Abraham and Works

How do we reconcile Romans and James?  Both books reference the same Bible passage, Genesis 15:6.  However, they seem to use this passage in very different ways.  In fact, at first glance, one might conclude that the two books are contradictory in their usages of the referenced passage.

Romans reads: “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 accounted to him for righteousness.’  Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt” (Romans 4:2-4).  Romans references Genesis 15:6 to establish that Abraham was not justified by works.

James reads: “Was not Abraham our fathers justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?  And the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’  And he was called a friend of God.  you see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:21-24).  James references Genesis 15:6 to establish that Abraham was justified by works.


Do Romans and James contradict one another?  Let’s define what a contradiction is. Clinton Lockhart has written, “Often statements appear to be contradictory when there is no reason to question the veracity of the authors.  If two statements are real contradictions, one of them must be false, but sometimes the semblance of contradiction is due to the use of one or more terms with different meanings or applications” (Lockhart, Principles of Interpretation, p. 27).  This is exactly the situation with Romans, and James. J.W. McGarvey has written, “Two statements are contradictory not when they differ, but when they cannot both be true” (McGarvey, Evidences of Christianity, part 3, p. 31).

Different Works

The Bible uses the term “work(s)” in different ways.  There are: (1) Meritorious works (Romans 4:4; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:4-5).  Man does not merit salvation. He does not earn his way to heaven, meriting by his own goodness.  Man could never do enough good deeds to erase his sin problem.  (2) Works of the Law of Moses (Galatians 2:21; 3:2; Romans 3:20, etc).  The Law of Moses (or any legal system) condemns those who do not continue to maintain the standards required by the law (Galatians 2:16).  Even to stumble in one point brings condemnation (James 2:10).  If one lived perfectly,without even one sin, then he would not need God’s grace, or a Savior (Romans 3:20; cf. 3:24; Galatians 2:21).  Notice: “Works” is sometimes used of perfectly keeping the law so as to need no forgiveness in Romans 4:5-8.  (3) Man made works of righteousness, whereby man invents his own system designed to achieve a righteous state before God (Romans 10:1-3).  Such will not work.  We need to submit ourselves to His system for righteousness (Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-22; 4:3; 4:5-8; 8:3-4; 10:1-4; 10:10).  (4) Works of God (John 6:27-29; Acts 10:34-35; Philippians 2:12).  These are works which God requires of man: (a) Included are works of obedience required for pardon (John 6:27-29, cf. 3:16).  These are not meritorious works.  (b) Included are works which He wants us to walk in as Christians (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10; 5:25 6:18; 2 Timothy 3:17; Titus 1:6; 2:7; 2:14; 3:8; 3:14; etc.).  This is not a legal system without available grace.  (5) Sinful works (Romans 13:12; Galatians 5:19-ff; Ephesians 5:11; Colossians 1:21; Hebrews 6:1; 9:14).

Paul and James are using the terms “works” in difference senses.  Roy Deaver commented, Paul is discussing works of merit; James is discussing works of obedience.  Paul stresses that one cannot be saved by works without faith.  James stresses that one cannot be saved by faith without works.  These chapters are wonderfully complementary, not contradictory” (Romans: God’s Plan for Man’s Righteousness, p. 130).

Different Targets

Paul and James had two different audiences in mind.  “If one understands that these two men are writing to different audiences and dealing with altogether different matters, the suspicion of contradiction vanishes.  Paul was writing to refute certain Judaizers who taught that salvation for the Christian depended on doing the works of the Law of Moses. These false teachers were attempting to bind circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, and certain other Old Testament ordinances on New Testament Christians.  Paul asserted that the ‘works of the law’ have nothing to do with the salvation of men under the authority of Christ.  On the other hand, James was writing to refute the false notion that inner conviction was all that mattered in religion.    He taught that inner convictions had to show themselves in outward deeds of the individual” (Shelly, What Christian Living is All About, p. 47).

False Understanding

1.  Some in the denominational world have asserted that Paul was speaking of the justification of an alien sinner, while James is speaking of the behavior of a Christian.  It is claimed that all that is needed is faith for salvation.  Works are for the Christian.

There are at least three problems with this view.  First, both Paul and James are referencing the same passage which concerns Abraham.  How could he represent both the alien sinner and the child of God at the same time?  Second, Abraham in no way could be classified as representing the alien sinner in Genesis 15:6, for Abraham by faith had been following God’s instructions since at least Genesis 12 (cf. Hebrews 11:8-ff).  Third, faith itself is a work (John 6:27-29).

2.  Some have suggested that the difference is not in the word “works,” but in how the word “justified” is used in these passages.  It is claimed that Romans uses the term for justified before God, while James uses the term as evidence of faith before men.  That is: Abraham was justified by God at the point of faith, but he was later justified before men as a man of faith by actions.

There are four things to be said in response.  First, this does not fit.  Abraham was a man of a faith and a man of actions long before Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 (see below subtitle – Abraham).  Second,  Abraham’s actions in Genesis  22 were not public.  It appears that it was only he and his son who were present.  Two servants had been left at a distance. Third, Abraham was blessed by God due to his action (Genesis 22:15-18).  Fourth, one can’t remove works from salvation (John 6:27-29; Matthew 7:21; Romans 6:17-18; Philippians 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 5:9; 2 Peter 1:5-10).

3.  Some brethren have tried to reconcile the two passages by saying that Paul is merely stating the fact of Abraham’s justification, while James shows when Abraham was justified. It is claimed that he was not justified until he offered up Isaac (cf. James 2:22-23).

This explanation will not work.  Abraham is declared righteous in Genesis 15:6.  Isaac is not offered up until Genesis 22.  Note: The interchangeable use of justification and righteousness in Romans 4:2-3.


Abraham was accounted righteous because he trusted in and followed God.  He lived a life of obedient faith.  Review his life: (1) Abraham is declared righteous in Genesis 15:6, when he believed in God’s promise.  This occurred at least 13 years prior to Abraham’s circumcision (Genesis 17:24-25; cf. 16:15).  Thus, it cannot be that it is circumcision itself that makes one righteous.  (2) Abraham is declared righteous in Genesis 15:6, but this is long before he offered up Isaac in Genesis 22.  (3) Abraham’s faith is seen before he is declared righteous (in Genesis 15:6).  It is seen in his leaving Ur (Acts 7:3-ff; Genesis 11:31; 15:7; Nehemiah 9:7).  It is seen in his leaving Haran (Genesis 12:4).  (4) Abraham’s faith is seen in the altars he built and worshipped at in Moreh (Genesis 12:6-7), Bethel (Genesis 12:8; 13:3-4), and Hebron (Genesis 13:8).  (5) Abraham’s faith is seen in his offering tithes (Genesis 14:19-20 cf. Hebrews 7:5-ff).

James connects the offering up of Isaac (Genesis 22) with the statement about Abraham’s faith (Genesis 15:6).  It is an example of the type of faith which he had. His faith was not just a mental assent, but a faith which demonstrated itself in obedient action.  It was not meritorious works.  It was not works of the Law of Moses.  It certainly was not works of perfection that needed no grace.

Abraham was a man who trusted and depended on God.  May we each so live!

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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