Abraham & God's Promises
There has been some discussion on this site about Abraham, Justification, Paul and James. That would make an awful band name by the way. The discussion has boiled down to understanding justification in the timeline of Abraham. Was Abraham justified by faith alone? Or was he justified by faith + works?
Frankly, it is faith alone. As Protestants, we must start there. Traditionally it has been a faith that never is alone. So is the instantaneous moment of justification a works-free faith? As a engineer, I studied a lot of math and physics. This type of "instantaneous" talk is an indication that we have left the realm of faith and begun to glorify ourselves in our understanding. Nevertheless, there is reason to hash out this discussion. Does "a faith that never is alone" mean that works are ever present in salvific faith?
I would caution anyone from using that language cause it can get a person hung on theological gallows these days. So what are we to say? Faith Alone. But let me take some time to address an elephant ignored in the story of Abraham. The glorious statement about justification that girds Paul's argument in Romans 4 comes from Genesis 15. God has already called Abram out of his country. Abram has already listened to (and obeyed) God. But now God gives Abraham a specific promise. This promise, and Abraham's belief, is crucial to justification in this text,
5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. - Genesis 15:5-6
Straight forward right? God made a promise. Abraham believed the promise. He was justified. It would seem justification is separate from this promise. Did faith ensure the reception of the promise? The historical events that James places at the center of his justification text make this question interesting. In Genesis 22, Abraham is willing to sacrifice Issac. Everyone is familiar with the historical resolution of the passage. In that familiarity, some might forget the second appearance of the Angel of the Lord,
15 Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. - Genesis 22:15-17
Did you catch it? What God promised was inherently tied to obedience. Abraham had "done this thing" and it is because of Abraham's obedience the promise (which was previously given) is confirmed and delivered. Before obedience, Abraham had faith in that promise. It was unto his justification. But the fulfillment and obtainment of that promise required his obedience. Feel like you are watching a sci-fi flick with time travel?
The fulfillment and deliverance of the promise are tied to Abraham's obedience. On the surface, justification already appeared separate to this promise. Now there is more reason to see these things as separate. But does this feel right? When James says Abraham is "justified" by his works is he speaking to Abraham receiving the promise? Is it possible that justification is the assurance of the promise while the reception of the promise is by works? It almost sounds like the present-future justification that has pervaded the theology of individuals who should not be named. It also seems to have a good Biblical basis.
There is a special portion of Paul's epistle to the Romans that touches on this point. It is a passage many interpreted as "hypothetical" with no serious reason except theological interpretation. Those who have interpreted it as essentially true (John Murray, Richard Gaffin) have been accused of denying justification by faith. Note this does not stem from views on James but on Paul himself. Paul says this exact same thing as James,
5 But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, 6 who will render to each person according to his deeds: 7 to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; 8 but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. - Romans 2:5-8
Many venerable men have chosen to not interpret this as a hypothetical. They have chosen to view it as non-meritorious works that confirmed our present justification. Some have even adopted the langue of "future justification" to describe how these works are essential. If one accepts that Paul is speaking non-hypothetically than justification by faith is not at risk. Perhaps one is led to think of a historical and eschatological justification with both Paul and James speaking to the same justification but at different points in time and space. Of course, the text does not lead us to adopt this understanding. But neither does it lead us to adopt the view that James is speaking of ones "justification" to being "justified."
In conclusion, we must trust each other when we affirm justification by faith alone. We need to stop seeing Roman warships in Geneva or German dance halls. But I do think that the story of Abraham alludes to more than instantaneous justification. James speaks to the culmination of the promise. He speaks to the grasping (through works) of what our faith has already accepted and received. Paul seems focused on the intellectual ascent to the promise. James seems focused on the reception of the promise.
I have no doubt that we are saved by faith alone in the here and now of time and space. And yet I know that none will enter the kingdom of God without obedience. How can this be true? Perhaps we need to continue to look to our forefather Abraham.