What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?
In Romans 1-3 God underscores, repeatedly and emphatically, that we have all sinned, that we are all guilty, that we all deserve judgment, that we are all under the holy wrath of God. Then, beginning in Romans 3:21, there is the abrupt But now! But now we can be right with God. Not by our good works or our merit or our religious effort, but by trusting Christ to save us. Now readers of Jewish background are probably thinking, "But what about Abraham, our founding father? He had lots of works. He obeyed God, he left his homeland, he got circumcised, he even obeyed God in being willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Was Abraham not justified by works?"
In chapter 4, God addresses Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith. Paul writes: "What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God" (4:1-2). Then, after raising these two questions about Abraham, Paul answers with Scripture: "For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'" (4:3).
Paul goes back to Genesis 15, which is the first passage talking about the righteousness of Abraham, the justification of Abraham. And how did Abraham gain that righteousness? Was it because he obeyed God, because he did good works, because he was good enough? No, it was because he believed God. He took God at his word. Thereupon, God declares Abraham righteous, right with God.
All through the Bible we see that we are made right with God through faith, not through works. For example, in the book of Romans, which is widely considered the most important theological book in the Bible, there are no less than 61 times that we have salvation by faith. In the Gospel of John, the only book in the New Testament which is explicitly written to unbelievers, the word faith, or believe, occurs 98 times. This includes the classic John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
It is true that there are a few difficult passages that don't sound like salvation by faith. But by contrast, there are scores and scores of passages that declare that we are made right with God by faith. A basic rule of Bible study: Interpret the unclear passages by the clear passages.
And what exactly is faith? It is trust, dependence, believing in Christ, taking God at his word. When you sit on a stool, you are trusting that that stool will hold you up. Imagine two stools sitting on a stage and you're sitting on one stool. You get up and sit on the other stool. You transfer your weight from one stool to the other. That's like biblical faith. You transfer your trust from yourself to Jesus. Biblical faith is a transfer of faith. It's a transfer from self-reliance to reliance on Christ.
This requires humility. You are basically saying to God, "I cannot do it. I cannot save myself. I am a sinner. Lord, I need you to save me." If that is your heart, God will sweep you up into his loving arms and save you completely.
Lord, all my hope, all my trust, is in Jesus.