By Works of Faith Avraham was Reckoned Righteous
Two apostles have made seemingly contradicting statements whether Avraham was declared righteous by works of faith or his faith alone was reckoned for righteousness.
From the very beginning, righteousness was the state in which man was first created in the image of the Creator, but it was lost due to his works in opposition to His will. Yes, there was readiness expressed in the will of Adam, but his works made him lose his stand before the Creator and consequently to lose his appointed destiny to live forever.
And when the human race in the face of the descendants of Adam was universally corrupted, Noach alone was found righteous and blameless before YHVH, because he walked with Him.
If righteousness can be lost because of the works of men, can righteousness be merited by works? Because Yeshua the Anointed One of YHVH has said, “By their fruits you shall know them”.
The most popular apostle in the western Church is undoubtedly Shaul (Paul) who seemingly was teaching against the Law of God (Hebrew, Torah). And probably the most known statement of his (second to “You are not under the Law“) is, by works of the Law no flesh shall be declared right before Him, (Rom 3:20)
For the purpose of our study, we will elaborate on Shaul’s statement that Avraham believed, and the faith alone was reckoned to him for righteousness.
For if Avraham was declared right by works, he has ground for boasting, but not before Elohim. For what does the Scripture say? “Avraham believed Elohim, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness“. And to him who is working, the reward is not reckoned as a favor but as a debt. And to him who is not working but believes on Him who is declaring right the wicked, his faith is reckoned for righteousness, (Rom 4:2-5)
The confusion, however, comes when we consider what the other apostle, Ya’akov (James) has stated that Avraham was declared right by works, and not by faith alone.
Was not Avraham our father declared right by works when he offered Yitschak his son on the altar? Do you see that the faith was working with his works, and by the works the faith was perfected? And the Scripture was filled which says, “Avraham believed Elohim, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness”. And He called him, “he who loves Elohim”. You see, then, that a man is declared right by works, and not by faith alone. (Jas 2:21-24)
And to makes his case even stronger, Ya’akov also stated that faith without works is dead, in other words, the apostles is saying that dead faith is not faith at all.
The things become worse when we read what both apostles say, this time in agreement.
For not the hearers of the Torah are righteous in the sight of Elohim, but the doers of the Torah shall be declared right. (Rom 2:13)
And become doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (Jas 1:22)
Has Shaul not said that by works of the Law no flesh shall be declared right before Him, (Rom 3:20), and then he is encouraging to become doers of the Law to be declared right? Is he contradicting himself or he has been extremely misunderstood? Or, perhaps, he has been falsely accused of teaching against the Law of God. Read more.
Now, the challenge question: What are the apostles talking about? After all, are we declared righteous by faith alone or by works and faith? Do Ya’akov and Shaul contradict each other, or even worse, Shaul contradicts himself when he says that by works of Torah no flesh shall be declared right and then, the doers of the Torah shall be declared right?
This will be the talking point in our study: Was Avraham declared righteous by faith alone or by the works of faith?
The Avraham story
The Avraham story began with the command by YHVH, מֵאַרְצְךָ לֶכְ־לְךָ, lech lecha m’ar’tsecha, “Go for you from your land”. In Hebrew, the word eretz, “land”, is etymologically related to the word ratzon, “will” and can be interpreted also to mean “from your will”.
The command “Go for you …” or “Go for your own sake” in the context means “Go for your own sake to a land in which I shall make you a great nation”, but also “Go for your own sake from your will, because I shall make you a great nation”. In other words, YHVH told Avram to leave his own desire and go to a land where He would make him a great nation.
And YHVH continued,
And I shall bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you. And in you all the clans of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 12:3)
And the time came when YHVH said to Avram,
Look now toward the heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them. So are your seed. And Avram believed in YHVH, and He reckoned it to him for righteousness. (Gen 15:5-6)
The word “believed” above has different concepts in Hebraic and Graeco-Roman mindsets.
From the Gentile perspective, “faith” Avram had was to believe that Elohim’s promise would come true and the fact that he believed in the promise was considered for his righteousness. The problem with this concept of “faith” is that the Hebrew verb אָמַן aman “to believe” means much more than just knowing something to be true or to exist, or in the story of Avram, to know that a promise will come true.
In Hebrew, the concept of faith, אֱמוּנָה emunah, has the concrete meaning of “firmness” or “steadfastness”. In Hebrew mind, emunah, faith, is not an abstract concept of thoughts, or of a mental exercise. Emunah is something we do to prove your steadfastness in your actions, as we stand firmly in obedience before the Creator YHVH.
