The Faith Of Abraham
Re-Translated In December 1999
1. "For we realize that the justification of a person is not based on works of the law, but it is based on faith," (verse twenty-eight). Paul has so far been arguing along this topic. Why is it based on faith and not on the works of the law? And, what is faith in the first place? These are surely major questions that concern us as well. Even as Paul goes into chapter four he is still expending words on this matter going into great detail. Frankly speaking, I feel like it is "because it is hard to understand." It's not the kind of thing that makes for a simple explanation and that anyone could understand. On the one hand, people tend to not truly accept the phrase "not based on works" and lean toward a very self-centered understanding of the phrase "based on faith." It was surely no different for those in Paul's time or for us. Therefore, Paul's giving an argument in detail like this is something we are to be thankful for. We are reading today in verse thirteen and on passed it. Through Paul's exposition of the Abraham narrative may the Lord grant us true insight into the meaning of "the justification of a person is not based on works but on faith."
Promise And Faith
2. With that, let's begin reading from verse thirteen to verse seventeen.
"God promised Abraham and his descendants that he would let them inherit the world and that promise was not made based on the law, but was made based on the righteousness which comes according to faith. If he who relies on the law inherits the world, faith would already be meaningless and the promise would be abolished. In reality, the law is an invitation to wrath, [and] where there is no law there is no transgression. Consequently, one becomes an inheritor of the world by faith indeed. By grace all of Abraham's descendants, and not just those who merely rely on the law, but even those who follow his faith, will definitely take part in the promise. He is the father of all of us. It is written that 'I established you as the father of many peoples.' Abraham believed that God gives life to the dead and calls into existence what did not exist, and he became our father in the sight of God," (verses thirteen through seventeen).
3. The promise "to let [them] inherit the world" does not appear in the text of the Old Testament story in exactly those words. We should probably say that this phrase summarized the words from the promise God had repeated to Abraham. The words of the promise first came to Abraham in Genesis twelve. "Leave the home town you were born in and your father's house and go to the land that I show [you], so that I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and lift up your name. You will be a source of blessing. The person who blesses you I will bless, and the person who curses you I will curse. All the earth's families will enter into blessing through you," (Genesis 12:1-3). Up to Genesis chapter eleven, the way the world is so alienated from God and accursed is depicted. But, in the midst of that curse God chose Abraham, gave him the promise of blessing, and inaugurated the history of salvation. Furthermore, just as Paul quoted, upon entering Genesis chapter seventeen the following words are given. "This is my covenant which I make with you. You will become the father of many nations. You will no longer be Abram, but are to take the name Abraham because I will make you the father of many nations," (17:4-5). Abraham and his descendants participated personally in the blessing of God, and became the agents of God's blessing to all peoples. As the source of blessing Abraham became the father of many nations. The phrase "inherit the world" probably appeared in the text as this was understood as an eschatological hope. That is, the people who consider Abraham as their father will become heirs to a world ultimately saved. It's the same as saying they have a share in salvation.
4. Paul states that "that promise was made not based on the law but was made based on the righteousness which comes by faith." Paul was certainly right. The words of promise were not given after Abraham had met the requirements of the law. The words of the promise were not given as payment or reward for Abraham's works. In the first place when you consider the preposterous size of what God promised, you'd never expect it to be a payment for human works. At this time, far from there being many descendants for Abraham, there wasn't even one son. Beside that, he was no more than a lone sojourner who had left his father's house, began his trip and was roaming about the land of Canaan. [The scriptures] say that this same Abraham will become a blessing for the families on the earth and the father of many peoples, and his descendants will become the ones to inherit the world. Obviously, what God promised was not a payment but was a gift. It was a great big gift.
5. The right way to be with respect towards a gift could not be anything but faith. This is a major point. I could probably make an analogy of this from my own experience, though imperfect. A long time back I was once doing some side work for a software company. The salary was $8.50 per hour. Back then that was a pretty good deal. But, I took it like I deserved it. Because I had been working on contract. As good a deal as it was however, it was a payment and not a present. But, if for the sake of argument, if the company's representative said to me for whatever reason or another "We will offer you one hundred thousand dollars [per hour]," I would certainly not think of that as side work pay. For me it would only be an issue of whether or not to really believe the company representative. If he were serious, then, he would require from me only that I believe.
6. Similarly, it is obvious then in regards to that which is given as a gift and not for payment that only believing is required and not works to obtain it. Therefore, what was required of Abraham was only that "he believe," and that in faith and in response he set out and that he continue to trust in the truth of him who made the promise to him. A person who considers what God gives small would try to gain possession of it by his own works. But, the one who sees that it is a preposterously great promise and that it is nothing but a gift knows that it is only [in] believing. Therefore, Paul states that "If the one depending on the law inherited the world, faith would now be meaningless and the promise would become nullified." Because what God promised does not seem obtainable as a reward of the works of the law. If you had to obtain it by works, no one could acquire what was promised and it would be the same as a promise that was nullified. No, far from practicing the law and being able to obtain anything, the law only makes our transgressions plain. It makes plain how sinful we are. If we're talking payment, the law makes plain that the very wrath of God is the portion we ought to receive. It is obvious from the discussion above that participating in the promise is not based on the works of the law. It is only the follower of his faith who is to become "a descendant of Abraham" [and a ] participant in the promise. Furthermore, according to what God said, "I have established you as a father of many people," he was not just father of the Jews, but became a father of many people. Abraham became the father of the many people who would follow the example of his faith. If we also follow the example of Abraham's faith, we become his descendants who inherit the promises.
