Was Abraham saved by faith or works?
Minister, Church of Christ Northside
Ultimately, the answer is yes. That is, Abraham was justified (saved) by faith and works. The statement in Genesis 15:6, “And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him for righteousness,” is quoted in Romans 4:3, 22; Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23.
It is very common for those who believe the false doctrine of salvation by faith only to quote Romans 4:3, 22 in an effort to prove their position. The problem is they fail to realize that Paul is addressing a specific problem with the immediate audience of the Roman letter. When Paul refers to “work(s)” in this context he is specifically referring to the works of Moses’ Law. The Judaizing Hebrew Christians were trying to hold to, and bind on Gentile Christians, the law of Moses. Paul is pointing out in this context (Romans 2-11), that they could not be faithful to God by following the fulfilled law of Moses.
Notice, in the immediate context of Romans 4:3 and 22, Paul uses the statement about Abraham, in Genesis, to ask the question, “How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised?” Abraham was not told to be circumcised until Genesis 17:9. Paul’s point is that Abraham was accounted as righteous before the law of Moses — or even the law of circumcision — was even given. Just as Abraham could be righteous apart from the works of the law, so could the Gentile Christians of Paul’s day. For that matter, so could the Hebrew Christians. The standard for righteousness was no longer the law of Moses, but the law of Christ (Romans 1:16; Galatians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 9:21). So, to use Paul’s reference to “works” in Romans 2-11 as having a universal application to all works is a blatant disregard for the context. It’s a similar context in Galatians 3.
In James 2:23, the context is different. James isn’t using Abraham’s example in the context of the Judaizers. James was discussing the lifestyle characterized by faith. Abraham demonstrated his faith when God told him to sacrifice Isaac, whom God had identified as the promised child of Genesis 15, and he obeyed without doubt. God told him that Isaac was the son of promise and Abraham believed God’s promise would be fulfilled. He believed it so certainly that he believed, even if he sacrificed Isaac, God would raise him up (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Likewise, if we trust in God to keep his promises through Christ, we will obey all that God has commanded. When Christ says, he who believes and is baptized shall be saved (Mark 16:16), we will trust and obey because we believe what he says.
That’s exactly what we find in every example of conversion in the book of Acts.