"Abraham Justified by Works"
Genesis 22:15-24
August 24, 1997

Text Comment

v.23 Anticipates the appearance of Rebekah in the narrative in chapter 24.

This morning we take up a subject we have considered before. I can't help that. It is a subject the Bible forces upon us repeatedly. One of the great virtues of preaching through the paragraphs of any portion of Holy Scripture in their consecutive order is that we are made to feel the force of the Bible's own emphases. If you listened to some preachers, who preach on texts and subjects they choose from week to week, you might think the Bible spent a great deal of its space talking about personal finance, or family government, or the steps to a happy marriage, or you might think that the Bible spoke almost exclusively about the grace of God, or the sin of men, or the victory of Christians. Taking the Bible in its own order and its own proportion educates us in what God thinks is important to say over and over again as well as the way in which God chose to put the great teachings of his Word.

Now, last Lord's Day morning, it was our privilege to consider the sacrifice that God provided for our sin. We saw how Abraham's almost sacrifice of Isaac was an anticipation, an enacted prophecy of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, in our place for our sins. Here is one of the Bible's great pictures of our salvation: God providing a sacrifice -- his own Son whom he loves -- to die in our place so that we might not have to die ourselves. And, over and again through the Bible we are taught that believing in Christ as our Sacrifice for sin, counting upon his work as the Lamb of God, coming to God and to God's judgment hoping not in our own goodness but only in that righteousness that Jesus made for us and gives to us when we believe in him, this and this alone is the way a sinner is made right with God and is granted entrance into eternal life.

As Peter summarizes the gospel: "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect." [1:18-19]

And Paul, in a still more beautiful statement: "I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

It is then on this foundation, of the sacrifice of Christ making sinners right with God, that the prophets and apostles teach us that we become children of God by faith and not by works. Salvation is a gift; Christ is the gift that is given, and faith is the hand that receives that gift. If it is Christ's work for us and not ours for him that makes us right with God, then, naturally, it is our acceptance of his work for us, our entrusting of ourselves to it, our counting upon it for our salvation that makes us Christians and not some acts of obedience by which we earn our peace with God.

The Bible is candid about the fact that sinners cannot earn peace with God, they are incapable of meeting God's requirements. Every good act they perform has sin in it somewhere and most of their acts are more sinful than righteous. As Dr. Schaeffer used to put it, sinners attempting to win the approval of God, are like folk drowning in the sea who hope to make a ladder of water from which they might climb up out of the ocean.

But, most of the time, the Bible simply points out that there is a way of salvation, that way is the way of faith in Jesus Christ, who alone was able to meet the requirements of divine justice for us and carry away the threat of divine judgment and punishment by bearing it in our place.

Throughout the Bible the mistaking of this central truth is where even God's people constantly go wrong. Under the force of a natural tendency of the human heart so strong that only divine grace can control it, they were constantly losing hold on this salvation by grace through faith once again to attempt to save themselves by their own works -- whether religious works such as you perform in church or moral works such as you practice the rest of the time. This was the great concern of the OT prophets. Boil down their message and it reduces to this: you are trusting yourselves instead of God and his grace, you are counting on what you can do for God instead of what God has promised to do for you -- and in that you are leaning on a broken reed. The Israelites in Isaiah's day and then in Jeremiah's day were sure if they kept offering their sacrifices and observing their fasts God would be well-disposed toward them, but the prophets unmasked this as really nothing but trusting in themselves instead of God.

And, by the time of the New Testament, Judaism had fallen into precisely the same error. They saw salvation as a matter of being good, either good enough to be actually righteous before God or good enough to provoke God to be lenient in regard to their faults. Along came Jesus and then his apostles to tell them once again that salvation is not and cannot be a matter of man's goodness, for he has no goodness to offer God, but must be a matter of God's grace and mercy. And, because it is the latter, a person receives salvation not by religious and moral performances that dispose God to reward him, but by casting oneself on the mercy of God and trusting Christ and his sacrifice to cover his sins.

And, in a very real sense, the history of the church since those days has been the history of the loss and then the recovery of this understanding of salvation by grace through faith and not by works. Over and again the church slid gradually into a legalistic mindset in which religious acts and moral duties were conceived of as gaining favor with God and then was shaken out of that legalism by a rediscovery of the gospel. The Reformation in the 16th century was such a shaking; the Great Awakening in the 19th century was another.

