Illustrations are living examples of abstract truths. They plant the truth in the soil of real life. Even the strongest argument needs a living example to be persuasive. Jesus constantly uses illustrations. He helps listeners see by clothing spiritual truth in their everyday experience. He did not simply say the kingdom of God starts small and grows. He uses a living example: “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mk 4:31-32).
Similarly, Paul uses Abraham in Romans 4:1-3 as a living example of justification by faith. If Abraham cannot boast about his works before God because he was justified by faith, then none can boast about their works. The forefather of faith is a living and breathing example that God justifies through faith alone.
Paul shows how Abraham is justified by faith by asking two questions:
First, what did he gain according to the flesh (Ro 4:1)? Do Abraham’s works, many of them quite impressive, give him anything to boast about before God? The short answer is no. His works may impress people, but they do not move the needle for God. He has nothing in the flesh to boast about before God because “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Ro 8:8).
Since his works do not justify him, what is his justification before God? Paul answers this question by pointing to scripture (Ro 4:3). He quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” His righteousness is a gift (Ro 4:4-5) credited to him by God, which Abraham receives by faith. Paul argues that our righteousness comes from God counting the righteousness of Jesus to us and not from our works (Ro 3:21-26 & 5:17-21). God does not treat us any different than Abraham.
Abraham’s works are the outcome of faith and not the on-ramp of justification. Genesis 22 makes this clear. God tests his faith by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac (Gen 22:1). Abraham takes God at his word – “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (Gen 21:12) – and trusts that even if Isaac dies, God will raise him from the dead (Heb 11:19).
Abraham obeys because he believes. Even standing at the foot of Mount Moriah, he says, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (Gen 22:8). He believes in God’s promise about his son and operates by faith in that promise every step of the way. True saving faith bears the fruit of obedience to God.
Abraham’s works give him nothing to boast about before God because his works are born out of God’s work in him.
Jewish tradition taught that Abraham kept the whole law even before the law was given and was “perfect in all his deeds” (Jubilees 23:10). Tradition set Abraham up as the pinnacle of performance, earning God’s favor by his works. Paul, however, shows the opposite is true. Abraham’s righteousness was not in his works but in believing God. Paul corrects wrong teaching about Abraham and protects his readers from falling into the performance trap.
Almost every part of our life is measured by performance. Honor-roll and academic awards go to the best-performing students. LeBron James makes more money because he performs better on the basketball court. Your employer can fire you if you cannot do your job well enough. Sports and work performance measures make sense in school, but this attitude poisons us if it enters our homes and our churches.
If the most impressive Christians to you are the highest givers, you may be caught in the performance trap. God does not measure spiritual maturity in dollars. Jesus was impressed by the widow’s penny, even though it was the smallest contribution in the box (Mark 12:41-44). When the measure of maturity is our performance as Christians, we’ve stepped off the gospel path and onto the performance trap.
The performance trap hides just off the road. We won’t see it until we step in it. Last week, I got sick and only had the energy to lie down on the couch. Every time my wife asked how I felt, I apologized for being completely useless. That is the sound of the performance trap snapping on my foot. Because I had to rest, I felt the need to apologize. As though I am only good to my family if I can make dinner, and play trains with my sons. Paul exposes and gets rid of the performance trap. Even Abraham does not boast in his works before God (Ro 4:2).
Our righteousness is not performance-based but promise-based. Faith in Jesus, who is the fulfillment of all the promises of God, is the ground of our righteousness. God justifies us by the righteousness of Jesus. He frees us from the performance trap and frees us to rest in Jesus. He frees us to work from faith, not work for salvation (Lk 1:73-75) and, therefore, to serve him with gladness (Psalm 100:2).
 John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Ro 4:2.