7. So, what kind of faith was Abraham's faith? Paul unpacks this starting with verse eighteen.
"When he had no means of hope, he still embraced [a higher] hope, believed, and became the father of many people just as [God] said in 'Your descendants will be like this [as the uncountable stars].' At that time even in knowing that he was about one hundred years old, his body had already become weak, and the body of his wife Sarah also could not conceive a child, his faith did not weaken. He did not fall into unbelief, nor did he doubt the promise of God, instead he was strengthened by faith and praised God. He was confident God had the power to bring into reality what he had promised. Therefore, again, it was recognized as his righteousness," (verses eighteen through twenty-two).
8. In chapter seventeen as well the faith of Abraham was spoken about as follows: "Abraham believed God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence what did not exist and he became our father before God." What ever in the world does this mean? When Abraham had no means of hope, Paul says that Abraham still clung to hope and believed. The phrase translated as "when he had no means of hope" can also be translated as "contrary to hope, going against hope." There is the time when the hope, to which a human naturally is able to cling, ends up dying out. As a tree withers up, hope withers. However, the text says that Abraham still believed though up against that kind of extinguishable human kind of hope.
9. Abraham was not a dreamer at all. When Abraham's hope was withering it was because he was looking straight at the facts of reality. He did not live with his eyes closed to the facts. I will not dare to look. I had better not dare to think. He was not one to live in that mode. The text says, "At that time even in knowing that he was about one hundred years old, his body had already become weak, and the body of his wife Sarah also could not conceive a child..." If the section that says "the body had become weak" was translated literally, it would say "it was already dead." The text in the passage of "Sarah's body also could not conceive a child" in the original document says "it was a condition where Sarah's womb was dead." Whether the word "death" was used metaphorically or with a literal meaning, it is a word that involves human hopelessness. But, as Abraham recognized that there was only hopelessness, he still took God for God. He praised God as God. He gave glory to God.
10. It means precisely that he dared to believe that "God has the power to make what he promised come true." Abraham looked passed the fading human hope, believed God and embraced [a higher] hope. Of course, this was not a simple thing. As we read Genesis, Abraham was not what we would call "a hero of faith." He had a hard time believing God's promise, and though he bowed down before God he had even laughed about it secretly in his heart, (Genesis 17:17). However, God continued to speak the word of promise to Abraham though he was like this. While sustained by God's word, he believed the promise of God. The Bible records this same Abraham as a person who believed "God gives life to the dead and calls into existence what did not exist." It says that such a faith is accounted as righteousness.
11. The person who follows the faith of this same Abraham becomes his descendant participating in God's promises. Consequently, even these words "it was recognized as his righteousness" were not recorded just for Abraham. They are for us, too. Please check verse twenty-three and on.
"However, the words 'it was recognized as his righteousness' were not recorded only for Abraham, but they were recorded for us as well. If we believe in the one who caused the Lord Jesus to raise from the dead, we too will be recognized as righteous. Jesus was delivered over to death for our sin and was raised so that we might be justified," (verses twenty-three through twenty-five).
12. If we too look straight at the real world we are in, we will only despair. Whenever we look directly at the real world of people, which is controlled by sin in an ugly, dirty, and total way and at our own reality in which we are gripped completely in death which controls us with a power that is hard to escape, the natural hope we hold onto falls apart into the dust. If that's so, do we close our eyes to what we don't want to see, drive away what we don't want to think to some corner in our thoughts and only live by lying to ourselves? If we're doing that, are we only living barely connected to our hopes? We shouldn't be. The time is coming when sooner or later we will not be able to avoid looking the [hard] facts of what a human being is straight in the face. The hopes that belong to this temporary world will vanish.
13. Since this is true, what should we do? Contrary to his diminishing hopes, Abraham still held on to hope and believed. "Abraham believed that God gives life to the dead and calls into existence what did not exist, and he became our father in the sight of God." What does this mean for us? It is nothing other than believing in the one who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead. It says, "Jesus was delivered to death for our sin and was raised so that we might be justified," (verse twenty-five). He has already accomplished everything for our justification. On the cross of Christ and in his resurrection everything has been accomplished. The answer to sin and the answer to death have both been taken care of long ago. We, as descendants of Abraham, have also been saved from sin and death and allowed to inherit the world God rules. This certainly seems like a preposterous promise of a gift. It indeed is not something that we can obtain as collateral from our own works. It is no where near being a payment but is essentially such a great and such a rich gift that our hands could never attain it on our own. Because it is a gift, one only believes that "God has the power to make what he has promised come true." One only relies on the truth of the one who has given us the promises and on his power. We just believe and receive. And that's righteousness [for us]. In regards to that, doing business with God with one's own works is not righteousness [for us] at all. It is stupidity. It is like trying to get one hundred thousand dollars an hour per shift in a part time job.
14. Therefore, the Bible clearly records that "If we believe in the one who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead we too will be recognized as righteous." That's how we too follow the example of Abraham's faith, are accounted as righteous the same way as Abraham, become the descendants of Abraham according to faith, and we participate together in the promises.