This idea of standing firmly and securely is encoded in another Hebrew word that shares the same root with emunah: אֹמְנָה om’nah, which means pillar, as the pillars of the Temple that stand firmly (2Ki 15:16).
We see, therefore, that the Hebraic concept of faith is a diametrically opposed to the Gentile idea in which “faith” is seen as intellectual assent that something is true. But for more knowledge what emunah means in Hebrew, the reader is encouraged to refer to the article “What is faith in the Hebraic mindset?“
In the strictly plain meaning of the account in Genesis, in what way did Avram make known his faith in YHVH and in what way did YHVH count it to him for righteousness?
When YHVH told Avram to leave his father’s house and go to a strange land, Avram did it. He did not ask why, when, and where to go; he listened to the voice of the Creator and did what he was told to do.
And when YHVH, to confirm the promise in a covenant, told him to fetch animals Avram did and arranged them in the way He had commanded him. Thus, not only by his readiness to perform what he was commanded, did Avram give a practical proof that he believed YHVH, but also by his actions, the patriarch proved that he placed his entire confidence in Him and those concrete actions and not only firm readiness were reckoned to him for righteousness.
Faith, therefore, is not merely a state of mind, thoughts, or mental experience, but also firm actions with unconditional trust in YHVH and His word, even when no hope can be seen.
And this is exactly what the apostles Ya’akov and Shaul were discussing in their letters: readiness and firmness supported by actions.
This faith Avram manifested through his firm readiness (as Shaul has shown in Rom 4) to do what he was told to do (as Ya’akov has shown in James 2), and YHVH reckoned it to him for righteousness by the actual works through which this readiness was manifested.
Therefore, צְדָקָה, tsedakah, righteousness, is not an abstract idea that exists only in the mind, separated from manifestation, but it is correspondence to the will of the Creator both in state of mind and in conduct by responding to His call.
With this we are coming to clarify another misconception in the Gentile mind: tsedakah, righteousness. Tsedakah literally means “straightness” or what is right. It comes from the verb צָדַק tsadak, which means to make something right and to walk on the straight path, which in the Hebraic mind means to obey the Creator’s commands, as Avram did. And צַדִּיק tsadik is the one who is upright or righteous, and one who walks on a straight path.
Tsedakah is also the modern Hebrew word for charity, as the giving to the poor and needy is to do what is right. Therefore, we see that actions better express the Hebraic concept of righteousness rather than the thoughts; hence righteousness is something we do.
This righteousness Avram acquired, through the works of faith manifested in his undoubting obedience to YHVH’s will, and this steadfast faith was reckoned to him for righteousness.
Therefore, not the belief alone, but also his works were reckoned to the patriarch for righteousness. And the foundation of this relationship with YHVH was laid in the manner described in Gen 15:7-11 by having led him into the Covenant.
By works of faith
The covenant had been made with Avram for at least fourteen years, and yet Avram remained without any visible sign of its accomplishment—Avram was still without a land and childless. YHVH appeared to him again, when he was ninety-nine years old, and twenty-four years after Avram left his father’s house.
Having come down to Avram in what appears to be a visible form (Gen 17:1), He said to him,
I am El Shaddai. Walk before Me and be blameless! And I give My covenant between Me and you and shall greatly increase you.
And Avram fell on his face, and Elohim spoke with him, saying,
As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall become a father of many nations. And no longer is your name called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, because I shall make you a father of many nations. (Gen 17:2-5)
After Elohim promised Avram that He would give him an heir and that all clans of the world would be grafted in him, now He promised him that he would become a father of many nations, while Avram was still roaming without a land and childless.
Yet, by the works of faith, Avraham merited to be called a father of multitude of nations, so that not only were his descendants called the son of Elohim, but also those of the nations who will be grafted in the olive tree of Israel (see Romans 11).
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. (Heb 11:1-2 KJV) See also Isa 46:10.
It is evident that the it in v.2 is a substitute of “faith” explained in v.1: the substance of things hoped for and of things not seen. From the text as it appears above, it seems that by faith alone Avram was declared righteous (in agreement with Rom 4:2-5), but in contradiction with Jas 2:21-24 which states that the patriarch was declared right by works, and not by faith alone. So, which is it—Avram was declared by faith alone or by the works the faith he was perfected? Shaul or Ya’akov—who is right?
