Abraham, Legalism and Grace

Abraham is often called the “father of the faithful.” As he is introduced to the Bible story, Abraham’s faith is demonstrated by his obedience to God’s call to leave the thriving metropolis that was Ur of the Chaldees and travel toward an unknown destination. We read of this demonstrative faith on Abraham’s part in both the Old and the New Testaments:

Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee; and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him (Gen. 12:1-4).

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went (Heb. 11:8).

This wasn’t the first time, to be sure, that Abraham was required to exercise faith. Ellen White speaks of how idolatry had become “well-nigh universal” by the time of Abraham’s upbringing (1). She writes: “Even his father’s household, by whom the knowledge of God had been preserved, were yielding to the seductive influences surrounding them, and they ‘served other gods’ than Jehovah” (2). Ellen White goes on to describe Abraham’s early years and the temptations that constantly assailed him:

Idolatry invited him on every side, but in vain. Faithful among the faithless, uncorrupted by the prevailing apostasy, he steadfastly adhered to the worship of the one true God (3).

Like all the examples of faith cited in Hebrews chapter 11, Abraham’s faith is not described as passive. It wasn’t as if Abraham merely believed what God said, and then trusted God to fulfill His own commands all by Himself. He had to get his possessions packed and physically remove himself from the home of his childhood. God was the Source of Abraham’s faith, courage, and strength in so doing, but God didn’t do for Abraham what Abraham could do for himself.                                                                  

By wholehearted obedience to God’s instruction, Abraham claimed God’s power to execute what God had commanded. This is how Biblical faith works. When we surrender fully to God’s plan and counsel, He gives the strength we need, and we then carry out His will. This is what the apostle Paul means when he declares:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, For it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).

Ellen White describes this experience as follows:

The work of gaining salvation is one of copartnership, a joint operation. . . . Human effort of itself is not sufficient. Without the aid of divine power it avails nothing. God works and man works (4).

We are saved by climbing round after round of the ladder, looking to Christ, clinging to Christ, mounting step by step to the height of Christ, so that He is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption. Faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly-kindness, and charity are the rounds of this ladder (5).

Abraham’s Two Sons: Legalism and Grace Illustrated

In his epistles to the Romans and Galatians, the apostle Paul uses the birth and experience of Abraham’s two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, as a means of illustrating the parallel gospels of legalism and grace. Concerning Abraham, we read in Romans chapter 4:

Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness (verses 18-22).

In Galatians, chapter 4, Paul expounds on this story further:

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh, but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants (verses 22-24).

But perhaps some forget that Abraham played an active part in the birth of both sons. Isaac was not virgin-born, as Jesus was. Isaac was born of the "seed of Abraham," from which the promised Messiah would descend (Gen. 15:4; Heb. 2:16). But Abraham's effort in the birth of Ishmael was performed in his own strength, since both he and Hagar were at the time fully capable of biological parenthood. By the time of Isaac’s birth, by contrast, neither Abraham nor Sarah was capable of producing a child, according to what we read above (Rom. 4:19). This obviously made a divine miracle necessary in order for Isaac to be born (Gen. 21:1-2).       

The New Testament describes this miracle when it declares, “Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed” (Heb. 11:11). But obviously this miracle of faith did not occur in the absence of human effort. The role of both Abraham and Sarah in Isaac’s birth thus illustrates divine-human cooperation—the essence of Biblical righteousness by faith (Phil. 2:12-13; Col. 1:26-29).                 

Abraham's cooperation with God, demonstrated in the birth of Isaac, was even more graphically demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice the son of promise on Mount Moriah at God's command. Thus James declares, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Ye see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith alone" (James 2:21,24).               

Had James written, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he took Hagar and produced Ishmael?", Martin Luther would have been quite correct in saying the epistle of James should have been left out of the Bible (6). But the command to offer Isaac was divine, and Abraham's obedience was performed in God's strength, as was his role in Isaac's birth. His role in Ishmael's birth, by contrast, was performed in his own, unaided strength.             

