Romans 4:4-5 “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Anyone who has had a job can understand the illustration Paul is using here. Even a child who has done some babysitting or lawn mowing can see the point. No one considers a paycheck a special favor received from your employer. We may be inclined to think that our employers don’t pay us enough for our work. We are always happy for more. Maybe we have even lobbied for it. But we are fully convinced that we deserve our paycheck and that our employer is fully obligated to pay us every penny. You might be offended if your paycheck came gift wrapped as though you were receiving something you were not owed. You would be outraged if your paycheck was never issued at all, and your employer had no intention of giving it to you in the future.
It is notable, then, that you don’t find the Lord using this kind of employer-employee language in his dealing with our salvation. He doesn’t “employ” us. He rescues us. He doesn’t pay us a wage. He gives us a gift. He doesn’t honor a contract. He keeps a promise, because he loves us unconditionally.
There is a place where God does pay wages, Paul later points out, but that is only the wages of sin. The amount marked on that paycheck is spelled D-E-A-T-H, death. No one is eager for that payday to come.
But someone might object that Jesus does use the servant-master picture in a number of his parables. And it is true. But this is never about earning our salvation. It is about the life we live in response to the one who has rescued us from our sins. Even then, Jesus later tells his disciples, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
The terminology of work and wages, then, simply cannot be made to fit what God has done to forgive our sins and consider us his righteous, guiltless people. The terminology of love and gift-giving fits it to a tee. The picture of a merciful Judge, and a courtroom acquittal of a criminal everyone knows is guilty, fits the Biblical accounts and Paul’s argument. He can even say that God “justifies the wicked.” Perhaps it goes without saying, but the “wicked” are never the “good and godly.” They are always the guilty. If God justifies them, then, the not-guilty verdict stuns the courtroom. Maybe it challenges our own belief. But this is precisely what God does in bringing forgiveness to sinners. Paul asserts, “to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” The terminology of the gospel demands an understanding like this.
Like us, Paul was a sinner looking for certainty and comfort. He discovered that a gracious God does not wait for us to stop falling into sin, or expect us to work off the heavy debt we have incurred. He paid sin’s debt himself with the blood of his Son. He receives us because he forgives us. His promise enables us to receive it all by faith.