To make it even more complicated, Shaul who himself used the same phrase “the works of the faith” in his letters to the Thessalonians, too.
… remembering without ceasing your work of the faith, and the labor of love, and the endurance of the hope in our Master Yeshua the Anointed One in the presence of our Elohim and Father, knowing, brothers beloved by Elohim, that you were chosen. (1Th 1:3-4)
To this end we always pray for you that our Elohim would count you worthy of this calling, and complete all the good pleasure of goodness, and the work of faith with power, so that the Name of our Master Yeshua the Anointed One is glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the favor of our Elohim and the Master Yeshua the Anointed One. (2Th 1:11-12)
The point the apostle is making in these verses is clear: By the works of faith the faithful are chosen (1Th 1:3-4) and by the works of faith the name of Yeshua is glorified in them (2Th 1:11-12). But, can Shaul contradict Ya’akov and himself, or there is something we do not understand here?
Shaul and Ya’akov, both being Hebrews, had Hebraic thinking. As we stated above, the Hebraic concept of works of faith is different from that of the non-Hebrews. Here, Apostle Shaul is clearly stating the “by works of faith” principle so that he is in harmony with what Apostle Ya’akov is saying in James 2 and in harmony also with himself, as we will see from now on in this study.
From the Greek text of Hebrew 11, it seems that one needs just to “believe” in order to obtain a good report. However in Hebrew, a different picture transpires clearly established by the apostle from the very beginning of the chapter.
The Hebraic Letter to the Hebrews
Below we will read from The Letter to the Hebrews, The Hebraic-Roots Version Scriptures, Revised Edition, translated out of the original Hebrew and Aramaic by James Scott Trimm, Institute for Nazarene Jewish Studies.
1 Behold, faith is the principle of things hoped for, and the appearance of the illuminated things that are not seen, 2 Which by works, the ancients found a testimony.
3 By a work of faith, we understand that the worlds were made instantly, by the Words of Elohim; that all which is seen is from that which is not seen.
4 By a work of faith, Havel made a greater offering and received into the presence of Elohim more than Kayin, through which he obtained a testimony that he was righteous. While he is silent, he bore witness from his death and by the hand of him, he is truly dead, yet still speaks.
5 By a work of faith, Chanoch was translated up by Elohim so he should not see death and was not, for Elohim took him. Before he was taken, he had the testimony that he had pleased Him: like that which was said, and Chanoch walked with Elohim. But through faith, it is possible for a man to be established to be received to the presence of Elohim. 6 For whoever desires to come to Elohim, it is necessary to have faith that Elohim is: and for all the seekers, He is a reward.
7 By a work of faith, Noach honored Elohim and prepared an ark to save his house, by which, he was given a warning from Elohim: from which was yet not seen, by which He condemned the world, and inherited righteousness by a work of faith.
8 By a work of faith, Avraham listened, when he was called to go into a land which he would have an inheritance. And he obeyed, and did not know to what place which he went.
9 By a work of faith, he was a stranger in the land of promise, like in a strange land, and dwelt in tents with Yitzchak and Ya’akov, the heirs with him, of the same promise. 10 For he was watchman for a city, which has a foundation which is built and formed by He who is Elohim.
11 By a work of faith, received also Sarah, which became pregnant, and begat in her old age, because she swore that He was faithful who promised her. 12 And therefore she prayed also, as one who has a dying body: [and] many were begotten as the stars of heaven; like the sand upon the shore, and which is without number.
The Hebraic concept “by works of faith” is somehow lost or intentionally omitted in the Greek text of the Hebrews. By now, we should have noticed the major differences between the Greek and the Hebrew texts of The Letter to the Hebrews.
Shaul begins his letter to the Hebrews with the concept that “the work of faith” (see again the same expression in his letters to the Thessalonians, 1Th 1:3 and 2Th 1:11) is a principle thing the ancients hoped for and by it (the faith) they obtained witness that they were righteous. This how he began his letter to the Hebrews.
He continues with the following examples from the Scripture. Notice the action verbs the apostle used after the statement “By work of faith” to make his point that faith is supported by works.
Havel (Abel) offered a greater offering, because he believed it was a right thing to do. Chanoch (Enoch) walked with Elohim and was received to the presence of Elohim, so that he did not see death.
