The Belief of Abraham – the Model Calling for us to Follow

In my last post we saw that Abraham obtained that indispensable status of being righteous simply by believing. This was declared in the little sentence:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

Belief is not about the existence of God

I now want to unpack what it means that Abraham ‘believed’. Many people I talk to think that ‘believing’ means believing in the existence of God. How many times have I heard “Oh I believe in God” – meaning “I believe that God exists”. Somehow we seem to think that God is impressed and delighted when we affirm His existence. But in fact the Bible is far more muted on that. It states that:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:19)

According to the Bible, simply believing that God exists puts us in the same league as the Devil. I will leave it to you to judge for yourself how much assurance you want to take from that. Now it is true that Abraham believed in God’s existence, but that is not at all the point in this encounter. The reality facing Abraham was that he had no son and he was in his 80’s. In this exchange, God, as he had done several times before, had just finished promising Abraham that He would give him one. It was that promise which thrust Abraham unto a Crossroads of Decision. His choice was not about believing in the existence of God or not, but whether he would believe that particular promise that this God had given him – or not. And in that decision Abraham chose to believe. He trusted that God would fulfill that promise to him. Belief, in this account, is synonymous with trust. Abraham chose to trust God in this matter that was very important to him – which solely by looking on the surface of things did not look very hopeful.

So Abraham chose to believe that promise of a son. In return God gave him something in addition to the promise. He gave him – the word used is ‘credited’ – righteousness. In the end Abraham got both the fulfilled promise (a son from whom a great nation would come) with righteousness almost seemingly thrown in as a side-thought.

Righteousness – not from our merit or effort

I have had the privilege to hear from people of many different religions and philosophies. What I find quite striking is that though their theologies can vary quite substantially, virtually everyone I talk to or read from operates on the assumption that righteousness is obtained through merit, or earned by some specific efforts, ascetic denials or ‘good’ behaviour. We reason that doing more good things than bad things, or doing a certain kind or amount of religious ‘goodness’ allows us to deserve, earn or merit righteousness. I have seen this logic expressed amongst Buddhist friends in Thailand, Hindus in India, Muslims across the Muslim world, in Catholics, Protestants, and even those who believe simply in ‘a Higher Power’ – all of us around the world naturally live by this credo. I remember once interviewing theology students leaving a seminary and being informed by them that it was the balance between our merits and sins that determined our righteousness.

But Abraham did not ‘earn’ righteousness; it was ‘credited’ to him. So what is the difference? Well, if something is ‘earned’ you worked for it – you deserve it. It is like receiving wages for the work you do. But when something is credited to you, it is given to you. Like any gift freely given it is not earned or merited, but simply received.

This account of Abraham overturns the common understanding that we have about righteousness either by thinking that it is a belief in God’s existence, or it is obtained by doing enough sufficiently good or religious activities. This is not the way Abraham took. He simply chose to believe the promise extended to him.

Abraham’s Belief: He bet his life on it

Choosing to believe in this promise of a son was perhaps simple but it definitely was not easy.  Abraham could easily have disregarded the promise by objecting that if God really had the desire as well as the power to grant him a son then He should have already done so. Because at this point in his life, Abraham and Sarah (his wife) were old – well past the age of getting children. Remember when he was first promised a ‘Great Nation’ that he was already 75 years old. In response to that he left his home country and went to Canaan.  Many years  passed since then so Abraham and Sarah  grew very old and they still did not even have one child – let alone a nation! “Why has  God not already given us a son if he could have done so”? he would have wondered. In other words, he believed the promise of a coming son even though he probably had unanswered questions about the promise. He believed the promise because he trusted God who gave the promise – even though he did not understand everything about the promise, nor had he figured out all that God had in mind with it.

Believing the promise demanded active waiting. His whole life was, in a sense, interrupted while he was living in tents in the Promised Land of Canaan waiting (still many years) for the coming of the promised son. It would have been much easier to rationalize away the promise and return home to civilization in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) that he had left many years earlier, and where his brother and family still lived. Abraham had to live with the difficulties of continuing to believe the promise – each and every day – for the many years while he waited for the promise to be realized. His trust in the promise was so great that it took priority over normal goals in life – security, comfort and well-being. In a real sense, living in anticipation of the promise meant dying to the normal goals of life. Believing the promise showed both his trust in, and love for, God. He could have chosen not to believe and returned back to the land he came from (modern-day Iraq). He could have disregarded the promise while still believing in the existence of God and still continuing in his prayers and helping other people. But then he would have only maintained his religion but not been credited ‘righteousness’.

Thus believing the promise went far beyond just mental assent to it. Abraham had to stake his life, reputation, safety, actions in the present and hopes for the future on this promise because he believed he was actively and obediently waiting. This was the Way of Abraham.

