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.