Romans 4:1-3 (ESV) 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. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
We see that chapter 4 is a continuation of chapter 3, as the apostle brings up THE patriarch of the Jewish faith as the test or proof of his point that the works of man play no part in the redemption of sinners. The question to the Jews is intended to provoke a response – of course Abraham gained right standing with YHWH! Paul identifies with the Jews, observing that Abraham is their – the Jews’ – forefather according to the flesh. This phrase represents a critical idea. Recall that in his greeting, Paul refers to David as Christ Jesus’ father according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). He will develop this further in this epistle, in addition to the word “father.” He leaves that phrase hanging – I wonder if his audience caught the parallel with David and Jesus. As it is, no doubt the Jews readily agreed with Paul’s statement – they will soon find out the limitations of this fleshly relationship.
Building on the implied agreement that Abraham had right standing with God, the apostle asks how it came about. Was it by works he had done? If so, Abraham would have something to boast about. And this was the practice of the Jewish leaders in this day. Recall Matt 6, where Jesus talks about those who love attention when give money or pray. These people did their religious works and believed they had something to boast about, to make a public display of themselves. Not too far different, in my opinion, from how the so-called priests of Rome parade up and down the streets with the communion cracker in a fancy box mounted on top an ornate pole as ignorant and superstitious people pay homage.