Abraham Justified by Works? (James 2:18-24)

Have you ever read a portion of Scripture and wondered, “That seems like a direct contradiction to what I read somewhere else in the Bible”?

Hopefully you have not and do not remain is such a terrible condition. Surely, all of Scripture is true and cohesive and when you meditate and mull over it you often find that the “obvious direct contradiction” is really not at all what you thought. Today I want to walk through such a passage.

Over the last two months I have been bothered by the following text and I have made bold the specific part:

“But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
(James 2:18-24 ESV)

At a first quick glance it seems that this text is saying that Abraham achieved his justification before God by his works, I mean it says “Was not Abraham our father justified by works…”.

I thought that justification was by faith alone. Isn’t that Paul’s argument in Romans 4?

    What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 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 counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:1-5 ESV)

    For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
    That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25 ESV)

What about Galatians 3?

    O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
    Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:1-9 ESV)

In Romans 4 and Galatians 3 Paul uses the same reference to Genesis 15 where Abraham believed God (exercised faith) and it was counted to him as righteousness (justification). So Paul seems to argue that Abraham was justified by faith not works.


Didn’t James say that Abraham was justified by works? Hmmm…it must be a contradiction!


We just need to dwell on, meditate on, and pray over the text and see if we can figure it out. Let’s see if we can make some sense of it.

Look back at James 2:23 “and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”  That’s the same Genesis 15 verse Paul used in Romans 4 and Galatians 5 to demonstrate that Abraham was declared righteous (or justified) by God because of his faith (he believed God).

So somehow that verse was fulfilled when Abraham “offered up Isaac on the alter”. Wait, “fulfilled”? Doesn’t that usually mean that there is some sort of a sequence? Something must begin or happen for it to then be fulfilled or brought to completion.

So, when Abraham offered up Isaac on the alter the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”. We already know from our look at Romans 4 and Galatians 3 that Abraham was declared righteous (justified) in Genesis 15. When did he offer up Isaac on the alter?

This is important. Abraham offered his son Isaac on the alter in Genesis 22, seven long chapters later. In those seven intervening chapters years went by. In chapters 16-21 Ishmael is born, Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed, Lot captured and rescued, circumcision instituted (Ishmael 13 years old at this event), Abraham and Sarah move to Gerar and Abraham tells the king that Sarah is his sister, Isaac is born and then Abraham offers up Isaac. Some 15 – 20 years go by between the two events.

Here is my point. In Genesis 15 Abraham is justified (declared righteous by God) by faith. This is a one time event. Once you are justified you are completely justified. Once God has declared you righteous you are righteous. This means coming into the offering up of Isaac on the alter in Genesis 22 Abraham is a completely justified man, a man justified by faith.

So what does James mean when he says “Was not Abraham our father justified by works…”?

Well, from what we have seen, it doesn’t mean he was declared righteous, first of all it doesn’t say or imply that and second of all he already was declared righteous because of His faith in Genesis 15.

Here’s what I think. When Abraham offered up Isaac he was externally demonstrating what was an inward reality. Abraham was demonstrating with his works that he was a justified man. His justification which was established by faith was being completed or perfected by works. When he offered up Issac he was fulfilling or bringing to completion the reality of being a justified person.


  • Have I put my faith in God for my justification?
  • Do I have external fruit that demonstrates inward realities?
  • Am I growing in holiness?
  • Is my faith real? Is there any fruit in my life to affirm this?
  • Where is my faith? (God, self, money, hobby, skill, job, relationships, etc.)
  • Is my faith being perfected and completed by my works or do my works destroy my faith?
  • Where do I need to change and how can I do that?
  • Is my trust in my works or is my trust in God and that reality produces works?
  • Do I have a faith that is alone or am I saved by a faith that is not alone?
  • Do I have a faith that works?

Grace and Peace


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