Pilgrims from Paradise:
This week we turn our attention to the book of Genesis, and the story of the patriarch, Abraham. We are going to begin to investigate how the promise God makes to Abraham, the promise that he will be the father of many nations, comes to its fulfillment. As we have already discussed, the scriptures tell us that when God makes this pledge to Abraham, Abraham believes him, and God accounts Abraham’s active faith as righteousness.
Of course, we are talking about Abraham, because his experience with God is presented by St. Paul in the book of Romans as an illustration of Christian salvation. On the basis of his faith, Abraham is promised a numberless host of descendants. Similarly, believers in Christ, for their act of faith, receive the promise of salvation. The great theological question here, one which is at the heart of the East/West debate about the workings of salvation, is this: Does the fulfillment of the divine promise in each of these cases, that is, the promise of descendants to Abraham, and the promise of salvations to Christians, come to the respective recipients, as a result of their faith alone? Does that which is promised come to pass solely because one puts total confidence in it?
Of course, that is exactly what so many in the Christian West believe and teach. They hold that when God imputes righteousness to those who rely fully on the saving work of Jesus Christ, He gives them salvation, full and complete. Nothing beyond that active faith is required or demanded for salvation to be granted.
But is that really the way it is? When God imputes righteousness to those who accept Christ’s promise, is salvation then an accomplished fact? Are they not required to do anything? Well, why don’t we allow the scriptures to give us the answer to that question? Let us take a look at Abraham’s relationship with God, and his relationship to the promise God made to him. What we are going to find is that God’s imputing righteousness to Abraham on account of his faith, is just the beginning of a very lengthy process leading to the fulfillment of the promise, and along the way, much more than faith alone will be required of Abraham.
As we uncover these truths about the relationship between faith and effort in Abraham’s life, we will see their parallels to the Christian life. Just as for Abraham, the imputing of righteousness that comes with a believer’s profession of Christ is only the beginning of the promise. To embrace the full reality of salvation, to actually receive the eternal life offered us in Christ, takes much more than belief alone.
We pick up the story of Abraham in the 15th chapter of the book of Genesis. One day, Abraham has an encounter with God:
After these things, the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.’ But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what will You give me, seeing that I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezar of Damascus?’ Then Abram said, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring, indeed one born in my house is my heir.’ And behold, the Word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:1-6).
The first important thing we should note, here, is that when God makes this promise to Abraham, he is not yet Abraham. He is still just Abram, the son of Tara, a descendant of Noah’s son, Shem. A native of Ur in the land of the Chaldeans, he has followed the voice of God into the land of Canaan.
One day, as we shall discover later, he is going to receive a new name from God—Abraham. It is a name that reflects the promise God makes to him, for Abram means exalted father, but Abraham, on the other hand, means father of a multitude. What is important for us to recognize at this point in our discussion is that Abram’s new name, the name that will identify him to everyone as the recipient of God’s promise, is not given to him just because he believes God. The new name comes later, and it is not tied to something God asks Abram to believe, but to something God commands Abram to do.
But I am getting ahead of things here. As the story opens, God is comforting Abram. “Don’t worry,” the Lord tells his servant, “I’ll take care of you. I’ll be your reward.” Abram’s life to this point has been all about picking up and moving, here and there, obediently responding to God’s directives. So when God starts talking about reward, the ever-wandering patriarch at last asks, “Okay God, just what are you going to give me?”
To correctly understand the events that will transpire later in Abram’s life, we need to see that Abram is not quite hearing God. Abram asks God to tell him what he is going to receive, but God has already told him what He wants to give His loyal servant. “I will be your reward,” He informs Abram. What God has just promised Abram is Himself. God wants to bestow on Abram that which He intends to give to all His human children, including Christian believers. It is the gift and calling that represents God’s supreme desire for all of us.
