Was Abraham Justified By Faith Alone?

Keith KettenringChristian Living, The Uncommon Journey

I heard a local pastor of a Presbyterian church a while back use Abraham as an example of a person who was “accounted righteous” by faith alone. No doubt, Abraham is the prime example of true faith in scripture. He is the poster child of faith. In the New Testament he and his faith are mentioned in Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and James. “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” is a familiar phrase. 

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However, St. James writes that Abraham was not justified by faith alone but was justified by his works. He explains true faith – 

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” — and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2.21-24)

Abraham had a faith that was active. He had efforts that were infused with faith. His faith was made whole by his works. This is how he was justified. This is how every human is justified. This is how salvation works. 

When not blinded by a particular theological system, you can clearly see what is meant by this kind of faith. 

Abraham’s faith was incomplete without works. In Abram’s (Abraham) conversation with God (Genesis 15:1-11), we are told that due to Abram’s faith in God, God “counted it to him for righteousness.” Yet his faith was incomplete. He obeyed God by bringing certain animals and sacrificing them before God. What would have happened if Abraham had not done what God asked of him? If he had refused to cut in half the heifer, female goat, ram and did not bring a turtledove and pigeon, would God have made a covenant with Abraham? Would faith alone, with no obedience, have been enough for God to establish a covenant with Abraham?

Would a covenant been made if Abraham refused a name change or circumcision? (Genesis 17) Would Abraham have had his son Isaac if he’d not had sexual relations with Sarah but only believed in God’s promise? Faith was made whole by works. 

After Abraham nearly sacrificed his beloved Isaac (Genesis 22) in response to God’s command, God says:

By myself I have sworn…because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore…and in your offspring shall all the nations be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

It is clear that God keeps His promise to Abraham “because you have done this” and “because you have obeyed my voice.” Faith alone is not enough for the promise to be fulfilled. It took faith and works, faith and obedience.

There is no separation between faith and works in Abraham’s example. They are one. Abraham’s journey with God began in faith and continued to be fortified by faith-filled efforts. His faith was in God borne out by his actions.

Abraham, the greatest example of faith in scripture, is not an example of faith alone. Abraham’s journey of faith begins by believing God and His promise and is made more and more complete, over time, as he does God’s will. 

You and I need to follow his example.

Dr. K