Text: Genesis 15:1-6
Old Testament Reading for Proper 14, Year C
Grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom. 1:7)
You no longer have to go to church to hear about faith. We are constantly surrounded with talk of faith and belief. From Hollywood to pop-music; professional sports to political campaigns; the language of faith is everywhere. And in each context, it seems to take on a new meaning. We are told to have faith in ourselves, have faith in our dreams, and sometimes, we’re told simply to just have faith. In our culture, “the faithful” is another way of referring to people who use faith to muscle up belief in something that lacks evidence – blind faith we might call it. Strangely, that’s also how many Christians understand faith. It’s equivalent to wishful thinking, or something inspirational and motivational.
And then we come to today’s Old Testament reading. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This is one of the most important verses in the entire Bible. It is quoted by St. Paul in Romans and Galatians as definitive proof of his teaching that we are declared righteous by faith alone. It is not a teaching made up in the New Testament. Justification by faith can be found here in Genesis, at the beginning of God’s dealings with mankind. This goes to the very heart of Christianity and the good news which we proclaim to a sin-sick world. So, it’s important that we take a moment and look at Abraham and see what is meant by faith, and why that faith is counted as righteousness.
Faith is Trust in God’s Promises
God had called Abraham out of Ur. Of all the people on earth, God singled out this one man – seventy-five years old, married, and childless. A wealthy man who shared his riches with his nephew Lot. God chose Abraham not because he was pious, religious, decent, upstanding, or anything at all. In fact, the Scriptures never say why God chose Abraham. He simply came to Abraham and told him to pull up his tent pegs, leave his homeland and dwell as a nomad in a land that didn’t belong to him.
He promised that he would turn Abraham into a “great nation”. God promises that elderly Abraham will have a son. That his offspring would inherit that land of Canaan as a gift from the Lord. That his name would be great and a blessing to many. And in him and through his offspring all of the families of the earth would be blessed. But Abraham was already well into his nineties. He needed to be reminded of the Lord’s guarantee to fulfill that promise. God promises to continue to protect and guide Abraham.
God has told him, “You will have an heir.” Abraham’s reply is, “No, I won’t. I’m well into my nineties!” Following a local custom, Abraham explains that because his wife is barren, his only heir will be Eliezer, the son of his slave woman. But Abraham quickly learns that he is dealing not with human custom but with God’s promise. God takes him out of his tent into the night and tells him to look at the stars and number them if he is able. “So shall your descendants be,” as many as the stars of heaven.
Apparently about 73 sextillion stars are visible with the aid of technology. With the naked eye Abraham might not have been able to see quite that much, but he certainly could see more than he could count. Abraham will have many more than one or two thousand descendants. They will be countless. At 90 years old, Abraham and Sarah have no reason in themselves to believe that God’s promise will come true. As we say sometimes, “You’ve just got to take me at my word.” God simply gives him his word. Abraham’s only hope for an heir lay outside himself, apart from his own strength of body or character. Abraham has to trust God’s promise. We are told, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Abraham is the pattern and paradigm. He believed God. He took God at His word and trusted Him. God promised Abraham that 90 year-old childless man would be the father of a great nation and through his offspring all people on earth would be blessed This promise came before Abraham did anything at all. Abraham didn’t say a prayer nor did God offer any kind of a deal. God just told Abraham how it would be. And Abraham believed God. He trusted what the Lord had spoken to him. He believed the promise, as crazy and unlikely as it all sounded. Abraham looked outside himself and took God at His word. God counted that trust of Abraham as righteousness before Him.
Righteous by Faith
What do we mean by “righteousness”? Think of a civil lawsuit brought by a plaintiff against a defendant. The judge render’s his decision. “Verdict in favour of the defendant.” When the court decides in favour of either, the status which results is righteousness. If you’re a defendant, that means you’ve been acquitted. God is the judge and the standard of judgment is His law. A review of Abraham’s life will show you that he was not righteous. He had not always trusted that God would bless him and protect him. To save his own skin, on two separate occasions Abraham lies and claims Sarah isn’t his wife, only his sister. Later on, he thinks he’ll fulfill God’s promise on his own. He sleeps with his slave girl Hagar, and she has a son Ishmael.
But, lying, unrighteous Abraham trusted God’s promise and believed that God would fulfill it. That is his faith, his trust, and that trust renders him acceptable in the eyes of his God. Abraham is acquitted of all crimes and sins because he trusts God’s mercy. Abraham didn’t do anything to receive this promise from God. There was nothing in Abraham which warranted God’s favour. God spoke the promise to Abraham. Abraham heard this promise and AFTER he heard, Abraham believed. He didn’t do anything. As Paul says, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of God.” (Romans 10:17).
We are not righteous, and we cannot be because we are polluted and contaminated by sin. Abraham show us how an unrighteous sinner stands before a righteous God. Not on the basis of what you do, but on the basis of trust in the promise of God. This is how you and I stand before God. Unless God looks away from our sins, and acquits us, regards us as righteous because of faith, which lays hold the promise, we are done for. It’s the only way we can stand before God, not on the basis of our works under the Law. Not on the basis of our rule-keeping, our good deeds, our strong devotion, our anything. When we stand before the judgment seat of God, we will be acquitted solely by God’s mercy alone. It’s a gift from Him to us, unearned and undeserved. We stand by faith alone, that is, trust in what God declares by His Word, namely that through the promised Offspring of Abraham who is Jesus the Christ, the blessing has come to the world and specifically to you.
Faith here, is not belief in specific facts or a specific doctrine or the performance of some good work—although these certainly flow out of faith. Faith isn’t wishful thinking or based on our dreams. Rather, faith is trusting God’s promise and trusting that God will fulfill his promises. For Christians, faith is not blind, but of trust in a particular person. We sometimes refer to “people of faith” or to someone “coming to faith” or use the saying “you just gotta have faith,” as if it is the faith that matters. Faith is not the good thing that you contribute to salvation. It is not the faith that matters! It is the person in whom you have faith that matters. Faith is useless if misplaced. Your faith, your trust, needs to be in the right person! It needs to be in the God who not only makes promises but who keeps them.
God has, just like Abraham, called us, and given us great and many promises. For example, “Behold, I am with you always” or “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” or “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” “Take, eat, this is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you.” “Your sins are forgiven.” Genuine trust in God clings to those promises and relies on God to keep them. God proclaims to us his wonderful promises. We become children of Abraham through that trust placed in God himself, and given through his Word. God has promised to be merciful to us, and he will do it. We can look at his past record and see that he is a faithful God. God keeps his promises.
God’s promise to Abraham, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, includes you. Look at the stars, children of God, and see in them our place–your place–in the story of salvation. Look at the stars, and see that you are a child of Abraham through faith. Remember, God hasn’t given you unfounded promises. Look into the manger and see that God is your Saviour! He has sent his only-begotten Son into the world. All of God’s promises find their fulfillment in his Son. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor. 1:18–20). Jesus is the promised Messiah, the descendant of Abraham through whom all the nations will be blessed. Jesus suffered, died, and was buried so that he might make restitution for you and pay what you owed, not with silver and gold but with his own precious blood. We stand acquitted before God on the basis of His mercy found in Jesus Christ alone, His life, His righteousness, His saving death and resurrection. That blessing goes out to all the nations, and makes us all children of Abraham by faith. His love is eternal. Abraham reminds us that God’s promises are more certain and reliable even than the stars! The marks of the nails and the pierced side assure you it is so.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:7)