In buttressing his narrative about faith and works James makes reference to the Isaac and Rahab incidents in Genesis and Joshua respectively as a model of how faith and works go hand in hand

James 2:21 KJV

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

James 2:25 KJV

25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

Continuing with his narrative he goes on to quote Genesis 15:6 as a further buttress to his argument

James 2:23 KJV

23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

But the above quote of Genesis 15 seems to be contrary to the initial narrative of justification by faith and works because:

1) Abraham just believed the promise God had given him without him doing any corresponding works to warrant that justification

2) Here Isaac had not yet been born

How can we understand James quote of Genesis 15:6?

  • I would like to respond but am currently very occupied however I have responded to a different question on the same subject of faith and works. You might find some explanation useful there. <hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/35710/…> Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 10:32
  • If you have access or are willing to buy it. Herman Bavinck writes on this in volume 3 of his reformed dogmatics and explains this remarkably well. Would try and paraphrase it for you but feel I wouldn’t do it justice. Commented Nov 6, 2020 at 13:37
  • Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/49955/20832
    – Ruminator
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 10:27

6 Answers 6


This is an excellent question with a surprising answer, or what may be surprising to some.

To clarify the question (since I think some may have misunderstood it) is not the faith/works debate but rather why James seems to think that Abraham's test experience demonstrates that Abraham "believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness".

IE: How does it follow that Abraham's obedience fulfilled the imputation of faith as righteousness?

(Hopefully I understood that correctly).

The answer is, I believe, that according to James, Genesis 15:6 is speaking prophetically, not historically of Abraham's faith being counted to him as righteousness. If so, this upends a strongly held delusion (a "stronghold of the mind") that Abraham's justification was conceptual, not costly or dear.

This also dovetails with the concept of the "trial of faith":

[1Pe 1:7 KJV] (7) That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: ... [1Pe 4:12 KJV] (12) Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:

We this expressed in the gospels:

[Mat 10:32-33 KJV] (32) Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. (33) But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

What confessing Christ before men meant in the first century was to surrender one's life into God's hands. If you failed to confess Christ to save your life you would forfeit your salvation.

It changes everything. "Sola Fide", to the degree that it means "Abraham's instant and permanent justification by an untested and unaccountable faith" is an evil brew.

[What a wowzer of a question!]

In the NT there is a palpable awareness of the soon return of Jesus to judge the quick and the dead, etc. The goal of each believer's life was to be prepared to meet Jesus whether he came morning, noon or night. The believers understand that Jesus was coming with their reward. That is, they saw faith as a race. Each believer has a race set before them. If they finish the race, they win the crown (which represents everlasting life). This is clearly how James views the deal:

[Jas 1:12 KJV] (12) Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.

We see the same in Revelation:

[Rev 2:10 KJV] (10) Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.


He refers to the fact that an Abraham who believes unto salvation is the Abraham who fulfills the work implied and demanded of such a faith if true (one cannot both have faith in God, and deny God His requests). If Abraham didn't want to serve God as He later commanded, it could never be true that he had true faith, but a false, lying faith willing to take, but not to love God ('taking' salvation, without reciprocating in love, and doing the minimum, the "light yoke" of Christ, is not love).

St. James' point is, simply put, that "faith without works is dead." So whereas God knows if a faith is true, and justifies on its merits then and there, it doesn't follow that any given person can know this of a man, unless he does the works, and bears fruit: both for his own knowledge, and others'. Exceptions would include people prevented physically or otherwise (which naturally aleviates any guilt flowing from unwillingness) from fulfilling their faith, and bearing fruit, such as someone like the good thief, who couldn't possibly obey the Lord's Great Comission and be baptized.

Notice that St. James uses the term "fulfilled." This means he views the works as fulfilling the righteousness declared beforehand. The righteousness and the willingness to do good works (and thus their being done) cannot be divorced.


