Was Abraham justified by faith or works?

I am interested in heraring how the following two passages can be reconciled.

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
(Romans 4:1-2)

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
(James 2:21)

That is easy. If you read Rom 4:1-2 in context, you realize that Paul was talking about the works of the LAW, by which no one is justified, because the works of the Law come from your own effort or strength rather than from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

James 2:21 was speaking of Works of Faith, that is works that are inspired by the HOly Spirit and do not come from your own effort or strength.

The Council of Trent makes this very clear:

CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

CANON III.-If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, **so as that the grace of Justification **may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

ANY WORKS that make you BOAST, are works that comes from your own effort or from the LAW, without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. These works DO absolutely NOTHING to justify you. Only those works that come from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit JUSTIFY you.

Many blessings,


The problem I have with this explanation is that the Law refers to the Mosaic covenant which, as Paul indicates in Galatians 3:17 came 430 after Abraham. How then could Paul be dealing with Abraham and the Law when the Law had not yet been given? Rather I think James must be taken in context. James asks how someone can show he has faith without works. Abraham was justified by his faith and showed his faith by his works.

Point well taken SyCarl. Basically what you are saying in the times of Abraham there was no law. Fine, then it is not the works of the Law that Paul was talking about there as not justifying you, as he does in other places, but rather works that comes from your own effort or strength without the previent inspiration of the Holy SPirit. These works, whether they come from the Law or not (and in the time of Abraham they did not), they do not justify you.

I disagree, James 2:21 talks about an INSTANCE in which Abraham was justified by works which come from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and cannot make you boast. That is what it says there very CLEARLY in James 2:24.

24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith ALONE. (James 2:24)

NOT BY FAITH ALONE. This is the ONLY place in scripture where the two words FAITH and ALONE appear together and it clearly says : NOT by faith alone.

NOW, in the case of Rom 4, Paul is talking about another instance, in which Abraham was Justified by faith rather than by works.

So we are justified sometimes by faith other by works depending on what the situation is.

Justification is a process, you know.

The Bible shows that Abraham was justified at least three times, in Gen 15 to which Rom 4 makes reference, in Gen 22, to which James 2 makes reference and, before these two times, in Gen 12, to which Heb 11 makes reference.

Many blessings,


What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
(Romans 4:1-2)

Paul writes the book of Romans to Judiasers who think that they can be justified by merely doing good works (obeying the cerimonial laws, i.e., circumcision, dietary and sabbath laws) and just by doing those without faith they will be justified. The Pharisees boasted before God and thought this exact same idea; if they did good works i.e., circumcise, obeyed the dietary laws and sabbath laws, then God owed them salvation simply
because they did them. Paul corrects them and says it is by faith that we please God. However, as we know, faith isn’t merely intellectual assent, but an active word; a verb, therefore “faith alone” doesn’t justify either. Mt 25:41-46 tells of those will not be justified for they are like those who think and do as the Pharisees, who think because they do good themselves without the guidance and help of Gods grace, God will save them.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
(James 2:21)

Martin Luther had a problem with the book of James and some Protestants do also because it mentions doing “works” as a requirement for salvation. Catholics don’t have a problem at all with it because Paul and James are on the same plain. James says that if we don’t do works (and he means the type of works God gives us under His grace Gal 5:6, Eph 2:10) with our faith then our faith is usless. So Paul is saying we must have faith in God—James is saying we must do works in order to show our faith is geniune; faith and works (or charity, or love) justifies.

Paul nodded.
No point straining after an elaborate explanation when a simple one will do.

Much more simply than would be apparent. I’ll start with a Pauline principle and move from there.

“A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due” (Rom 4:4)

This is the essential verse in Paul’s discussion about Abraham’s justification by faith, for this explicitly says in what sense justification does not occur.

What Paul is talking about here can be called commutative justice-- one person gives something, such as labor, and receives a wage as a matter of strict justice.

Commutative justice, as all right thinking theists would agree, is totally out of the question in relations between God and creatures. No creature can obligate God to do anything.

Hence Paul procedes to say, " But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness" (v. 5). When one does not work, i.e., one one does not do as the preceding verse says and try to enter into a relationship with God whereby they try to obligate God.

