Is Paul saying in Romans 4:4-5 that only if we don't work then God will make us righteous?
"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, 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 4:4-8).
In any book, if you don't consider all that the author said, you could make conclusions that the author never intended. The theme of Romans is declared at the beginning and end of the book. Jesus Christ was "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ" (Romans 1:4-5). And concluding the book, Paul said, "Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now has been made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures has been made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith -- to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen" (Romans 16:25-27). Paul saw his duty in preaching the good news about Jesus Christ was to bring about obedience to the faith.
In chapter 1 of Romans, Paul proves that the Gentiles did not follow God. In chapter 2 he shows that even though they had the law, the Jews didn't follow God perfectly either. Thus, both Jews and Gentiles needed salvation from their sins. Starting with Romans 3:21, Paul shows that this salvation from God was spoken of in the law, but it was not based on the law. Even though the law does not give salvation, it doesn't mean it was useless. "Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law" (Romans 3:31).
Paul then illustrates his point in Romans 4. In Romans 4:1-2, he addresses the question: "Did Abraham earn his justification?" The answer is that God said Abraham's justification came about because of his faith. Abraham's justification was not earned.
A second illustration is based on your job (Romans 4:4-5). "When a person works at a job, is his wage earned or due him?" If you are an employer, what would happen if you did not pay your employee? You would end up in a huge amount of trouble because that employee earned his wages. "You shall not cheat your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of him who is hired shall not remain with you all night until morning" (Leviticus 19:13).
Now, contrast this with the chores you do at home. It is still work, yet we do not expect payment. Of employment and chores, which more closely matches salvation by God? Is righteousness earned or owed to a person? The answer is "no." Consider that if righteousness were owed, then what has every man earned in light of what Paul proved about the Jews and Gentiles? "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The only debt we have incurred before God is that of death for our sins. We cannot earn righteousness. Any righteousness on our part comes from God forgiving our sins (Romans 4:6-8).
To emphasize the point, Paul addresses the question in Romans 4:9-13, "Is it possible for the law to make a person righteous?" Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 where God declares Abraham to be righteous. Yet Abraham was not circumcised, as the law required, until thirteen years later in Genesis 17. Hence, you cannot say that Abraham’s righteousness came because he kept the provisions of the law.
Reversing his argument, Paul points out that if the law could save a person, then faith would be unnecessary (Romans 4:14-17). However, it is the law that Paul proved no one could keep. Therefore, faith is necessary. With faith, we can see the grace of God in our salvation. Our salvation wasn't owed to us, it is a gift given to us by God. Since salvation comes through faith, then the pathway is opened to any believer, not just the physical descendants of Abraham who were given the law.
I can understand that if someone only looked at Romans 4, you might come away with the idea that faith and works are contrasting ideas. But recall that Paul’s intent was to encourage the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5). He proved that everyone has sinned. Relying on the works of the law alone cannot save because one violation of the law brings total condemnation (Galatians 3:10-14). Hence, no one is able to earn salvation because we all earn condemnation.
Since man is unable to rescue himself, it required God to bridge the gap. The sacrifice of Jesus paid the debt owed by sin and our response to that gracious gift should be faith.
The Gentile's vision of righteousness was that righteousness was based on the idea of works alone. The Jewish vision of righteousness was that righteousness was based on heritage alone or heritage combined with works. Neither group placed any credence on faith. What Paul proved is that neither heritage nor works alone can save. Yet Paul never said that works are unnecessary; look at Romans 2:5-8 if you think otherwise. Paul emphasizes what makes a difference. It is not the works that make a difference, but the faith. Paul is addressing those who would isolate works from faith. Works done to earn salvation will not lead to salvation. But works done because of belief in Jesus; works done in patience, seeking God’s glory, and desiring immortality will save (Ephesians 2:10).
This is why James is not in disagreement with Paul. Instead, he is addressing another group – those who would try to isolate faith from works, which leads to similar problems.