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Lesson 30: Making God’s Promises Yours (Genesis 15:1-6)

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Have you ever had the experience of doing something brave or of making a bold decision which later came back to haunt you? At the time you did it, you were strong. You thought you were acting in faith. But in the aftermath, you were gripped by fear as you thought about the possible repercussions. Sometimes I have taken a strong stand or spoken out boldly on some issue. But later, when criticism hits, I begin to worry and to second-guess my earlier boldness.

Maybe you’ve gone through something similar. You were challenged to step out in faith and trust God for something. You gave up a choice financial or career opportunity because you wanted to serve the Lord. You gave a large sum of money to the Lord’s work. But then a financial crisis hit. You said no to that date with a good-looking non-Christian guy, only to sit home for weeks without any other dates. You started wondering, “Did I do the right thing?”

That’s where Abram was after the events of Genesis 14. His wayward nephew Lot, living in Sodom, was taken captive by four kings from the east. In a bold move, Abram led his trained men against these kings and staged a surprise attack by night, routing the army and recovering all the people and spoil. When he returned, he offered a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek, the king of Salem, but refused to take his rightful share from the king of Sodom, lest that worldly man could boast that he had made Abram rich. Abram had given up fabulous wealth on the principle that God, who had promised to bless him, would meet his needs.

Then fear came knocking. One night as Abram lay awake in his tent, he was thinking about the fact that those kings from the east weren’t the sort of guys to take a humiliating defeat passively. Surely, they’d come looking for that puny shepherd who had taken them by surprise, and when they found him, they’d wipe him out. He shouldn’t have rescued Lot. Now he couldn’t shake his fear.

And not only that, but Abram wondered whether he had done the right thing to refuse the spoils of Sodom. Sarai was complaining that they never had any spending money and she could use a new coat. Besides, that no good nephew Lot got all of his things back, things which rightly could have been Abram’s now. Abram lay there in the dark, wondering whether he should have taken the spoil of Sodom for himself, thinking, “I risked everything for that ungrateful, selfish nephew of mine, and what do I have to show for it? Nothing!” Fear and worry!

You’ve been there, haven’t you? You did the right thing, but you didn’t prosper. Another person did the wrong thing, and he’s having a great time. Meanwhile, you’re wondering whether you might get wiped out because you did what was right.

What do you need at a time like that? The answer is, you need to trust in the Lord. The Lord has promised His blessings to those who trust in Him. God’s blessings don’t always come to us the moment we think they should. Some are delayed for months or years. Some don’t even come to us in this life. But He wants us to go on trusting Him. He is faithful to His promises in His time.

You make God’s promised blessings yours by trusting Him.

One night as Abram was wrestling with his fears, the word of the Lord came to him in a vision. We don’t know exactly what that vision entailed. Perhaps as Abram thought of the shields of the warriors and of the spoils of the battle, God spoke to him and said, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your very great reward” (NASB margin).

No doubt Abram was comforted by these words, and yet there remained a void in his heart. God had previously promised to give him a son and to multiply his descendants as the dust of the earth. But he had been in the land nearly ten years now (16:3), but he still had no son. Sarai wasn’t getting any younger. And so out of confusion, not in defiance, Abram asks God about His promise of a son: “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?... Since You have given no seed [lit.] to me, one born in my house is my heir.” These two verses repeat themselves, but they show realistically the words of a man who is confused about God’s delay in fulfilling His promises.

The Lord graciously clarifies the previous promises by stating that Abram’s servant would not be his heir, but, rather, one who came forth from his body. The Lord made the lesson vivid by taking Abram outside, showing him the stars, and saying, “So shall your descendants be.” Abram’s response was to believe “in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). This crucial verse shows us that even at this early time, justification (right standing with God) was by faith. The apostle Paul expounded on this verse twice (Romans 4 & Galatians 3), to argue that we are saved by faith apart from any works. It shows us that trusting in the Lord is the means of obtaining His promised blessings.

Trusting in the Lord has gotten terrible press in Christian circles in the last few years. We’ve bought into the view that when a person is hurting or fearful or depressed or guilty, the most useless thing you can tell him is, “Trust in the Lord.” Instead we try to help him get in tune with his feelings and accept himself. We try not to be judgmental or offer any advice, but rather to empathize with him. But tell him to trust in the Lord? You’ve got to be kidding! How impractical!

I’d like to get radical and suggest that when you’re experiencing distressing emotions, the most practical thing you can do is to trust in the Lord. How we ever got away from this is beyond me. From cover to cover the Bible proclaims the blessings that come to the person who trusts in the Lord. It is the solution to our problems. Rather than shrugging it off as useless advice, we need to learn what it means to trust the Lord in all the distressing ups and downs of life.

1. Trust must be in the Lord.

Abram “believed in the Lord.” There’s a phony kind of faith in faith itself, where faith is given some magical power in and of itself, apart from its object: “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows....” The false teachers of the “health and wealth gospel” tell us, “Just speak the word of faith and whatever you speak will be accomplished.” But that’s presumption, not faith. Biblical faith is always in God who has revealed Himself in His Word. It is not vague; it is specific, based on His Word.

