I want to walk you through Abraham’s justification in order to illustrate the difference between the Catholic Doctrine of justification by faith and works through the Sacraments and the Protestant doctrine of a one time proclamation of faith.
Abraham the faithful, Our Patriarch
Our Patriarch Abraham is one of the most extraordinary people that I can imagine. His faith was so grand that I can hardly wrap my mind around it.
Imagine. You’re 75 years old. That’s pretty old already, right? Now, after your whole life is already, almost spent, you hear a voice inviting you to leave your father and everything that you know, and go to a far country of which you know nothing. What do you do?
Here’s what the grand Patriarch of all Catholics, did.
Out of Ur, Genesis 12
Abraham was originally named, Abram. Abram means “father”. Which is a nice tie back to the Pope, which also means “father”.
Anyway, we first encounter Abram when he was 75 years old, still living with his own father in the Land of Ur. Here, God calls to Abram and invites him to leave the land of his birth:
Genesis 12 Abram’s Call and Migration. 1 The Lord said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.
Surprisingly, Abram leaves. He doesn’t question God or anything. He simply obeys. St. Paul, commenting upon this in Hebrews 11, says that this is the moment when Abraham exercises his faith in God:
Hebrews 11:8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
This is the moment when Abram’s justification begins. People who believe in “justification by faith alone” are at a loss to explain this. Because, according to their doctrine, it is at this moment that Abram should have been justified, if the doctrine of faith alone were true. But in fact, it takes another 30 years or so, before God finally declares Abram righteous. By that time, he is known as Abraham and has two children.
Abram’s faith is immature
At first, Abram’s faith, although strong, is immature. As we travel with Abram from Genesis 12 to 22, we find that Abram does a lot of things wrong. But God continues to guide and lead him. And he continues to obey God and do all that God commands:
Genesis 26:5 this because Abraham obeyed me, keeping my mandate, my commandments, my ordinances, and my instructions.
So, not only does Scripture prove that Abraham was faithful, it proves that Abraham was obedient. Thus, again disproving the idea of faith alone.
Abram acts in response to his faith
The important thing to remember, is that Abram is acting out his faith. He is doing things. He is obeying God. He isn’t standing around saying, “I accept God as my Lord and Saviour.” Nor is he saying, “I have so muuuuuccchhhh faith.” He simply does things which prove his immense faith.
God visits Abram again, Genesis 15
Now, several years passed and Abram’s faith is beginning to shake a bit. We’ve moved from Genesis 12 to 15. Abram’s getting old, he’s left his father and his family behind and God’s promises have not been fulfilled.
But God pays him a visit, in a dream. And Abram complains about the fact that he has been given no children. So, God reassures him. And Abram, doesn’t complain. But this time, he has God to make a contract. A covenant with him. They perform a ritual and the Covenant is sealed.
This is Abram’s first justification. Abram believed God. And God saw into Abram’s heart and recognized his faith. And because of his great faith, God credited Abram with righteousness.
Notice how closely this lines up with the Catholic attitude in the Sacraments.
God made Abram some promises.
Christ made us some promises.
Abram believed God. Therefore, he enters into a covenant with God
We, believe Christ. Therefore, we approach the Sacraments to make a Covenant with God.
God looked into Abram’s heart and sees his great faith.
Christ looks into our heart and sees our faith, our repentance, our good works and our determination to do good, always.
God credited Abram with righteousness.
Christ washes away our sins and makes us righteous.
We, Catholics, are spiritually, Abraham’s children.
The Covenant of Circumcision, Genesis 17
Take note that Abram’s justification did not end there. Abram’s name hasn’t even been changed, yet. More than 14 years elapse and God appears to Abram again. This time, it is God who asks Abram to enter into a Covenant with Him. This is the famous Covenant of Circumcision. It is, at this time, that God changes Abram’s name from father to father of many nations. Abraham.
And this is the second justification. Because it is recognized by Saint Augustine, that Circumcision was a predecessor of the Baptism. But it was not effectual in removing all sins. It simply was a sign of entry into God’s family. Interestingly, only the males were circumcised. The females were automatically born into God’s family.
Take a break from thinking about Abraham’s justification, for a minute. This is really interesting. Although, Judaism is considered a patriarchal society. Jewish descent is recognized through the mother.
Isn’t that strange? I thought it was. According to Jewish tradition, a non-Jewish father and a Jewish mother make Jewish babies. But a Jewish father and a gentile mother, make gentile babies.
Huh? But, that is the inference that we find in Scripture, as well. In Leviticus, a son of an Israelite (i.e. Jewish) woman is condemned for blasphemy against God. Therefore, he is treated as a member of the community.
Whereas, in the book of Ezra, the Jews who come back to Israel, leave their non-Jewish women and children behind. Because they are not considered members of the community.
Ok, back to Abraham, Genesis 22
So, Abraham’s been justified once in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 17. Ten more years have elapsed and God finally gave him the promised son from his loins. Although Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90.
Now, I want you to put yourself in Abraham’s place again. You are 100 years old. Your son is about 10. God calls your name and you respond with enthusiasm, “Here I am!”
And God says to you, “Now, sacrifice your son to Me. Put your son to death.”
How heart breaking. It makes my heart stop, just to think of it.
May God forgive me, but I’m pretty certain my answer would have been, not just, “No.” But, well, we won’t go there.
But, here’s how the Word of God says that Abraham responded:
Hebrews 11:17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son, 18 of whom it was said, “Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.” 19 He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.
Can you imagine?! May God grant that our faith be that strong at some point in our life. Dear Lord, thank you for giving us such a stalwart father.
Just bask in Father Abraham’s glory for a little while. He deserves every bit of the glory which God has apportioned to him.
So, it seems that is when Abraham reached that perfection on earth which we all strive to attain. And God said to him:
Genesis 22:11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!” “Here I am,” he answered. 12 “Do not lay your hand on the boy,” said the angel. “Do not do the least thing to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you did not withhold from me your son, your only one.”
St. James says that this is the point at which Abraham was justified, because he was willing to give up his son in obedience to God:
James 2:20 Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” 24 See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
And that’s how Abraham was justified. It was a very long and arduous process which took a lifetime. Not a one time proclamation of faith alone. In fact, it is not recorded anywhere that Abraham said, “I accept God as my Lord and Saviour”. He simply acted in accordance with that sentiment. As St. James so aptly put it:
James 2:18 Indeed someone may say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
One last thing
Can you imagine poor Abraham’s relief when he was holding the knife up to strike Isaac and the Angel said, “Stop!”?