“Faith Clarified by Contrast”
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
Writers use contrast by laying two things side by side to emphasize their differences to make a point. Biblical authors used contrast all the time; light and darkness (1 Jn. 1:5-10), hope and despair (Eph. 2:1-10), or Paul’s contrast in the book of Romans of faith and works (Rom. 4:4-17).
The only way to be in good standing (“justified” or “righteous”) with God is through, what Paul calls, “faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). It is impossible for us to justify ourselves, especially with our poor track record. Paul outlines that all have sinned (Rom. 1-3) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23). But through the gospel our gracious God has opened up a way for sinners to come to Him and receive forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
By trusting in and responding humbly and obediently to Jesus’ self-sacrifice (“faith”) we can stand before God justified. This, in a nutshell, is the good news. God is not treating us as we deserve but treating us according to His mercy and grace (Psa. 103:10). He can forgive us and maintain His just nature because Jesus paid for our sin when He died on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
Paul’s contrast between faith and works shows how absurd it is to imagine we could ever be justified apart from God’s grace.
In Romans 4:4, he says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” That is, if we were to live in such a way that we deserved to be called “just” or “righteous” then the reward of eternal life would be a matter of debt rather than a matter of grace. If we “worked” for eternal life then God would be obligated to pay us.
Paul spent three chapters pointing out that no one, with the exception of Jesus, has ever lived a life deserving of such a reward (Rom. 3:19-20). Therefore, if any sinner is to be in good standing with God it will not be on the basis his “works”. He will not achieve good standing with God through a system of works but through a new system of grace, accessible only by faith.
Furthermore, if righteousness (“justification” or good standing with God) is rewarded on the basis of works which we have done, then grace has nothing to do with it (Rom. 4:16, 5). Works would rule out grace, the two being incompatible (Rom. 11:6). If God’s blessing is of grace, it cannot be of works. If it is of works, it cannot be of grace.
But does this mean we don’t do anything to receive God’s grace? What about baptism? Is it considered “work” in the context of Romans 4? If we are baptized to be saved from our sins are we attempting to be “justified by works”? Let’s find out.
The blessing of God (Rom. 4:9) is His forgiveness of our sin (Rom. 4:7-8) or, what Paul calls, being counted “righteous” by God (Rom. 4:3-6). In this context, we can use “blessing,” “forgiveness,” or being counted “righteous” interchangeably.
The person who is justified by works doesn’t need the blessing of God (forgiveness and righteousness) because he has already achieved good standing with God on the basis of his own conduct. This is what it means to be justified by works. Again, with the exception of Jesus, no one has ever done this!
Back to baptism. Were you baptized because you were already righteous and you were trying to maintain your personal righteousness apart from God’s grace? Absolutely not! You were baptized to obtain righteousness, forgiveness and life from God. You were baptized because you realized you were not righteous on your own, that you couldn’t be justified on the basis of your works and you needed God’s gift of grace (Acts 2:38).
Justification on the basis of works is justification based on innocence. One cannot be judged guilty if he has done no wrong. If you had a flawless record of conduct then you could stand before God pure and blameless. In fact, you could proudly say, “I deserve to be in heaven with God.”
But because salvation is based on God’s grace through our faith in what He has done for us, there is no room for our boasting! (Eph. 2:8-9) We don’t deserve God’s blessing but we enjoy it because He extended His grace and we responded faithfully to it.
Faith is the condition that must be met before being justified by God and baptism falls under the umbrella of faith. Baptism is a condition of receiving God’s blessing just as David’s confession of his sins was a condition of his forgiveness in Psalm 32:1-5. This is the very Scripture Paul used to prove the point that we are all justified by faith (Rom. 4:7-8). Baptism is an act of faith in the work of God not ourselves (Col. 2:11-12; Gal. 3:26-27).
Equally important to the physical act of immersion in water is the mindset of the one being baptized. It is absolutely essential that he understands that in his baptism he is appealing to God for a good conscience and for forgiveness (1 Pet. 3:21). The basis of that appeal is in the finished work of Christ, not our own work.
In baptism, a sinner is calling on the name of the Lord to wash away his sins by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16). Baptism is an act of faith, trust, obedience and confession unto salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). God has made this act of submission (baptism) part of coming to Him in faith and receiving His blessing. We are made righteous not on the basis of our works but on the basis of our trust in God’s work for us. Therefore, the good news from Habakkuk stands: “the just shall live by his faith”! (Hab. 2:4)