And biblical faith is not an uncertain wish that says, “I sure hope it’s true, so I’m going to take a blind leap in the dark.” The essence of the Hebrew word (used here for the first time in the Bible) is firmness or certainty. In another Hebrew verb stem (roughly like our verb tense), the word has the idea of the strong arms of a parent supporting an infant. In Genesis 15:6, it means that Abram relied on the Lord and His word as true and certain.

This trust must be both personal and propositional. That is, it must be both in the personal God and in His Word.

A. Trust personally in the personal God.

Abram trusted in the Lord, in Yahweh, the personal, covenant God. In verse 2 (and v. 8), Abram addresses God as Adonai Yahweh. This is the first recorded time Abram speaks to God. Apart from here, the title occurs only two other times in the Pentateuch (Deut. 3:24; 9:26; see also, Exod. 23:17; 34:23). Adonai means Lord, Master, or Sovereign. It points to God’s absolute right to rule. So even though Abram is confused and asking God to clear up matters for him, he is asking submissively, not defiantly.

There are two ways you can ask God for things. You can ask defiantly, shaking your fist in God’s face, demanding, “Why are You letting this trial happen to me?” You’re challenging God’s authority to deal with you as He pleases. That kind of asking is always wrong. I’m greatly bothered when I hear of Christian psychologists telling their counselees to get out their rage at God. You don’t rage at the Sovereign Lord of the universe! You submit to Him!

But you can come to God as Abram did here, submissive, but confused. In this approach, you’re saying, “Lord, I don’t understand why things are going as they are. If You would reveal Your purposes to me so that I could more fully obey You, I would be thankful. But if not, I’ll trust You, even though I don’t understand.” Often the Lord will grant the wisdom we need to endure the trial, if we ask with that kind of submissive spirit (James 1:2-5). We can’t trust God if we aren’t submitting to Him as our Sovereign Lord.

There’s a very personal flavor to these verses, as God comes to Abram in his time of fear, assures him, and then in response to Abram’s confusion, takes him out into the night to look at the stars to give further confirmation of His promise. You’ll recall that when Abram was left with the dusty, famine-stricken land of Canaan after Lot chose the lush land near Sodom, the Lord told Abram that his descendants would be as the dust of the ground. Here, as Abram is afraid of retaliation in the night, God takes him out into the night and reassures him with the stars. God was personally tailoring this experience to meet Abram at his point of need. Abram’s response was to believe God.

Do you have that kind of personal trust in the personal God who created the universe? Even though He spoke into existence the billions of galaxies each with billions of stars, He cares about you to the extent that the very hairs of your head are numbered. When you’re fearful or anxious you can go personally to Him and tell Him your problems and know that He cares for you. It is personal trust in the personal God.

B. Trust personally in the personal God’s promises.

God has revealed Himself propositionally, that is, in the words of Scripture. While God spoke verbally to Abram, He has revealed Himself to us in the inspired words of the Bible. This is the first time in the Bible the phrase, “the word of the Lord came to” someone occurs (15:1, 4). It occurs often after this, especially with the prophets. We have the word of the Lord preserved in the Bible. Trust involves not only believing in the Lord, but also in the things He has revealed in His Word. In other words, trust isn’t a subjective feeling; it is a cognitive reliance on the objective promises of God as revealed in His Word.

The question comes up, What did Abram believe on this occasion? We know that he had believed God previously, when he left Ur and set out for Canaan (Heb. 11:8). Thus Abram was already what we would call a saved man before this experience. So why does Moses mention here that Abram believed God and that God reckoned it to him as righteousness?

Martin Luther said that Abram was justified by faith long before this time, but that it is first recorded in this context in a connection where the Savior is definitely involved in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from the Savior (cited in H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 1:479). John Calvin thought that it is mentioned here, long after Abram was first justified, to prove that justification does not just begin by faith, only to be perfected later by works. Rather, justification is by faith alone, apart from works, from start to finish (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:408-409).

What Abram believed on this occasion is the specific word of the Lord concerning a son (seed) which would come forth from his body. Abram knew that through this seed, blessing would come to all the families of the earth (12:3). As Paul argues in Galatians, the word seed is singular, not plural, thus pointing not to all of Abram’s descendants, but to the one descendant of Abram, Christ (Gal. 3:16). So when Abram believed in the Lord, what he believed specifically was the promise that a Savior for the world would come forth from his descendants.

