"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness."
The one who works or doesn't work is Abraham. If Abraham worked, it would be reckoned to him as work. The paymaster doing the reckoning would figure how much pay for how much work and cut the paycheck. Does Paul mean to imply that Abraham didn't work? didn't do good works in the world? No, the next sentence clears that up a little. The works referred to are trusting in God: "the one who without works trusts." Abraham, without works trusted in God.
Whose works are we referring to now? This is the confusing part to me today. It sounds like roles have reversed. Abraham without receiving anything from God trusted God anyway, and this makes it sound like God is the one who did no works at this point. To some extent, that is true. Out of nowhere, God said to Abraham in the land of Ur, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you." If I got this message in my mailbox or inbox or voicemail, I'd call it spam. But without any basis, Abraham trusted God. The trust Abraham gave to God was a gift from Abraham to God.
But then, instead of cutting a paycheck, God cut a covenant with Abraham. The blessing to Abraham was a gift from God to Abraham. THEN God started doing works for Abraham. All those deeds in Psalm 105: "Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works." and the litany of God making the descendants of Abraham into a nation.
Paul's agenda in telling this story of Abraham is to convey the new gospel of grace. By grace you were save through faith. No works you did saved you. No works God did ultimately justified your faith. God finds a way to teach faith in our secret hearts. God gives us our salvation without demanding works.
One of the major lessons is the one-sidedness. As we disciples try to become more Christ-like, more God-like, more worthy to be called children of God, we can take a lesson form this one-sidedness. If there is a ruptured relationship, we don't have to let out hurt feelings prevent us from being the one to reach across the breach. We don't have to wait for the other person to become perfect, or even to acknowledge wrong. We can forgive unilaterally. We have been given such gifts, such grace. We can follow the example God has set and intentionally choose to be the one to give forgiveness and grace as well.