The contrast being drawn by both Paul and James is between religious activity apart from conversion and religious activity produced by conversion.                                             

New Testament Judaism and “Righteousness by Heredity”

When we read the inspired account, it becomes clear that the legalism which afflicted the Jewish community during New Testament times was as much a case of righteousness by heredity as righteousness by behavior. We see this problem addressed by John the Baptist in the Gospel of Matthew:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance; And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham as our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham (Matt. 3:7-9).

We see in these verses the roots of the Jewish/Gentile controversy with which the early church would later wrestle. Many Jews of this time apparently believed their acceptance with God was more a question of ethnicity than ethics, heredity rather than holiness.  I can’t help thinking, when pondering this mindset, of a panel discussion of clergy I once watched on television as a teenager. That particular afternoon, the panel was addressing the subject of hell. A Jewish rabbi was part of the panel, and remained silent through most of the conversation. Toward the end he was asked for his take on the discussion. In all seriousness he stated that it didn’t really matter to him, since no Jew was going to hell anyway. (Good news for Annas, Caiaphas, Myer Lansky, and Bernard Madoff, at least!)

How many Jewish people actually believe this today, might certainly be argued. But as I have thought of that discussion through the years, the mentality confronted by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles most assuredly comes to mind. Describing the apostle Paul’s illusion of acceptance before God while he was still Saul of Tarsus, Ellen White states:

Before his conversion he had been confident in a hereditary piety, a false hope. His faith had not been anchored in Christ; he had trusted instead in forms and ceremonies (7).

As we have seen, the original call of Abraham should have been sufficient to call into question this “hereditary piety,” as God had declared to Israel’s ancestor that “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The apostle Paul cites this verse in the book of Galatians, as he affirms the application of the gospel summons to all nations of the world:

Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham (Gal. 3:7-9).


Biblical righteousness by faith, in sum, is about faith-based obedience, the active cooperation of human and divine effort. This was the experience of the patriarch Abraham when he answered God’s call to come out of Ur (Gen. 12:1-4), when he claimed and acted upon God’s promise that he and Sarah would be parents despite the deadness of their bodies (Gen. 15:4; 21:1-3; Rom. 4:19), and when at last he offered Isaac on Moriah’s summit, confident that the One who had given him this long-awaited blessing could restore the boy to life (Heb. 11:19).

By contrast, what the Bible denounces as righteousness by works was illustrated by Abraham when he took Hagar and brought about the birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16:4,15; Gal. 4:22-24), an act performed entirely in Abraham’s own strength. The lack of faith here demonstrated by Abraham would have far-reaching consequences, as the continuing cauldron of conflict and terror in the Middle East bears witness.

The faith-and-works issue as portrayed in the Bible is not about human effort or the absence thereof. Rather, it is about working in our own strength versus working through God’s strength. Biblical salvation is not “letting go and letting God.” It is about active divine-human cooperation (Phil. 2:13-13; Col. 1:26-29; Heb. 11). In the words of Ellen White:

The effort that man makes in his own strength to obtain salvation, is represented by the offering of Cain. All that man can do without Christ is polluted with selfishness and sin, but that which is wrought through faith is acceptable to God (8).                                                

A mere participation in religious services and ordinances does not make a sinner a Christian. . . . A man is made holy, and acceptable with God, only when his unclean heart is made clean by the grace of Christ, through faith, and by obedience to words of truth and righteousness. A work of reformation and restoration must take place in every heart. Those who have had great light and many privileges may perform some good works, notwithstanding their impenitence and their refusal to be saved in God's appointed way. But these good works do not cleanse the soul from corruption. Only those who accept the light of God's truth, choosing to obey Him, will be cleansed from the defilement of sin (9).        

And finally:

Man must work with his human power aided by the divine power of Christ, to resist and conquer at any cost to himself. In short, man must overcome as Christ overcame. . . . This could not be the case if Christ alone did all the overcoming. Man must do his part; he must be victor on his own account (10).



1. Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 125.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. ----Acts of the Apostles, p. 482.

5. ----Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 147.

6. Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1973), p. 43.

7. White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 228.

8. ----Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 364 (italics supplied).

9. ----Review and Herald, Dec. 19, 1907.

10. ----Testimonies, vol. 4, pp. 32-33 (italics original).