The question seems to be confusing cause and effect.

without him doing any corresponding works to warrant that justification

Exactly. Good works don't earn blessings, faith, or salvation. It's the other way around. Good works are a sign of salvation.

Isaac had not yet been born

Right. Abraham had faith. Later that faith was tested and demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice.

This is the message that James (and others) keep trying to get across, but which so many people seem to misunderstand.

People are not saved by good works. No one can earn salvation; it is a freely given gift. But the effects of salvation can be seen by its fruits: people of faith will naturally do good works.

"Faith and works" doesn't mean that works are a prerequisite, it means that works are an obvious consequence. The two go hand in hand.


Abraham was never justified by His own works, verse 22Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? Is the key to understanding James teaching. James is dealing with professors of religion, "though a man "say" he have faith can that faith save him?" It's not mere lip service that justifies a man, it's faith that manifests itself in good works. Genuine saving faith will never fail to produce good works. And that is James point. Abraham was born into sin through Adam, inheriting Adam's sin, his own rightousesnss is insufficient to justify him, because it takes God's righteousness to satisfy the Law, therefore mankind is completely and hopelessly lost without divine intervention, thank God for Jesus Christ who fulfilled the rightousesnss of the law for us. JESUSs works are the only works that satisfy God's righteousness. "Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness" Abrahams faith was tested and found genuine by the work that came forth from it. Imagine saying you trust God but not going up the mountain after God commanded you? That isn't true faith. He believed God was able to raise Isaac from the dead.


I think you know this, but the English words "righteousness" and "justification" translate exactly the same Greek word, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosynē). (Faith and belief are similarly the same concept in Greek, signified by the single word pistis).

I think that contradictions emerge when one understands dikaiosunē as some sort of juridical "status" (as one answer put it) rather than as a spiritual state. Commenting on Romans 2:13, one Eastern Orthodox writer explains:

The terms "just" (Greek dikaios) and "justified" (dikaioō) are obviously related terms, the first usually being translated as "righteous" and sometimes as "just", and the second as "justify"; a third related word dikaiosynē is most often translated as "righteousness". There exists a problem among interpreters, especially our contemporaries, concerning the relationship between these three: most reject the possibility of translating the verb dikaioō as "to make righteous", using rather "to justify", and doing so in a juridical sense, that is, as of being acquitted of guilt before God's tribunal.1

Abraham was made righteous (or justified) by his faith in the sense that he did everything with faith in what God willed for him. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) explained:

He was justified not only by works, but also by faith: for though he did many things well, yet he was never called the friend of God, except when he believed. Moreover, his every work was performed in faith. Through faith he left his parents; left country, and place, and home through faith. In like manner, therefore, as he was justified be thou justified also. In his body he was already dead in regard to offspring, and Sarah his wife was now old, and there was no hope left of having children. God promises the old man a child, and Abraham without being weakened in faith, though he considered his own body now as good as dead, heeded not the weakness of his body, but the power of Him who promised, because he counted Him faithful who had promised, and so beyond all expectation gained the child from bodies as it were already dead.2

1. Dmitry Royster, St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Pastoral Commentary (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008), p. 58.
2. Catechetical Lecture V (tr. from Greek in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series, 2.7)


All of the quotation of scripture in the original question show the same logistics in justification in "Sola Fide":

And can be simplified in Ephesians 2: 8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

In connection to how Justification comes by faith:

Gal 3:11&Hab 2:4 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.

Hab 2:4 shows like Gen 15 an old testament concept, that on who is justified or righteous lives (presently and in the future) by FAITH.

And Tit 3:8 gives an excellent agreement to this life by faith (belief, trust) : This a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men.

So regardless of Abraham , Rahab or a Modern Christian the concept is unchanged. (F)aith + God = (R)ighteousness, (R) × (F) = Good works

Good works are the results of faith accounted as righteousness in a true believer when he takes his justified status and applies it back to his faith in life.

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