At the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday morning, President Donald Trump referenced one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament, but he did not cite the whole passage. By cherry-picking one verse, Trump turned a passage about being saved by grace and by the power of God into a paean to American greatness, a nationalistic subversion of God’s grace.
“Today, we praise God for how truly blessed we are to be American. Across our land, we see the splendor of God’s creation. Throughout our history, we see the story of God’s providence. In every city and town, we see the Lord’s grace all around us through a million acts of kindness, courage, and generosity,” Trump declared.
The president waxed eloquent on the selfless love of service members, teachers, police, and moms and dads. Indeed, these acts of kindness, service, and love are inspiring. The problem wasn’t Trump’s praise of such deeds, but his explanation of where they came from.
“As the Bible tells us, for we are God’s handiwork, created in Jesus Christ do to good works,” Trump declared. “America’s heroes rise to this calling. In their selfless deeds, they reveal the beauty and goodness of the human soul.”
Trump went on to praise the service of those who risked their lives to help hurricane victims — groups like the Cajun Navy. He praised firefighters who braved the flames to save people, police officers who ran into a “hail of bullets,” families who adopted children lost in the opioid crisis, and churches serving those struggling with addiction.
“All we have to do is open our eyes and look around us, and we can see God’s hand. In the courage of our fellow citizens, we see the power of God’s love and work in our souls, and the power of God’s will to answer all of our prayers,” Trump declared.
Like his State of the Union address last month, this speech soared on American greatness, and Trump’s praise for the love and kindness of Americans to one another is inspiring and fitting for a president of the United States. However, the verse he quoted is emphatically not about American greatness.
Trump quoted Ephesians 2:10, but that verse makes sense in context, and the passage begins in Ephesians 2:8. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).
In this passage, Paul clearly addressed Christians and only Christians. Those who believe in Jesus Christ have been saved from sin and death, and this is not something they earn, but it is a gift of God. No Christian should ever boast about believing in Jesus, as if it were proof of how good they are.
At the same time, just because Christians do not earn their salvation doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do good works for each other and for their fellow men. Rather, since they are freed from the burden of having to prove their goodness before God, they can love and serve others in the way God prepared them to do.
In this way, Christians are God’s handiwork, enabled to do the good works God prepared for them to do, without worrying whether or not those works are good enough to merit eternal salvation — they most certainly are not, only the sacrifice of Jesus can do so.
By divorcing Ephesians 2:10 from this context, Trump has cheapened God’s grace, suggesting that all Americans who love and serve one another are God’s handiwork. Instead, this verse suggests that only those who believe in Jesus Christ and are freed from the burden of having to prove themselves by good works are “God’s handiwork” in this sense.
None of this is to deny that large numbers of those Americans whose virtue Trump rightly praised are Christian. For those who do believe in the free grace of God through Jesus Christ, Trump is indeed correct to note that the good works they do are indeed God’s handiwork, prepared in advance for those redeemed by Christ to do.
Trump’s remarks clearly suggested that he was applying Ephesians 2:10 to all Americans, however. His passage began by emphasizing God’s role in American history.
The president rightly noted that the Declaration of Independence mentioned God no less than four times. He went on to say, “Our rights are not given to us by man, our rights come from our Creator. No matter what, no earthly force can take those rights away. That is why the words ‘Praise be to God’ are etched atop the Washington Monument, and those same words are etched into the hearts of our people.”
The Declaration of Independence indeed says our rights come from our Creator, and this is a fundamental principle from Natural Law, that all men and women are created equal in dignity. This idea developed over a long period of time, inspired by the New Testament, specifically Romans 2:14-15.
The American heritage is indeed inseparable from Christianity, but that does not mean all Americans are Christian or that all Americans need be Christian in order to acknowledge equal rights before the law. It also does not mean that the promises God gives to Christians in the New Testament (or to Jews in the Old Testament) can be willy nilly applied to America as a nation.
Trump’s nationalism and his willingness to praise God for the good things America has to offer are welcome corrections from the kind of guardedness President Barack Obama expressed in his speeches. (He even left Jesus out of the Christmas story while discussing “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”)
However, twisting Bible verses out of context also harms the cause of Christ in the public square, albeit in a different way. Ephesians 2:10 is an inspiring verse, but it is not about the good deeds of all Americans, and to apply it that way is to remove it of its true meaning and power.
National pride is a wonderful thing, but Trump should not allow it to cloud his understanding of salvation, or to lead his hearers astray. Salvation is worth infinitely more than American greatness.
Watch his remarks below.