Neither Paul (Romans 4:2) nor James (James 2:21) were talking about Abraham being saved from his past sins when they spoke of his being justified. We have heard it discussed in such a way as to make it sound as if Abraham received forgiveness of his sins by offering Isaac on the altar! The impression may be left that up to that time Abraham was out of fellowship with God -- as an alien sinner -- and when he offered his son he was justified -- forgiven, as a man is forgiven at the point of baptism! This is an erroneous concept. It is similar to using Noah's case to try to prove that Noah would have gone to hell if he had died before the flood. After all, the Bible plainly says that he "prepared an ark to the saving of his house" (Hebrews 11:7). Doesn't Peter plainly tell us "Noah was saved by water, the like figure whereunto baptism saves us" (1 Peter 3:21)? Certainly so, but Noah was not saved from his sins by the ark, nor by the flood, but his physical salvation is a type or figure of our salvation from sins at the point of baptism.
We can properly use him as an excellent illustration of the necessity of an OBEDIENT faith. "Thus did Noah, according to all that God commanded him, so did he" (Genesis 6:22). We may properly conclude that if he had not used gopher wood, or had substituted his will for God's will, he would have been displeasing to God. We may NOT properly conclude that Noah was out of fellowship with God before the ark was built, and the building of the ark, or entering it, or the flood somehow washed his sin away and justified him in the same sense the alien sinner is justified from his past sins at baptism. The point is that each step along the way, Abraham was justified by faith. Note carefully: When all God required Abraham to do was TRUST, then Abraham stood in the right relationship with God (was justified) when he obeyed THAT command and trusted. When God required Abraham to ACT on his faith, his faith could not be reckoned unto him for righteousness until he acted.
In Genesis 15:6 we find, "And he believed in Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness." This does not prove that Abraham was lost until this time, nor does the fact that James 2:23 says, "the scripture was fulfilled which saith, And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness" mean that God for some reason held Abraham's sins against him until he offered his son, but reckoned him righteous from then on!
The truth of the matter is that at every point where God commanded and Abraham had enough faith to obey, he stood justified -- counted to be righteous -- in the right relationship with God.
There is no difference in the policy stated by the Lord in Exodus 23:7, "I will NOT justify the wicked" and in Romans 4:5 where he "justifies the ungodly." He never did, and does not now justify the ungodly in the practice of their ungodliness. The adulterer, liar and murderer have to quit their wickedness. They are still ungodly until they are forgiven by grace, through their faith in Jesus, as they demonstrate that faith in obedience.
The fact that Genesis 15:6 says, "He believed God and he counted it to him for righteousness," in no wise suggests that he had not believed God before, nor that he was not in every previous or subsequent case "justified" when he thus trusted in God. If we conceive of "justification" as a ONCE-FOR-ALL judicial act in which God takes away our past sins, then we become confused. But if we understand that when God said in Genesis 12:1, "Get thee out" and he in faith obeyed, he was justified (Hebrews 11:8). When God said in Genesis 15:1-5 that he would have a son, and Abraham believed Him, he was justified (Romans 4:3). When he said in Genesis 27:2, "Take now thy son -- and offer him for a burnt offering--" and he had enough faith to obey, he was justified (James 1:21). At ANY and every point in his life, he was justified by his faith. Note carefully: When asked to accept a statement, no matter how difficult to believe, he trusted God, he stood approved of God (justified) at that point. When asked to obey a command, and he in faith obeyed that command, he stood approved of God at that point.
The same principle applies to us. We must understand that "justification" does not always refer to an alien sinner getting his sins removed. When Jesus said in Matthew 12:37, "by thy word thou shalt be justified," he did not mean that if somehow the alien sinner says the right words, he will be saved (justified) from his past sins!
Just as in Abraham's case, if God says, "Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins" (Acts 2:38) and a man replies, "I do not intend to do that. I will get remission by praying," he will NOT be justified or get remission of his sins. On the other hand when Simon heard Peter say, "Repent and pray--" (Acts 8:22) if he had said, "No, I must be baptized again," he would not have been justified.
When God asks me to believe that the same Jesus who was crucified and resurrected will come back for His saints, I stand in the right relationship with God (justified) when I trust in His word. When he asks me to partake of the Lord's Supper on the first day of the week as a demonstration of my faith in that, I do NOT stand in the right relationship with God (justified) if I refuse to do it. The fact that I was justified from my sins when I accepted His grace in obedient faith by being baptized for the remission of sins does not mean I stay justified in ANY disobedient act.
There is no comfort in God's word for the man who ASSUMES he can be justified at any point without DOING what God says to do. If God says, "Trust and wait," then one must do that. If God says, "Trust and ACT," then one must do that. It has always been so.
T. Pierce Brown
Published in The Old Paths Archive