“The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness - for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Rm 4:23-24)
Today, we'll discuss one more important fact about Abraham’s faith which Paul didn’t write about in Romans chapter 4.
The strongest evidence of Paul’s argument of justification by faith lies in Genesis 15:6, which says,
“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6)
By quoting this verse, Paul supported the doctrine of justification by faith. Here, Paul emphasized that Abraham was credited as righteous because of his faith alone, not by his works, in that it had happened before he was circumcised and before God’s law was enacted.
By Faith or By Works?
However, we see that another apostle, James, uses the example of Abraham’s faith in a different way.
“Was not our father 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. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” (Jms 2:21-24)
Here, James also quoted the exact same verse Paul did in Romans 4. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.
However, the doctrine James brought up from Abraham’s faith seems to contradict what Paul said. James took the example of Abraham’s faith to show that Abraham was considered righteous not by faith alone, but by what he did—offering his son Isaac on the altar.
Then, how should we think about these two different interpretations of Abraham’s faith? Is Paul right, or is James? Is Abraham considered righteous because of his faith alone like Paul said, or did his righteousness actually include certain works as James said?
When you read both books carefully—Romans and James—you must ask this kind of question. This apparent contradiction has caused many theological disputes throughout Christian history.
Martin Luther, who really liked Paul and the book of Romans, even called the book of James ‘the Epistle of Straw,’ because he thought that James added ‘works’ to faith when it comes to salvation.
This topic is really important in Christian life as well. So, I want to share my thoughts about this matter today. Even though Paul’s argument and James’ assertion seem to oppose each other, I don’t think that’s the case.
That’s because Paul said the first moment Abraham was credited as righteous was before he actually did anything righteous, while James dealt with how Abraham's faith was actually proven through a specific action.
So, I think these two interpretations are both right and do a great job of explaining what faith is and how Christians should live out their faith.
So, let’s dig more deeply into Abraham’s life today and take time to think about what kind of faith he had.
When Abraham was in Mesopotamia with his family, God made a covenant with him. God promised Abraham that He would make a great nation out of him and give him many descendants. God also promised Abraham that He would give him the land of Canaan. And God promised that He would bless Abraham so that all people on earth would be blessed through him.
Abraham’s response to God’s calling was simply to follow God. Genesis 12:4 says,
"So Abram went, as the Lord had told him;. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.” (Gn 12:4)
How Abraham responded to God’s promises was remarkable. Even though he was a 75-year-old man, he went to a land that he had never been to.
However, when he faced severe famine in the land, he was shaken and went down to Egypt. There, he even lied to Pharaoh that his wife Sarah was his sister, so Pharaoh took Sarah as his wife. God brought diseases on Pharaoh as a result, so Pharaoh sent Abraham and Sarah away.
After a few years, Abraham complained to God. We talked about this last Sunday. Abraham had no son yet, and he challenged the Lord, saying,
“Since I remain childless… the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus. You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”” (Gen 15:2)
However, God didn’t rebuke him. Instead, God showed him the stars in the sky and made a second covenant with him promising that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars.
And, Genesis 15:6 says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6)
So, it’s clear that Abraham wasn't credited as righteous for faithfully following God’s words. He had failed many times. He even complained to God. He wasn’t circumcised yet and he didn’t obey God’s words.
However, God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness because he believed in God even when there was no hope to be found. Abraham and Sarah were very old, but Abraham's faith allowed him to put his hope in the Lord who had the power to do what he had promised. This scene is indeed beautiful. We see the recovery of the covenant, relationship, and trust between Abraham and the Lord.
Sad to say, however, this didn’t last long. When God renewed His covenant with Abraham, Abraham believed in the Lord, but Abraham was soon shaken by his circumstances and trusted in his own ways, turning away from God’s covenant.
Ten years after the first covenant, when Abraham was 86 years old, he had a son with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave. He didn’t wait for God to give him a son through Sarah, and by doing so, he betrayed God’s covenant.
However, God didn’t give up on him. After 13 more years, when Abraham was 99 years old, God appeared to Abraham and made a third covenant with him again.
