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A substitute provided
In Genesis, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac—to bind him to the altar and to spill his blood, before lighting the fire beneath him.
Abraham’s willingness represents the highest expression of his faith. The authors of the New Testament recognized this event as a preeminent example of faithful response to God. The author of Hebrews emphasizes Abraham as an example for believers, writing, “Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to offer his only son” (Heb. 11:17 NLT). Despite the apparent contradiction between God’s promises to Abraham and his command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham “was ready.” His example encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).
Salvation by works?
While the author of Hebrews uses the story to point to Abraham’s faith, James refers to this event with a slightly different focus. In writing “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21), we are led to ask whether James is promoting a salvation by works. At first glance, it may appear so. However, James is actually arguing that true faith makes itself evident through works. He continues by explaining how Abraham’s faith was completed or perfected by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac (James 2:22). Abraham’s actions served as the evidence, not the means, of his salvation.
God didn’t ask Abraham for anything he wasn’t willing to do himself.
Isaac and Jesus
The authors of the New Testament also believed that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Hebrews describes Isaac as Abraham’s “only son” (Heb. 11:17; the NIV uses the phrase “one and only”). The Greek term here, monogenēs, is used most often in the New Testament to describe Jesus, God’s only begotten Son (see John 1:14; 3:16). Paul also describes God’s sending of Christ to redeem humanity with “He did not spare his own Son” (Rom. 8:32), phrasing that echoes God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 22:16.
Although the sacrifice of Isaac came to be understood as foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice, there was one major difference: Isaac was spared, while Christ was not. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, but God intervened and provided a substitute for Isaac in the form of the ram (Gen. 22:13). God loves us enough that he did not spare his only Son; instead, Christ endured the cross as our substitute.
Blood and death
We tend to throw around the word “sacrifice” quite casually, describing it as essential to the Christian life, essential to marriage, essential to parenting. We distance “sacrifice” from its Old Testament origins, when the word typically signified a ritual of blood and death. It’s easier to read stories like Abraham’s and Jesus’ when we forget about the gore. But God didn’t ask Abraham for anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. And it’s in this context that our salvation lies.
This adapted excerpt, provided here courtesy of Logos Bible Software, is from Abraham: Following God’s Promise. An eight-week self-study program on the life of the first patriarch, Abraham, comes with graphics, reflection questions and “fill in the blank” boxes where users can record and save their answers. The Abraham study can also be purchased as a complete church curriculum, which adapts the study material for small group study and preaching. Purchase the book or the curriculum today.