Eli, I've been really struggling to come to grips with my own salvation and what it means to be saved by grace through faith and not of ourselves. Scripture on one hand talks as if we're saved entirely by God and we can be entirely passive while God amazingly saves our souls. On the other hand though, it talks as if it's dependent on us and our salvation is gained by us. I just can't come to grips with this.
I have shared your struggle, and there are answers, though let us remember that God has hidden his wisdom in a mystery that can only be revealed to men by the Spirit, so if we find ourselves wrestling with questions and difficulties it should not surprise us - it should drive us to our knees for grace to help us in our time of need. We are needy people who are entirely dependent on the Spirit. Nothing is by our might, but by God's Spirit alone. Those who know this groan, and those who don't deceive themselves with vain confidence.
Ephesians 2:8 is simple, as it was meant to be. "For by grace are ye saved through faith." Grace is how we are saved. Faith is the instrument by which grace save us. Swallowing is what brings bread down to my stomach, but swallowing does not fill me. Bread is what fills my stomach and gives nutrients to my body, though without swallowing I would never benefit from the bread. Likewise, faith does not save us, though grace comes to us through faith. If all we had was faith we would still be totally condemned, for as long as the law stands against us faith avails nothing, because all that would count is whether we kept the law (see Romans 4:14-16). Therefore, there must something that faith brings to save us. As Romans 5:1-2 shows us, faith brings us into the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that by faith we believe unto righteousness - the perfect righteousness of Jesus that is not ours, yet is accounted as ours. I think you know this already. This is the grace that the apostle is talking about in Ephesians 2:8 which saves us. Any man who is saved by grace must first believe in order to access that grace. That is what the preachers of the gospel do: they present the grace of Christ - the gift of righteousness - to people (the bread of heaven), and then they command them to believe (swallow). God commands/invites/beseeches everyone to believe, and the Bible refers to faith as "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5, 16:26), because by believing they obey God. "Obeying the gospel" (2 Thess. 1:8; 2 Pet. 4:17) is believing the good news of peace in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:13). This obedience of faith is repentance. A person turns away from whatever other thing he was believing and submits to the righteousness of God in Christ for salvation (Romans 10:3). Repentance is believing God: turning to God by faith in Christ, acknowledging that you are a sinner who cannot save yourself and submitting to/receiving the gift of imputed righteousness through Christ. You never find Paul in the book of Romans talk about repentance as if it were a turning away from a sinful lifestyle (not because we don't want to but because we cannot for justification!). Such a concept is not once mentioned! He affirms again and again that ungodly men are at once justified by faith in Christ: "But to him who works not, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted [Gr: unto] righteousness." (Romans 4:5) Faith is simple, easy, effortless - it is not a work; it is a rest from work and is simply trusting in the promise of Another (Hebrews 6:17-18). Faith is what receives the promise of grace, and grace does all the saving. But if it's so easy, why don't more people believe?
Ephesians 2:8 does not end there, however, for Paul reveals to us something further about faith: "...and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God." The only "that" that Paul could be talking about here is faith. He wouldn't even need to attach this additional clause were the issues of regeneration and election not even real - the verse would have been perfectly complete and coherent: "For by grace are you saved through faith: not of works lest any man should boast." Nor is Paul, by this second clause, simply restating the first part of the verse, for the "and" let's us know that he is not restating but adding to what he has said. But why add this extra phrase then, Paul? What are you getting at? Why did you need to say that: isn't it within the ability of every man to believe? Paul is not bringing in any shockingly new concept, for already in the letter he has spoken of election and regeneration in the prior chapter and half. But here he must bring it up again. A point of clarification is necessary.