However, there are passages which are difficult to interpret in accord with a very strict interpretation of justification by faith alone. These are passages which speak of rewards on behalf of God. This, after all, is the God who, “give[s] each of you what your works deserve” (Rev 2:23).

It is constant in Scripture that God judges us or repays us according to our deeds. In the Last Judgement scene Christ very powerfully and forcefully announces that those who do good works, the corporal works of mercy, will enter into eternal life, and those who wickedly sin by omitting such works will be damned eternally (Matt 25:31-46). Our Lord says, “I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds” (Rev 22:12).

And so this sits uneasily with simple reductions of the James passage, as if James is the aberration and Paul’s is the rule. Clearly the words of our savior show that this is more complex.

Indeed, what is most unsettling for an oversimplified view is the parallelism-- those who do good works are rewarded with eternal life, and those who do evil works are damned eternally. This is especially troublesome because then one must ask: but is one saved, not by works, but by faith?

But perhaps Paul too is a traitor-- or at least schizophrenic-- for he uses the same line that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, does.

In the second chapter of the Epistle to the Romans he warns those who, by their evil works, “are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of” judgment. Why? “For he will render to every man according to his works” (v. 6).

This is especially unsettling, because he not only says this, and implies the implicit parallelism found in Our Lord’s words, but he goes further. In full, he says,

who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness (vv. 6-8)

Indeed, I think most pass over the tremendous import of these words, namely, that God repays those who do good works with the reward of eternal life. Paul’s line is unmistakable.

But, then, doesn’t this somehow violate Paul’s principle? That one cannot work and so obligate God?

This is where Paul’s principle (Rom 4:4) is important in relation to Paul’s teaching on grace. There is a difference between a grace relationship and a works relationship (in the sense that we have defined it).

In a works relationship, of the type Paul condemns, one is working so as to obligate God to repay oneself. This is not only fruitless, it is foolish. As if man could obligate God to do anything! It is an insult against the divine.

But in a grace relationship, one cries to God, “Abba, Father!” (Rom 8:15) in a “spirit of sonship” (8:14).

We often miss the importance of the familial import of these verses. Here is the essential difference between the two relationships. In the works relationship, one is engaging with God in a legalistic relationship, trying to obligate God by one’s work. In the grace relationship one becomes a member of God’s family and approaches him as an adopted son.

Picture how a father acts in regards to his child. A father is not harsh, he is loving. And picture a son-- he does not approach his father as an unloving master, but as benevolent. Above all, the son tries, no matter how inadequately, to please his father.

Now, this is no surprise. Speaking of faith, the letter to the Hebrews proclaims:

But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb 11:6).

This occurs after the famous definition of faith offered just verses before (11:1). Now, it is peculiar to note the interplay between faith and works here. Why is it impossible to please God without faith?

In the first, one must believe God exists. How can one please God if one doesn’t believe God exists? Who would even try?

In the second, the person of faith must believe God ‘rewards those who seek him.’ Wouldn’t it be pointless to seek God if we didn’t think that he would reward us for doing so?

And so this is exactly the position of the adopted son-- he believes that God the father exists, and tries to please him by his works.

In the strict sense-- that of commutative justice-- he can never please God the Father, for he can never obligate Him. But, coming to God in faith, in the system of grace, God will look upon him and his works, and he will benevolently bestow upon him rewards-- not because of strict justice, but out of the overabundance of His love.

Hence Augustine’s beautiful passage, adopted by the Council of Trent and used in the recent Catechism:

You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.

Truly the mystery of salvation is a mystery of God’s great love and benevolence.

And so, the James passage-- was Abraham justified by faith or works?

It’s a false dilemma really. He was justified by faith *and *works.

Put in this light, James’s comments on justification are commonsense, for when we come to God in a relationship of grace, believing fervently that he exists and will reward us, it is no mystery that we are, “justified by works” as James attests, and further, it is no mystery how faith is then related to this process, “active along with” the works, because one must come to God believing that He exists and that he will reward us (what Hebrews calls faith). Nevertheless, they are two seperate realities, as James attests, being, “active along with” each other, and not some monstrous amalgam of, “saving faith,” which is not Biblical.

Justification, properly understood, is not merely a one time event, as El_camino pointed out. Scripture says Abraham was justified on three different events. Abraham increased ever in justification before our Lord by walking in faith and doing good.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.