For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham
– Rom 4:2-4, & 16
This morning I want to tell two stories. Two parallel plot lines. One master narrative, and the other an imitation. The story oAbraham, and our story.
The Holy Spirit speaking through Paul praises Abraham – the artist formerly known as Abram – as the father of all those who have faith. He is the archetype, the source, the original figure, which all of our faith is in imitation of.
So let's look at his life together this morning. Let's poke and prod and examine the faith that he had, to see what we can learn from it.
I. Faith in the life of Abraham
In our reading from Romans chapter 4 this morning, Paul quotes the book of Genesis when he writes that “Abraham believed God.” – the word 'believed' can equally be translated as 'had faith in' – 'Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now, for the careful reader, this automatically raises the question, “believed him about what?”
What did God say, that Abraham believed?
We don't have to hunt too far afield, because our Old Testament lesson from Genesis chapter 12 tells us.
God appeared to Abraham twice, and in those revelations he told Abraham that from him would come a great nation. That he would have children, whose descendants would own the Land that we now call “Israel”, but then was called “Canaan”.
Now, even to us sitting here, in 21st century America, the prospect of a huge chunk of free land, a enormous family heritage, and a name that will last for the ages is a pretty sweet offer, but it was even MORE significant back then, 4400 years ago, when Abraham lived, when your land and the size of your family meant EVERYTHING for life and livelihood and happiness.
So that's what God promised. And that's what Abraham believed.
But all was not quite so simple. Because there were some significant barriers in the way, which Abraham had to overcome in order to believe.
To start with, Abraham was 75 years old when God said, “Pack up all your things, and travel 574 miles on foot to a place that I will give you.” Some of you are close to 75, how does that sound as an offer? Moreover, he's going to start a family and a dynasty at 75, his wife just a few years younger? When we consider these things, already God's promise is starting to look pretty rich, if not downright impossible.
But it gets worse. Abraham believes God, and makes the journey, and arrives at the Land God has said he will give him, and Lo and behold – it's already occupied! With Canaanites! Vicious, large, war-like people!
So God has promised a family, to a man who has no children, and a land, that is already inhabited with other people, and all this to a man whose beard had already been grey for a long-time.
Outwardly, Abraham is not manifestly the “best man for the job”, not the most-likely candidate we might have thought God would have picked, to initiate his plan of salvation for the whole human race. Because remember, Jesus our Savior was born into that dynasty of Abraham – the Jewish people. He was the singular offspring that God had promised, amidst Abraham's many descendants.
But Abraham is who God selected, and by God's grace, Abraham didn't let us down. Even in spite of the improbable, the insane odds, the massive difficulties that stood right in front of his eyes, Abraham said, “yes, Lord. I believe you. I believe you in spite of what I see. Because I believe you can do all things.”
Now, that's faith.
It's because of THIS response that Abraham had to God, that, as Genesis 15 tells us, and Romans 4 repeats, Abraham was justified.
Justified before God. That is, counted as righteous.
In other words, because of his faith – his trust – Abraham was counted as one who is Godly, and thus as one who belongs to God.
Now, this is sort of a surprise in the Old Testament. Ordinarily, the only way to be counted as righteous was to do the righteous thing. Which is another way of saying, Only if you keep the Law of Moses can you be righteous. Can you be Godly. But long before Moses is on the scene – 500 years before, in fact – God reveals something far deeper. Yes, a certain amount of Godliness can be emulated by keeping the Law, and yes, this means that a little bit of righteousness is theoretically attainable. But the Law of Moses, the 618 Laws of the Torah – they are also a whole. As the book of James tell us, breaking it even one place means the whole thing is Broken. Which means one's righteousness is broken, and therefore, not really much of a righteousness at all, since it no longer mirrors the perfection of God himself.
And apart from all of this, what God showed us in the life of Abraham, is a truth that would only find its full explanation in the wake of Jesus Christ – that is, that righteousness is available simply by trusting God. That whereas the Law couldn't make you righteous. Trust CAN make you righteous.
It was because he BELIEVED God, that Abraham was counted as righteous. Totally separate from the Law of Moses.
Now, before tracing all these things on to our own lives – although I hope you're already starting to see the connections – I want to examine the qualities of Abraham's faith. We've already seen that it was resilient even in the face of humanly insurmountable problems, but what else characterizes it? What else is there in it for us to emulate?
Well, even though it was a justifying faith apart from Works of the Law, as Paul makes clear, that doesn't mean it was just a sentiment in Abraham's head, apart from deeds. This is a point James in his letter takes pains to make clear, to make sure Paul isn't mis-interpreted on this point.
See, Abraham believed God would give him Land, but he still had to walk the 574 miles to Canaan!
Abraham believed God would give him a Son, but he still was willing to offer that son on the altar when God commanded him to do so!
In both elements of the promise therefore, we see that Abraham's faith was made manifest in his deeds. His deeds didn't save him, but they reveal that he REALLY believed what God had said, rather than merely partially assenting to it in his mind. If Abraham had have stayed in Haran – he would never have been given the promised Land. He needed to actually move down there. BECAUSE he believed, he took action.