The problem of belief/unbelief has nothing to do with ability or inability but with the heart. Every man has Christ offered to him, and God does not mock men with the gospel. He does not offer them life only to taunt them since they actually have no ability to receive it. May such a thought be removed far from us! God offers to all men the gift of righteousness freely and every man has the ability to choose whether they will receive it or reject it, thus making all men accountable for their choice. Men do not burn in hell because God rejected them but because they rejected God, and hell is a place where their guilt will be keenly known. No one will accuse God of not being merciful, for "whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Romans 10:13) They did not believe, and therefore they are lost. But the reality is, as is revealed to us in the Scriptures and by the Holy Spirit, is that not one (and there are no exceptions) will obey God and believe as He commands them to. Though all most certainly can, none will, thus adding guilt upon guilt. The issue is not ability, but unwillingness: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:27) "All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people." (Romans 10:21; see also Isaiah 28:12, 30:15, Jer. 29:19) It is in this recognition of the basic depravity of man (not that man cannot do any good, but that man will not do that good which is required of him) that we learn that the only hope for man is in the electing mercy of God, who "quickens whom He will" (John 5:21) and "has mercy on whom He will have mercy" (Romans 9:15). The promise of the new covenant is unlike the old covenant, which depended on us writing the laws on our hearts (Deut. 6:6-9). In the new covenant God alone is the one who takes away our old hearts of stone and gives us new ones; He puts His fear into our hearts and He does all the writing, all the saving and all the keeping. (Read Hebrews 8:6-12 carefully and ask yourself: "With whom was fault found in the old covenant? Who does what in the new covenant?") God will do that which we would not do ourselves. He circumcises our hearts so that we respond to His voice and believe on Christ. He takes away our unwillingness so that we willingly take refuge under His wing. Everyone who comes to Christ must first be drawn by the Father (John 6:65). Whoever hears God's word and believes must first be born of God (regenerated/quickened) by the Spirit (John 8:47; 1 John 4:5-6, 5:1). By this all the glory and work of salvation is actually God's, even though from a "street level" it may not seem that way. It appears as if the man was simply willing to believe... and in truth he was! But it was because of God. And so we give God the glory whenever we are willing and obedient (Philippians 2:13; 1 Cor. 4:7; Acts 13:48, 16:14), and whenever we are not willing or obedient it is we who are to blame. The mercy of God is what makes the difference, and God is not under obligation to prevent us from sinning, but He shall be praised when He does. Glory to God who has mercy on hardened rebellious sinners who otherwise would kick against the goads all the way to hell!
This almost always causes offense or fear, for we feel much safer when we are in control. It is more acceptable and comfortable to be an Arminian, but if we only knew the depths of rebellion that is in our own hearts, we would fear if the lot was in our hands! A dear sister cried, "Oh, if it is up to me I know I will not be saved!" We also fear that God will not choose us because we are still so gripped by self-righteousness: "God won't choose me because I'm too bad of a sinner. He elects those who are better than I." What a lie! God delights in saving sinners, and you are a sinner, and He has already invited you! Pour out your complaint before Him, for He is merciful and will never be accused of being unmerciful. Call out to God for salvation from yourself. Cry to Him: "God, circumcise my heart and take away my unwillingness! I need you to believe you!" That God is able to save unwilling sinners is the greatest of all wonders the Arminian knows nothing about. What a comfort to know that Jesus Christ died on the cross also for unbelief and unwillingness, for they too are sins - perhaps the very worst. And He died for our sins. There is hope for real sinners.
So grace is multifaceted: we are saved by grace, the grace of the imputed righteousness of Christ unto all who believe (Ephesians 2:8a). But we are also saved by grace, in that God's grace comes to us even before we believe, it meets us at our deadness, and gives the gift of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit. "Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, by (grace ye are saved;)" (Ephesians 2:5). Have you ever noticed that... that twice in this chapter it mentions we are saved by grace? But one refers to the gift of righteousness, and the other to the gift of regeneration. Both are by the grace of God, who is "the God of all grace" (1 Peter 5:10). Where would any of us be were it not for the relentless, pursuing, lavishing grace of God?
I love you brother. Hang in there, and put all your hope fully in the grace of our mighty God.