What are the Works of Abraham? (And Why Should We Do Them?)
If we are saved by faith in Christ alone, why does James insist that our faith must be matched with works? How can you balance the grace of God with the works of man? You can’t!
In Part 1 of this study we looked at how James appears to contradict much of what Paul teaches about faith. If you hold James 2 alongside Romans 4 you will see that both chapters use the same Old Testament examples to support apparently different conclusions. Both James and Paul refer to Abraham and they both quote Genesis 15:6. See for yourself:
Paul: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Rms 4:2-3,9)
James: “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. 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.” (Jas 2:21-23)
It is clear that both Paul and James are impressed by Abraham’s faith. But they seem to draw very different lessons from his example:
Paul: “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace…” (Rms 4:16)
James: “You see then that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Jas 2:24)
Don’t you find it curious that both James and Paul chose Abraham as their role model and that both of them referred to Genesis 15:6? One could be forgiven for thinking that James was writing in response to something that Paul had said or that Paul was writing in response to something that James had said. But I think they were both writing in response to something that Jesus had said:
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.” (Jn 8:39)
Whenever we are confused by an apparent inconsistency in the Bible, we will come to the right conclusion by filtering the “problem” text through life and work of Jesus. So if we want to reconcile Romans 4 with James 2, it will help if we read what Jesus said in John 8.
Who’s your Daddy?
In John 8, Jesus goes to the temple and confronts the Jews on the question of Fathership. Jesus came to reveal His Father, but the Jews refused to believe that Jesus was who He said He was.
“Then they asked him, ‘Where is your father?’ ‘You do not know me or my Father,’ Jesus replied. ‘If you knew me, you would know my Father also.’” (Jn 8:19)
When the Pharisees scorned Jesus for testifying on His own behalf, He replied:
“I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me… my other witness is the Father… I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.” (Jn 8:16,18,28)
Still the Jews refused to listen. So Jesus warned them that they would die on account of their unbelief (v.24). At this point some of the Jews changed their minds and put their faith in Jesus (v.30), but the others started making plans to kill Him (v.37). Knowing their murderous thoughts, Jesus said they were just like their father the devil, “a murderer from the beginning” (v.55). Clearly they were slaves to sin who needed to be set free. The Jews replied that they were Abraham’s children and they had never been slaves of anyone. To this Jesus responded,
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things.” (Jn 8:39-40)
The Jews thought they were special because they were Abraham’s descendents. But Jesus said if they really were children of Abraham, then they would act like Abraham. So what did Abraham do that the Jews refused to do? The short answer is that Abraham believed God. The Jews, in contrast, rejected the Living Word of God even as He stood right there in front of them. Truth had come to set them free but they refused to listen. Their actions testified that they did not belong to God but to their father the devil, “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).
When was Abraham born again?
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Here’s a question that will help us with James 2:24: when was Abraham credited with righteousness? Was it after he tried to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22? Was it after he was circumcised in Genesis 17? No, it was back in Genesis 15.
“We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!” (Rms 4:9-10)
The word of the Lord came to Abraham in Genesis 15, in verses 1, 4 and 5. Abraham “believed the Lord” in verse 6 and was immediately credited with righteousness. On this point James and Paul are in complete agreement. (Actually they are in complete agreement on all points, as I will show you.) So what works had Abraham done when righteousness was credited to him in Genesis 15? Only one – he believed God. What work did Jesus say Abraham had done that the Jews had not done? He believed God.
What exactly did Abraham believe? He believed that God was his shield and his exceedingly great reward. Although Abraham received many promises from God, Genesis 15:1 might be considered The Promise as it foreshadowed the two-fold work that God’s Son would accomplish on the cross – protection (from judgment) and provision (new life in Christ). The shield speaks of God’s mercy (complete forgiveness!) while the reward speaks of the riches of His grace (God Himself – He is the gift!). In other words, Abraham believed in, and eagerly looked forward to Jesus! We know this because Jesus told the Jews:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (Jn 8:56)
What are the works of Abraham?
