“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).
The term “work(s)” is being used of perfect obedience. It refers to one who never, in an entire lifetime, has need of forgiveness of sin. He does not need the blood of Christ applied to his life. It refers to one who merits heaven. This is evident from the words which follow: “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin’” (Romans 4:6-8). “The man to whom the LORD does not impute sin is the pardoned person. God does not count his sins against him because he is no longer a sinner. The man to whom God imputes sin is the one still in his sin” (Robert Taylor Jr., Studies in Romans, p. 81). David needed forgiveness, and he was granted such by God’s grace, on conditions (Psalm 32:1-5 cf. Proverbs 28:13). Important: Meeting conditions for pardon is not the type of “work(s)” under consideration in Romans 4.
No one who has sinned (and that is all of us, Romans 6:23) can by a human act merit salvation (Note: I am not speaking of accepting God’s terms for pardon. I am speaking of meriting salvation). “For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted him for righteousness’… How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised” (Romans 4:3, 10). Many Israelites, and Judaizing teachers, put their trust in circumcision. However, Abraham was not circumcised, or even commanded to be, until he was ninety-nine years old (Genesis 17:10-11, 24-25). Yet, Abraham was counted righteous before this (Genesis 15:6), more than thirteen years before this (Genesis 17:25 cf. 16:15). Abraham lived a life of faith. (1) He moved his family from Ur (Acts 7:3-4; Genesis 11:31; 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7), and Haran (Genesis 12:4), because of his faith (Hebrews 11:8-10, 15-16). (2) His faith caused him to build altars and worship God wherever he went [e.g. Moreh (Genesis 12:6-7); Bethel (Genesis 12:8; 13:3-4); Hebron (Genesis 13:8)]. (3) He offered tithes (Genesis 14:19-20 cf. Hebrews 7:5-ff). All of these things were done before his circumcision. Abraham was not counted righteous because of flawless law-keeping (Romans 4:1-4). Abraham was not counted righteous by some meritorious act, as some seem to have considered circumcision (Romans 4:9-10). Circumcision, by itself, was not the important thing. Trust in God was. He was counted righteous because he lived his life by faith.
What about complying with God’s conditions for pardon? Salvation is a gift of God. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). Yet, gifts can be conditionally given (Romans 6:16-18 cf. 6:3-4). Naaman was required to dip seven times in the Jordan to be cleansed of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14). Who thinks that he earned such cleansing from leprosy? A man born blind was required to “go wash in the pool Siloam” in order to receive sight (John 9:1-11). Did this act merit sight? Or, was such simply a test of faith? Jericho was a gift to Israel (Joshua 6:2). Yes, they were required to march around the wall thirteen times, and blow trumpets, and shout (Joshua 6:3-5). Does such make such any less a gift? Of course not! There is nothing we can do to merit salvation (Romans 6:23). God certainly does not owe us salvation. However, we can comply with God’s conditions for pardon. It is only in this sense that we can save ourselves (Acts 2:40 ASV).