Noach built the ark, because he believed that the flood would befall which was yet not seen, and by a work of faith he inherited righteousness
Abraham left his father’s house, because he believed in the call to go into a strange land which he would receive as an inheritance. He obeyed Elohim and that was reckoned to him for righteousness. And by works of faith he was circumcised in his old age, and by works of faith, he lived as a stranger in the land of promise which he never received. And by works of faith he brought his only son up to the summit of the mountain.
Mosheh left Midian and went to Egypt to take his people out of bondage. By a work of faith, he led his people in the wilderness forty years and deserved to be called the most humbled man.
By works of faith Avraham and Mosheh saw Him who is invisible and cast their faith on Elohim and that was reckoned to them for righteousness.
Sarah begat in her old age the son of promise, because by the works of faith she swore that He was faithful who promised her. Avraham and Sarah became father and mother of many nations and by works of faith many were begotten as the stars of heaven.
This is the faith Apostle Shaul teaches, namely, By the works of faith, because, it is more than obvious that we walk with Elohim by faith (steadfastness) following His directions.
Here is the place to say that what is commonly known as “the Law” is Torah in Hebrew.
The noun Torah comes from the verb yarah, which means “to throw”, i.e. as a sower throws seeds or an archer throws an arrow to show the direction. Yeshua’s Parable of the Sower who throws his seeds on the ground (see its application in Mar 4:26 and Luk 13:19) teaches the key to understand the meaning of the Hebrew word Torah: Now the parable is this: The seed is the Word of Elohim (Luke 8:11).
Hence, we elaborate that Torah of YHVH is the seed sown in us to grow and give fruits. By implication, Torah is the teaching sown in us and the direction we are to follow.
With that being said, we see that faith is not just an abstract idea, a thought or mental exercise in the mind. Faith is not even to believe that something or someone exists. Faith is something we do as we walk with Elohim.
In conclusion in order to better understand the Hebraic concept of faith by works, a concept taught by Ya’akov and Shaul, let us ask this question: Why did Elohim give this promise to Yitschak son of Avraham?
I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Avraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commands, My decrees and My laws. (Gen 26:4-5)
Elohim made this promise to Avraham not because he just “believed” but because he was steadfast in his obedience and did what he was told to do. Avraham did not just have thoughts that what YHVH was saying was true, but he obeyed YHVH and His Torah: His charges, commands, decrees, and laws.
Therefore, we understand that faith is not a thought we have in our minds or intellectual exercise, but concrete actions in doing the will of Elohim. And His will for us is to walk in righteousness and live a life of faith, as the prophet says, “The righteous one lives by his faith” (Habakuk, 2:4).
Without exaggeration, we may say that faith is the sixth sense of humans. Faith makes us sure of unseen things, revealed only through the Word of the Creator, and faith gives us strength in our deeds.
Faith is the direct vision of the soul in what is made of the invisible. Faith does not reason why we should do what we are told to do. Faith does not ask for evidence and it does not seek human logic, because faith by works is the evidence. Faith is to the invisible things what the five senses are to the visible things. Faith is the strong trust in the supernatural power of the Creator to guide human destiny.
Faith resides deep in the human consciousness to alert a cognitive state in which humans are aware of the will of the Unseen Creator to carry out and complete the work of human lives according to His moral standards.
The lesson we learn from Avraham our father is that a person can say he has faith, but this is meaningless until it is proven through his works. Avraham’s faith was not just an idea in his mind, but something he was doing in obedience and love for the Creator.
And because of Abraham’s faith and obedience, his descendants inherited the land; the land he did not inherit in his life, but faithfully was awaiting the promise.
So, in what way did Avram make known his faith in YHVH and in what way did YHVH count it to him for righteousness? By his readiness to perform what YHVH commanded him, Avram gave a practical proof that he believed in Him.
And this is exactly what Apostle Shaul teaches in Rom 4:2-5: before Avram had done anything, while still in the land of Ur, he was declared righteous because YHVH saw readiness in him to perform the command to leave his father’s house and go to the land of promise.
And when Ya’akov stated that Avraham our father was declared right by works, and not by faith alone, he was referring to the works by faith after he left Ur and ultimately, when he offered Yitschak his son on the altar. By this we know that the faith was working with his works, and by the works the faith was perfected in him. Both apostles are in agreement.
Here the reader is encouraged to proceed with the article “Take Your Son, Your Only Son! Did YHVH tell Avraham to sacrifice his son?“
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.