4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
Paul now explained the import of the quotation from Genesis 15:6 found in verse three. In this, he contrasted the function of works and the way of grace as means of salvation. These are two mutually exclusive ways of salvation.
4 Now to him who works,
This phrase harks back to verse two, where it referred to the false hypothesis of Abraham working for his salvation. Paul used Abraham, the most important figure to the Jew in the Old Testament, as a test case for salvation by faith.
the wages [reward, dues paid] are not counted as grace but as debt [something owed, an obligation].
Verse two indicates that an employee’s wage is what is owed him. He earned the wage by the labor he made for his employer. In this case, payment of wage is no gift but a “debt” owed to him.
The phrase “not counted as grace” is central to the argument of chapter four. “Grace” is the basis for God’s dealings with man. Grace is all that God is free to do for us because of the work of Christ. This means there is nothing against God’s character in giving salvation freely, without charge.
“Debt” and “grace” are polar opposite principles. If man can work for his salvation, God is indebted to him. However, we can only accept “grace” by faith, not works. Promise, grace, and faith are unalterably linked together for salvation.
Work versus grace is a stark contrast in the way God provides salvation.
God cannot pronounce right those who attempt to earn His favor by works. Justification is a gift. God will be placed in debt to no one. He will not allow us to pay for His gift. Man cannot help God with salvation. Justification is an act of God and God alone.
The workman works for wages; it is appropriate for his labor. Businessmen do not give their employees money without their working for it. Payment for work is at the heart of the business enterprise. No business could survive very long on the premise of doling out money freely. The world of the business contract expects payment for effort given to a company. The Bible does not argue against the idea of reward for work as a general principle—but when it comes to how God relates to man, that is a different matter. “Payment due” is not how God provides salvation. Work for reward is not grace.
God is not obligated to anyone for what they do for Him. An employer is obligated to his employees because they worked for their wages. No one can work for eternal life; it is something given by God—it is unadulterated grace.
Salvation by grace is contrary to how most people think religiously. The assumption is that God wants “good people” in heaven. Their argument goes something like this—“If I do the best I can by living as good as I can, God will accept me. For my shortcomings, I will trust my luck for that. I will rub my rabbit’s foot in hopes that I will make it.” If the rabbit’s foot was not good for the rabbit (since he is dead), why do we think that luck will help us? No, all we need to do is accept God’s verdict that we are ungodly sinners and then believe His solution for our sins—the death of Christ pays fully, finally for those sins.
The only kind of people God saves is the ungodly kind. God does not declare an ungodly man godly but pronounces righteous those who believe in the work of His Son.