Another quality of Abraham's faith, is that when he struggles with it, he takes his struggle right away to God. In Genesis chapter 12, as we read, God very clearly says, “to your offspring I will give this land”
But fast-forward 25 years, Abraham is nearly 100 years old. And there's still no son. No heir from whom this promised dynasty could possibly come. He's been holding on to the promise, but so far, there's no sign of it. And God shows up again, in a vision, and repeats his promise, saying to Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 15 “your reward shall be very great.” To which Abraham replies, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?...Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
God promised offspring, but as yet there are none. In Romans 4:20, God tells us that Abraham's faith didn't waver, but this certainly sounds like wavering, doesn't it? So what's going on here.
Quite simply, wavering and struggling are two different things.
Wavering is when we step away from our faith, question it as if we were the judge, and perhaps ignore it for a time, disobeying God. Now, even when we do this, in his mercy, God doesn't let us go. As it says in 2 Tim 2:13 – we may be faithless at times, but God is always faithful. But this is not what Abraham did. No, Abraham didn't waver, but he DID struggle. He did find it difficult to keep believing. But see the difference there: it's difficulty in the MIDST of believing. It's not the false contemporary Idea that somehow we need un-faith as Christians for faith to be real. No, struggle is part of it and is no fault, but un-faith is always an enemy to be avoided. When Abraham's faith became a heavy thing to carry, he doesn't walk away from it. He sticks with it. And in fact, he takes his struggle back to God himself. He brings his concern, his struggle, to God. Not to other people, not making any decisions off it, but instead coming to God in prayer and saying, “God, you've promised these things. But I see no sign of them? Help me here, please!” And God DOES help him. Gives him something to restore his faith, and make it easier to carry. Reassures him with the words we have recorded in Gen 15:4 “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”
The final thing we see about Abrams faith – when we read on in Genesis and Exodus and the rest of the OT, is that it was right, right? Abraham wasn't counting on a pipe-dream. This wasn't something he had tricked himself into believing God had said. It was all real. Abraham's descendants, through his Son Isaac, were multiplied. They did become very numerous in Egypt, and were led into the land of Canaan, where they DID conquer the Canaanites, with God's might power – these are the accounts in the book of Joshua, right? – and they DID get the land for themselves. It took over 500 years to work out, but God's word was good – there would be a great nation – the Jewish people – living in the Land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean sea. Boom!
God said it. Abraham believed it. And it happened.
So that's the story of Abraham. Because God's word is in itself so instructive to us, I reckon already most of the points that we can trace on to our own lives have already been made, But let me briefly make them explicit:
II. Faith in our lives.
Abraham was not a likely candidate for God to use – and yet he called Him to be a part of a great plan.
WE are not likely candidates – and yet God has called US to be a part of a great plan.
To Abraham it would have seemed impossible to enter the promised Land, guarded as it was with enemy Canaanites, and yet God made it happen.
To us it might seem impossible that we should get to enter the heavenly promised Land, with all the enemies of the world, the flesh, and the devil, but God CAN and WILL make away.
Abraham didn't do good deeds, and therefore God said, “I'm gonna go bless this guy with land and offspring”. No, God gave the promise of blessing first. All Abraham had to do was believe.
And Salvation is that easy for us as well. Not for anything we have done. Or anything we are. Did God choose to save us by sending his Son Jesus to die on a cross. He did it of his own free-will. Out of his own Great LOVE for us, and for his world. All we have to do is believe.
Abraham sometimes struggled in the midst of his faith. Just like we do. But he took his struggles to God, just as we should, rather than taking them and walking away from God. If we come to him, he will strengthen our faith. This is the crucial prayer of the man in the Gospels who cries out to God, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” A prayer the Lord always answers, if we ask it of him sincerely.
Abraham believed God with his feet – When God told him what was his, he up and left his home at Haran straightaway.
Just so, we need to ACT in faith, following what the Lord has said, even though it might sound odd or like a long-shot, we must take God at his word, manifesting our trust in him by the choices we make, by the way we are on.
In sum, Abraham trusted God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
WE are called to trust God. And if we do, we will be counted righteous. Being reckoned before God to be as Godly as he himself is, because we are found in Christ Jesus.
Lastly, as a means of laying hold of all these things more concretely, I want to encourage you to make prayers of Faith.
Now, when I say prayer of faith, I don't mean just the prayer we first prayed when we became a Christian, although that is of course the FIRST prayer of faith. No, our prayer lives as Christians should have prayers of faith woven throughout them.
As you know, the vision I believe God has for us as a church is that we would cultivate life-giving patterns of prayer, and so this morning I wish to offer you another pattern, another thread to weave into our lives of prayer, namely, often and articulately telling the Lord, “I trust you”
“I believe you.”
And in all the particulars that this belief is needed:
“I believe you have forgiven my sins”
“I believe you will save me on the day of judgment”
“I believe you will provide for my needs”
“I believe you are Good, and will work Good out of what you have permitted to happen”
and so on and so on.
May your faith increase more and more, into the stature of Abraham.
Lord, we believe you will help our unbelief.