That’s the proper word entering such a heavy subject. Not only heavy but potentially offensive to the structure of some people’s organized religion. The topic of salvation is not a small matter. It has been the center of many important controversies in the church. But this post won’t touch the definition of salvation in that way. Justification, sanctification and glorification are wonderful terms that describe theological important and accurate things. There is no reason to tweak those. But there is a reason to put them in their proper place.
That type of language makes me shiver. Maybe I shouldn’t say that again. We wouldn’t want to put salvation in a corner… DONE. I’m focused now.
Salvation has a very prized place. But it resides below the holiness and glory of God. Recapture that thought. It is the most important theological point. The “holy, holy, holy” of God makes mere dust of human salvation. Thankfully the two are not so set against each other as to cause conflict in the Scriptures or in the active work of God in history. In fact there is no conflict whatsoever. The primacy of God delivers salvation to us and salvation turns us back toward God’s primacy. But occasionally things, people and churches get stuck during the cycle. Let’s look at the Biblical reason why this should not happen.
Genesis 15 is one of the most important passages in all the Scripture. For some it is a very familiar passage. It also happens to be an excellent place to witness the primacy of God. It is here that God begins to throttle up His promise to Eve that her seed will crush the head of the demon that tormented her in the garden. The promise of “a seed” is still to come in the life of Abraham but the introduction to this great patriarch has taken front and center of the Biblical narrative at this point. And it is within this important passage of Scripture that one of the most intriguing replies in the the Bible occurs. This reply will be important to our application so store it away.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:6
God has just finished defining Himself as the most important thing in Abram’s life. He is both Abram’s defense and reward. He is both his protection and his prize. For the rest of the Scriptures these images stand as hallmarks to God’s faithfulness. Or put another way, God is the ultimate goal and end for Abram. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks,
Question: What is the chief end of man?
Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
Somewhere along the way though this often gets lost or turned into mere words. Somehow the primary focus of the gospel becomes salvation. It starts with a focus on deliverance and slumps to “heaven passes.” I wish I was only pointing fingers at the prosperity gospel. But this is deep in the veins of mainline evangelicalism. Whether it stems from the pulpit or pew doesn’t matter, in either case it has led to a generation of misunderstanding justification and sanctification. And this generation fosters a generation that doesn’t know where or why lines need to be drawn at all.
Some evangelicals have been successful at proclaiming that the gospel is about bringing God glory. Without surprise these have been functioning “Calvinists” (I call them TULIPers because many don’t baptize infants). But even some of these have substituted salvation as the primary purpose of the gospel. This has affected a generation of people who think the gospel stops at conversion. Our theological questions become about the “moment” of regeneration, justification and definitive sanctification. These questions have taken front stage with no one asking if our questions might themselves be wrong. Lost is the idea that the gospel might include the kingdom of God present in history. Forgotten is the idea that the gospel is what causes you to be obedient daily to your Lord (I’m thankful my Lutheran brothers & sisters seem to have this down pat). Saying “those without obedience are without the gospel” can garner one dirty looks. But this statement is true. The gospel can and should be tied more directly to the glorification of God through our faithfulness. Salvation must take its proper place behind the weighty and wondrous glory of God. It must find itself resting in the awesome nature of God and not simply beside it.