God said, “I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers… this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations… The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God…” (Gen 17:2, 4, 8)
God also said, “As for your wife… I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her… But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year” (Gen 17:15-16, 21)
So, we see God renew his covenant with Abraham again and again. God made a covenant with Abraham three times in Genesis. Why did God promise Abraham the same things three times? That’s because Abraham kept turning away from his covenant with God.
When Abraham’s faith was weakened and shaken, God held him tightly in His hand. Whenever Abraham forgot God’s Covenant and lost his way, God appeared to him and reminded him of the covenant.
This was Abraham’s response to the third covenant.
“On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised” (Gn 17:23-24)
Abraham was circumcised along with all the men in his household, in obedience to God’s Word. This showed Abraham’s complete surrender to God.
The next year, the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham at the very time God had promised. Abraham named him Isaac. He was a hundred years old when this happened.
However, this wasn’t the end. In Genesis chapter 22, we read how God tested Abraham. You all probably know this story. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. God’s order didn’t make any sense. However, Abraham’s response was notable.
Genesis 22:3 says,
“Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.” (Gen 22:3)
Abraham didn’t hesitate to obey God’s command. Early the next morning, Abraham set off with his son Isaac. Even though he didn’t understand God’s command, Abraham didn’t ask God ‘why’. He simply obeyed. And there, on the mountain, Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood on it, bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar. At the very moment Abraham took the knife to slay his son, the angel of the Lord urgently called out and stopped him.
The angel said to Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Gen 22:12)
That’s how Abraham proved his faith to the Lord, by obeying His command even though it required him to sacrifice his precious son. That’s why Abraham is called the father of the faith and is honored for his obedience.
The author of Hebrews also talked about this event when he talked about faith in Hebrews chapter 11, which is also known as the ‘faith chapter’ in the Bible.
“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” (Heb 11:17-19)
Here, we see how Abraham was able to obey God’s difficult command. It's because he believed that God would surely raise Isaac from death because God had promised him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” Abraham had such strong faith in God, he deserved to be called the father of faith of all believers.
And, this is the faith James addressed in James chapter 2.
“Was not our father 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.” (Jms 2:21-22)
So, it’s clear that what James is discussing here is not the first moment Abraham was considered righteous by the Lord in Genesis 15, but the moment when Abraham proved his faith by trying to sacrifice his only son Isaac in Gen 22.
What James emphasizes is that one’s faith should be proven through one's actions and obedience to the Lord, and that only faith working together with actions is true faith.
So, Paul’s and James’ interpretations of Abraham’s faith don't contradict each other. Rather, James’ assertion supports Paul’s argument. Paul talked about how people become righteous by faith, while James discussed how Christians, who received God’s righteousness by faith, should live out their faith in the world.
Both teachings are important and valuable to us. As we concluded in the last sermon, one is justified through faith alone, but the faith should show in his or her life through actions and obedience to God’s word. These are important lessons we can learn from Abraham’s story.
Abraham’s faith was indeed great and worth imitating, but the real thing we must focus on is not Abraham’s faith itself, but God who faithfully worked to build up that faith. As we saw, Abraham didn’t have very strong faith at first.
When God first appeared to him and made the first covenant with him, Abraham trusted in God's promise and went to the promised land. But soon after, he went down to Egypt when he met severe famine in the land of Canaan. He complained to God because he had no son, saying that one of his servants would be the heir of his possessions.
That’s why God appeared to him a second time and renewed the covenant with him. This time, Abraham believed in the Lord and his faith was credited as righteousness. However, soon after, Abraham turned away from the covenant again and had a son with Hagar. Therefore, God appeared to him a third time and renewed the covenant again.
From these events we see God’s faithfulness to his covenant. Even when Abraham doubted God’s promises and rejected them, God was still faithful to His covenant with Abraham and renewed His covenant over and over again. Abraham was faithless, but God remained faithful.
That’s why Abraham was able to have such strong faith in the end. It was not because Abraham was a righteous person. He wasn't a hero; he was just like us. It was God that built up Abraham’s faith through His faithfulness to him. That’s what we must see in Abraham’s story. We need to see God working in Abraham’s life.
So, God is a faithful God. Even when we stand against him and betray His promises, even when we're shaken by our circumstances, weaknesses, and sinful natures, God will still be faithful to us and to His promises. I believe that’s the only reason we can be here, worshiping God together—because of God’s amazing grace alone.