Now that is all familiar territory in the Protestant Church. We are used to the idea of a salvation based not on our works but upon Christ's works for us and received not through our acts of obedience but through faith in Christ's obedience in our place. It is, for us, the key thought in the Bible, the very essence of the gospel. It is the message we are constrained to proclaim to the world: salvation is a gift and not something to earn and God will give that gift to you if you ask him, believing that what Christ did was exactly what had to be done for you.

In the evangelical protestant church we are accustomed to distinguish ourselves from Roman Catholics and from liberal Protestants in exactly this way: they believe in salvation by works and we believe in salvation by faith. That is a caricature, to be sure, but not so much of a caricature as some people are claiming today. Ask your typical liberal protestant or Roman Catholic parishioner, and even ask your typical priest or minister from those churches, how sinners can be right with God, and, if they even still believe in such a thing as not being right with God and becoming right with God, he will tell you that the key is being good, going to mass or going to church, being kind to your neighbor, being a good person and so on. So deeply ingrained in the human spirit is this tendency to self-salvation, this craving for sovereignty over one's own life, that it will hardly occur to them that, though they consider themselves Christians, they have spoken about salvation and how to obtain it and never once mentioned the name or work of Jesus Christ, whom all Christians, ostensibly, believe is the Savior of the world. I have had this happen to me times without number.

So it was in the days of the NT. Though the OT is full of a coming Messiah who would save his people from their sins, there was no place left in first century Judaism for a Savior who would die for the sins of the world. Salvation was once again, do it yourself.

Now, I spent so much time laying that groundwork so that you might appreciate the force of vv. 15-18 in which Abraham is rewarded for his obedience to God and the Lord even says to him that his covenant with Abraham will surely be fulfilled because Abraham obeyed and was prepared even to offer his own son in sacrifice to God.

I felt I had to treat these verses in regard to this question -- the relationship of our works, our obedience to our justification, to our peace with God, to our acceptance with God, to our salvation because that is the use that James makes of this passage in his NT letter.

He writes: "You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did."

What James actually says, of course, is not that Abraham "was considered righteous" for what he did, as the NIV has it, but that "Abraham was justified by works," exactly the same Greek words and exactly the same phrase that Paul uses when he says that we are not justified by works but are justified -- that is, made right with God, by faith and faith alone. In fact, it's even worse. Paul says in Romans 4:2, using exactly the same language James uses, that Abraham was not justified by works and he cites another text in Genesis to prove his point. The NIV has taken the sting out of James' words by masking the fact that they appear at first glance to be a direct contradiction of what Paul teaches in Romans and Galatians about both Abraham's justification and ours. Well, what is it? Was Abraham justified by his works or was he not?

Reconciling Paul and James has always been a problem. You may remember that Luther even expressed doubts about whether James belonged in the Bible because for Luther justification by faith and not by works was the Bible's central message and James seemed to be undermining it by speaking of Abraham being justified by his works.

But the problem does not exist only in the NT. It exists already in Moses and in the life of Abraham. In some places the point is made that Abraham owes everything to God. God chose him, God made his covenant with him when he did not deserve this favor and had done nothing to earn it, God preserved his covenant with Abraham when, Abraham time and again betrayed and nullified that covenant. But, in other texts, and, sometimes, in the same text, the Lord as much as says that he will give Abraham what he has promised him only if Abraham proves faithful to God and to God's covenant.

You have this same dialectical emphasis throughout the OT -- on the grace of God and the responsibility of man -- and you have it again in the NT. Even Paul, the champion of salvation by grace and justification by faith alone, often teaches with great emphasis that our salvation requires our faithfulness to God, our obedience to his commands, our perseverance in Christian faith and love.

There are verses in the Bible, everywhere in the Bible, that taken by themselves, would lead us all to be legalists -- believing that our salvation and God's acceptance of us results from our doing certain things that God requires.

Here is Jesus in John 5:28-29: "...a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out -- those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned." Or here is the Lord again at the end of Revelation: "Behold I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." And a hundred texts might be read that say, in one way or another, what the Lord says in Revelation 2-3: "To him who overcomes, I will give the crown of life."

There are verses in the Bible, everywhere in the Bible, that taken by themselves, would lead us all to be antinomians -- believing that since salvation is so completely God's gift and completely by his grace and completely the achievement of Christ on the cross, having received that gift by faith we can live as we please, we can live openly sinful lives, we can care not at all about God's law, and still go to heaven when we die. "Jesus paid it all" so I am free and clear. Or, as the parody of the old Gospel Song had it: "Freed from the law, O blessed condition; I can sin as I want and still have remission."

