Pilgrims from Paradise:
In the last podcast, we began looking at the covenant God presents to Abraham in Genesis 17. In this passage, we find God fleshing out the particulars in His relationship with His servant. Abraham’s responsibilities when it comes to the promise God has made to him, are made clear. From Abraham’s experience in Genesis 16, we learned that faith alone cannot bring about the fulfillment of God’s promises to us, whether we are talking about His promise of heirs and lands to Abraham, or His promise of salvation to those who, by faith, receive Jesus Christ. Faith is the beginning of the journey, but obedience is the path.
Last time, we saw that obedience demands that we actively struggle against anything within us that is contrary to God’s purposes for us. That purpose, as we should well know by now, is the joining of our lives to God in perfect, loving union. As Jesus tells us, we are to become one with God, and one with each other, in the same way that He and His father are one (John 17:21-23). This relationship is salvation.
I just finished perusing the text of a debate between two Protestant theologians over the business of imputed righteousness. The intricate theological notions were flying—definitions of justification and sanctification and the forensic nature of salvation. Truthfully, I found it overwhelmingly suffocating, which is a bit odd, since I once rejoiced to live in that cold, objective, rationalistic theological world.
How wonderful it is to know, and more importantly, to experience, salvation that is not some intricate theological contract with God that takes several divinity degrees to even begin to understand. Salvation is simply our love relationship with God. It is a relationship with a real, live person. Just as is the case with any person we love, our relationship with God is something that we do with Him. Our union with God is defined by our actions toward Him, and His actions toward us.
As we have been saying, salvation is a dance we do with God. It is not some imagined, theologically-defined spiritual status with God, in which we simply believe, and entering into the dance with God requires us to do what God instructs us. We saw that last time. God gives the covenant of circumcision to Abraham. Then He warns the patriarch that anyone who will not obey His commandment will have no part in the promise. So Abraham might believe God, and Abraham could have God impute righteousness to him, but if Abraham were to decide not to be circumcised, all that came before, the believing in God, the being accounted righteous by God, would be all for naught.
From Genesis 16 onward, we see Abraham going through a series of challenges in which he is faced with a single choice. Do I do what God says? Abraham is asked to sacrifice his physical flesh in circumcision, but he is also asked to sacrifice his common sense, his own personal convictions and desires, and even, the very thing that God has promised him. Why does God demand all this from Abraham? It is because of what He ultimately wants to accomplish with him. He is not out to make Abraham obedient just for obedience’ sake. No, God commands obedience from Abraham, and from us, for one reason only. It is through obedience to Him that we come to truly know God.
God has taken up residence in us through the Holy Spirit. If we will allow Him, the Spirit will live the life of God in us. We will come to know God, then, as He expressed Himself in us. There can be no more profound experience of another’s life than to become that life. To be aware of that other life, breathing, moving, thinking, speaking and loving in us. But we are free creatures. Even though we have faith, and even though the Spirit of God dwells within us, we still have the choice to let Him live in us, or to suppress him. We can keep Him hidden and quiet, buried beneath the selfish passions of our old, dead existence.
Christ has completely freed us from that old life. He has buried it. But we can dig it up again and live in it, if we choose. We can enslave ourselves to it. Only obedience frees us from those chains that we bind around ourselves. Faith can see God. It is the eyes of salvation, but obedience is salvation’s arms and legs. Obedience alone touches God’s face and enters His heart. Obedience alone makes us one with Him.
Let’s get back to Abraham and his journey of self-denying obedience toward the fulfillment of God’s promise. We pick things up in Genesis 17:15-19—
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai, your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name, and I will bless her, and also give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations. Kings of peoples shall be from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is 100 years old, and shall Sarah who is 90 years old bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before you.” Then God said, “No, Sarah, your wife, shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.”
For the first time here, God tells Abraham that Sarai is to be the mother of the child of promise. The Lord changes her name, just as he did Abraham’s. Sarai means, “my princess.” Sarah, on the other hand, means “a princess of multitudes.” Before, Sarah was just Abraham’s personal princess. Now, countless descendants will look to her as the exalted princess of their many nations. She will bear the child of promise, who will be called Isaac.
Even with his faith, and despite all that he has been through, Abraham still finds this hard to accept. Sarah is just too old. The whole suggestion is crazy. Plus, he has already got a son, and I think it is clear that Abraham really loves him. Why can’t it just be Ishmael, Lord, he laments? But God stops him short. No, Abraham, it is not going to be that way. Abraham has to set aside every resistance, every thought that smacks of, “Oh God, what you are demanding is futile.” Or, “But God, it would be so much better and easier this way.” Instead, Abraham must swallow his personal convictions and his common sense, and obediently submit to God.
