Pilgrims from Paradise:
Today, we are going to take a closer look at Genesis 17. This text contains the details of the covenant God makes with Abram, who, as a result of it, becomes Abraham. We will look into Abraham’s name change, as well as what this chapter has to teach us about the relationship between faith, works, and salvation, in just a moment. Before we do that, let’s review the important elements of Abram’s story to this point, identifying each one’s parallel in the Christian experience.
First, Abram believes God when the Lord promises him a great inheritance of descendants and lands. Just so, the first step in becoming a Christian is that act of faith in which I say, “Yes, I believe” to God’s promise of salvation in Jesus. Because Abram responds to Him in faith, God imputes righteousness to Abram. He does the same thing with the Christian. In both cases, God reckons the believing party to be a willing participant in His righteous existence.
Not surprisingly, God immediately introduces Abraham into that existence. He reveals himself to Abram in the smoking oven and burning torch and gives him a taste of the promise fulfilled. The Lord does the same thing for the Christian believer. In the waters of baptism, God initiates the believer into an incomparably intimate experience with Him, by uniting His own spirit to His human child. As we said, for the Christian believer, and as we shall later see, for Abram, as well, this experience of God is the promise fulfilled.
The next milestone in Abram’s journey is the whole Hagar/Ishmael incident. It is not such a happy one. Yet, it teaches Abram an important lesson. The promises of God cannot be attained through faith alone. As we discussed last time, many Christians live with the frustration of having faith, but never quite feeling fulfilled in their relationship with God. They are always looking for some new preacher, or program, or book, to provide them that missing something that will make Jesus truly real to them. That just testifies to the fact that faith can reveal the goal toward which we travel, but it cannot take us there.
It should be obvious why it cannot. What God really wants with us is a living interconnection, a joining of our beings. As we have been putting it, God wants to dance with us. But just believing in the dance of salvation doesn’t make it happen. We need to know the moves. We need to know our role in the choreography. Then, we have to step it out. If we don’t, the dance doesn’t happen. Salvation is not experienced.
This brings us back to Genesis 17. In this passage, we find God presenting to Abram the choreography of the divine dance He wants His servant to join in with Him. In verses 1-8 we read:
When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am Almighty God. Walk before me, and be blameless, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.’ Then Abram fell on his face and God talked with him, saying, ‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you, and I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you, and your descendants after you. Also, I give to you, and your descendants after you, the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.’
God comes to Abram with the same promise He has made before: “You shall be the father of many nations.” But now, He presents it not as a promise, but as a stipulation in a covenant He desires to make with Abram. A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties, which typically defines how they are going to act toward one another. God lays out His role in the covenant first: “As for Me,” he tells Abram, “I am going to make you the father of many nations.” To underscore His commitment to the covenant, and to assure that Abram is constantly reminded of it, God changes Abram’s name. Instead of Abram, which means, exalted father, the patriarch will now be known as Abraham, meaning father of a multitude. God pledges to preserve Abram’s countless descendants in the land of Canaan as an everlasting inheritance.
In our effort to understand what Abraham’s life teaches us about our Christian experience, there are a couple of points we need to consider here. First of all, we have been saying all along that God’s pledge to Abraham is about something much larger and deeper than just children and lands. Likewise, the salvation promised to Christians is about much more than just being let off the hook for our sins, and enjoying an eternally cushy life in heaven. Here, God says that straight out. “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant,” He assures Abraham. But what exactly is He going to do? “I will be God to you and your descendants after you,” He vows to His servant. This covenant is not, at its heart, about earthly inheritances. It is about a relationship. It is about union with God, the purpose for which we were all created.
Secondly, listen to how God starts this whole conversation. He appears to Abram and says, “I am Almighty God. Walk before Me and be blameless, and I will make My covenant between Me and you.” Be blameless. What does it mean to be blameless before God? It means that the infinitely perfect God finds no fault in you. A great many Christians hold that blamelessness before God is a status we achieve by faith alone. Blameless is just the way God chooses to see us when we put our faith in Christ. That makes us theoretically blameless, but not actually blameless. Notice, however, in this passage, blameless describes the way God wants Abraham to walk before Him. God is not instructing Abraham merely to believe that his Lord sees him as if he were blameless. No, God is commanding him to be blameless, to act blamelessly.
Obviously, one way God is expecting Abraham to walk blamelessly before him is by fulfilling his end of the covenant. God spells that out for Abraham in verses 9-14 of Genesis 17:
And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep My covenant—you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised, and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised—every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner, who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house, and he who is bought with your money, must be circumcised, and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant, and the uncircumcised male child who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.”
Earlier, we heard God say, “As for Me,” to Abraham. Now God says, “As for you, Abraham.” Abraham and every male child in his household must be circumcised. What if someone refuses to make that very painful sacrifice? That person shall be cut off from his people, God affirms. The great promise made to Abraham and his descendants will become null and void for that man. But what if that man happens to be Abraham, the one who believed God, and whose faith God counted as righteousness? What if the patriarch, himself, decides, “Oh, there is no way I can handle that!” Even Abraham, if unwilling to do what God commands, will find himself cut off from the promise.