Here is Paul in Romans 8:1 "There is therefore now no condemnation to the man who is in Christ Jesus." Or, in 3:28: "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law."

And, it will come as no surprise to you that because there are verses that, taken by themselves, might give someone these impressions, there have been folk in the Christian church through the ages who have believed exactly that: there have always been legalists and antinomians in the Christian church. These are familiar weeds in the church's garden.

I could preach a hundred sermons trying to relate God's grace and Christ's sacrifice to our obligations to believe and obey. The Bible has a great deal to say about this, of course, because it lies at the heart of what the Bible is most interested in: the salvation of God's people and the renewal of their lives in the image of God.

And, to be sure, it isn't as difficult as it might seem to reconcile James and Paul, for both are talking about a different aspect of a sinner's becoming right with God, of what the Bible calls a sinner's justification. One can look at justification from many points of view and the Bible does, because it is a subject so rich and with so many fabulously important connections. Dr. Packer says that the doctrine of justification by faith is "like Atlas. It bears a whole world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of God the Saviour." [Here We Stand, p. 87]

John Donne, the great poet and preacher of the 16th and 17th century, put it this way: You can say that "God alone justifies" if you are speaking of the ultimate basis of justification, which is, of course, the grace and the saving purpose of God and the sovereign execution of that plan by God in a person's life; you can say that "Christ alone justifies" if you are speaking of the ground of this justification, the source of the righteousness that is given to sinners when they believe; you can say that "faith alone justifies" if you are speaking of the instrument by which justification takes place in any particular sinner's life, the means by which God places the righteousness of Christ to the account of a sinful man or woman (this was Paul's great concern in his contest with Jewish and Gentile legalism); and you can say that "works alone justifies" if you are speaking of the proof of one's justification, its demonstration in a Christian's life. This last is what James was speaking of in his contest with antinomianism and Christian sluggishness and indifference, with Christians who were making the garments of Christ's righteousness a cloak for their own sin. "Show me your faith by your deeds," which is just another way of saying what Paul also always preached, as we read in Acts 26:20 where Paul summarizes his message for King Agrippa: "I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds."

While the careful distinction of faith and works is essential to a proper understanding of our justification before God, as Paul teaches us, the last thing the Bible permits us to do is to set faith against works as if they were enemies of one another. Works performed in hopes of gaining God's favor are, of course, null and void, worthless and worse than worthless, because they are a positive and more than slightly pathetic assertion of human pride. A sinful man thinking he really has some power to ingratiate himself with a holy God. The very idea!

But the Scripture does say that faith works through love, that works demonstrate faith, that the knowledge that God has been gracious to us when we were unworthy and helpless always produces a desire to please God with good works, with obedience to his commandments, and by serving his cause in the world. As it has been so often said, we are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone, it is always followed by the works of love for God and neighbor.

What we have here, in Genesis 22, is exactly that sequence -- faith working through love, faith obeying, faith demonstrating itself in works. Abraham believed God and through his faith, Christ's righteousness was reckoned to him. But being a believer in Christ, and knowing of God's love and grace to him, he loved God in return and demonstrated that love in the confidence he placed in God's word and the obedience he offered to his God and Savior, even when that obedience was punishingly difficult for him.

Now, here, brothers and sisters, we have come to the very nub of the matter, the very most central concern of your life: faith in God and a life of obedience to him. What our text reminds us -- with a thousand texts like it -- and all the more as James makes use of it to make this very point: the Christian life is a life of faith in God, trust and confidence in his Word and in his mercy offered us in Christ -- and it is also a matter of obedience to God, doing what our Savior says come wind, come weather. It is not one of those things or the other, it is both or it is nothing! You must have both or you cannot have eternal life as the Bible says with an almost wearying repetition and emphasis.

What does it matter, after all, if you fail to obtain life everlasting and the world of joy because at the last you are found among those, whom the Scripture says "are condemned already because [they] have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son," or if you fail to obtain entrance to heaven because, though all the while you claimed to be a believer in Christ and others counted you a believer in Christ -- even your family members, your elders and your minister -- you are found at the last among those to whom Christ will say "I never knew you" because, as he said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father who is in heaven"?

