Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Romans 4:4-5)
Maybe it was Augustine who said, “What is grace? I know until you ask me. When you ask me, then I don’t know.” I understand the challenge.
These verses teach something powerful about grace – that grace stands opposite to the principle of works; grace has to do with receiving the freely given gift of God, works has to do with earning our standing before God. According to one Greek scholar (William Wuest), the word grace spoke of spontaneous, heartfelt generosity, given without expecting anything in return – something you would do for a dear friend. The New Testament takes this meaning and adds something powerful, that God gives His grace to the undeserving, even to enemies.
Under works – when wages are earned, what one receives is not counted as grace but as debt. A system of works seeks to put God in debt to us, making God owe us His favor because of our good behavior. In works-thinking, God owes us salvation or blessing because of our good works.
Under grace, it’s different. Salvation and blessing are not received by works, but given freely to the one who believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. Righteousness can never be accounted to the one who approaches God on the principle of works. Instead, it is given to the one who believes on Him who justifies the ungodly.
This is who God justifies – the ungodly. We might expect God would only justify a godly person, but because of what Jesus did on the cross, God can justify the ungodly. It isn’t as if God is happy with our ungodly condition. We are not justified because of our ungodliness, but despite our ungodliness.
But in Jesus, it’s real: faith is accounted for righteousness. Just as was true for Abraham, so our faith is accounted for righteousness. This was not some special arrangement for Abraham alone. We can enter this relationship with God also.
By this we understand that there are not two ways of salvation – saved by works through law-keeping in the Old Testament and saved by grace through faith in the New Testament. Everyone who has ever been saved –Old or New Testament – is saved by grace through faith, through their relationship of a trusting love with God. Because of the New Covenant we have benefits of salvation that Old Testament saints did not have but we do not have a different manner of salvation.
Stop thinking that you can earn God’s salvation or favor. The principles of works and grace stand opposite to each other. As systems, works is about earning and deserving. Grace is about believing and receiving. Believe and receive God’s favor today. The reasons are in Him, not in you.