The Justifications of Abraham
by Jimmy Akin
Contrary to the claims of much contemporary Protestant preaching, justification, like the other aspects of salvation, has past, present, and future dimensions. This is shown by a variety of Bible passages, but especially by the Biblical discussion of the justification of Abraham. Contemporary Protestant preaching focuses mainly on the past dimension of justification. This aspect of justification is indicated in verses such as Rom 5:1 (“having been justified”), 5:9 (“having now been justified”), and 1Co 6:11 (“you were justified”). These passages show that justification is clearly a past event in the life of the believer. But there it also has present and future dimensions. For example, the future dimensions are found these verses:
“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” (Rom 2:13)
“For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom 3:20)
Commenting on the second of these passages, British Bible scholar James D.G. Dunn points out that Paul’s statement alludes to Psalm 142:2. He remarks,
“The metaphor in the psalm is of a servant being called to account before his master, but in the context here [in Romans] the imagery of final judgment is to the fore . . . Against the view that Paul sees ‘justification’ simply as an act which marks the beginning of a believer’s life, as a believer, here is a further example [in addition to 2:13] of the verb used for a final verdict, not excluding the idea of the final verdict at the end of life . . . “1
But even apart from such verses, we could deduce a future justification on theological grounds alone. Protestants place much emphasis on the declarative aspect of justification (i.e., God declaring one righteous) and they have places special emphasis on the legal/courtroom contexts in which this declaration may occur. However, the ultimate and final courtroom declaration concerning the believer does not occur until he stands before God (at his death and at the end of the world). So we may infer that the ultimate and final pronouncement of the believer as righteous does not lie in this life. We find the different temporal dimensions to justification illustrated very well in the life of Abraham. To begin with, Gen 15:6 clearly teaches us that Abraham was justified at the time he believed the promise concerning the number of his descendants. Paul confirms this when he quotes Genesis 15:6 to show that Abraham was justified at that time:
“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 4:2-3; see the parallel articles “The Works of the Law” and “Jewish and Christian Boasting in Romans” to understand the rest of this passage).
But if justification were a once-for-all event, rather than a process, that means Abraham could not receive justification either before or after Genesis 15:6. However, Scripture indicates that he did both. First, the book of Hebrews tells us that
“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.” (Heb 11:8)
Every Protestant will passionately agree that the subject of Hebrews 11 is saving faith — the kind that pleases God and wins his approval (Heb. 11:2, 6) — so we know that Abraham had saving faith according to Hebrews 11. But when did he have this faith? The passage tells us: Abraham had it “when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive . . . ” The problem for the once-for-all view of justification is that is that the call of Abraham to leave Haran is recorded in Genesis 12:1-4–three chapters before he is justified in 15:6. We therefore know that Abraham was justified well before (in fact, years before) he was justified in Gen. 15:6. But if Abraham had saving faith back in Genesis 12, then he was justified back in Genesis 12. Yet Paul clearly tells us that he was also justified in Genesis 15. So justification must be more than just a once-for-all event. Abraham also received justification afterward Gen 15:6, for the book of James tells us, “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.” (Ja 2:21-23)
James thus tells us “[w]as not our father Abraham justified . . . when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” In this instance, the faith which he had displayed in the initial promise of descendants was fulfilled in his actions (see also Heb. 11:17-19), thus bringing to fruition the statement of Genesis 15:6 that he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abraham therefore received justification–that is, a fuller fruition of justification–when he offered Isaac.2 The problem for the once-for-all view is that the offering of Isaac is recorded in Gen. 22:1-18–seven chapters after Gen. 15:6. Therefore, just as Abraham was justified before 15:6 when he left Haran for the promised land, so he was also justified again when he offered Isaac after 15:6. Therefore, we see that Abraham was justified on at least three different occasions: he was justified in Genesis 12, when he first left Haran and went to the promised land; he was justified in Genesis 15, when he believed the promise concerning his descendants; and he was justified in Genesis 22, when he offered his first promised descendant on the altar. As a result, justification must be seen, not as a once-for-all event, but as a process which continues throughout the believer’s life. This is something that many Protestants have recognized. For example, James D.G. Dunn, E.P. Sanders, and Dale Moody.3 Some of the early Reformers did as well. For example, the Swiss Reformer Martin Bucer regarded man as receiving a twofold justification. First he received the iustificatio impii, or primary justification, in which he was declared righteous before God, and then he received the iustificatio pii, or secondary justification, in which he was actually made to behave righteously.4 Even the very first Protestant of them all–Martin Luther–held justification to be a process as well as a state. The well-known Luther scholar, Paul Althaus, summarizes Luther’s position as follows:
“Luther uses the terms ‘to justify’ . . . and ‘justification’ . . . in more than one sense. From the beginning [of Luther’s writings], justification most often means the judgment of God with which he declares man to be righteous . . . . In other places, however, the word stands for the entire event though which a man is essentially made righteous (a usage which Luther also finds in Paul, Romans 5), that is, for both the imputation of righteousness to man as well as man’s actually becoming righteous. Justification in this sense remains incomplete on earth and is first completed on the Last Day. Complete righteousness is in this sense is an eschatological reality. This twofold use of the word cannot be correlated with Luther’s early and later theology; he uses ‘justification’ in both senses at the same time, sometimes shortly after each other in the same text.”5 Luther himself wrote,
“For we understand that a man who is justified is not already righteous, but moving toward righteousness.”6
“Our justification is not yet complete . . . . It is still under construction. It shall, however, be completed in the resurrection of the dead.”7
We therefore see that, even though most Protestants deny that justification is a process as well as a state, many contemporary Protestant scholars, as some of the early Protestant Reformers, as well as the first Protestant of them all, recognized the justification was also a process.8 In this, they were in accord with the teaching of the Bible.
1. James Dunn, “Romans,” Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), vol. 38a, p. 153.
2. Protestants often object to this understanding of James 2, claiming that in that passage Abraham was said to be justified before men rather than before God. There are abundant exegetical reasons why this is not the case. Abraham was justified before God by offering Isaac, as will be shown later. But once the Protestant recognizes that the Bible teaches in Hebrews 11:8 that Abraham was already justified before he was justified in Genesis 15:6, there is not nearly so much motive to try to twist James 2:21-23 into meaning something else. Hebrews 11:8 already showed that justification is a process, and James 2:21-23 merely confirms that fact.
3. See Dunn, Commentary on Romans and Jesus, Paul, and the Law; Moody, The Word of Truth; Sanders, Paul and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People and Paul and Palestinian Judaism; and Zeisler, Pauline Christianity.
4. See Martin Bucer, Metaphrasis et enarratio in epist. D. Pauli ad Romanos.
5. Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), p. 226.
6. Luther’s Works, 34, 52, cited in Althaus, p. 237, n. 63.
7. Weimarer Ausgabe, 391, 252, cited in Althaus, p. 237, n. 63.
8. I suspect that the process aspect of justification was more obvious to Luther than to English-speakers since none of his languages (German, Latin, Greek, Hebrew) had two sets of terms for justification/righteousness, as does English. It would thus be obvious to him that “to justify [to righteous]” a person can embrace more than simply legal righteousness.