Romans 4:4 “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.”
Leave church for a moment. Go to your workplace. See how things work there. Whether you punch a clock and work with your hands, or sit behind a desk and push paper, or travel around trying to push a product, what happens every week or two? You get a paycheck. You expect that paycheck. You demand that paycheck, because you earned it. Your employer isn’t doing you any favor by paying you. He owes you. If he were to put on some big display every time he payed you, as though he was going beyond the call of duty by giving you this money, you would think he was being absurd. He has an obligation to pay you for your work.
If our own good works made us righteous in God’s eyes, if we earned heaven by the way we served him, wouldn’t the same be true? God would owe us. Giving us eternal life would be an obligation. He wouldn’t use words like grace, or gift, or free. He would fork over the goods and be quiet about it. He would tell us what a fine job we had done and leave it at that.
It appeals to our pride to try to save ourselves this way. We might even wonder why we shouldn’t go this route. If you go back and read the whole context of the book of Romans up to this point, you will see how impossible Paul makes this to be. In the book of Revelation the Apostle John warns people who are confident about themselves, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” We’re not just a little behind when it comes to giving God what he demands. Spiritually, we are flat broke. We aren’t just a little weak. We are crippled, and blind, and even dead.
The attitude that wants to work out our own way to God, our own way to perfection, our own way to heaven only drives us farther away. No one ever gets closer to God by trusting more in himself. No one ever loves God more by believing he has received less from him. The work for your wages method deadens faith.
Then we see the other side of Paul’s illustration. “However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” If we don’t work for our place in God’s heart and in God’s home, there is only one other way to get it. It has to come to us as a gift. We simply trust that God will give it to us.
The God who became a man and died on a cross even “justifies the wicked.” The gift goes to those who have been working for the competition. The Lord credited righteousness to drunks like Noah, murderers like Moses, adulterers like David, cowards like Peter, skeptics like Thomas, and persecutors like Paul. No matter what our great failings may be, he invites us to trust him and be confident that he will credit us as righteous people, just like them.
With the God of grace, everyday is payday. By faith, you and I are on his payroll, too.