20. Abraham, Justified by Faith and Works

This is a painting showing Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and the angel stopping him by grabbing his hand.
Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, 1603, Baroque

There is a grand unity to the Bible. The story of Abraham itself can seem confusing because there are so many moving parts to it. But the story of Abraham fits together as a unified whole around the theme of covenant. Below is the outline that I will use to discuss the Abrahamic covenant so that hopefully it makes more sense as you grasp the big picture of this remarkable story.

Please read post 18 and post 19 if you haven’t already as background for this post.

Summary of the Abrahamic Covenant1

1. The Sevenfold Promise of the Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 12:1-3

2. The Inaugural Blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant – Genesis 14:17-24

The inaugural blessing set in motion the following:

3. The Ratification of the Covenant; Abraham would be a great nation – Genesis 15/fulfilled Deuteronomy 1

4. The Sign and Seal of the Covenant, Circumcision; Abraham’s name would be great (i.e, that kings would come from him) – Genesis 17/fulfilled 2 Samuel 7

5. The Consummation of the Covenant, Sacrifice of Isaac and Oath sworn by God; all of the nations of the earth will be blessed – Genesis 22/fulfilled Matthew 26:26-28

With this post, I would like to tie up some loose ends as I conclude the story of Abraham. 

Eucharistic Implications of the Abrahamic Covenant

In the previous post, I discussed how Melchizedek’s liturgical offering of bread and wine to inaugurate the blessings of the covenant foreshadowed the consummation of the covenant with the sacrifice of Isaac. So too, as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant during the Passover meal in the upper room with an offering of bread and wine.2 Like the sacrifice of Isaac which consummated Melchizedek’s offering, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross would fulfill the sacrament of bread and wine that he instituted. 

Because the sacrifice of Isaac was figurative, the Jews in the Old Testament continued to feed upon bloody animal sacrifices because the true sacrifice had not yet come. But after the inauguration of the New Covenant, we feed upon Jesus’s sacrifice through the offering of his body and blood in the Eucharist. In both cases, whether in the Abrahamic Covenant or the New Covenant, the liturgical sacrifice points to the actual sacrifice.

In the third century A.D., Clement of Alexandria made the connection between the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek and the elements of the eucharist. He writes in the Stromata:

“Melchizedek, King of Salem, and priest of Most High God, who gave bread and wine, furnished the consecrated food for a type of the Eucharist.”3 

Likewise, Thomas Aquinas stated:

“In relation to our fellowship in the sacrifice and its fruits, where the pre-eminence of Christ’s priesthood over that of the Old Law principally lies, the priesthood of Melchizedek was a more explicit symbol. For he offered bread and wine, these symbolizing, as Augustine remarks, the unity of the Church, which is the fruit of our fellowship of Christ’s sacrifice. This symbolism is, accordingly, still preserved in the New Law where the true sacrifice of Christ is communicated to the faithful under the appearance of bread and wine.”4

Justified By Faith and Works

There were, for sure, aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant that were unconditional. For example, when God alone passed between the animal halves during the ratification of the covenant, He was saying that He alone would make them a great nation and would give them the land, apart from their own efforts. And this proved to be true. He made them a great nation while they were under the yoke of slavery in Egypt which took away all pretenses of boasting. Likewise, they did nothing to inherit that land:

“I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns you had not build, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

-Joshua 24:13

God’s part of the covenant was fulfilled when He brought them out of Egypt and gave them the land of Canaan. Whether they could keep the land or not was an entirely different matter determined by the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant. 

There were also certain conditional aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant, like circumcision, which came with a threat that anyone not circumcised would be cut off from his people.5 

The part that is really interesting is how Abraham’s obedience in sacrificing Isaac is directly linked to the fulfillment of the promise that all nations would be blessed. In Genesis 22 it says:

“…and by your offspring shall the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 

Unlike the ratification of the covenant with the animal halves, this part of the covenant, the consummation, was very dependent upon Abraham’s obedience. James 2 sheds important light on this matter:

“Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone” 

Just as Abraham consummated the promises of the covenant by being obedient and offering up his son Isaac, so Abraham’s faith – on which the promise depended – was consummated by this one act. Likewise, in our lives, faith has to be consummated by obedience or it is not true faith. 

“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.”

Faith and works are distinct, but unified. Abraham’s belief in God’s promises in Genesis 15 was distinct from his works of offering up Isaac in Genesis 22, but they were linked in the sense that Abraham’s disobedience to God, if he chose not to offer up Isaac, would have rendered the faith he exhibited earlier null and void.