Jesus said the Jews were nothing like their father Abraham because they did not do what Abraham did, and what they did Abraham did not do. The Jews rejected Jesus, but Abraham embraced Jesus with joy and gladness, albeit from a distance (Heb 11:13). The works of Abraham are thus identical to the works that God requires of all men:
“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.’” (Jn 6:29)
James said that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did. What did he do? Jesus has already given us the short answer (he believed); Paul gives us a longer answer:
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Rms 4:18-22 NIV)
What are the “works of Abraham”? They are believing and being fully persuaded that God will deliver on His promises even when reality says otherwise. When was Abraham fully persuaded? It was in Genesis 15, when God credited him with righteousness. When did we see evidence that Abraham was fully persuaded? In Genesis 22, when he tried to sacrifice Isaac. That’s why James writes “You see his faith and actions were working together.” But God saw Abraham’s faith seven chapters earlier.
What if Abraham had failed the test?
Would Abraham still have been counted righteous if he had not bound Isaac on the altar? Many have asked this, but it’s the wrong question. The right question is, does God ask us to do things that He knows we can’t or won’t do? Does God set us up for failures of faith?
Understand that we are not talking about the ordinary works of the flesh. Sometimes we do find ourselves in situations that are more than we can bear. We try with all our might and struggle with all our energy, yet we fail badly. This happens so that might learn to trust in God who raises the dead and not rely on our own strength or understanding (2 Cor 1:9). But if we are resting in Christ, if we are fully persuaded that God will do what He promised, then you cannot fail. It’s impossible.
People have written entire books about what Abraham must’ve been thinking the morning after God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. The motivation behind these books is the thought that, gulp, what if God asked me to sacrifice my son? Well don’t panic, He won’t. God sacrificed His Son so you don’t have to sacrifice yours. Because of Jesus we get all the blessings of Abraham without going through what Abraham went through. Yes, you will face trials and tests, suffering and hardship. But if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus there’s no test you can’t pass, no battle you can’t win! Why not? Because Christ is our victory (1 Cor 15:57), and Jesus never loses, never fails!
If God says “we’re going to the other side of the lake” (Mk 4:35), and you are fully persuaded God will do what He says, then no matter what bad stuff happens along the way, you can rest assured that you are indeed going to the other side of the lake. God said so! Likewise Abraham was fully persuaded that his offspring would come through Isaac. “If Isaac dies without children,” he reasoned, “then God must raise the dead” (Heb 11:19). It absolutely, positively has to happen. People speculate whether Abraham dragged his feet in obeying the Lord, but the Bible says he got up “early the next morning” and went (Gen 22:3). Why would you wait when there’s a miracle on the way? Hesitation can be fatal to faith. Sometimes it’s just better to obey quickly, while faith is strong.
Faith never initiates; faith responds
To summarize Part 1 and Part 2 of this study, we now see that there are two very different ways to work in the Bible. We can work under law or under grace. We put ourselves under law when we look for things we should be doing for Jesus. We remain under grace when we rest in Him and then do what comes naturally. Under law, we initiate. Under grace, we respond in faith to what God is saying or doing. We see Him or hear Him and then we join Him (Jn 5:19). Under law, we work alone. Under grace, we co-labor with Him (2 Cor 6:1). This is how Jesus and Abraham and all the heroes of faith operated. What is the work that God wants from us? He wants us to trust Him, to be fully persuaded that He will do what He said, even when our present reality says otherwise.
And with that firm foundation, we are finally ready to unpackage James 2:24. Stay tuned for Part 3…
Dear E2R readers,
If these cliff-hangers are driving you nuts, now you know how I feel whenever I read the Bible. There’s always more treasure to be uncovered! If you just can’t wait for the next post, why don’t you sign up for an email subscription. (Enter your email where it says “Free Subscription!” near the top of the side-bar on the right.) E2R subscribers are members of a super-elite club who get to see new posts before most everyone else. And if you subscribe within the next 30 minutes, you will also receive a personally signed 8×10 glossy photograph of me! Actually, that last part is not true. Sorry – I got a bit carried away.
