“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.”
Thus far we have considered the command of God to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac from two different points of view. We considered first the command as such, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah: and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of,” Gen. 22:2. An understanding of this command with its implications is essential to an understanding of the whole of what took place in connection with the sacrifice of Isaac. In this command is implied a rich, spiritual truth which God would teach to Abraham. This truth we saw to be that for the fulfillment of the promises the covenant seed had to be offered as a burnt offering before the Lord. The covenant seed was in figure and type Isaac; but in the fulfillment it was to be the perfect covenant seed, Jesus Christ.
The second aspect which we considered was the reaction to this command which took place within the mind and heart of Abraham. Abraham did not follow the reasoning of earthly wisdom which might conclude, if Isaac had to be slain as a sacrifice, the promise that from Isaac would come a great nation would be impossible of fulfillment. Rather following the reasoning of faith he concluded because God had promised to raise a seed from Isaac, and because Isaac must be slain upon the altar, then it must also be true that God was going to raise Isaac from the dead so that the former promise might be fulfilled. In this we saw the great strength of Abraham’s faith which stumbled not even at death, but reached forth grasping even the truth of the resurrection from the dead. In this he saw in type the death and resurrection which was finally and perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
It was in this strength of faith that Abraham with Isaac and two young men-servants made his way to mount Moriah. One is inclined at this point to lay stress upon the sorrow that burdened the heart of Abraham on this journey as he anticipated the sacrifice of his son. It is easy to imagine that Abraham dreaded to make the trip, and each step of the way was for him a torture that grew more painful the closer he came to Moriah, and each look at his son reminded him anew that soon the lad would die at the hand of his own father. Yet so to place the emphasis is to greatly misrepresent Abraham and to build upon implications that the Scriptures do not warrant. Abraham’s journey, rather than being characterized by anguish, ought to be recognized as a triumph, a triumph of faith. If the heart of Abraham had been overburdened with anguish, he would have never left his tent at Mamre. If Abraham had thought that the sacrifice of Isaac would conclude Isaac’s life upon this earth, he could have never even prepared to travel to Moriah. But Abraham was confident that though Isaac must die yet he would live again, and in that strength he went.
This does not mean, however, that Abraham’s three days of travel from Mamre to Moriah were in every respect easy. Abraham was not a perfect man; and, as long as he was not, there yet remained with him his carnal mind bent on making the way of faith difficult. Constantly his sinful flesh must have suggested to him that it was too much to expect that Isaac should rise again from the dead, that from the beginning of time it had not been heard that anyone who died lived again to bring forth seed upon this earth, that he should leave well enough alone and not put the covenant promises on such precarious ground by sacrificing his son. But always his faith was there to answer that it was not for him to call into question what the Lord his God had commanded, that what the Lord commands is bound to work for the good of His covenant, that God is able to do all things and not even death would prevent Him from keeping His promises. In the triumph of this faith, Abraham with Isaac his son made the journey to Moriah.
That this was actually the faith of Abraham was evidenced when he left his servants with the ass at the bottom of the mountain and told them, “Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you,” Gen. 22:5. This statement should not be interpreted as having been a deliberate lie or falsehood on the part of Abraham by which he meant to keep the young men in ignorance about what was going to happen. At the pinnacle of faith at which Abraham stood at that time we do not do him justice if we accuse him of using such deceptive words. Rather, we must believe that Abraham expressed that both he and the lad would return because he was firmly convinced that although he expected that Isaac would die, he nonetheless was firmly assured within his heart that Isaac would be raised from the dead to return with him to the waiting servants.
It was while Abraham and Isaac were climbing the mountain together that a very interesting but touching conversation took place between them. Isaac knew that his father had made very thorough preparations for the sacrifice which they were to offer, but still there was one very important element missing. They had with them wood, fire, and even a knife, but the most important element of all, a lamb, was missing. Observing this he addressed his father, “My father . . . Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Gen. 22:7. To this Abraham replied, “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt-offering.” That this answer of Abraham is beautiful and that it arose from a living faith, one immediately feels. Yet when we try to enter into it, we find that it is very difficult to understand exactly what was meant by Abraham with these words.