Abraham: The Pattern for us – to also believe Promises

The rest of the Bible treats this encounter as a Sign for us.  Abraham’s belief in the promise from God, and the ensuing credit of righteousness, is a pattern for us to follow. The whole of the Gospel is founded on promises that God gives to each and every one of us. These promises are not the same as the specific promise to Abraham of a son. But they are promises nonetheless, and like the promise to Abraham these promises bring us to the crossroads of a decision. Do we believe (i.e. trust) these promises, or not?

What promises are we talking about? Here are a few

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:12-13)

 

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:24-25)

 

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:9-10)

 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

 

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

I could go on and list some more. But the point is that these are promises and they are given either by Jesus or in his name – to you and to me. Like Abraham we can choose to believe these promises – or not. Like Abraham, believing these promises will engage and require your entire life. You will have to make your normal life goals and aspirations subservient to these promises. Mental assent to these promises is not the offer that the Gospel is putting on your table. Neither is belief in the existence of God, or valiant and well-intentioned efforts to earn merit. If you believe these promises such that you trust your life with them you also will be credited righteousness. And they will start you on the same journey of faith that Abraham embarked on.  This journey has God paying the price, while you and I are credited life.  This was all foreseen in the subsequent Sacrifice of Abraham.

Though Abraham lived in a different era, with different customs and different rituals, he is a model to us. The promise to Abraham that was literally, historically and verifiably fulfilled stands as a beacon heralding that the same kind of offer is made to us in Jesus.

That Promise to Abraham … Overlooked but Everlasting

Tonight as I write this post the world sits on the eve of the largest one-day sporting event ever. Everyone’s attention is being drawn to the Super Bowl on Sunday and the drama that will be ours given that the Super Bowl features two brothers who are coaching the opposing teams. This Super Bowl will be a family feud! And then there is the anticipation of the Beyonce half-time show.  So much excitement abuzz in the air.

It is amazing to think that with all the attention focused on it now, the Super Bowl will be largely forgotten in just six months. What the world is taking great note of now will quickly be forgotten as we move on to other amusements, entertainment or political events. The rage one day quickly becomes ancient history the next.  Chances are, when you read this you won’t even know which Super Bowl or which teams are the rage just now.

We saw in our last post that this same pattern was true in the really ancient history of Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that captured the imagination of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes. I pointed out the obvious, but usually overlooked fact, that the promise given to Abraham about 4000 years ago has literally, historically and verifiably come true. This should give us reason to recognize that at the very least this Promise to Abraham provides an opening case for the existence of the God of the Bible. The story of Abraham continues with a few further encounters with this Promise-Making God of the Bible.  Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learn much more – even to the point of seeing this promise move from the realm of history to that of The Everlasting.  The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like the upcoming Super Bowl, it is one of an overlooked man setting a foundation to understand the gaining of eternity, so we’d better take note.

Abraham’s Complaint

Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise recorded in Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had moved to Canaan (the Promised Land) in what is today Israel in obedience to that promise. Other memorable events then occurred in his life except the one that he anticipated – the birth of the son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we pick up the account with Abraham’s complaint:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.

I am your shield,

your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

 

God’s Promise

Abraham had been camping out in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 80 years old. He complains that God was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continues with:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

So in their exchange God basically reiterates His initial Promise by declaring that he would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.

Abraham’s Response: Everlasting Effect

The ball was now back in Abraham’s court. How would he respond to this reiterated Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It lays the foundation to understand the Gospel and reveals the way to The Everlasting. It says:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is probably easier to unpack this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, thus it would read:

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no Super Bowl fanfare and so we are apt to miss it. But it is truly significant – and it contains the seeds of The Everlasting. Why? Because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need to get right standing before God.

Reviewing our Problem: Corruption

From God’s point-of-view, though we were made in the image of God something happened that corrupted that image. So that now the Biblical charge is that

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

The visual images that have helped me better understand this were the corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings saga as well as the ‘missing’ the mark analogy used in the Bible. How this corruption occurred is explained in the account of Adam which I looked at here. The bottom line of all this is that we find ourselves separated from a Righteous God because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has taken and launched us into a Brave New World of autonomy from God and a propensity to not do good – reaping futility and death in its wake. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours.

In fact our corruption has made us rather repulsive to God in the same way that the decaying body of a dead rat would be repulsive to us. We would not want to go near such a thing. The sight and stench would impel us to keep our distance. We are separated from the Maker of Life and so the words of Isaiah come true

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Abraham and Righteousness

But here in the conversation between Abraham and God we find, slipped in so unobtrusively that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that God accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness? Once again, so unassumingly that we are in danger of missing the point, it simply says of Abraham that he ‘believed’. That’s it?! We have this insurmountable obstacle of being corrupt ‘orcs’ and so the natural, and dare I say universal, tendency of mankind down the ages is to look for sophisticated and difficult religions, efforts, ethics, teachings etc., – illustrated before our very eyes with the efforts of the devotees of the Mela Kumbh festival – to gain righteousness. But this man, Abraham, gained that prized righteousness simply by ‘believing’.

But what does that mean?  And what does this have to do with your righteousness and mine?  Everything!  We take it up in our next post.