Apart from Jesus Christ, Abraham is probably the most important person in the Bible. Abraham is a giant in Scripture — his stature is far greater than that of Moses, David, or Paul. These latter three were great men, and God used them in great ways, even giving portions of the Scriptures to us through them. But each of them would have agreed without qualification that Abraham was his father in faith.
In the early chapters of Genesis, we read of God's promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4). This was fulfilled physically and spiritually. On the physical side, Abraham became the father of the Jewish people, through whom the Messiah was born; he became the father of the many Arab tribes through his son Ishmael. On the spiritual side, Abraham has become the father of a great host of believers whose numbers are now swelled by Christians of countless tongues and nations.
No one can understand the Old Testament without understanding Abraham, for in many ways the story of redemption begins with God's call to this patriarch. Abraham was the first man chosen by God for a role in the plan of redemption. The story of Abraham contains the first mention in the Bible of God's righteousness imputed to man as the sole means of salvation (Genesis 15:6). Matthew includes the genealogy of Jesus in his Gospel in order to trace the beginnings of salvation back to Abraham (Matthew 1:1). Luke declares that the birth of Jesus occurred in response to God's promise to Abraham (Luke 1:68,72-73).
Great sections of the New Testament explain the spiritual significance of Abraham. An entire chapter in Romans refers to God's dealings with Abraham to support the doctrine of justification by grace through faith (Romans 4). Two chapters in Galatians refer to the life of Abraham to prove that salvation is apart from works (Galatians 3-4). One of the longest paragraphs on faith in the Book of Hebrews is devoted to the life of faith lived by this Hebrew patriarch (Hebrews 11:8-19). Faith stands preeminent in the life of Abraham.
No Good in Abraham
It is impossible to understand Abraham's faith without realizing that there was nothing in Abraham that commended him to God. God does not look down from heaven to find a person who has a bit of divine righteousness or a bit of faith and then say, "Oh, isn't it wonderful! I've found somebody with a bit of faith. I think I'll save him." When God looks down from heaven He sees that all men are without faith, and He passes a universal judgment: "They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one" (Romans 3:12). That included Abraham.
This truth is reinforced by another. Abraham came from a family of idol worshipers, and was undoubtedly an idol worshiper himself. This truth is clearly stated in at least three places in the Bible.
In the last chapter of the Book of Joshua, the aging leader delivers a final spiritual charge to the people of Israel. Joshua begins by reminding them of their pagan past.
Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the river [the River Euphrates] of old, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods. And I took your father, Abraham, from the other side of the river, and led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his seed, and gave him Isaac.... Now, therefore, fear the Lord, and serve Him in sincerity and in truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the river, and in Egypt (Joshua 24:2,3,14).
The passage is a black-and-white statement of the fact that Abraham was chosen by God from the midst of a pagan ancestry and that he and Terah had once worshiped false gods.
The same thing is said by Isaiah: "Hearken to Me, ye that follow after righteousness, ye that seek the Lord; look unto the rock from which ye are hewn, and to the hole of the pit from which ye are digged. Look unto Abraham, your father, and unto Sarah, who bore you" (Isaiah 51:1,2). The whole thrust of these verses is that there was nothing in the ancestry of the Jewish people that could commend them to God.
The third passage that reveals the truth about Abraham's ancestry is a story from the life of Abraham's grandson, Jacob. Jacob was a schemer — even his name means "supplanter" — and his underhandedness made his brother angry enough to want to kill him. Jacob was forced to flee for his life. Where was he to go? Jacob did what many people do when they are cast adrift by life — he went back to his roots. For Jacob, that was in Mesopotamia, the place from which his grandfather Abraham had come. There Jacob associated himself with his uncle Laban. In time, he married both of Laban's daughters, Leah and Rachel, and came to own a large share of the family's sheep and cattle.
As time passed, bad feelings arose between Jacob and Laban, Jacob decided to return to the land of Canaan, choosing a moment when Laban was away on business. When Laban returned, his nephew, his daughters, and much of the property were gone.
The household gods also were missing. Laban set out in pursuit. When he overtook the band that Jacob was leading, he chided Jacob for this action and accused him of having stolen the idols. A search was made but the idols were not found. Jacob's wife, Rachel, who had stolen them, had hidden them in her camel's saddle. This story in Genesis 31 shows that Abraham's relatives still owned and cherished idols at least three generations after God had called Abraham out of Mesopotamia.
It was Abraham whom God chose to be the father of many nations. But why did God save Abraham? The answer is simply that this was God's will. In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tells why God chose Israel to be the nation through which He gave the law and would one day send the Saviour. We read, "The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people. But because the Lord loved you..." (verses 7-8).
Why did God love them? Because He loved them. Why did He choose them? Because He chose them. This is not human logic; it is divine logic. It is the logic of grace.
This is the way God loved Abraham, and the way God loves us. We are like Abraham. There is nothing in us to commend us to God. And yet God loves us. Just as He sought Abraham, He seeks to draw us into fellowship with Himself.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the apostle tells how Jesus had come to His own people, the Jews, but they had not received Him. And yet some did — both Jews and Gentiles — and John writes that Christ gave to all who believed authority to become the children of God.
As John wrote these words, however, he seemed to know that some would say, "But, you see, God gave them authority to become children of God because they had faith within; it was because they believed." Lest someone retain a false impression, John adds quickly that these "were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). John knew that no Christian ever made the first move toward God; he knew that salvation originates in heaven.
This is unpopular teaching, and men and women have always hated it. They hated it when Isaiah reminded them that nothing in their ancestry commended them to God (see Isaiah 51:1-2). They hated it in Christ's day. We are told that from the time Jesus began to teach that "no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto him of My Father...many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him" (John 6:65-66). People hate it when this Gospel is preached in our own 20th century. And yet, in spite of the hatred of men, it is true. No man ever seeks God.