One’s first inclination is to interpret this answer of Abraham as somewhat of an evasion. He did not have the courage to tell Isaac of his intentions, and, therefore, he gave an answer that was not entirely incorrect but which, nonetheless, would not make known the hard facts of that which was to happen. In this way Abraham unconsciously prophesied concerning not only the ram which would be caught in the ticket, but also the greater substitute which God would eventually provide in Jesus Christ. However, here again one feels that he is compromising the pinnacle of faith and understanding which the Scriptures apply to Abraham at this point.
We would rather appeal for an interpretation of this statement to another possible translation. Accordingly this statement should not read, “God will provide . . .” but rather “God is providing to himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” This translation gives exact expression to the faith that lived within the heart of Abraham. They could build the altar and provide the wood but the sacrifice itself, namely Isaac, was a gift of God. This is an important point if we are to understand the typical significance of this whole event. Isaac as the sacrificial victim foreshadowing the atoning Christ appears as God’s gift to Abraham, not as Abraham’s gift to God. As he brought his son to the altar, he was not thereby giving a gift by which his sin might be covered (the gift of a man could never be a covering for sin, not even in a typical sense); rather, he thereby confessed his faith in the atoning value of the promised seed which God had given to him.
As they proceeded together up the mountain Abraham explained this all to Isaac; and Isaac also believed. Together in faith father and son came to the summit of the mountain, built the altar, and prepared the wood and fire upon it. Then, while Isaac stood in faithful obedience, Abraham raised the knife prepared to sacrifice his son, a burnt offering of complete consecration to God.
So it is that we may read, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” James 2:21. This passage in James always seems to present somewhat of a problem to the serious student of the Bible. This is especially true if we place it over against Romans 4:2, “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.”
The key to these passages is to be found in the word “works.” Paul in Romans by the word “works” refers to the works of the law, works performed externally for the sake of appearance without regard to the internal disposition of the heart. Such works performed without faith can never be the sufficient means of salvation. This would deny the necessity of faith in the children of God which the Scripture had always stressed as indispensable. James, however, speaks of works in an entirely different sense. He has in mind works that are built upon faith. True faith lays hold upon the Word of God, and the Word of God demands a life in conformity with the Will of God. If then faith is truly living, life will conform to that which faith believes. Such works do not exclude faith. Rather, according to James, faith goes with such works, and by such works faith is made perfect.
The sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham was a work in the sense of which James speaks. By faith Abraham believed the Word of God that for the promise to be realized the covenant seed must die as a burnt offering upon the altar. To the mind of Abraham the covenant seed was Isaac, and being such Isaac was a type foreshadowing Christ. Therefore having faith Abraham worked; he went with Isaac to Moriah; he brought the lad up the mountain and built an altar; he raised the knife to slay him. This work was an expression of the faith that lived within him. In his works his faith was made perfect.
It was as Abraham stretched forth his hand to slay his son the voice of the Lord stopped him. “Abraham, Abraham, . . . Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him,” Gen. 22:11, 12. In the mind and determination of Abraham the act was already completed; and, because it was a type that was all that was necessary. As a type, a picture of greater things which were yet to come, it had served its purpose of instructing and establishing Abraham in his faith. Isaac could not be the perfect and complete atonement for sin because, as Abraham knew and as Isaac himself knew, Isaac was a sinful man; and a sinful man can never be the real atonement for sin. “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son,” Gen. 22:13. To the mind of Abraham was brought the truth that another sacrificial victim was to be substituted by the Lord for his son. Isaac could not be the one to die and to be raised again, but eventually God would provide another perfect sacrifice which would take the place of Isaac and realize all of the glorious truths which Abraham was brought to see in type.
As Abraham and Isaac descended that mountain and returned to their servants, many were the glorious, gospel truths that filled their minds and caused their hearts to overflow. Through the means of type and shadow they had seen the truth of the atonement wrought by the covenant seed; they had seen the truth of the resurrection as Isaac the sacrifice was in a figure received again from the dead; they had seen the truth that this all would be realized in years to come when God would provide the true sacrificial victim to stand in the place of Isaac; in a figure they saw the Christ. Well does James conclude, “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God,” James 2:23.