What finally does it matter if you are an unbeliever and are cast away for your unbelief or you are among those who are found at the last moment knocking on the door of the banquet hall expecting to be let in only to have the Lord himself refuse to let you in because you were among those whose faith was proved not genuine because it was not accompanied by deeds?

Take heed. The Bible is willing to say that Abraham was justified by faith and that he was justified by works. You will be far wiser and far safer if instead of spending your time figuring out exactly how those two statements can be harmonized in our theological system, you make sure that you are both trusting Christ for your righteousness with God, Christ and no other!, and putting on holiness in the fear of God in the conviction that it is only faith followed by works that is true and saving faith and it is only works performed out of faith that amount to that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Long ago I read this from Alexander Whyte and it has in all the years since been my direction for preaching the Word of God to you. He is speaking of a most interesting time in English church history, at the end of the 16th century, when the prestigious City Temple, a center city London church, was pastored at one and the same time by Richard Hooker, an advocate of the Anglican "middle way," a kind of compromise position between Roman Catholicism and puritanism in regard to the reformation of worship, the government of the church, etc. and Walter Travers, a convinced puritan. What happened was that Richard Hooker preached in the morning and Walter Travers in the afternoon, Travers often preaching the exact reverse of what Hooker had preached earlier the same day. Whyte now turns that into an illustration about the preaching of two very different biblical emphases, viz. the grace of God and the responsibility of man.

"In Hooker's and Traver's day, Thomas Fuller tells us the Temple pulpit preached pure Canterbury in the morning and pure Geneva in the afternoon. And you will get the highest Calvinism off the last card in one pulpit, and the strictest and most urgent morality off the same card in another; but never, if the Devil can help it, never both in one and the same pulpit never both in one and the same sermon; and never both in one and the same minister. You have all heard of the difficulty voyager had in steering between Scylla and Charybdis in the Latin adage. Well, the true preacher's difficulty is just like that. Indeed, it is beyond the wit of man, and it takes all the wit of God, aright to unite the doctrine of our utter inability with the companion doctrine of our strict responsibility; free grace with full reward; the cross of Christ once for all, with the saint's continual crucifixion; the Saviour's blood with the sinner's; and atonement with attainment; in short, salvation without works with no salvation without works. Deft steersman as the devil is, he never yet took his ship clear through those charybdic passages." [BC, vol. 3, p. 145]

And so uniting the doctrines will not be my chief aim, but rather to do what the Bible does and simply state them side by side. God providing the lamb for Abraham's sacrifice on the one hand, and Abraham's obedience to God gaining God's reward on the other. But, important as it may be to make sure that justification by faith alone and justification by works are both in my preaching to you, it is not so important as your making sure that they are both together -- always -- in your life before God! That you never comfort yourself in your lack of obedience by appealing to the fact that you believe in Christ and that you never imagine that your works are enough to make you right with God but only a living faith in Jesus Christ who lived and died for you.

Cecile Huntsman [her death the night before had been announced earlier in the service] had a test yesterday morning. It wasn't as severe a test as Abraham's; she wasn't asked to sacrifice a son on the altar. Her test was more like the tests that you and I face everyday and out of which our Christian lives are gained or lost. She passed the test. By God's grace and her obedience she passed the test. They sat down to lunch, Alice and Cecile, and Cecile prayed, just moments before the attack of heart pain that marked the beginning of the end of her life, "Lord, thank you for helping us to be overcomers." And, "Lord, you know we desire nothing but your will." What a marvelous thing to say just moments before the attack that would end her life, but, you see, you and I must be thinking that way and feeling that way and speaking to God that way about our lives all the time if we wanted to be true of our selves when our day is done. Dependence upon the grace of God and a steadfast obedience to him, both together always! Here is William Cowper, the great poet of the Christian life. Now see if you can find yourself in his words. If you cannot, don't let this day end before you have committed yourself to the Lord for both faith and obedience.

Since the dear hour that brought me to Thy Foot,
And cut up all my follies by the root,
I never trusted in an arm save thine,
Nor hoped, but in Thy righteousness divine.

My prayers and alms, imperfect and defiled,
Were but the feeble efforts of a child.
Howe'er performed, it was their brightest part
That they proceeded from a grateful heart.

Cleans'd in Thine own all-purifying blood,
Forgive their evil, and accept their good.
I cast them at Thy feet -- my only plea
Is what it was, dependence upon Thee!