Abraham Justified Not Once but Three Times (at Least)


With all the recent discussion on this blog concerning justification, I wanted to post something on the various “justifications” of Abraham, our father in faith.

By reading the Epistle to the Romans, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Epistle of St. James, we discover that Abraham was “justified” at least three times (Gen 12, Gen 15, Gen 22). This demonstrates that while justification occurs as an initial event, it continues in a progressive manner.

The First Justification of Abraham
Hebrews 11:8 refers to the virtue of Abraham’s faith when he left his homeland. Hebrew’s says that this faith is an example of the faith that “pleases God”. Moreover, Hebrews 11:10 states that Abraham’s faith in Genesis 12 was based on Abraham’s belief that he would receive a “city without foundations and whose architect and builder was God.” Abraham became a believer at this point and thus was justified.

The Second Justification of Abraham
The second justification is the one that St. Paul focuses on in his discussion of Genesis 15. St. Paul in Romans chapter 4 makes his defense of the righteousness that comes from God through faith based on the Abraham’s faith in the promise of God. Here Abraham believes and is justified.

The Third Justification of Abraham
The third justification of Abraham is the one described by St. James in the second chapter of his epistle. This is the controversial one, because St. James specifically says of Abraham:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24)

St. James describes the events that took place in Genesis 22 and describes this as “justification”. A Protestant may say that the justification of Genesis 22 and qualitatively different than Abraham’s previous justification. This is true for the wrong the reasons. It is different in that it is a “re-justification”. Abraham is not passing from death to life again. That has already happened previously. However, the “justification” that St. James describes is still a technical “justification” in that Abraham is “made righteous”. As in any previous justification of Abraham, this is a deepening of the righteousness that Abraham obtained in his initial justification.

A plain reading indicates that the faith of Abraham originated in Genesis 12 and continued throughout his life as evidenced by his hope in the promises of God and his loving obedience to the guidance of God. This faith began in Genesis 12 and yet Abraham was justified in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 22. The plain reading of these passages reveals that justification is repeatable and progressive – two things that Protestantism rejects.

The Council of Trent on “the just being justified still”
Besides these three examples in the life of Abraham, the Council of Trent (Session 6, Chapter 10) quotes two passages of Sacred Scripture to prove that justification continues in a progressive manner in the life of the believer:

in this justice, received through the grace of Christ ‘faith cooperating with good works’, they increase and are further justified, as it is written: ‘He that is just, let him be justified still,’ (Rev 22:11) and again: ‘Be not afraid to be justified even to death,’ (Sirach 18:22) and again: ‘You see, that by works a man is justified and not by faith alone.’ (James 2:24)
- Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 10

The Scriptural evidence proves that justification has a beginning, middle, and end. Justification is not a formal and complete event at the beginning of salvation. It is something progressive and repeatable. Moreover, the Church (and St. Augustine) teaches that justification can be lost and regained.