Once more, a choice is before him. Abraham could decide that this is senseless, and that there is a better way. That is what he seems to be feeling. Oh, he could still preserve his faith in the promise. The great patriarch could still believe that God is going to make him the father of many nations, but what if he were just to put his foot down and choose not to have relations with Sarah? Maybe that would force God into taking a more sensible route to the promise. After all, Christian people do that sort of thing with God from time to time, and I say that from unfortunate personal experience. If Abraham were to act that way, and especially if he were to continue to act that way toward God, what would happen to the promise? It would never be fulfilled. Without obedience, Abraham’s faith would be to no avail.
Abraham, however, yields to God, and remains obedient. A year later, Isaac is born. It is a happy event. But it is soon followed by another difficult moment for Abraham. Once again, his obedience, not his faith, is tested. We read in Genesis 20:9-14 —
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son,’ namely, with Isaac. And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not let it be displeasing in your site because of the lad, or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice. For in Isaac, your seed shall be called. Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water, and putting it on her shoulder, he gave it and the boy to Hagar, and sent her away.
It is obvious that Abraham has great love for his first son, Ishmael. When Sarah demands that he banish Hagar and Ishmael, he is sorely displeased. And I am sure, he is expecting that when God steps in, He will do what He did 14 years earlier. He will chastise Hagar, and restore order between her mistress and her, and then He will let her and her son stay in the camp. I can only imagine how painfully shocking it is for Abraham when God says, “No, Abraham, send them away for good, and don’t be upset about it.” Both seem to be tall orders for the old patriarch, yet once again, he sets aside his own will, his own desires, and does what God commands him.
In these essays, we have only touched on some of the tests Abraham faces as God moves him toward the fulfillment of His promise. There are others recorded here in Genesis, and you can read them for yourself. But these are just the big ones, so to speak. We know nothing of the day in, day out, conflicts in which Abraham had to obediently put God first, and himself last. One thing we can see plainly in the course of Abraham’s pact with his God, the tests of obedience get harder. The first one we talked about was easy. Abraham just had to cut up some animals in order to see God revealed. Circumcision was little tougher, but still, it was just the sacrifice of some flesh. Now, we have seen him swallow his pride, and deny his own cherished convictions. Obedience costs him his relationship with his much-beloved son. It is difficult to imagine that it is just going to get harder, but it is.
Why does God demand so much obedience from Abraham? Why does He demand so much from us believers in Christ, when He commands us to put to death the sinful pleasures of this bodily life through the power of the Holy Spirit, as we read in Romans 8:13? Is He just trying to make us sweat? Is He just trying to make us hurt? Is this part of some program He has for exacting satisfaction from us human n’er-do-wells who have offended Him so much? No, not at all. To understand God’s action toward us, to the extent that is it possible for us, we have to remember what Jesus told us in John 17:21-23. Everything God does with us has a single objective—to make us one with Him in the same way that the father and Son are one.
That sort of relationship with God is not possible until we give ourselves to God unselfishly. We could never achieve oneness with God if we simply said, “Okay God, here is what I am going to offer You in our relationship.” Even if it were possible to deal with God on such terms, the most that could lead to would be a sort of contractual getting along with God. But God is not content just to get along with us, although when you think about it, that is exactly the message that comes across in Western teachings about salvation. Instead, God wants to be one with us. To be one with Him requires that we give up ourselves and become Him. That can only happen if God tells us exactly how to do it, and gives us His Spirit to indwell us and empower us.
He has done that, for all of us who repent and are baptized. But we still must decide to let the Spirit have His way in us. The moment we do that, the moment we choose to obey, God reveals Himself in us. The Spirit of God shines through our actions. What happens to us? We experience God as we have never encountered Him before. Oh, it may not produce some drastic and monumental step in our growth toward oneness. Yet, in every act of obedience, no matter how great or small, something of our selfish lives fades away, and something more of God takes hold in us.
The goal of the Christian life is to follow this path of obedience until all that stifles the Holy Spirit in us, everything that obscures His light, and prevents Him from using our minds and bodies to express Himself perfectly to the world, disappears. We are completely transformed and made one with the Holy God. That transformation typically takes a lifetime. What is more, the closer we come to it, the harder the obedience becomes.
Yet the paradoxical thing is that for those who have obeyed God at each step along the way, just as Abraham did, obedience becomes more willing, and more immediate, as the demands grow more difficult. Why? Each time we obey Him, our awareness of the living God acting in us becomes more vivid. Eventually, the beauty of His living presence becomes all-consuming. It becomes all we desire. And so, we long for absolutely every opportunity to deny ourselves and to obey Him, regardless of the cost.
Next time, we shall see this truth revealed in God’s loving servant, Abraham, as we follow him to Mount Moriah.