When I ask Christian believers, what is God’s ultimate purpose when it comes to His relationship with us, I get various answers. Some say it is that we be saved, or that we love God. Others tell me that God’s highest aim for us is that we be followers of Christ, and guide our lives with the slogan, What would Jesus do? But none of these represents God’s ultimate intention for us. Jesus expresses that desire most beautifully in the 17th chapter of the gospel of St. John. In verses 20-23 we read:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me, and the glory which you gave Me, I have given them, that they may be one, just as We are one—I in them, and You in Me, that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them, as You have loved Me. (John 17:20-23)
To be one with God—just how one are we to be with Him? Incredible as it sounds, Jesus says we are to be one with God, in the same way that He and His father are one. How one are the Father and the Son? They are so unified that their beings interpenetrate one another’s. That is why Jesus can tell his disciples that anyone who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9). St. Paul informs us that one who truly knows Christ ceases to exist and becomes Christ. It is no longer I who live, St. Paul proclaims, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20).
So God’s desire and His relationship with Abram is the same as His desire and His relationship with believers in Christ. It is what He wants for all human beings who have ever existed. The creator wants to give Himself to us and draw us into His own holy and righteous existence, but He needs a place to start. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose, of their own free will, to separate themselves from God. In so doing, they plunged us, their descendants, into a state of existence removed from our maker. And we are powerless to restore ourselves to a life-giving relationship with God. Of course, God does have the power to reconcile us to Himself. But He respects our free will. He will not force us into intimate unity with Him, into that holy oneness Jesus prayed we would come to know with the Godhead and with each other. We must give Him permission so that He can begin the process of joining us to Himself.
In His dealings with Abram here, we see just how committed the loving God is to making that happen. You see, Abram does not even understand exactly what God wants to do. When God speaks of reward, Abram assumes there is some thing God wants to give to him. Abram does not get that God is out to make him one with Him. But in His lovingkindness, God meets Abraham where he is. The patriarch is deeply troubled over not having an heir of his own flesh and blood. So, God uses that concern to open a door into the life of Abram that will eventually permit God to accomplish what He really desires with His servant. It is as if God says, “So, Abram, you are worried about having heirs? Okay then, have a look at the stars. Count them. That is how many descendants you are going to have.” God now definitely has Abram’s attention, but He has also presented him with a tremendous challenge. Certainly, at this point in his life, Abram has lived a great adventure with God. He has left family and homeland to follow God into a foreign place. He has fought great battles and made personal sacrifices along the way. You can read all about those, if you like, in some earlier chapters in Genesis. But Abram here, confronts a test more difficult than any of those other trials. For now, for the first time, God asks him to believe the impossible.
You see, if you thumb back a few chapters in Genesis, you will find that God has told Abram before that he will have many descendants, but at this point in Abram’s life, God’s promise of a blood heir is entirely unimaginable. Abram is an old man. Sarai, his wife, is far beyond childbearing age. But obviously, in the course of everything he has experienced since he left Ur, Abram has developed some trust in God. I am sure there are doubts in his mind as he looks at his old body and thinks about his old wife, but in this life-altering movement, the voice of God speaks louder to Abram than the facts. Deep in his heart, Abram says, “Yes. It shall be exactly as God says it shall be. Out of my own loins shall come this vast host.”
God hears Abram’s heart and smiles. Abram has no idea what he has just done. At this point, he has not the foggiest notion what God really intends for him. But for now, Abram has furnished his loving God with what He needs. Abram has said, “Yes, of my own free will, I choose to recognize You as the God of the impossible. I trust you beyond all reasonable hope, to do what You have promised.” In that moment, the creator imputes righteousness to Abram.
From the last podcast, we know that means that God reckons Abram to be a willing participant in the righteous life of his creator. The wandering patriarch has, by his faith, broken the bonds that his ancestors Adam and Eve had forged for him. By mistrusting God, and refusing to believe Him, they had separated themselves and all of their descendants from him, but Abram now refuses to follow in their footsteps. God provides him the opportunity to trust the One who is capable of the impossible. In choosing to believe God, that is, by seeing himself through the eyes of God, rather than through the eyes of his perfectly logical and sensible doubt, Abram enters into a new spiritual realm.
But the fulfillment of the promise is still a long way off. God’s imputing righteousness to Abram is only the necessary beginning point. A great drama remains to be played out, as Abram becomes Abraham and learns little by little what God’s real promise to him is. We will continue Abram’s story and begin to apply its lessons to the whole business of Christian salvation next time.