This page about how Abraham was justified is an illustration of the definition of justification provided in the glossary for this site.
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:21-24)
This verse brings up some questions about justification in regard to Abraham. How could Abraham have been justified by offering Isaac his son? Wouldn’t that legitimize child sacrifices? The Bible talks about justification by grace; “free” implies not working for it:
“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:” (Rom 3:24)
Was Abraham required to do more than is normally required in order to be justified? Even the passage above in James references Genesis 15:6 which says:
“And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (Gen 15:6)
Paul also emphasized that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works:
“For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:2-3)
Note, in that passage, that to be justified and to be righteous are equivalent. Abraham was justified and thus counted as righteous.
Paul saying “what saith the scripture” is, of course, a reference to Genesis 15:6. Even Martin Luther is famous for his declaration “the just shall live by faith.” So what did James mean by saying that Abraham was justified by works?
The verse in James connects Abraham’s justification to when he “offered Isaac.” But note that he did not actually slay his son; that is not the work referred to. It does not say Abraham was justified “by offering” but “when he offered.” While he did not actually offer him – did not slay his son – he offered in the sense that he was willing to go through with it. “When he offered” is not a reference to actually slaying his son because he did not actually do it. It must be a reference to the whole experience. And that experience, more than anything, was about Abraham’s trust or belief in God and His Word.
So it was when Abraham did the “work” of offering that he was justified. Romans 4:3 says that “Abraham believed God” and it was that belief that made him righteous (right with God). It seems we might need to think about the meaning of James’ use of the phrase “justified by works.”
Could it simply be that Abraham’s “work” was to believe or to have faith? Can having/exercising faith be referred to as work? Here are some verses that suggest it could be:
“Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father;” (1 Thess 1:3)
“Wherefore also we pray always for you, that our God would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfil all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power:” (2 Thess 1:11)
Those verses were both written by Paul so he did refer to having faith as a form of work.
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but [he is justified] by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Gal 2:16)
That verse says man is not justified by works but it distinguishes works to be the works of the law – obedience to the law. That is not the same as “the work of faith.” So man is not justified by the works (good deeds) he does but the “work” of believing in God’s provision for his salvation is needed.
Go to The Character of God and the Gospel Glossary.
December 30, 2017 @ 6:47 pm
The issue of the command itself being child sacrifice is mentioned but ignored. I thought you might go there. CoG folks have tried to deal with this in three ways that fall short, I believe:
1. Abraham thought God meant slay Him but only said “offer him as a burnt offering.”
2. It was Satan speaking to Abraham.
3. This was God speaking in the mode of permissive will–Abraham came from a culture steeped in pagan sacrifice, so this would have made sense to him.
But these are wrong, wrong and wrong.
1. Abraham knew what was being asked by God. There was no such thing as a burnt offering without first killing the offering. Even if there were, the burning would kill the offering.
2. Abraham wrestled with the concept that God would ask such a thing of him because He knew the law of God and that killing was forbidden. Satan was at the ready to test Abraham severely on this point, saying that God would not ask him to do such a thing.
3. See comment on point 2. I can lean toward a little of the idea of accommodative will only in the sense that the pagan concept of deity was prevalent in that time and God’s people did come under it. The story would be told in order to re-direct the thinking to the real plan of salvation and that God would provide Himself a Lamb. As far as Abraham thinking that it would be fitting for God to ask such a thing, no way.
There are some things going on here that are important for us to understand. In the background there is “the great controversy” narrative. Satan was in the picture in his standard role as accuser, saying that Abraham was not entitled to the covenant promise because of his past failure. Being disobedient, how could God favor Him thus? So, in Job-like fashion, God allowed this test. The way the test was conducted was by this enacted parable, through giving Abraham a command to offer up his son as a burnt offering. Satan was then allowed to come in and ply him with doubts as to whether this was the voice of God, for it was against the law of God to kill. (Yes, the law existed and was known since the very beginning–“The yoke that binds to service is the law of God. The great law of love revealed in Eden, proclaimed upon Sinai, and in the new covenant written in the heart, is that which binds the human worker to the will of God” [DA 329.3]; “God brought the Hebrews out of their Egyptian bondage, and commanded them to observe his Sabbath, and keep the law given in Eden” [RH, August 30, 1898 par. 2]). Abraham struggled with doubt through the days of travel and it became confirmed to him that it was indeed the voice of God that he had heard when he saw the cloud of glory upon Mt. Moriah, for this was to him the sign, for God had said earlier for him to go and do this thing on the mount that He would show Him. I don’t know why this would have been a convincing sign to Abraham. We might think that Satan could fake that, but nevertheless, it convinced Abraham and was all he needed to know that for some odd reason, God was asking him to do this and it was therefore his duty to obey. He would not any longer be tempted to reason himself out of it but to reason only that God had promised Isaac to be the child of promise and that God could afterward resurrect him. It was only as his raised hand was stayed against using the knife to slay Isaac and the ram caught in the thicket was revealed as the sacrifice that “the lights came on” and Abraham recognized it was all a parable.
God’s intent here was threefold:
1. To prove the loyalty of Abraham in the face of Satan’s accusations;
2. To demonstrate that nothing less than perfect obedience was required;
3. To illustrate the plan of salvation to a culture with tainted concepts of deity.
My thoughts here all derive from staying close to the Spirit of Prophecy narrative (see Patriarchs and Prophets, chapter titled “The Test of Faith”). I have decided a long time ago I will not start playing fast and loose with what we have been given in the writings. The writings utilize the Hebraic modality of thought and speech but they also give the keys to the language, as does the Bible. However, there is no way we can interpret this story as a command coming from Satan or as Abraham misunderstanding what God was asking. This is very clear.
December 31, 2017 @ 8:11 am
Kevin, thank you for your comments. My objective was just to clear up the apparent contradiction between work and faith by showing that, Biblically, Abraham’s faith can be understood as a work. This to emphasize that justification is all about the faith/trust that connects us to salvation.
You suggested the event was, more than anything, a test of faith. I suspect that, on close examination, we may see that other events are also tests of faith. Also, that our failings give the tempter opportunity to accuse us and that gives occasion for a test of faith. I believe, for example, that was the case with Peter’s denial.
February 11, 2023 @ 7:14 am
“Abraham believed God, and it [the belief/faith] reasoned him [Abraham] into [Grk. “eis”] rightness.” The passage in Greek is actually saying that Abraham’s faith is the active cause which reasoned/calculated him into righteousness. This is what set Abraham right, which is the true meaning of justification – to set something right. It is still salvation by faith, out of faith, but it is because active faith (in contrast to mere intellectual faith) in a righteous God is the cause which moves the person to walk in God’s paths of righteousness.
It has nothing to do with God crediting righteousness.