(Rom 4:5 ESV) And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
Does this mean that Christians aren’t expected to do good works? The verse sure seems to be saying that Christians are those who do not work.
Context, of course, is critically important.
(Rom 4:4-5 ESV) 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,
Paul contrasts the one who receives a gift with the one who receives wages. The wage earner has to work to receive his wages. The recipient of a gift does not.
But the recipient of a gift might work very hard — just not to receive the gift. The point is not that Christians don’t do good works but that they don’t earn their salvation with good works.
(Rom 4:6-8 ESV) 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Forgiveness is not dependent on works. Period. Paul could not be more plain. And “works” is not limited to the Law of Moses. After all, we next read —
(Rom 4:9 ESV) 9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.
(Rom 4:13 ESV) 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
The covenant of salvation by faith goes all the way back to Abraham! — hundred of years before there was a Law of Moses. And Paul uses the covenant of Abraham to explain his statement that we’re saved by faith and not works — which would be absurd if “works” were limited to the Law of Moses.
But, of course, this leaves open the very difficult question: If we’re forgiven and saved by faith in Jesus, not works, why bother to do works? And it’s a fair question, because it’s a question that Paul had to frequently respond to.
Now, it’s important to know that Paul repeatedly responds to this question, and yet his modern readers repeatedly don’t understand his answers. The reason, I believe, is that we read both with false assumptions and missing some critical elements of Paul’s worldview — that is, he often assumes too much about our understanding (not the understanding of his First Century readers), and we come in assuming too much about his understanding.
These kinds of failures to communicate are inevitable when we study texts 2,000 years old written by a Jewish rabbi who followed a Messiah he encountered in heaven. To overcome the problem, we have to approach the text with great humility — not merely wanting to know the truth but being willing to pay the price to learn the truth.
What’s the price? Well, I’m not sure I’ve learned it all yet, but part of it is a willingness to learn much more of Paul’s scriptures — the Old Testament. We must learn to think like a First Century Jew to understand the words of a First Century Jew.
Thus, we must take Paul’s references to Abraham and David with the utmost seriousness. He’s not just quoting them as though from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He’s extracting key pieces of God’s story — his engagement with humanity — not only to prove his point but to reveal the flow of God’s redemptive mission. You much better understand Romans if you understand how God dealt with Abraham and David.
You see, God was a God of grace and faith for Abraham and for David. He forgave, not based on their works — indeed, in David’s case especially, despite his works — based on their faith. Abraham and David point toward Jesus and Romans.
But Abraham and David both did good works. Both were honored for their works.* Both were — most of the time — deeply committed to God. No one could fairly refer to either them as a man “who does not work” but neither worked to earn his salvation and relationship with God. Rather, both were chosen by God long before they’d done anything.
So why did they obey? To earn God’s election? No, they were already elected. Then why?
Because God would have disowned them had they disobeyed? But they did disobey. And God didn’t disown them.
But they didn’t always disobey. They mainly obeyed — often imperfectly (I’m assuming you’ve read the (true) stories. If not, this whole line of thinking will make no sense at all.) — but they obeyed. They were obedient, but flawed, broken, and prone to huge errors at times. And God stuck by them throughout.
Their election did not come and go based on this sin or that. They were elected and stayed elected, but that was not true of Saul, for example — and so falling away is quite possible. And so, it’s possible to be elected and remain so until death, and it’s possible to be elected and to fall away. But the election doesn’t come and go with each sin — even some really big ones.
And so, why did Abraham and David obey — as well as they did? If adultery with Bathsheba could be forgiven without so much as a sacrificed sparrow, why not commit adultery every night?
But, you see, to approach the question this way is to presume that humans are governed by external law. The false assumption is that we people behave entirely based on rewards and punishments meted out by God. It’s all very Skinnerian — as though we humans are governed solely be reward and punishment — like B. F. Skinner’s rats.
But the reality is that humans are all about relationships. We are defined by our families, our spouses, our community — even our churches. And we often do things for love that we’d never do for money or out of fear. Gratitude is a far bigger motivator than fear of hell.
Do you doubt me? Ask the Baptists who are told they can’t fall away and so who have no fear of hell at all. Why do they tithe and commit to personal evangelism? Ask the Reformed Church founded by Zwingli and Calvin — who denied the possibility of falling away and yet converted entire nations, all the while insisting on modest living and hard work — the “Protestant work ethic” — with no fear of damnation.
So why do so many wonder why Christians should obey if they are saved by faith? Because– I would posit — they don’t understand human nature as well as God and his Holy Scriptures.
I prescribe a restudy of the narrative of the Scriptures. Read Genesis. Read 1 and 2 Samuel. Read the stories we teach middle schoolers — with eyes retrained by Jesus and Paul.
That’s the (relatively) easy question. The hard question is: for those who’ve been saved but who live lives of Christian indolence — the lazy — how do we motivate them?
Before we can answer that, we have to ask: Why should we care? And we should. But why? Are their souls at stake?
There’s an argument to be made that their souls are indeed at stake, but let’s not go there. It won’t be nearly as instructive as looking for a better, deeper reason. And seeking motivation there won’t work because the lazy already know all about that — and guilt and fear are ineffective, counter-productive motivators, purely for the immature. If we don’t get past those, we can’t truly obey.
After all, if I love God solely out of fear of hell, I really just love myself. If I worship God solely out of fear of hell, I’m really only thinking of myself. Sometimes the doing leads to the feeling — which is why we tell our children to apologize even when they don’t mean it — but we really, really want our kids to feel it — and God does, too.
Well, what about degrees of reward? Doesn’t Jesus teach that? And, arguably, he does. But I’m sure the lazy have already figured out that the worst mansions in heaven are still mansions.
What about … what about ignoring what we read in the tract racks and periodicals and instead looking to see how Paul explains it when confronted with exactly this question.
* It is forbidden to read Romans through the lens of James. The fine Christians in Rome who received Paul’s epistle did not have tabbed New Testaments with James cross-referenced. They just had Romans — and the Old Testament. Therefore, we cannot read Romans as though our favorite text in James were pasted on top of it. It’s forbidden by common sense hermeneutics. We read Romans as the Romans were intended to.
So what about James? Well, we have to be patient and finish understanding Paul’s thought — from Paul and not James — before we even consider tabbing over to James. Otherwise, we’ve only exegeted a re-constructed text that we re-assembled to suit our tastes rather than the Holy Spirit’s. That’s not exegesis; it’s imposing personal preferences on God’s holy word. Don’t do it.
Hence, the readers may not seek to override or contradict or limit Paul’s words by reference to James. We’ll get there in due course, but have enough respect for the Spirit and for the apostle to let Paul speak for himself.
(Reading James into Paul is so disrespectful of God’s word that I may delete comments that seek to re-write God’s Scriptures. Yes, yes, yes, we’ll get to James. Later. For now, we’re discussing Paul.)