Children of Abraham
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.” (John 8:39 ESV)
The Jewish leaders put a lot of stock in their ethnic heritage: “We are offspring of Abraham…” (John 8:33); “Abraham is our father” (John 8:39).
But it seems that Jesus had the same attitude towards reliance on ethnicity as John the Baptizer did: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9-10).
Jesus says that the issue isn’t ethnicity - the issue is evidence: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.” The order here is critical. Jesus isn’t saying that doing the works of Abraham makes someone a child of Abraham; he’s saying that doing the works of Abraham provides evidence that someone is a child of Abraham.
And what does it mean to “do the works Abraham did”? The writer of Hebrews gives us a summary:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19)
To be sure, Abraham’s justification - his position as righteous before God - was by faith and faith alone. Read Romans 4 carefully and you’ll be convinced of this truth. But his faith led to action: “Abraham obeyed”; “he went out” and “he went to live in the land of promise”; and “when he was tested,” he “offered up Isaac.” And he did all of this “by faith.” Abraham’s faith was decidedly active.
So then, what does it mean to be a child of Abraham? In answer to that question, I’ll leave you with two passages to prayerfully ponder: Galatians 3:1-29 and James 2:14-26. Be forewarned that I’m asking you to do some theological heavy lifting. Theologians have had difficulty reconciling Paul and James for centuries. Martin Luther, in the preface to his 1522 German translation of the New Testament, wrote that “the epistle of St. James is an epistle full of straw” because of its emphasis on works.
So, if you have some trouble harmonizing Galatians 3 and James 2, you’re in good company. I’d encourage you to read both passages through the lens of Jesus’ words: “If you [are] Abraham’s children, you [will] be doing the works Abraham did.” Please feel free to comment.