I am currently going through the book of Romans with my children. Stop there a moment. Going through the book of Romans with children? That’s a pretty scary thought, isn’t it? There are enough complex arguments in the epistle to leave me with a headache, but trying to convey these headache-inducing thoughts to my 9,7,5,3 and 2-year-olds without giving them a headache too is a daunting task.
Anyway, we came to the bit in chapter 4 about Abraham, and I was struck by how full-fat Abraham’s faith was, and how in our own times much of the Christian world has only two thirds of this full-fatness, diluting the final third of his faith to the consistency of some really watery skimmed milk. What do I mean by that?
Paul’s argument in chapter 4 is basically that righteousness is not something we obtain by doing a bunch of things and nor is it inherited because of our family connections (circumcision). Rather, the thing that makes us right with God, is believing Him. That’s it! Not believing in God, but believing God. That is, believing what he said and trusting that what he said will come to pass, will actually come to pass.
But if we delve further into the case of Abraham, we find that there was a three-fold application to this:
Proposition # 1: He was called upon to believe that an old man – one as good as dead as Paul says – who had gone through nearly a hundred years and still didn’t have a child, was going to have one.
Proposition # 2: He was called upon to believe that a woman who had never borne children and was way past childbearing age, was going to have a child.
Proposition # 3: He was called upon to believe that through this child, who would come from a “dead” man and a barren woman, the whole of the Earth would be redeemed.
This is another stop and pause moment. A Selah. We can all too easily skip over what was really going on here without giving it the thought that it deserves, but let’s just consider it for a moment and let it take our breath away. Put yourselves in Abraham’s shoes:
Abraham was a barren man living with a barren wife in a barren world. There was no suggestion before God spoke to him that he would have a child. Not just a tiny chance of it happening, but none whatsoever. And likewise with Sarah. Could she have a child? Not a chance. Then what of the world? Was there anything in the world that suggested that this barren, heathen place would one day be redeemed and reconciled to God? Again, none whatever.
So this was no light thing that Abraham was called upon to believe. On the contrary, he was given three impossible promises and told to believe them all. And that is exactly what he did. He believed that God would give him a child. He believed it would be through Sarah. And he believed that through this child, somehow God was going to do something that would bring about the reconciling of the Earth to himself. All three promises were staggeringly implausible, yet Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
Paul then goes on to say that there is a connection between what Abraham believed and what we believe. Just as Abraham believed God and it was accounted unto him for righteousness, so if we believe on him who raised Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead, it is accounted to us for righteousness (Romans 4:24).
But there are more parallels than this if we drill down a little further. Remember that Abraham believed three impossible things: that a child could come from a “dead” man; that a child could come from an old and barren woman; and that through that child, all the families and nations of the Earth would be blessed.
What are the parallels? Well we are called upon to believe that a barren woman – a virgin in the case of Mary – would conceive. And she did. We are called upon to believe that through a dead man, life would then be given. And Jesus died and was buried and rose the third day. We are called upon to believe that through this child of promise, the whole world would be redeemed. And Jesus sits upon the throne of God and is reconciling the world to Himself.
Whoa there!!! Is that third proposition really part of the promise too? You bet. What we are doing in the modern era is believing the first two promises, but not fully the third. It is not that we don’t believe that God will bless the nations as he promised Abraham, but rather that this blessing is so diluted as to make it virtually unrecognisable when compared to what was actually promised to Abraham.
“Yes,” we say, “The nations are blessed and so there are people saved here in this country and there in that country.” But is that really all that was promised to Abraham? Hardly. Go and read Genesis 15:1-6 and 22:15-18 and tell me that that was all Abraham would have understood. Given that he was standing in a barren and ungodly world, then being told to look up to the stars and see that his progeny would be something like them in number, wouldn’t he have understood this to mean something more than a world where a few people here and there would be saved? Would he not rather have understood this to mean that God intended to redeem the whole world, covering it with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas?
Why do we dilute this promise of God, or at best try and relegate it to the eternal realm? We do it mainly because instead of looking to the one seated at the right hand of God, who will deliver the kingdom up to God the Father “after he has put down all rule and all authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24), we instead look around at the world and say, “it’s barren and it’s bad, and it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Well the news is that Abraham lived in a world a hundred times more heathen than the times we are living in. How many believers in YHWH were around in his day? Count them on one hand if you will. If anyone had an excuse for looking around and saying, “God, I believe that you can give Sarah and I a child, but this bit about blessing all the families and nations of the world – I’m sorry, but I just can’t see it,” – it was Abraham. “Take a look around,” he could have said, “everywhere you look there is heathen idolatry and immorality. How about we just relegate the promise to the eternal realm where the handful of people you save can be said to fulfil the promise.”
But Abraham didn’t do this. Instead, he looked towards God and effectively said, “I am an old dead man, married to an old barren woman, in a hostile and ungodly world. Yet I believe you when you say you will give a child and through that child the world will be transformed.”
We baulk at what Abraham really understood God’s words to mean, relegating it to heaven or applying it in a watered-down way to this Earth. This doesn’t affect our standing before God. We are made righteous by believing that God the Father raised up Jesus Christ – the eternal son of God, born of a virgin – from the dead. What it does do, though, is it makes us as a people largely ineffectual in the world, and is perhaps the main reason why we find ourselves living in a world where two men can “marry” each other.
We need to put the full-fatness back into our understanding of the promise made to Abraham. We need to believe what he believed: that through the ultimate child of promise – Jesus Christ – God is reconciling the whole world to himself and that he will succeed in doing this. Skimmed-milk Abrahamism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe the world is to just get worse and worse, it will continue to get worse and worse. It won’t hasten the end. It just means that God will raise up a generation of full-fat Abrahamists after us.
Don’t stagger at this. Believing that God will redeem the whole world before the end of time is no more staggering than believing that a virgin can conceive or that a dead man can come back to life. Yes things are getting worse at the moment, but on the other hand there are undoubtedly more Christians on planet Earth right now than at any other time in history. Certainly more than in Abraham’s day. Yet he staggered not through unbelief at the thought that God, through his seed (Isaac and ultimately Jesus), would redeem the world. It is time we ceased to stagger at this as well and start believing what Abraham believed. That would be a self-fulfilling prophesy too.