Romans 4:1-12 (NLT)
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”
When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it:
“Oh, what joy for those
whose disobedience is forgiven,
whose sins are put out of sight.
Yes, what joy for those
whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.”
Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!
Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Not many of us here today would claim to have Jewish blood, but we are invited to be a part of Abraham’s family, Paul tells us. We are made family not by blood, but by faith.
When we hear we are to have faith like Abraham, however, the idea can sound a bit daunting. After all, Abraham, called “Abram” early in his story in Genesis until God changes his name, is one of the great characters of the Bible. He lived to be 175, and is critical to the backstories of three major religions on the planet, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
When we look closely at the stories of Abraham in Genesis, however, we actually should find hope. I sometimes get the sense that people who don’t read the Bible have the impression it is about people who were impossibly perfect, maintaining standards of piety we could never hope to achieve. But those of us who read it regularly know differently—the Old Testament and the New Testament consistently tell tales of people failing repeatedly as they learn to trust God.
Let’s look at three places in Abraham’s story that help us see this truth more clearly.
Did the Father Fail?
It may be that Abraham is considered a great patriarch of the Bible in part because his father, Terah, failed to follow through on his own calling. This prequel to Abraham’s story is sparing in detail, but Genesis 11:31-32 says Terah was first to head toward the Promised Land.
For unknown reasons, he instead pulled up short in a place called Haran.
Once Terah had died, God told Abraham to finish the journey. We can never be certain Abraham ultimately finished a task his father was first called by God to complete, but it’s not difficult to read such a possibility between the lines of Terah’s story.
If so, struggling with how much to trust God was a family problem. Abraham’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, certainly continued the tradition themselves.
Really, She’s My Sister!
In Genesis 12, we see Abraham appear weak-kneed in the face of adversity for the first time, and this not long after God had promised him that his descendants would be a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.
Shortly after entering Canaan, a great famine struck, forcing Abraham and all of his relatives to go to Egypt. While there, he became concerned the Egyptians would kill him in order to take his very beautiful wife. His wife was about 65 at the time, but people seem to age at a different rate in these stories, living much longer than we do now.
Rather than trusting in the promises he had recently heard from God, his solution was to lie, telling his wife to say she was his sister. It was sort of a half-lie, or maybe a lie of omission—we learn later in Genesis she actually was his half-sister. Pharaoh himself was the one who wanted her, but he sent her back to Abraham in haste when plagues struck his household and he realized the deceit that had occurred.
Even then, Pharaoh didn’t kill Abraham, but instead sent him away enriched. We can presume Pharaoh feared offending God further. But still, none of Abraham’s plotting seems appropriate for a man of great faith.
My Two Sons
As the narrative of Abraham proceeds, God makes more promises regarding descendants, but Abraham continues to hedge his bets. His unwillingness to let God be fully in control led to the whole Hagar incident. Remember that one?
Now about 75, Sarah figured there was no way she was going to be able to have a baby, so she convinced Abraham to instead make one with her servant, Hagar. Ultimately, Ishmael was born, and if you’ve ever heard the story in Genesis 16, you know that nothing but jealousy and trouble ensued.
Faith as a Process
These stories show us Abraham wasn’t born faithful. God went so far as to speak great promises to him, visibly showing up and sending angels his way. And yet, Abraham often fell short when it came time to demonstrate he believed God would always take care of him and his descendants.
All of those earlier failures bring a particular poignancy to the story where we do see Abraham demonstrate great faith. He finally had the son he had always wanted from Sarah, Isaac, a miracle boy, born to a 90-year-old mother and a 100-year-old father.
Befitting its time, the story is Bronze Age primitive. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham, take your son Isaac and sacrifice him. Lay him on an altar, slaughter him and burn him up. And this time, Abraham, didn’t connive. He took no half measures. Horrible as it seemed, he was ready to do it, stopped only by the intervention of an angel at the very last second. This is the moment when God recognized Abraham as being truly faithful.
Yes, Paul says we have to have faith like Abraham to be part of his spiritual family. As Christians, we have to have faith that the promises made to Abraham ultimately are fulfilled in the world through Jesus Christ. We are to have faith that Christ’s death on the cross is enough. All who believe are incorporated into that spiritual family God will care for forever.
We may not have a powerful faith all at once, however. Remember, Paul knew these stories of Abraham well. He knew the story of Abraham’s faith is a story of falling short in behavior and of trying again. When we doubt or connive, we are very much like Abraham sometimes was well up to age 100.
How do we grow in faith? We try to be more conscious every day of our need to trust God’s plan for the world, a plan being brought to fruition by the work of Christ. We act in faith, trusting God’s scriptural guidance even when our actions may scare us a little, or a lot.
I’m reminded of another story, one of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. After failing as a missionary in North America, he returned to England with his tail between his legs. Despite being an ordained Anglican priest, he realized his faith was somewhere between weak and nonexistent.
He asked a Moravian missionary friend of his, Peter Boehler, if he should give up preaching altogether. Certainly not, Boehler told him. Instead, his advice was, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Most of you don’t literally preach from a pulpit, but if you’re struggling in matters of faith, the principle remains the same. Live each day as if you have faith. Make decisions as if you believe God is on your side, that the cross matters, and that Christ’s kingdom grows stronger each day.
Eventually, you will have a powerful, indefatigable faith, and because you have it, you will show it to others, drawing them to a life of faith, too.
The Featured image is Phillip Medhurst’s “Abraham and the Angels,” circa 1795.