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Was Abraham Justified by Faith of by Works?

 

FROM THE LETTER OF ST. SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH TO JULIAN, BISHOP OF HALICARNASSUS 

"For you rightly and justly say that the doctors are not in opposition to one another, even as Paul is not in opposition to James when the one says, 'By faith is a man justified without works,' while the other wrote, 'Faith without works is dead';

because Paul spoke of faith before baptism, which is the perfection of confession out of a pure heart, when it has not previously displayed good works in the world, but such a man is justified by believing and confessing and being baptized; while James referred to faith after baptism, when he said that it is dead without works, if a man does not confirm it by right action. For baptism is the earnest of a good conversation; since even our Lord, who was to us an instructor, after He had hallowed the water and been baptized by John and given us the institution of baptism, Went up to the mountain and underwent a struggle with the tempter and destroyed all his power, thereby guiding us, that we might know that after the divine cleansing we ought to display a contest in deed and to struggle according to law with the adversary, therein displaying our virtues.
    "But someone will object, and say, 'Behold! Paul took Abraham as a proof that a man is justified by faith without works, saying, "Therefore they that are in the faith are blessed with the believing Abraham"; and, "To him that hath not worked but hath believed on Him that can justify sinners his faith is reckoned for righteousness"; while James proved by the case of Abraham that a man is not justified by faith only, but by works confirmed by faith. And how are these not contradictory? for the same Abraham is an example of those who have not worked but believed, and of those who have shown faith by works.'
    "I am ready to explain from the Holy Scriptures. For he who examines the periods of Abraham's life [will see] that he is an instance of both, of the faith which before baptism confesses salvation by believing in Christ, and of that after baptism which is joined with works, which is a reproduction of the old circumcision of the flesh, which drives away the denial of uncircumcision and brings to us the adoption as sons by God; wherefore Moses also was ordered to say thus to Pharaoh; 'And say thou unto Pharaoh, "Israel is my son, my firstborn."' Wherefore Paul writes to the Colossians and says, ' In whom ye were circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the flesh of sins and in the circumcision of Christ, and ye were buried with Him in baptism.' Wherefore he said of Abraham also that he was justified by faith without works while he was in uncircumcision, before he was circumcised, thus pointing to confession before baptism without works, writing to the Romans, 'To Abraham his faith was reckoned for righteousness. How? Not through circumcision, but in uncircumcision.'  And he did not speak falsely; for the words of Moses are witness, which say of God that He said to Abraham, 'Look toward heaven and tell the stars, if thou. be able to tell them'; and He said, 'So shall thy seed be': and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness.
    "But again our master James also took the same Abraham as an example in the faith which saves by works after baptism, he being then circumcised and not in uncircumcision. And we may learn from the Scripture; for he writes thus : 'Wilt thou know, O man, that faith without works is dead? For our father Abraham was justified by works, when he offered Isaac his son as a burnt-sacrifice. Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was made perfect. And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness: and He was called his friend."' It is easy again for one .who reads the writings of Moses to learn from the book of Genesis that Abraham, after he was circumcised, offered Isaac as a burnt-sacrifice and fulfilled the commandment and was justified by works, giving us an instance of faith after baptism, which is a spiritual circumcision, justifying a man by works; for it is written, 'Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son, and those born in his house, and those bought with his money from strange peoples'; and then God, trying Abraham, said to him, 'Take thy son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee to the high land; and offer him there as a burnt-sacrifice.' Accordingly these words of the apostles and those written in the old law do not seem to be in opposition to one another, but to be one, and to have been spoken by one spirit concerning faith before baptism, which justifies the man who presents himself upon a short confession only without action, baptism  being full salvation if a man depart from the world forthwith, and another faith, which is after baptism, which requires the proof of good works and also raises the man to the measure of perfection and to high place. And so also James very properly says of it that faith is made perfect by works; since the wise Paul also in another place gives similar teaching respecting faith, saying that it is made perfect through works: for the Galatians, after they had been baptized and been reckoned sons of God through the Spirit, were perverted to Judaism and were circumcised, since they vainly supposed that by the circumcision of their flesh they gained something in Christ beyond the uncircumcised; and he wrote to reprove them, saying, 'In Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor uncircumcision availeth anything; but faith which is worked out by love.' From this also, therefore, it is plain that that kind of faith after baptism is of avail and saves with which work is joined and united in love; and what work done in love is Paul declares and says, 'Love is long-suffering and kind; love is not envious and excited and puffed up, nor is it ashamed; and it seeketh not its own, and is not provoked; and it imputeth no evil; and rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; and it hopeth all things, and endureth all things. Love doth not quickly fail.' These things are for the direction of action and labour and toil, that many may be profited and be saved, when united to faith. And who will dare to find fault? for respecting this our Lord also said, 'If ye love Me, keep My commandments.'

From the Book:  The Syriac History of Zachariah of Mitylene  Book 9, chapter XIII.   This book is available from:
Oriental Orthodox Library    Also available online at  http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/zachariah09.htm