When Was Abraham “Saved?”
Commenter Nick asks several important questions regarding the faith of Abraham in his comment on when Abraham was justified. He writes:
“You had said: “This obedient act (Gen. 22) occurred many years after Abraham’s gospel justification (Gen. 15).”
Seeing that Abraham was a believer long before Genesis 15, starting as early as Genesis 12 (see Hebrews 11:8 and Galatians 3:8), how do you know the Genesis 15 event was not simply a “shown to be righteous” event as well? It seems like it would be Pelagianism to suggest Abraham was not saved until Genesis 15.”
In Genesis 12, the LORD tells Abram to “go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you…and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
Abram, in obedience, proceeded to the land of Canaan. He trusted God. Was Abram justified (credited with righteousness) in Genesis 12 based on his response of faith? Several issues need to be addressed.
The first issue relates to the content of faith. In Genesis 15, Abram believed God’s promise of a child that would be miraculously born, and through whom the promise would be fulfilled. This promise of a future child was initially made to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, and would come through the line of Seth, her third-born son. All the Old Testament saints believed in the promise of the one who would remove the curse that resulted from the fall. The promise of Isaac to Abram, via his barren wife Sarai, foreshadowed the coming Messiah, Jesus. It is by faith in Jesus alone that one is justified. The OT saints looked forward to Jesus. We NT saints look backward.
Another issue raised by Nick: Since Abram trusted God by leaving for Canaan, was he not saved then? I think this question touches on what is known as the ordo salutis, or “order of salvation.” Protestants believe that justification is by faith alone. But how does this work out? I believe that salvation is a gift of God from first to last. Ephesians 2:8-9 states: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But some may say, “but don’t we have to receive the gift of faith? Doesn’t our wise choice present some merit on our part?” This touches on the question of free will, and the resulting question raised by Nick about Pelagianism.
Getting back to the ordo salutis, some teach that it is the Word that regenerates the soul, resulting in justification. Thus, we are called to share the “good news” of the gospel. Those who believe are justified. But who will believe? Don’t some reject the word? How then can it be the gospel/word that is the initial cause? I believe that before the Word can do its work, there must be a gift given that is passively received, so that there is a positive response to the message. This is the gift of life imparted directly by the Holy Spirit – the soul is quickened. I highly recommend a chapter from A. W. Pink that discusses quickening. Here is a link to this discussion.
Getting back to Abram, he obeyed God in Genesis 12. Perhaps Abram was already quickened (but not yet justified) and began hungering for spiritual things at this point. Like many of us, his spiritual journey included many rabbit trails. For example, he did not obey God fully when he brought Lot along with him to Canaan. He was told to leave his relatives. Also, he sojourned to Egypt, and deceived Pharaoh about his wife being his sister.
The point I want to make is this: salvation is indeed a process, that begins with quickening, proceeds to justification, and sanctification, and finally glorification. So, Abram trusted God back in Genesis 12, and perhaps he was even justified back then. He may have been trusting in the promised seed. But Genesis 15 clearly shows that our justification is the result of a specific kind of faith, saving faith in Messiah. It is not as important to nail down “when” Abram was justified. What is very important is the ground of his justification: faith in the coming promised One. Abram believed, and as a result was “reckoned” righteous. I am an accountant by trade, and “reckoned” is “accounted.” We Protestants believe that the righteousness of Jesus is credited to us, at the time of belief in the gospel. And that works of obedience are the fruit of our justification.
Nick, I hope this helps to clarify the Protestant understanding of justification. We believe that there is an unbreakable chain of salvation. All who are quickened will be glorified. And no one is able to receive the gift of salvation unless they are made spiritually alive by the Holy Spirit’s quickening (Jn. 3:8).
Thanks again for your comment.