Abraham's faith was preceded by God's call. God called him when he was without faith and promised to bless him. As a result of this encounter, Abraham believed God and set out on the journey to Canaan. Actually, the call to Abraham came twice, once when he was in Ur of the Chaldees (Acts 7:2-4), and once, years later, when he was in Haran.
The Bible says,
Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee; and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken unto him (Genesis 12:1-4).
Abraham's departure from Ur was the first evidence of his faith in God and in God's promises.
What is faith? Faith is simply belief, and all men have the capacity for it. They demonstrate it every day of their lives. Saving, faith is believing God and acting upon that belief. Abraham had saving faith because he believed God when God revealed Himself, and he acted upon his belief by setting out for Canaan immediately.
There are many mistaken views of faith. One links faith to credulity. This is the view that faith is belief without evidence. But God provides evidence, and He does so overwhelmingly. In Abraham's case the evidence was an appearance of God so striking that it got the patriarch and all his family and possessions moving out of their homeland into a land which they had never seen. In our case, the evidence is the biblical account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In the way that God called Abraham, God calls all who become His children. God comes to us when we are hopelessly lost in sin and without knowledge of Him (Ephesians 2:1-7). This is a universal fact in the spiritual biography of Christians. God's call comes first. And our response is nothing more than belief in God and in His promises.
Perhaps someone says, "Well, that may be right theoretically, but I just can’t believe."
I disagree. You believe men, don't you? Every time you keep an appointment, sign a contract, ride a bus, read the newspaper, or do anything that involves other people, you show faith in some person, sometimes one whom you have not even met.
In the same way, you can believe God. He is more trustworthy. The Bible says, "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater" (1 John 5:9). What does God ask us to believe? He asks us to believe that we are lost without Him and that He has done everything through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ to save us both for this life and for the life to come.
When Faith Is Weak
Someone may say, "Oh, I am able to believe in the sense that you have been explaining, but my faith is weak. I could become a Christian, but I am afraid that if I do — if I start out with God as Abraham did — I'll falter." Of course you will falter. But salvation depends not on the strength of your faith but on God's overwhelming faithfulness to you.
Abraham faltered. When he was in Ur of the Chaldees, God called Abraham to go to Canaan. Ur was in the Mesopotamian river valley, east of the great Arabian desert. Canaan was west of the desert and bordered the Mediterranean Sea. To obey God's call, Abraham had to leave Ur, travel north along the great Euphrates River, cross the northern end of the Arabian desert, and pass down along the Lebanese highlands, entering Canaan from the north. Abraham began the 1,000-mile journey in the best of faith. And yet, at the end of Genesis 11, we find that Abraham stopped at Haran, a little town in Syria hundreds of miles from Ur but still several hundred miles from Canaan.
Abraham stayed at Haran until his father died. When Abraham started once again for Canaan, he was 75 years old. Was Abraham strong in faith? Not at this point in his life. But God's promises were not withdrawn.
From God's point of view, the years in Haran were wasted. Abraham learned no new lessons there. And that happens to us. Times come when we stop and sit down spiritually. We must not sit too long. We must confess the emptiness of such moments, yield to God's repeated calls, and let Him lead us into all the blessings He originally intended.
The Second Call
God had called Abraham once and he obeyed. Then Abraham disobeyed and stopped at Haran. Years later God came again, calling, "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will show thee; and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing" (Genesis 12:1-2). God called Abraham a second time, and He calls us a second time also. God always persists in His calling.
This truth is found many places in Scripture. It is found in the story of David. God called David to be the political and moral leader of Israel, but David fell into sin. He stayed in Jerusalem instead of participating in a battle. While in Jerusalem he saw Bathsheba, enticed her, and made love to her. When he learned that she had become pregnant, he attempted to cover his sin by having her husband killed. And yet, God did not cast off King David.
Instead He came to him through Nathan to expose his sin and lead him to repentance (2 Samuel 12). God came a second time to David.
When God first called Jonah, He said, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before Me" (Jonah 1:2). Jonah lived in Galilee near Cana, and the way to Nineveh was east. Did Jonah go east? No, Jonah went west! The Bible tells us that Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish, for which he sailed from the Jewish port of Joppa (Jonah 1:3).
At this point in the action, God sent a storm. Jonah ordered himself to be thrown overboard by the sailors. He was swallowed by a great fish and was later vomited out on dry land. He was on the shore, right back where he started from, when God came to him to repeat His original commission, "And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time" (Jonah 3:1). These are the most beautiful words in the entire story: "...the Lord came unto Jonah the second time."
So it will be with us. The word of the Lord comes to us once, twice, and, if need be, a hundred or a thousand times. He calls us to follow Him. We are so prone to stop. We have many Harans, Bathshebas. or ships to Tarshish. And yet, God calls again and again.
Where do you stand? It may be that you have never responded to God's call the first time. If God is prodding you to believe, if you feel unhappy as you are, if you are looking for something better in life, if you are questioning the truths of Christianity, this is God's working. You must yield to Him. You must trust Him.
Perhaps you have stopped at some place in your walk with God. Perhaps God has given you a command to do something and you have put it off, a step to take and you have refused. You prefer to be where you are. The fullness of blessing is never going to come to you until you obey God and do what He has set before you. You will never improve on His instructions.
Perhaps you are one to whom the Lord is now coming a second time. Take great joy in that. Respond to Him. And rejoice that you serve a God who will not abandon the work that He has once set out to accomplish (see Phil. 1:6).
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Revised 2008, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
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