The Epistle of James
Of Abraham, James says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which said, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” These words bear close scrutiny. It was not said of Abraham that he believed God when he offered Isaac on the altar and it was imputed unto him for righteousness. That was said of him fully forty years before this event. The offering of Isaac simply fulfilled the Scripture spoken to him forty years earlier, and the act of offering up Isaac vindicated the genuineness of the faith Abraham exercised at that time.
Abraham is known outstandingly as a man of faith. Indeed, he was such, but faith had to be developed in him as it must in any other person. Abraham might be idealized to the point where his life of faith might be considered flawless. But such is not the case. Abraham was a man of like passions with us, and he had many shortcomings in his life of faith.
Abraham’s Incomplete Obedience
When Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees, he served other gods (Joshua 24:2). It was here that the True God first appeared to Abraham and called him to leave his country, his father’s house, his kindred, and go into a land which he would afterward inherit as a possession. God promised to make his name great, that he would become the father of a great nation, and that in him and in his Seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. It is assumed that Abraham immediately obeyed, but he did not. This was the first encounter he had with God, and we might well conceive how he might have been perplexed by such a call. He evidently talked the matter over with his father, and his father made the first move to go into the land of Palestine. He took his family, including Abraham and his wife, and Lot and his wife and children, and started for the land of Canaan. They reached Haran, about half way, and Abraham’s father liked the land and he stopped there. After five years Abraham’s father died. Then, calling to mind the strange call he had received five years earlier, Abraham decided to go into the land of Canaan, as he was bidden to do. However, he did not entirely separate himself from his father’s house; he took Lot and his family with him. When he arrived in the land, the Lord appeared to him the second time and said to him “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” And Abraham built an altar there unto the Lord who had appeared unto him.
Abraham’s Complete Obedience
Soon after they entered the land, a quarrel broke out between Abraham’s herdsmen and Lot’s herdsmen because there was scant pasture there for both flocks, So Abraham gave Lot first choice of the land; if Lot would go to the right hand, he would go to the left, so that there might be no quarrel between them. Lot chose for him the plain of Jordan which was well watered, and Abraham went in the opposite direction. Now he was completely separated from his father’s house. God now appeared to him again, and told him to “Lift up thine eyes, and look from the place where thou standest northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward; for all the land that thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth so that if any man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered. Arise and go through the land in the length and in the breadth of it, for I will give it unto thee.” Even the best of the land that Lot had chosen God gave it to Abraham when he had completely obeyed God’s call.
Abraham Believed God
After many years Abraham still had no son. Sarah was barren and she and Abraham were now growing old, yet there was no sign that they would have a son. Then God appeared to him again, and said, “Fear not, Abraham, for I am thy exceeding great reward.” Then Abraham in a plaintive tone told God that He had given him no seed, and no one born in his house, even his servant Eliezer would become his heir. But God assured him that Eliezer’s son would not be his heir, but that the heir would come from his own body. Abraham and Sarah were now past the age of child-bearing, and such a promise was utterly impossible humanly speaking. But since the God who had called him, had made the promise, Abraham against all hope believed the promise, and it was imputed to him for righteousness. Abraham was here justified by faith without any deeds of his own. He just believed a promise that was humanly impossible, because God gave the promise.
The Birth of Ishmael
While God had now definitely marked out Abraham as the father of the heir, He had not yet specified Sarah as the mother. So Sarah began to reason along fleshly lines that since God had withheld her from having children, she might have children by proxy. She had Hagar, an Egyptian maid, and she suggested to Abraham that if she should give Hagar to him to wife, she might have children through her. Abraham consented and as a result Ishmael was born. Sarah realized her mistake after Hagar had conceived, and the son born to Hagar became a thorn in the flesh to both Abraham and Sarah.
The Birth of Isaac
After this act of the flesh to produce the heir, thirteen long years went by without any communication from the Lord. But when Ishmael was grown to quite a lad, God appeared again to Abraham, saying, “I am Almighty God, walk before Me and be thou perfect.” In other words, God told him, “Now Abraham make no more plans in the flesh so far as the heir is concerned. Leave that in My hands, I will bring it to pass.” God renewed His covenant with Abraham, and confirmed it by a blood sacrifice when He alone passed between the pieces of the sacrifice. God thus bound Himself to fulfill the covenant. Up until this time God always had said “I will give this land to you,” but now having bound Himself by blood to fulfill the covenant, God said, “I have given you the land.” No more future tense, but past tense. And God also now for the first time specified Sarah as the mother of the heir. In the course of time, according to the Word of God Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son. She was 90 years old and Abraham was 99, when the impossible promise which Abraham believed and it was imputed to him for righteousness, came to pass. He and Sarah became the parents of the heir, through whom Abraham’s seed should become like the stars of heaven for number. Isaac’s seed is always referred to as the stars of heaven, but Jacob’s seed as the dust of the earth. The order is never reversed.
The Offering of Isaac
Isaac grew to be a strong young man able to carry the wood for a burnt offering upon his back up a mountain. Now came the crowning time of Abraham’s life of faith. God appeared to him again and said “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell thee of.” Abraham had now walked with God for forty years since he believed the impossible promise, and that promise came to pass. Now the same God who made the promise asked him to offer up the promised one for a burnt offering. Abraham did not falter, nor did he try to reason with God. He arose early in the morning to obey God. He believed in his heart that God would raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill the covenant He had made with him.
After a three day’s journey, Abraham arrived at the place. He had the young men stay at the foot of the mountain while “I and the lad go yonder and worship and come again to you.” This fifth verse in Chapter 22 of Genesis is the first time the word “worship” appears in the Bible. In the first verse we have the first time the word “love” appears in the Bible. Both words occur first in connection with an only son who is loved, who is to be offered up as a sacrifice. How suggestive of true worship! Can there be worship apart from an only Son who is loved, and who has been offered up as a sacrifice on the Cross?
On the top of the mountain, Abraham built an altar, laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac and laid him on the altar. By this time Abraham was 125 years old, and Isaac was about 25. Isaac was much stronger than his father, but he did not resist. He typified the One who became obedient unto death. When Abraham took the knife in his hand to slay his son, God stopped him saying, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from Me.” When Abraham looked around, he saw a ram caught in the thicket by his horns, so he took the ram and offered him up in the place of Isaac. A substitute was found for Isaac at the last, but for God’s only Son whom Isaac typified, there was no substitute to take His place. He went all the way to procure eternal life for us.
This is the incident that James refers to as an illustration of justification out of works. Never was Abraham’s faith more evident than on this occasion. He had believed the impossible promise forty years before and it was counted to him for righteousness, and here on Mount Moriah is the outstanding proof that the faith he exercised forty years earlier was genuine; his was a living faith.
Justification Out of Works
Now just a word about the English translation of the words “by works” from the Greek “ek toon ergoon.” “Ek” is the Greek preposition meaning “out of or from.” You must depart far from the primary meaning to translate it “by.” It is always used with the Genitive or Ablative cases and, therefore, can never refer to the means by which something is done. To translate the words into English “by works” has led some people to think of works as the means to justification. But such is not the case in the Greek. The works are not the means; they are the evidence of a living faith. By translating, “out of works Abraham was justified,” would correct that idea. Out of Abraham’s works, his faith stands as the genuine thing.