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How Was Abraham Justified?

Three times in the New Testament, Genesis 15:6 is quoted (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23).  This verse speaks of Abraham and says, "Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  This passage is profoundly important for our understanding of justification, so let us take some time to understand it.

Let’s recall some details of Abraham’s life in order to get a context for Genesis 15:6.  After Abram’s family had moved from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, they settled in Haran, where Abram’s father Terah died (Gen. 11:27-32).  It was then that God first gave Abram the promises, including the promise that he would be made into a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3).  According to God’s instructions, Abram, who was seventy-five years old, and his family left Haran and came to the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:4-5).   In Genesis 15:1-5, God promised Abram, who was still childless, that his heir would come from his own body.  After ten years in Canaan, Abram and his wife Sarai attempted to fulfill God’s promise on their own through her maid Hagar (Gen. 16:1-3), and Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram when he was eighty-six years old (Gen. 16:16).  When Abram was ninety-nine years old, he was given the covenant of circumcision, renamed Abraham ("father of a multitude”), and told that Sarai (who was renamed Sarah) would bear him a son one year later (Gen. 17:1-27).  Thus, Isaac was born unto Abraham through Sarah when he was one-hundred years old and she was ninety (Gen. 17:17; 21:5).  Some years later, Abraham was tested when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac but then interceded to stop him (Gen. 22:1-18).

The context of Abraham’s life shows that he consistently believed God, for he always acted on God’s words.  In other words, Abraham lived by faith, which is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).  By faith, he left Haran to go to the promised land of Canaan (Heb. 11:8-10).  By faith, he was prepared to offer up Isaac because he believed God could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17).  If Abraham had not believed God, then he would not have done these things, and if he had not done these things, then he would not have had faith.

Because of Abraham’s active belief, i.e. faith, God "reckoned” to him righteousness.  This simply means that God considered Abraham to be righteous.  In other words, Abraham became right in the sight of God because he believed God and did what God said.  Another way to say this is that Abraham was justified (made right) through his faith.

Abraham’s justification by faith is used in the New Testament as a pattern for us to follow for justification.  The three N.T. passages that quote Genesis 15:6 show Abraham to be our example.  The contexts of two of these passages (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6) emphasize that justification is not achieved by the works of the Law of Moses, for Abraham was justified by faith long before the Law was given.  The other passage (Jas. 2:23) emphasizes that justification is not achieved by faith (belief) alone, for Abraham was justified when he acted on (did works by) his belief.  Let’s read these passages:

Romans 4:1-5 – What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  For what does the Scripture say?  "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.  But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…

Galatians 3:5-7 – So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?  Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.  Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.

James 2:21-24 – Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?  You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God.  You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Therefore, Abraham was justified by faith through works, and so are we.  There is no conflict in these Scriptures, for the different contexts and emphasis of these passages complement one another and give us a complete understanding of justification.  As sons of Abraham through common faith with him, we are now justified by having faith in Christ and obeying His word.  God has made this possible by His love and grace, so let us respond in kind.  This is how we can be right in the sight of God, so let us learn His word, and live it every day.

Stacey E. Durham




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