Updated: May 30
By Luke Lancaster
Check out the previous article on Romans 3:28 for more background here.
One of the most frequently quoted passages which our Protestant brothers and sisters will quote to us is Romans 4:4-5, which says, "Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." They will argue that Catholics "work" for the "wage" of salvation, which Paul condemns here, and that they, on the other hand, do not work, but trust Him who "justifies the ungodly."
This is a faulty line of reasoning, for Paul is not referring to Catholics, but rather to the Jews who would "work" the Mosaic Law code of dressing a certain way, eating a certain way, etc. The Jews were trying to follow a legalistic contract, when in reality, they should be following Christ in the New Covenant, which is really the continuation of God's promise to Abraham. Catholics believe in this New Covenant understanding of salvation by "faith," which all started with Abraham.
Paul directs our attention to Abraham, who was called “righteous” by God not by obeying the Mosaic Law code, but by faith (Gen. 15:6). He had a loving, heartfelt, covenantal relationship with God. He did not act like the Jews, who would boast in circumcision and obeying the Law. He did not pridefully presume that he would go to Heaven as if it was some kind of contract. How could he, for Abraham was not circumcised, and the Law had not come yet. The Law would come 430 years after Abraham, when Moses was given it (Gal. 3:17)! Even then, the Law did not replace the way one has a good relationship with God.
The Jews saw themselves as a worker who received the wage of a right relationship with God (righteousness). They get circumcised, and God gives them the "wage" of declaring them just. Such an image is more of a legalistic contract, instead of a familial, covenantal relationship. The Jews were engaging in prideful, ritual presumption.
Jesus Himself spoke about how the Jews were doing this. The Pharisees in particular (which Paul used to be - Philippians 3:9) were prideful. They saw salvation as a wage which they deserved, instead of humble faith. Consider this parable Jesus said to them,
"told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted'" (Luke 18:9-14).
This prideful, Law-keeping Pharisee was wrong. What is correct, then? Living like the tax-collector and his humble, faith. Who in particular lived like the tax-collector? Abraham. He absolutely was not like a worker. He did not have to do anything: no circumcision, no avoiding pork, no feast days or any other Jewish practices to be right with God! Abraham simply believed that God was a trustworthy friend and followed Him. God called Abraham from the land of Haran, saying,
"'Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…to the land of Canaan" (Gen. 12:1-5).
God approached Abraham with a gift, and he did nothing to earn it. All that Abraham gave in return was faith and faithfulness to God (Heb. 11:8). He packed his bags and went off to Canaan. There is no distinction between his faith and his faithful works, for in Greek, there is one word "pistis," which is translated “faith” or “faithfulness” (Strong's Concordance). This justifying faith of Abraham was lived out again in Genesis 15, where Abraham believed God when he was told that he would have as many sons as the stars in the sky. The text says explicitly that Abraham was reckoned “righteous” by his faith (Gen. 15:6).
Abraham is the model for anyone who wants to have a good relationship with God. Paul says, “And to one who does not work [by keeping the Law without grace] but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness [like Abraham]” (Rom. 4:5). Any man, whether he is a terrible sinner or even a pagan Gentile, can be justified by God – if he responds to the Gospel with faith. For just as Abraham was offered a gift and faithfully followed it, so we are offered a gift and need to faithfully follow it.
This great gift or “blessing” of righteousness given by faith and not works of the Mosaic Law is declared in the Psalms, “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin” (Rom. 4:8). Abraham was reckoned or considered “righteous” by God, and Paul connects that word “reckon” with Psalm 32, which says that a man is blessed when his sins are forgiven and not reckoned against him. Paul is saying that, just as Abraham is reckoned as righteous, and was not reckoned a sinner, so all people can follow Abraham’s example and be seen as “good” in God’s sight.
Our sins are forgiven when we have faith in God, and this has nothing to do with the yoke of the Mosaic Law (Rom. 4:9-10). This blessing is not just for the Jews, as Paul said before (Rom. 3:29), but for all people. God justifies both the Jew and the Gentile based on faith, without the need for circumcision or the other laws from the Mosaic Covenant. This is just like Abraham, who was justified “before he was circumcised” (Rom. 4:10). The reason he was not circumcised when God declared him just was “to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Rom. 4:11). Abraham is the father of us all, whether circumcised and living like a Jew or not. We are the children of God's promise to Abraham in Gen. 15, and not the slaves who live under the Mosaic Covenant (Gal. 4:23).
As we have seen, Protestants are incorrect to argue that Paul is arguing against Catholics in Romans 4:4-5. Rather, he is arguing against those who followed the Torah, which functioned as a yoke upon the backs of the Jews. Torah-keeping did not save, but rather humble faith and faithfulness, like Abraham. Let us remember that Abraham was not justified only once in Gen. 15:6. He lived a life of faith way back in Gen. 12, and that was the same faith which God declared was just in Gen. 15 (see Hebrews 11:8-22). Finally, Abraham was faithful by offering Isaac in Gen. 22. This did "by faith" according to Heb. 11, and that outward faith justified him (James 2:21). Protestants say "faith alone," however, they are forgetting that faith includes faithfulness. Abraham was not justified only once, but maintained his justification through a whole life of faith and faithfulness to God.