Great article, Paul. I do still have to confess, however, that I struggle with the NECESSITY of Jesus having died and resurrected, as it pertains to our salvation,when long before the Incarnation there are examples of believers (like Abraham) who were counted righteous because of their faith.
Faith doesn’t save; it’s the object of your faith that matters. For reasons I outline in the post, I believe Abraham’s faith was in the risen Jesus. The cross was such a profound intervention in human history, that its shadow spills both forwards and backwards in time. Abraham may not have had exactly the same revelation we have, but he had enough to believe. Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” So something was going on.
I am late by 4-1/2 years!! So do I still qualify for the personally signed 8×10 glossy photograph? 😀
Haha – nope. But I’ll give you a free book – Out of the Jungle – which is probably better for you.
Awesome article! Clears up a lot. I’ve decided not to kick James out of the canon. I’m still debating on Sirach and Enoch, but that’s another subject. :p
I’m a subscriber now…so I’ll be anxiously awaiting for the glossy picture to show up in my mailbox. LOL
Stunning thank you – and now for the glossy photo…….
I just visit E2R every morning,even if it means revising previus posts…thats great of you Paul Ellis….Keep it up..be Encouraged…..
Brother, thanks for letting out some rope so we can climp on top of the mountain, i.e. not hang off the cliff anymore…
This was magnificently put Paul, this has cleared up so much fog and empowered my to now boldly engage in conversations about James 2 as well!! Bless your socks off!
In Grace, Andre van der Merwe
Loved it Paul! It’s so simple if you actually contextualize scripture. And context is not always just the verse before and after…
Thanks Paul, you keep things in accurate context. I’m looking forward to the next teachings.
but this is what Abraham was thinking on the third day, as he walked up the hill w/ his son: “God will provide himself a lamb for the burnt offering” (gen 22:8) this is what he told Isaac. this is what he believed! and this is what he spoke out loud in faith! and lo and behold – this is exactly what he got in verse 13! 🙂
(i was pretty excited when the Spirit showed me that Abraham wasn’t just answering his son’s question, but that he was confessing out loud what he believed God could do!)
Actually, the Lamb wasn’t provided until Jesus was sacrificed on the cross, that was a prophetic look (and statement) into the future.. What was provided for on that day in the book of Genesis was a “RAM”… But this hidden gem should encourage us even more about the great work of our Savior on our behalf!!! Grace and peace to you and all reader’s, God bless!
That’s really good!
Thanks for the exposition.
Please paul i am some how confuse, did you say that faith does’nt save you from your respond?
Abraham’s faith was in The ressurection he knew that God would have to ressurect his son , he was not sacrificing his son he was believing God..Abraham was disobedient and reluctant in his calling to move but obedient in having faith in God.God in the same way was not sacrificing his Son but believing in us, this is the faith I rely on, it cannot fail.
Simply enlightening! Greater annointing for more and wider reach.
Thank you Paul a lot for good lessons about James words !Greet you from Ukraine !
The works of Abraham are found in Genesis 26:5. This unless you obey the Old Testament law you are a son of belial.
Wow! Both the “James” [part 1] and this follow on article are so clear, concise and easy to understand. It is easy to see how so many believers could mistake the words of James and seek to do “good works” for the Lord. But as you plainly point out, as soon as we put the “good works I can do for the Lord” into the equation, we are bordering on falling back under the Law and turning away from Grace of God. And as you pointed out, Paul when we are resting in Him and revealing Him through our life by faith, we are doing “the good works of the Lord”. He died for us, so He could give His life to us, so He can live His life through us. What an incredible blessing we have been given. Thank you, Paul, for your clarifying the Paul versus James issue so well.
I love, love, love this! I have heard teachings on James 2:24 from a couple of grace teachers and they were good but I didn’t feel like fully made sense. This makes perfect sense and it isn’t a stretch to understand or share with others who question this part of scripture. I have been studying grace for a couple a years now and it has been life changing. I can’t get enough of Jesus! I’m so glad I found your site. I have loved everything I’ve read so far and will be checking out more of your stuff.
