The life of Abraham has often been referenced to support the erroneous doctrine of salvation by faith alone. ‘What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.’ Romans 4:1-5; Genesis 5:16. Denominationalists have misrepresented the doctrine of faith as exposed in Romans 4 because they have failed to place Paul’s statement within the context of his having to correct the mistaken notion held by the Jews that salvation was offered to them because of their Abrahamic ancestry. Paul affirms that justification is not meritorious and is strident in his affirmation that it is faith, not faith alone that brings us into a right relationship with God.
Those who cite Abraham in an attempt to justify the false affirmation that justification is by faith alone make a fundamental error. Paul uses Abraham’s justification by faith to prove that Gentiles can be saved without the pre-conditions of receiving physical circumcision and of keeping the Law of Moses. He is not dealing with baptism not being necessary for salvation but that physical circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses are not necessary for salvation. Romans 4:23-25 explores Abraham’s justification by faith as an example of how people today are justified by faith in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and is used in the context of God justifying the ungodly; Romans 4:5 of sins being forgiven; Romans 4:6 and of the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles Romans 4:11-12. These are the works that Paul is dealing with in the text.
The scripture has shown that in every case where justification is imputed there have always been requirements to be fulfilled and until those requirements are met justification will never be imputed to the individual. Furthermore, we must never construe that when an individual through faith carry out those requirements in order to a obtain justification that it is a meritorious undertaking on the individual’s part.
Though there might be those who would wish to suggest that there is a contradiction between Paul and James both are in sync with each other. The Bible is very consistent in its presentation of faith and has shown countless times that wherever and whenever genuine faith exists it will be demonstrated by attitudes, actions and in ways that God prescribes as well as obedience to His word. This is the point of James’ argument in chapter 2 verse 22. “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works." In an effort to show the true qualities of faith James challenges his audience ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works’ verse 14, 18. Both are inseparably interrelated as one responds in trust and obedience to God. Again it is obedient faith that saves.
In building a watertight case James points to Abraham and says ‘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.’ verse 21-23 The apostle unequivocally says that it was because of Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac on the altar that God declared him to be righteous and by that act demonstrated his faith.
It is rather poignant that James in showing that man is not saved by faith alone cites the very passage of Genesis 15:6. In challenging the twelve tribes of the Jewish diaspora, James poses a very probing question. ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?’ James 2:14 Implied in the question is the truth that there are some kinds of faith that will result in salvation from sin. James undoubtedly demonstrates that God has never in any age accepted man on the basis of faith alone which he illustrates with Abraham in the Patriarchal Age and Rahab in the Mosaical.
James continues ‘And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.’ It is baffling that in spite of this clear statement denominationalism would declare that justification is by faith alone. Moreover, the only time that the phrase ‘faith alone’ occurs on the pages of inspiration is when it declares that man is not saved by faith alone. ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’ verse 24
James is dealing with a different kind of works and is teaching that if you are a true Christian, you must show your Christian faith in clothing the naked and in feeding the hungry that are in the church. James 2:14-17 Paul does not contradict James, for he speaks about faith working by love. Galatians 5:6 In Paul’s writings, baptism is not described as a work that people do to earn their salvation, but as a work that God does through Christ in removing sin, in forgiving sin, and in giving people the power to live a new life. What we do is to exercise our faith in God, who does the work of saving us from past sins. See Colossians 2:11-13; Titus.3:5
When God through his grace offers salvation from sin it cannot be construed as meritorious since there is nothing that I can ever do to warrant that salvation. Jesus reminds us that ‘when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ Luke 17:10
Abraham’s life consistently demonstrates that he had faith sufficient enough to obey and it was by this means that he stood justified or as James says his faith ‘was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works’. James 2: 22 The Almighty God told him in Genesis 12:1, to “Get thee out" and he in faith ‘went out not knowing where he was going’ he was declared justified. When God said in Genesis 15:1-5 that he would have a son, and Abraham believed Him, he was justified Romans 4:3. When he was told in Genesis 22:2, to offer Isaac as a burnt offering he had enough faith to obey, he was justified James 2:21. Abraham’s justification by faith was always demonstrated by his willingness to act on his faith. When asked to accept a statement, no matter how difficult to believe, Abraham trusted; when asked to obey a command, and he in faith obeyed he stood approved of God and was justified at that point. At every point in his life when he demonstrated his faith in God through his obedience to the divine command, Abraham was justified by his faith. The principle is equally true in our salvation. Though the alien sinner trusts in God it is not until that trust leads to obedience that he or she will be declared justified by faith. The case of Abraham, despite the claims of the faith alone adherents, makes it clear that justification requires both faith and obedience.
If the case of Abraham teaches anything it is that justification from sin is not based on mere belief but that obedience is always required. Inspiration is clear in its teaching that in every case where justification or salvation is offered to man there have always been conditions or requirements which must be satisfied. At every step of the way, Abraham was justified by faith. When all God required Abraham to do was trust, then Abraham stood in a right relationship with God and was justified when he trusted and obeyed that command. When God required Abraham to act on his faith, his faith could not be reckoned unto him for righteousness until he acted.
The faith that saves is the faith that obeys. Acts 5:32.