James, a fall bible study
James 2:20-24 & Genesis 22
20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. –James 2:20-24
James is referring to the story in Genesis 22, which is one of the most confusing stories in the Old Testament, where God asks Abraham to take his son, the very son promised to him by God, and sacrifice him on an altar. Even though the story gives Abraham a test of faith that he passes and it symbolizes the sacrifice of Jesus, the Son of God, I tend to think this is a low point in the biblical narrative. If I were to go along with the idea of God evolving, which I don’t, really, but if I were, then I would consider this to be a younger, foolish action, akin to God being a teenager or headstrong young father wanting to show off. Child sacrifice to the gods was not a new idea in Abraham’s region, but elsewhere in scripture God condemns child sacrifice as abhorrent –why would he ask Abraham to do something so contrary to his supposed loving nature? Is God so power-hungry that he needs to test Abraham’s obedience?
Although I have heard this story in Genesis 22 cast as a test of obedience, where the central question is whether or not Abraham will submit to the Almighty God, that is not the central question I see highlighted in both Genesis 22 and in the retelling of this story by New Testament authors. I see two main issues being tested: Abraham’s faith in God’s goodness and Abraham’s love of God above all his gifts. If we were to return to the hypothetical evolving God, then this would be God as the jealous gift-giver, worried that his beloved cares more for the new puppy than for him. It is not good to sacrifice a child and even less so, the only beloved, promised son who was miraculously conceived in old age; however, Abraham expressed his faith in God’s goodness, as James highlights. He moved forward with the sacrifice of his son, going on the journey and collecting the supplies; however, he also said to Isaac, “God himself will provide a lamb.” His actions were an expression of love for God even above his son, but he was also expressing faith that God is good and that God provides. Hebrews 11:17 says, speaking of Abraham in this incident: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
James says that Abraham was counted as righteous by his actions, which was true in that particular story, but in the other stories of Abraham that was not the case. Nothing is said in Genesis 12 about his righteousness even though this is when he first receives the promise of becoming a great nation. As Paul points out, this promise is given before any law. The first time that Abraham is called righteous is in Genesis 15, when he was still called Abram, and he simply believed a promise given to him:
3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. –Genesis 15:3-6
So James–you see that it is possible to have faith without action…But you have a very good point that sometimes faith requires action. If we truly believe, we will choose A instead of B. God knows it is easier to simply believe than to take action based on faith, so I wonder if Genesis 15 was like Faith 101 (entry-level course) and Genesis 22 was like Faith 807 (a tad more advanced) for Abraham. Similarly, I think the seed of our faith is simple belief, like Abraham’s in Genesis 15, but that as our faith matures, it will produce more actions in line with that belief.
This series is inspired (but not sponsored) by FBC (First Baptist Church of Davis) and their fall focus running from October 4, 2015 through November 28, 2015. When I first heard FBC was doing this series, the lectionary reading and sermon that day at my own church, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, was from the book of James, and it really spoke to me; James is also the first bible study I completed on my own: I was fourteen, and I wrote with colored markers in a spiral notebook each morning before school, using an observation-reflection-action method similar to the one outlined in FBC’s bible-study guide. I am looking forward to spending more time meditating on this challenging book of the New Testament. I will be using the bible study guide provided by FBC with the accompanying scripture throughout this series; however, my methodology might hop around from anecdotal to more analytical word study. My goal is to do this study daily, or at least a few times a week! A big thanks to FBC for their theme, chosen scriptures, and structure of this study.