The New Testament authors often hold up the patriarch Abraham from the Old Testament as an example of his faith leading to his justification. He is mentioned in this way multiple times by different New Testament authors. But is this a one-time singular event in the life of Abraham, or a process?
The first Old Testament reference we see regarding Abraham and faith is Genesis 12:1-4, when Abraham is asked to leave his homeland and follow God to a new land. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.”
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament refers to this as an act of faith on the part of Abraham – “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.” (Hebrews 11:8-9) If justification is a one-time event which occurs with initial faith, at this point Abraham should have been justified. The book of Galatians also speaks to this event – “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.’” (Galatians 3:8)
The understanding that all the nations of the earth are blessed through Abraham is significant in St. Paul’s writings. It illuminates his point that in Christ we are justified apart from the Mosaic law. Abraham pre-dates the Mosaic law, and in him is found common ground for both Gentile and Jewish believers.
The next time we see Abraham’s faith on display in the Old Testament is in his old age when he receives the improbable promise that he will have descendants as numerous as the stars. “And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6) The book of Hebrews again refers to his faith at this moment in his life – “By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11 NRSVCE).
And St. Paul writes two times of this event in Abraham’s life. To the Romans he writes “What then shall we say about 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 reckoned to him as righteousness.’” (Romans 4:1-3) And the passage to the Galatians already cited refers to both of these Old Testament events together – ”Thus Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ So you see that it is men 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 men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.” (Galatians 3:6-9)
So why does Sacred Scripture refer to Abraham’s faith to believe the promise of descendants as being “reckoned to him as righteousness” when by faith he had already believed God and left his homeland? This points to the Catholic view that justification is not a one-time event in the life of the believer.
And there is yet a third time in Abraham’s life where the New Testament refers to his acting on faith. This is when he is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Referring to this story in Genesis 22:1-18, the book of Hebrews continues with its discussion of Abraham and his faith – “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son” (Hebrews 11:17). While this was an “act of faith” on the part of Abraham, St. James also notes that he was performing a “work.” He writes “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’; and he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:21-23)
When Abraham believes that he will have descendants and his faith is “reckoned to him as righteousness,” St. James sees that proclamation by God as a prophecy, and that prophecy is then fulfilled when Abraham is willing to trust God with the life of the son he received by faith. This prophecy is based on the foreknowledge of God that Abraham will indeed remain firm in his faith throughout his life, and that is shown to be true by his actions, his works.
Three separate incidents in the life of Abraham where he acts on faith, and the New Testament refers to his justification. Not a singular, one-time event. This aligns with the Catholic understanding of justification by faith as a process. As we grow in sanctification, we grow in justification and thus fulfill that which God has spoken. In the Catholic view, sanctification is not optional, nor is it a by-product of salvation. In my next post we’ll look at what Sacred Scripture has to say about sanctification as it relates to our salvation.