Does Paul say anything about this? I think he did (because N.T. Wright convinced me…shh I didn’t say that out loud). And I’m going to bypass a lot of passages that might commonly come to mind to prove my point. Instead I’m going to take us to a passage that points back to Genesis 15. A passage that helps us understand why Abram responds the way that he does. I’m taking us to the heart of Paul’s gospel (you know that one that involves judgment? Romans 2:15-16). I’m taking us to the heart of justification.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. – Romans 4:1-4
What’s going on here? Paul is here establishing that justification cannot be from the law. If it was, God could not be the God of all people (Rom 3:29-30). But He is the God of all people. Take note of this. Its really important. Paul is set on showing this truth through the patriarch of the Jewish faith: Abraham. If Abraham was justified, if he acquired God as “his God”, by his works and not by faith then Paul’s whole argument would go out the door. But he wasn’t (Gen 15:6) and Paul stomps out any other option. But there is more. In the LXX passage of Genesis, God promises to be Abram’s μισθός (G3408) or literally his “wage.” And remember, this was a declaration of who God was not what He does. And as one would expect given the shared context of Abraham’s justification, this word appears in Paul’s argument on justification. And still the Scriptures faithfully teach, it must be earned by faith not works. Whatever “wages” one thinks he has earned by works is nothing but a debt to God. But there is a “wage” that is earned by faith. There is a God who becomes our God through faith.
How does this fit within our established context? What Abraham received by faith was not just simple salvation (aka justification, sanctification, etc.). It was God Himself. And when we turn in faith, our reward is God first and salvation second. God as God to all people is the source of salvation. Christ in history is the fulfillment of this (Heb 5:9). We receive salvation because God has given Himself to us. It can be seen then how dangerous it is when the gospel begins to skip God as the reward. This “gospel” begins the slippery slope to stagnant doom of false justification and poor sanctification. Now with this principal point we can address why Abram speaks the way he does to God and what impact it should have on the church today.
Stop. Go back. Re-read that passage from Genesis. God had just finished being awesome.
Why is Abram all worked up about descendants? Isn’t God enough? He is. Of course He is. Abram’s about to have faith that counts to him as righteousness. Abram’s mind and heart are in the right place for this encounter. But Abram laments that He will have no heir to leave an inheritance to (Prov 13:22). Abram is not saying the heir is more important than God. But how valuable can a reward be if it cannot be an inheritance? For Abram, God as reward is most glorified when He is an inheritance for children. Yes I did say that. Abram is satisfied with God. But to say God “is a reward” stipulates that Abram have the ability to offer God as an inheritance to his children. This concept shouldn’t be too frightening since God is quite directly the inheritance of the Levites instead of a portion of the promised land (Num 18:20; Josh 13:33).
But what is God’s response to Abram? Not one of anger but “so shall your offspring be.” Let me interpret, “I am and will be for all your descendants an exceedingly great reward.” Lest this be seen as a jump, Genesis 17 picks back up on this covenant theme with emphatic purpose. God’s covenant will be with Abraham (Gen 17:2) but it will also be to each offspring (Gen 17:7). And so God makes that covenant. It is His will to make this covenant with each descendant. And it is God who moves in history to make that precious covenant with each of Abraham’s offspring and to be “their God” (Gen 17:7-8). That is the gospel. God gives Himself to be our God. That is Pauline justification. The giving of God is the kernel of salvation. It is gained by faith and not of works lest any man should boast. It is the primacy of God above the salvation of “sins forgiven” (remember the two are not set against each other). It is the focus of God’s covenant to Abraham.
Well it should be obvious where this is headed in application. Abram was concerned about his children being the recipients of God being “their God.” He was confident in God as an inheritance to his children. Does the modern church affirm this in their gospel presentation? Or does the exclusion of children testify against our gospel? It is my opinion that the denial of covenant membership to children is the byproduct of faulty exaltation of salvation over God. God is the gospel. He is our reward. And as our reward, He is a reward promised to our children.
To deny our children covenant status is to actually revoke the fulfillment of the gospel. Yet somehow one is to make it up only later by teaching them “Jesus died for your sins”? This is not Biblical and it is not God honoring. Jesus did die for their sins. But before that God has promised Himself to them. That’s why He sent Jesus. God has promised Himself to our children. He promised Himself to our children when He promised Himself to us.
Can we be Biblical and ask of God offspring that He may bless? Can we ask Him to seek out our generations and be God to them? And do we realize that we can only ask these things because He has already promised them to us? May God find us like Abraham desperate to pass God’s covenantal faithfulness to us as an inheritance to our children and their children.