Why is Faith not Works? (4:4-5)
Paul is reminding us of God being both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” [Romans 3:26]. Verse four is an interesting one. Why is work regarded as debt, or a wage (NLT) and not grace? It goes to the difference in the methods. Grace is that which is undeserved. The master gives because he chooses to. If salvation is of works the master gives because a debt has been incurred. I, as the worker, am entitled to my wage. This is not the way that God relates to the world or humanity. God does not owe anyone anything.
One of Jesus’ parables would help here. The parable of the master of the vineyard [Matthew 20:1-16], who went out at five different times looking for workers to help finish the work, sheds some light on what Paul is saying. At the end of the day all the workers show up, those that came at the end of the day first and so on back to the workers hired in the morning. Many people make the mistake, I feel, in talking about the workers. The story has nothing to do with the workers. The story has to do with the owner of the vineyard. Access to the vineyard is determined by the owner. The benefit(s) of working in the vineyard are determined by the owner. The key to the text is found in the exchange between the early workers and the owner. Listen to what happens.
And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” [Matthew 20:11-16, NRSV]
Now there is something significant in Matthew 20:4 that we need to see as well. To the last group of workers that the owner found close to the end of the day, the owner tells them that they will receive “what is right.” So here is the important question: Who determines what is right? The one making the offer. Not the worker. There is no favoritism. All are treated the same.
The point of Matthew 20:4 is this: grace is always about the goodness of God and never the merit of the sinner; the goodness of the owner and not the work (or wage) of the worker. This passage in Matthew 20 is about grace because it demonstrates, yet again, the goodness of God toward fallen humanity when it is undeserving of that goodness. My dad put it this way, “Grace is in the calling.” Not in the reward from the calling.
Paul then moves onto another example of genuine faith.
Grace Keeps God’s Wrath Away From Me (4:6-8)
Blessed is the man that does not get what they deserve: “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” Paul uses King David as another example here of faith, faith in the image of Abraham’s. David in Psalm 32 talks about the forgiveness of God. The forgiveness that God gives is of such splendor that David just can’t help himself. He must talk about it.
Paul then returns to the issue of circumcision. The reason to do so again is because Abraham was a pre-circumcision believer. The practice was not even in use until Abraham was instructed by God to do it. The need for the Roman believers to understand this would keep them from falling into a lie about God’s expectations. God did not require them to become Jews before become Christians. Faith in God’s promise to saved all who believe, through Jesus Christ is what’s required.