Wednesday, May 14, 2003

The Dynamics of Faith in the Life of Abraham

This is the fifth post of a series that looks at faith in the life of Abraham. To start at the beginning, click here.

Abraham’s Faith Transcended Obedience

The Binding of Isaac and The Strange Loop of Fulfilled Faith

This, then, brings us to the time when Abraham offered Isaac. The event is familiar to us, but a close inspection reveals a remarkable paradox.

The Lord’s angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’ decrees the Lord, ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the strongholds of their enemies. Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants.’” (Genesis 22:15-18, The Net Bible)

Verses 16-18 contain blessings to Abraham from the Lord “because” of what Abraham had done. Remarkably, there is no blessing here that the Lord had not already promised unconditionally!

  1. Abram will be blessed and be a blessing (see Genesis 12:2).
  2. All peoples will be blessed through him (see Genesis 12:3)
  3. Abram’s offspring will be given the land (see Genesis 15:7)
  4. Descendants as the stars of heaven (see Genesis 15:5)

This certainly exhibits the eternal nature of God who could see Abraham’s obedience before it happened, but it has broader implications on which James has a useful commentary:

But would you like evidence, you empty person, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)

Note the word “fulfilled” in verse 23. The paradox raised on Mount Moriah can be explained by acknowledging that salvation contains an implicit prophecy of kingdom works. For Abraham, the prophecy was fulfilled when he offered his son. For us it will be something else, but it will be something. As Paul says:

For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not of works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. With Abraham we have an actual example of this. God made promises to Abraham based on Abraham’s future obedience. The promises, in turn, were the reason Abraham obeyed. It is a strange feedback loop engineered by the eternal God.

A Final Meditation

Here is a final meditation relating Abraham, his faith, and his actions good and bad.

  1. The Lord made a free covenant with Abraham. It was made by God’s free choice and was not based on anything Abraham did or was. Similarly, our salvation is a free gift based on God’s grace and Christ’s death to pay for our sins.
  2. Although Abraham did well living as an alien and stranger in the land, and this was good evidence that he trusted God, he almost destroyed the possibility of the covenant’s fulfillment by consistently lying about Sarah’s relationship to him. The incidents represented a long-term problem in Abraham’s life and could even be viewed as compulsive and beyond his immediate control. Likewise, our Christian life is a blend of strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, any of us could fail to the point of nearly destroying the plans God has for our lives.
  3. The Lord forgave Abraham’s failures and blocked their covenant destroying repercussions. The Lord will also forgive our failures and block permanent damage in terms of His work for us.
  4. The Lord commended Abraham for trusting Him. He will do the same for us.
  5. The Lord tested Abraham’s faith at a point of readiness. He will test us to perfect us as well.

Our salvation is sure by the power of God to perfect our faith. However, the context in Hebrews suggests caution. Consider:

For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. (Hebrews 11:14-15)

Related to this is the kick-off verse for all of chapter 11:

But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him. But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:38-39)

The “shrinking back” in 10:38 and the “opportunity to return” in 11:15 are the same. Faith in God and longing for pre-faith circumstances do not mix. Shrinking back is being like the seeds sown in rocky patches whose tender sprouts burned when the testing came. In modern terms, people “get saved” for many reasons and some of them are not valid. Accepting Christ only to avoid judgment or enter heaven is simply subtle self-interest and it will not stand. The Lord is interested in mutual relationship and affection.

Does this mean there can be no personal assurance of salvation?  Definitely not!  Although Hebrews 11:38 says that some will shrink back and be destroyed, verse 39 was written by someone who knew it could not happen to him by reason of his faith. In other words, there is a faith that is the kind that keeps trusting. So, faith and perseverance, like faith and obedience, go hand in glove. Faith is the foundation. Faith is that from which obedience, perseverance, and other forms of godly behavior come. Saints will persevere in the faith.

So let’s give thanks and praise to Jesus, the “author and perfecter of faith.”

Friday: TDB

<><Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>

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