James uses the analogy of the body and spirit. They are distinct, but yet are so unified that without the spirit, the body dies. So too, without works, faith dies. Faith needs works to keep it viable. James also says in that passage:

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”

James was a Jewish Christian, and in the Jewish mindset, “word” and “deed” were practically synonymous. Thorlief Boman, in his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, states the following:

“The word is the highest and noblest function of man and is, for that reason, identical with action. ‘Word’ and ‘deed’ are thus not two different meanings of dabhar (Hebrew word for ‘word’), but the ‘deed’ is the consequence of the basic meaning inhering in dabhar.” 6

He also writes:

“If the Israelites do not distinguish sharply between word and deed, they still know of very promising words that did not become deeds; the failure in such instances lies not in the fact that the man produced only words and no deeds, but in the fact that he brought forth a counterfeit word, an empty word, or a lying word which did not possess the the inner strength or truth for accomplishment or accomplished something evil.”7

Boman is not denigrating the Hebrew concept of “word,” but he is simply saying that what makes the word substantive is the deed, otherwise it is an empty or false word. It is like a stillborn child or like a beautifully wrapped present that has nothing inside. What makes the child alive or the present real is the soul or the substance inside that animates it. 

James was pointing out that for the ancient Hebrew, what one professed and what one did were for all intents and purposes the same. Abraham was justified by faith and works because faith and works were a part of the same unity. In our mindset, a profession of faith may or may not include action, but for an ancient Hebrew, a profession of faith always carried with it the dynamism of action. 

Finally, after Abraham consummated the covenant, God swore an oath to Himself that what He promised, He would accomplish.  

“The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you…”8

This should provide comfort in the present distresses we find ourselves in. In the passage below, the author of Hebrews encourages his audience, who, like us, are “heirs to the promise” of Abraham. Those to whom the Epistle of the Hebrews was written were undergoing severe trials. Still today, many Christians are suffering for their faith. Currently, about 260,000,000 Christians in the world are being persecuted.9 In the West, we find ourselves in an environment increasingly hostile to Christianity. And to add insult to injury, many church leaders have turned out to be false shepherds who have sold the Church out to the world. It is easy to get disheartened as we see such things. 

Regardless of this, if God swore an oath to Himself in regard to the promises to Abraham, then He will surely bring His redemption of the Church to pass. This is an “anchor for our souls, firm and secure.” Like Abraham, God did not withhold His one and only Son from us. And if He has given us His Son, how shall He not give us all things in Him?10 

“When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself… In the same way, when God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath…so that we have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” 

-Hebrews 6:13-20

Was Abraham justified by works as well as faith? Please leave your comment below. Thank you!

Footnotes:

  1. Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, pp. 93-110, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998
  2. “Eucharist,” St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, https://www.stjosephbryson.org/54
  3. “Shameless Popery.” Early Church Fathers on the Eucharist (c. 200 – c. 300 A.D.) – Shameless Popery. Accessed June 19, 2017. shamelesspopery.com/early-church-fathers-on-the-eucharist-c-200-c-300-a-d/ as cited in Peter, Marcus Benedict, “Christ, Melchizedek, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” from the Homiletic and Pastoral Review online magazine, September 2, 2018, https://www.hprweb.com/2018/09/christ-melchizedek-and-the-eucharistic-sacrifice
  4. O’Neill, Colman E. Summa Theologiae: Volume 50, The One Mediator: 3a. 16-26. Vol. 50. Cambridge University Press, 2006., 157, as cited in Peter, Marcus Benedict, “Christ, Melchizedek, and the Eucharistic Sacrifice
  5. Genesis 17:14
  6. Boman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 65, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1960
  7. Boman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, p. 65-66
  8. Genesis 22:16
  9. “New Report Highlights Simple, Sobering Truth: Christians Face Rising Levels of Persecution Worldwide,” ADF International, commentary published on February 19, 2020
  10. Romans 8:32

Balentine, Samuel E., editor, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology: Two-Volume Set, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2015

Boman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, 1960

Dawson, Christopher, Progress & Religion, An Historical Inquiry, The Catholic University of American Press, Washington, D.C., 1929, 2001

De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, 1998

Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009

Royal, Robert, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, A Comprehensive Word History, A Herder and Herder Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 2000

Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018

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