The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham
Paul, James, and Hebrews
The New Testament records the shift of spiritual life away from legalistic obedience to law to life based on grace and faith. It also records the shift from a singularly Jewish religion to a religion that included both the Jews and the Gentiles. Both these streams of new thinking demanded a champion around whom the ideas could gather momentum and strength. The champion of the Law was Moses. The new champion of faith and grace became Abraham. Three authors in particular held Abraham’s life in the highest regard as an example of living by faith. These authors were Paul, James, and the Writer of Hebrews. One might imagine that studying Paul, James, and Hebrews would be easy with so much material drawn from a short well-known history of a great man. Not so! The three authors use Abraham in diverse and almost contradictory ways. Some great titans of Christian history have come close to saying that the only two of the three should have made the Canon of Scripture. Indeed Martin Luther, who considered James to be an “epistle of straw,” would gladly have settled for Paul and Hebrews. The challenge presented by the writings of Paul, James and the Writer of Hebrews is two-fold.
First, Paul and James seem to have contradictory conclusions regarding Abraham’s faith.
From Abraham’s life, Paul concludes:
For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:28, The Net Bible)
James, from the same man’s life, concludes:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
So! Is a man justified by faith or is a man justified by works?
Second, the Writer of Hebrews draws sweeping conclusions as to the content of Abraham’s faith that go way beyond a superficial reading of the Genesis text. For example, from where did he get the idea that Abraham was interested in "the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10)"
The purpose of this blog series is to examine these authors’ use of Abraham’s life of faith with a view for showing their essential unity. In particular this paper will show that:
- Paul is correct when he declares that Abraham’s faith was sufficient to bring about God’s promises in his life. I will show that his faith transcended obedience insofar as it pertained to the covenant the Lord made with him.
- James is correct when he says that Abraham’s obedience was necessary to bring about God’s promises in his life.
- Eternity is the mediator between the two.
Of course, Hebrews does much to bring faith and works together. The famous Hebrews chapter 11 contains vignettes illustrating the faith of past men and women. Each one begins with the phrase “By faith” and describes an action enabled by faith. Of Abraham he says, "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. (Hebrews 11:8-9)"
It follows from these three first century theologians that faith and acting go hand in glove. Faith is not passive acknowledgement of alleged fact or creed; it is the “stuff” of action i.e. a foundation for long term activity on God’s behalf and at His direction. Abraham’s story confirms this. And this we will see with great clarity over the next few days.
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