I love this!!!!
You’ve said law usually drives while love draws. Has Jesus made faith to work where we can expect this dream to work for our own lives. Seems He’s making a clear or scary difference between a parents drawing and his own. But There’s no fear in love.
Thank you, Maurice.
Abraham, Job and all others before Jesus saw things spiritual and supernatural without any clear boundaries between light and darkness that Jesus would bring to men.
Before Jesus, life and death, healing and sickness, was commonly attributed to God or his agents. Because I know Jesus I know the Father, I therefore know that Satan inspired Abraham to sacrifice his son. . .our Father has never tempted anyone to sacrifice their children. Men make gods in their own image who demand such things. . . surrounded by interference Abraham had no way of discerning where the inspiration to kill his son came from. Even so, Abrahams’ faith in Gods’ ability enabled the curse of the enemy to be turned into a blessing. It’s not so difficult to imagine confused OT man, even now, NT men in 2018 believe that God has been angry, wrathful and genocidal by various means in the past and also in the present.
Thank you Richard for laying this truth out so clearly.
This is an amazing teaching and unravelling of the work of Faith. I have struggled to understand exactly what Apostle James ment until today! Thank you so much for the good work of grace you doing. Keep living in His Fulness!
With regards to your beginning comment “Faith doesn’t save; it’s the object of your faith that matters. For reasons I outline in the post, I believe Abraham’s faith was in the risen Jesus.” … With that said this was a Pauline revelation and none of the Apostles had any idea of what the resurrection was about…Luke 18:34 “The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.”…. Only later did the Holy Spirit reveal its true meaning to them. So my question is not necessarily just with Abraham but all the OT saints who were saved by faith. Do you believe they all too understood the risen Jesus when clearly the NT saints did not until its meaning was revealed to them after His death ? I really like your article with scripture references but would like to know your thoughts on this question.
Keep up the good writings.
I love how timeless truth sets me free. Thank you. The part about co-laboring set me free from guilt about what I should be doing. My connection is what is most important to me, not what I think he expects, so I am free to respond to his prompting.
“Works of Abraham”? They are believing and being fully persuaded that God will deliver on His promises.” Thankyou Paul Ellis for your work- “Under law, we initiate. Under grace, we respond”, I love it. God brought 2 Covenants into the world, 430 years apart. Grace by promise , Law by stealth. Grace and Faith are a picture of the everlasting covenant, that Jesus ratified with his blood. The Holy Spirit will always glorify the goodness of Jesus (not the weakness of man) Jesus is now our all in all. Grace vrs Law = Faith vrs works. Boasting in the Law of works has been excluded by the Law of Faith. Faith is believing Jesus is now our everlasting righteousness and we are now in Him forever. The Law is not of Faith, they are 2 different covenants. God gave the Everlasting Covenant by promise to Abraham and his Seed who was Christ, 430 years before the Law. God declares that the 2nd covenant can not annul or add to the first covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant. He made you alive together with Him by forgiving all your sins by nailing the Law to the cross, wiping out the hand writing of requirements. Praise God. God preached the Gospel to Abraham, Abraham saw Jesus Day and rejoiced. Abraham’s work was ” to believe in the one He has sent.’” (Jn 6:29). It only took about 30 years for this revelation to filter into me, Jesus always remains my Faithfull Lord
I believe the works of Abraham were the following (most noted above):
– He believe God and it was counted unto him righteousness (Genesis 15:6)
– He worshipped God building many altars unto HIM; PRAISE (Gen 12.1-7), PRAYER (Gen 12.8-13), PEACE (Gen 13.14-18), and PROVISION (Gen 22.9-14)
– He entered an eternal covenant with God trusting he would keep his Oath (Genesis 15:18)
– He circumcised flesh/heart to God (Gen 17:10-12)
– Obeyed God in the journey/even to the point of the ultimate sacrifice…his son. (Genesis 22)
The same way God calls Abraham to journey before Him, he calls Israel, and he also calls YOU!