God is just reiterating here something He has already told Abraham. Earlier, He declared that the covenant He is making with Abraham is dependent upon his living blameless before Him. “Be blameless”, God says to the patriarch, “and I will make My covenant between Me and you.” A person may adamantly argue that God’s promises to us, including the promise of salvation to those who put their faith in Christ, are fulfilled on the basis of our faith alone, but these scriptural lessons from the life of Abraham show us plainly, that is not the case. When God seriously gets down to the real work of accomplishing His promise to Abraham, faith comes face to face with active obedience. If you want all I have promised you to become a reality, God tells Abraham, you have to act on your faith. You have to do what I command you.
When I start talking like this, so many of my Protestant Evangelical friends get all distressed. “You are talking works-religion, Matthew!” they cry. “Salvation comes by faith, not by works.” But when you understand that the purpose of our whole human existence is to become one with God, what I am saying here is not disturbing at all. Salvation is a genuine relationship of loving union with our creator. So how can works, that is, our actions toward God, not be part of the salvation equation? Works are only theologically scary when you are convinced that all salvation is really about, is us human beings getting free from God’s wrath against our sins. Salvation gets boiled down to a matter of either, A): Doing good works in order to make yourself sinless and acceptable to God, which is impossible, or, B): Just trusting in Christ to make you acceptable to God, something that you do by faith alone. If that is the way you see it, works are obviously anti-salvation.
When you finally see that salvation is a freely-entered, genuinely interactive, loving union with God, then our works, our actions in our relationship with God, become fundamental to our salvation. For salvation is not just something we believe in. Salvation is something we do with God. The way we act toward one another defines our relationship. It determines the quality of our connectedness, or whether it even exists at all. May I ask, what is hard to understand about that? My Protestant Evangelical friends just need to see their relationship with God in terms of love, rather than legalities.
There are some things about our works that my Protestant Evangelical friends do understand correctly. In ourselves, we human creatures are not capable of acting rightly toward God. We do not have it in us to dance like God requires us to dance. But remember, to those who reach out to him in faith, to those who repent and are baptized, as St. Peter proclaims in Acts 2:38, God gives His own spirit. And the Spirit of God within us is perfectly capable of dancing with God. We just have to know how to let Him dance in us. How do we do that? As we have pointed out before, the secret is in the sacramental life. All those holy activities, like baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, confessing one’s sins in the presence of a priest, liturgical worship, fasting, observing the feasts and holy seasons of the church year, almsgiving, formal prayer, communion with the saints and all the rest. God, Himself, has designed these sacred dances and has commanded us to join in them. They have been the heart and soul of the Eastern Christian life since the days of the apostles. By these, we do not merely believe in the Spirit of God, we live the Spirit of God.
Unfortunately, this dynamic way of faith was, by and large, lost to the Christian West long ago. Christianity became, primarily, a theological philosophy. lt became something that a person believes in, rather than an experiential encounter with the living Christ, who is simply here. That is why my Evangelical Protestant friends yell, “Works religion!” when I walked about the importance of our actions and our relationship with God. I am describing an experience that is essentially foreign to them. But whether we know it or not, God has come to dance with us. He puts His Spirit within us so that we can dance with Him. But we have to decide if we are going to do it or not. God warns us, just as He warned Abraham, if we choose not to dance, the promise cannot be fulfilled. And if we do decide to dance with Him, we have to do it right. “Walk before me,” God says, “and be blameless.”
This is what God charges us to do, just as he did Abraham. St. Paul puts it in different words, but the meaning is the same. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die. But if, by the Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).”
Everything starts with faith. By faith, we enter into the waters of baptism. By faith, we receive the Holy Spirit, but once we have received the Holy Spirit, God expects it to make a difference in how we act. It must! If we want to be saved, if we want to live in perfect, loving union with God, we actually have to be what God wants us to be. It is not enough just to imagine ourselves as what He wants us to be, or hope that He sees us as He wants us to be.
No, we must dance the divine dance. No longer can we live the sinful life of those who dance without God. Putting to death our sinfulness through the power of the indwelling Spirit is not easy. We may perform poorly at first. Becoming a good dancer takes a lot of time and lots of practice. Thankfully, our compassionate God is thoroughly, lovingly, divinely, and eternally committed to the success of our relationship with Him. He is always by our side to forgive us, teach us, and encourage us.
Yes, real life with God, real love with God, is a lot of work. But it is the only existence to which we are called. We cannot opt out of it. Especially, we cannot embrace some alternative relationship with God that is based on faith alone, for no such relationship exists. Between us and God, there is only the life of covenant.
Next time, we will further examine God’s covenant with Abraham. Then we will, at last, find ourselves on the very doorstep of the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to His faithful servant.