re God’s masterpiece?
A masterpiece represent the pinnacle of creative achievement, a work that stands in contrast to creations that are not masterpieces. To say that something is a masterpiece is to say that there are other creations that are merely average. Masterpiece is a term of comparative evaluation, it’s a measure against inferior workmanship. To say that we are God’s masterpiece is to say that God has done work that isn’t masterful and that we are superior to that second-rate work. Needless to say, neither of those notions are theologically sound.
Ephesians 2.10 is talking about the work of God in creating a Christian and about the purpose of that work. It’s not an evaluation of that work in relation to non-Christians or to other Christians. It’s not a measure of our personal worth or relative value in the eyes of God. God’s work in us isn’t something we should boast about (Eph 2.9) nor is it merely an abstract undertaking to be valued as a purely artistic endeavor. It’s a creation with a purpose: to do good works.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but you don’t represent the height of God’s artistic achievement, a painting to be hung on the wall and valued above all others. Rather, if you’re a Christian, you’ve been made so by God for the purpose of doing good in the world. You’re not an esoteric piece of art, you’re a tool for good. Ephesians 2.10 isn’t a message to build our self-esteem, it’s a call to humbly live up to the mission that’s been put before us.