Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
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Andreas of Caesarea
Now someone might object to this and say: "Did Paul not use Abraham as an example of someone who was justified by faith, without works? And here James is using the very same Abraham as an example of someone who was justified, not by faith alone, but also by works which confirm that faith." How can we answer this? And how can Abraham be an example of faith without works, as well as of faith with works, at the same time? But the solution is ready to hand from the Scriptures. For the same Abraham is at different times an example of both kinds of faith. The first is prebaptismal faith, which does not require works but only confession and the word of salvation, by which those who believe in Christ are justified. The second is postbaptismal faith, which is combined with works. Understood in this way, the two apostles do not contradict one another, but one and the same Spirit is speaking through both of them.
James makes deft use of the example of Abraham in order to provoke those Jews who imagined that they were worthy followers of their great ancestor. In order to show them that they did not come up to the mark in times of trial and to test their faith by specific examples, James takes Abraham as his model. For what greater trial could there be than to demand that a man sacrifice his beloved son and heir? How much more would Abraham have preferred to give all the food and clothing he possessed to the poor than to be forced to make this supreme sacrifice at God's command? James is merely echoing what it says in Hebrews: "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, 'Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.' " (Heb 11;17-18) Looking at one and the same sacrifice, James praised the magnificence of Abraham's work, while Paul praised the constancy of his faith. But in reality the two...
On the one hand, the blessed James says that Abraham was justified by works when he bound Isaac his son on the altar, but on the other hand Paul says that he was justified by faith, which appears to be contradictory. However, this is to be understood as meaning that Abraham believed before he had Isaac and that Isaac was given to him as a reward for his faith. Likewise, when he bound Isaac to the altar, he did not merely do the work which was required of him, but he did it with the faith that in Isaac his seed would be as numberless as the stars of heaven, believing that God could raise him from the dead. (Rm 4:18-25)
Was not Abraham. Justified by works? We may observe, that St. James here brings the very same examples of Abraham and Rahab, which it is likely he knew some had miscontrued in St. Paul, as if the great apostle of the Gentiles had taught that faith alone was sufficient to salvation. But St. Paul neither excludes good works done by faith, when he commends faith, excluding only the works of the law of Moses, as insufficient to a true justification. See Romans iii. 27. And St. James by requiring good works does not exclude faith, but only teacheth that faith alone is not enough. This is what he clearly expresseth here in the 22nd and in the 24th verse. Man, says he, is justified, and not by faith only. And (ver. 22.) seest thou that faith did co-operate with Abraham's works, and by works faith was made perfect. In fine, we must take notice, that when St. James here brings the example of Abraham offering his son Isaac, to show that he was justified by works, his meaning is not that Abraham ...
When Abraham went up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac, he took four things with him- a sword, fire, a heavy heart and a pile of wood. What does the fire stand for if not the suffering of Christ? What does the sword signify, if not death? What does the wood indicate, if not the cross? And what is the importance of Abraham's heavy heart, if it does not stand for the compassion of the Father and the angels as they beheld the death of Christ? Isaac was an earthly type of Christ and was offered up for us all. According to tradition this occurred on 25 March, the day on which the world was created, the day on which the last judgment will occur. The place where it happened was none other than the one which God would later choose for the site of his temple on Mount Zion, which is so called because Zion means "mirror of life," for it was there that Abraham saw as in a mirror the life which was to be revealed in the New Testament.