Abraham: Justified Twice by Works & Once by Faith

Abraham: Justified Twice by Works & Once by Faith August 30, 2023
Our Protestant brethren say that one is justified by faith once for all and not at all by works. We say that initial justification is monergistic and by faith only, but ongoing justification is by faith + works. The Bible backs this up, as I shall now show from the example of Abraham.
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Initial justification can be described as being “justified” just as we say of someone who got their license to drive a car for the first time: “she got her license.” But it has to be renewed (every four years in the US). So we “get” it more than once. We can also lose it due to drunk driving or excessive traffic violations (breaking of the law being similar to sins), and get it back again.
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James 2:20-26 refers back to Genesis 15:6 (as well as Genesis 22), and gives an explicit interpretation of the Old Testament passage, by stating, “and the scripture was fulfilled which says, . . .” (2:23, RSV, as throughout). The previous three verses were all about justification, faith, and works, all tied in together, and this is what James says “fulfilled” Genesis 15:6. The next verse then condemns Protestant soteriology by disagreeing the notion of “faith alone” in the clearest way imaginable. Moreover, Nehemiah 9:8 states, “thou didst find his heart faithful before thee, and didst make with him the covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite . . .”
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James 2 is usually applied by Protestants to sanctification, but that is not what the passage says. It mentions “justified” (dikaioo: Strong’s word #1344) three times (2:21, 24-25): the same Greek word used in Romans 4:2, as well as 2:13; 3:20, 24, 28; 5:1, 9; 8:30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:16-17; 3:11, 24; 5:4; and Titus 3:7. If James actually meant sanctification, on the other hand, he could have used one of two Greek words (hagiazo hagiasmos: Strong’s #37-38) that appear (together) 38 times in the New Testament (the majority of times by Paul himself).
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The Catholic position is that justification is ongoing, and can be by faith or by faith + works (where works are mentioned as the cause, while assuming the presence of faith also). As Jimmy Akin has convincingly argued, Abraham was justified in Genesis 12, again in Genesis 15, and in Genesis 22, “by works.” Genesis 12 is really by faith and works together. God told him to leave his home and trust him for the future, and he did so (a work): “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him” (12:4). Then he built two altars to the Lord (good works again): 12:7-8.
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Hebrews states that “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go” (11:8), so it was faith and works. Abraham had the faith to believe God (faith), and he obeyed Him (a work). Genesis 15 describes justification by faith, and Genesis 22, justification by works. Both/and.
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We can say that Abraham’s good works flowed from and were intrinsic to, his faith. None of this poses any problem for the Catholic view. But it’s a huge problem for the Protestant view, since it can only accept justification by faith and not by works, and because these three incidents in Abraham’s life reveal three instances of justification, by both faith and works.
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If it’s denied that Genesis 12 is a justification, then it has to be explained how Hebrews 11:8 describes it as Abraham exercising faith. This must be justification in the Reformed sense because totally depraved man (the “T” in “TULIP”) cannot have or exercise true faith. So Abraham was justified then, and again three chapters later (the one Paul takes note of, and Protestants, in an exclusive sense) and again by works seven chapters after that. Extremely unProtestant!
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Hebrews 11 is about the heroes of the faith. Faith is described as leading to men receiving God’s “divine approval” (11:2), which sounds a lot like justification to me. Abel “received approval as righteous” (11:4). Enoch is described as “having pleased God” (11:5). Noah “became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith” (11:7).
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Then Abraham is mentioned. The overall thought is obviously the same as what came before. Works with regard to Abraham, are mentioned by the text asserting, “By faith Abraham obeyed” (11:8) and “By faith he sojourned in the land of promise . . .” (11:9) and “By faith Abraham . . . offered up Isaac” (11:17). The Bible also refers twice to “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26) and twice to “work of faith” (1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:11). Works are always present where true faith exists.
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Whether Paul uses the term justification for Genesis 12 or not, does not determine what is being described in Genesis 12. This is an important factor to consider. The argument about Abraham and justification is a deductive one, incorporating systematic theology. It doesn’t only look for the words, “justification” or “justified.” The word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, either. It doesn’t follow that the doctrine is absent. Concepts are present in texts as well as words. The question is whether Genesis 12 describes a justified man who possesses faith or not. I say it clearly does do so. Therefore, Abraham must have been justified by then.
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What does Genesis 12 teach about Abraham’s justification? Well, God says to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great . . . by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (12:2-3). Do Protestants wish to argue that God said all this about and to an unregenerate, unjustified, “totally depraved” heathen? That makes no sense.
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In Genesis 12, Abraham was obedient and “went, as the LORD told him” (12:4). That was a good work of obedience, and as a result, God blessed him greatly (12:2-3). Faith is never mentioned in the chapter. I would say that Abraham clearly exercised it when he obeyed God’s instructions. But it seems to me that if the point of the narrative is to highlight faith as opposed to works, it’s odd that Abraham’s work is mentioned and commended, but not his faith.
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In Genesis 15:6 Abraham was justified as a result of having “believed the Lord.” “Justification” doesn’t appear there, but it does in Romans 4, where Paul offers an extensive interpretation of Genesis 15:6. Just as Paul does, so does James offer an authoritative interpretation of the events recorded in Genesis 22. Abraham was in the process of performing another work of obedience (sacrificing his son, per God’s command).
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Paul uses the example of Abraham in Romans 4, in emphasizing faith, over against the Jewish works of circumcision as a supposed means of faith and justification (hence, he mentions circumcision in 4:9-12, and salvation to the Gentiles as well as Jews in 4:13-18).
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The Bible states in context (God speaking through the angel of the LORD), “because you have done this . . . I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants . . . because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:16-18). Thus, it’s firmly established in Genesis 22 that it was a work of Abraham that brought about God’s renewed covenant with him.
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Knowing this, James simply called it what it was:, using different but conceptually equivalent terminology:
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James 2:21-24 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, [23] and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. [24] You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
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James — take note — doesn’t deny that Abraham also had faith, which was part of his justification as well (2:18, 20, 22-24, 26). We already knew Abraham was justified by a work in Genesis 22 because God rewarded him for something he had “done” and because he “obeyed” him.
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Also, God reiterates that works are central to Abraham’s justification (and anyone’s) — without faith or belief being mentioned — in Genesis 18:
Genesis 18:17-19 The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, [18] seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? [19] No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
God repeats the same sort of thing again, in speaking to Isaac:
Genesis 26:3-5 “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfil the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. [4] I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves: [5] because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
It’s interesting that Genesis never mentions the “faith” of Abraham (at least in terms of using that word), even though he is considered the exemplar and “father” of monotheistic faith. But it does mention plenty of his works. Nor does the entire Protestant Old Testament do so. But in the Deuterocanon it states:
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1 Maccabees 2:52 Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness?
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2 Maccabees 1:2 May God do good to you, and may he remember his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, his faithful servants.
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The great faithfulness of Abraham is predominantly highlighted in the New Testament (Rom 4; Gal 3; Heb 11; Jas 2), which doesn’t ignore the fact that works also played a key role in Abraham’s justification. Scripture asserts that Abraham, Phinehas (Num 25:11-13), Rahab (Jas 2:25), Abel, and Noah were all justified by works.
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Photo credit: Sacrifice of Isaac (1635), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: Abraham is shown in the Bible to have been justified on three separate occasions, & by works, as well as by faith, even before we consider the data in James.

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