In the fourth chapter of Romans, Paul continues the discussion about faith, this time focusing on Abraham. He points out that Abraham was the father of both the circumcised and the uncircumcised because it was his faith, not circumcision or works, that justified Abraham before God. To us today that may sound like a no-brainer; of course we know that the state of a man's foreskin doesn't make him righteous. But during Paul's day, the debate over whether believers must be circumcised was a big deal. This was something the Jewish people had done for a long, long time-- but Paul was pointing out to them that it's not outward appearance or actions that count as righteousness.
The circumcision discussion may not challenge our thinking in the same way it would have challenged Paul's audience, but think about this. Western culture focuses heavily on performance, and there are at least segments of Christian culture that focus on outward appearance and rules. In light of this, I wonder if the message that our works are not what justify us before God is just as hard to wrap our minds around as it was for the Jewish people when Paul told them that circumcision did not equal righteousness?
Near the beginning of the chapter, Paul says, "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 trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness." How often do we expect that if we just do what we're supposed to do, God will give us the wages we are due? How often do we believe that if we do the right things or act the right way or give enough, we will deserve to be rewarded by God? But really, we "deserve" no such thing on the merit of our own righteousness. Even our "righteous" works are like filthy rags, and it is by God's grace alone that we can have a relationship with him at all. It's a gift, not a right, not something owed to us in exchange for our good works.
I've heard so much talk about doing certain things in order to receive blessings from God. I would submit that perhaps we should stop worrying about what we can "get" from God, stop worrying so much about our own performance, stop focusing on rewards and rules, and instead simply focus on God. Let's build a relationship with him and allow him to transform our hearts, our desires, our actions, our lives. I'll put it this way: What's the point of giving God our filthy rags in hopes that he'll give us even more filthy rags? It's not about giving stuff to God or doing certain things so he'll bless us; it's about giving ourselves, our hearts, to him, surrendering and allowing him to transform us.
When we reduce our relationship with God to a give-and-take in which we receive our due wages for doing the right things, we are missing the point. This is not a transaction; it is about faith and grace and a transforming relationship with our Creator.