You may wonder, how much did Abram know about Jesus Christ, who would be born 2,000 years later? He knew more than we may assume! Jesus Himself said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Paul said that the gospel was preached beforehand to Abram when God promised, “All the nations shall be blessed in you” (Gal. 3:8). Though he didn’t know Jesus’ name and he had no visible evidence other than God’s verbal promise, Abram looked forward in faith to God’s Redeemer and thus it is recorded here that God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

It’s that kind of personal trust in His promises about the Savior that God wants from you and me. The Christian life is not using God to obtain happiness and good feelings in this life; it is trusting God and His promises concerning the life to come. It concerns the question, “How can a sinful person like me be right with a holy God?” When we settle that question by trusting God’s Word concerning Christ, He graciously provides many other promises which help us in this present life. But you must begin by trusting in Jesus as your only hope for right standing with God. Our trust must be in God and His Word. What do we get when we join Abram in trusting in the Lord?

2. Trust obtains God’s promised blessings.

Trust is the channel through which God pours out His blessings on His people. There are two types of blessings which Abram realized, which we also will realize as we trust in the Lord.

A. God gives us Himself to calm us in life’s storms.

I prefer the translation of the NASB margin, which reads, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your very great reward.” That is, God Himself was Abram’s shield and reward. F. B. Meyer wrote, “To have God is to have all, though bereft of everything. To be destitute of God is to be bereft of everything, though having all” (Abraham [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 63).

Isn’t that true! You can gain everything this world offers, but if you don’t have God, you don’t have anything. This very night He can say to you, “Your soul is required of you,” and then where is all that you’ve gained? Or you can be a nobody by this world’s standards, but if you’ve got Christ, as Paul said, you possess all things (2 Cor. 6:10).

It’s significant that God revealed Himself to Abram at times of crisis. When he left his home and set out for the uncertainties of Canaan, God promised to bless him and make him a great nation (12:1-3). When Abram got to Canaan and we read that threatening parenthesis, “Now the Canaanite was then in the land,” the very next verse tells us that the Lord appeared to Abram and promised to give him that land (12:6-7). After Lot selfishly took the best land and left Abram in famine-stricken Canaan, God renewed and expanded on His promise to give Abram the land and to multiply his offspring (13:14--17). And so now, as Abram wrestled with the fear of retaliation, God said, “I am a shield to you.” As he worried about poverty after refusing the spoils of Sodom, God reassuringly said, “I am your very great reward.” You never lose anything when you give up something to follow the Lord.

Donald Barnhouse observes, “God’s method of supplying our need is to give us fresh knowledge of Himself, for every need can be met by seeing Him” (Genesis [Zondervan], 1:105). If you’re facing a crisis in your life, look in God’s Word for a fresh insight into who He is. Abram didn’t know God as his shield until he was afraid of retaliation from his enemies. He didn’t know God as his very great reward until he was worried about his financial condition.

Are you lonely? Look to Christ as your Bridegroom, Lover, and Friend! Are you depressed? Come to know the Lord as your joy! Are you fearful and anxious? He is your refuge and peace! Are you confused and need direction? He is your wisdom and guide! One reason He allows trials into our lives is so that as we trust Him, we will come to know more of His sufficiency for our every need. Contrary to being a useless thing, trusting in the Lord is the means by which His precious and magnificent promises become ours in experience (2 Pet. 1:3-5). He graciously reveals more of Himself to us as we trust Him in our trials. But there’s more:

B. God gives us His righteousness to qualify us for heaven.

When Abram believed God, God credited it to him as righteousness. Abram was justified or made right before God. This is one of the most important doctrines in the Bible, that God declares righteous the guilty sinner who trusts in Christ. It is the very core of the gospel. I plan to devote an entire message to this verse, but for now I can only be brief.

As Paul spells out in Romans 3 & 4, this verse means that God declares righteous the guilty sinner when that sinner does not trust in his own good works, but rather when he trusts the perfect obedience and the substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus Christ on his behalf. “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).

A commanding officer of a military base issued an order that no one could come on base who was not in uniform. The next morning, a general in civilian clothes drove up to the main gate, but the sentry stopped him from entering. “What’s the reason for this?” he bellowed. “Let me in. Don’t you know who I am?” “I certainly do, sir,” the guard replied, “but I must follow orders. I have been told not to let anyone pass who is not in uniform.”

If you think you will be admitted to heaven because of anything in yourself, you are in for a rude awakening. The only uniform that will gain entrance to heaven is the robe of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, credited to your account. God is pleased to give this blessing apart from any human merit when a guilty sinner believes in Christ.

Conclusion

During World War II the King of England ordered an evacuation of children from the bomb-torn areas in London. Since many of the children had never been away from home before, they were quite nervous and upset. A mother and father had just put their young son and daughter aboard a crowded train and said good-by. No sooner had it left the station than the little girl began to cry. She told her brother she was scared because she didn’t know where they were going. Brushing his own tears away, he put his arm around his sister to comfort her. “I don’t know where we’re going either,” he said, “but the King knows, so don’t worry!” (“Our Daily Bread,” 8/77.)

Perhaps you’re fearful or worried about some problem you’re facing. God is not just Abram’s shield and great reward; He will be that to you also. You may not know where you’re going, but God knows. Trusting in Him is the means of bringing His promised blessings down into your daily problems. It is the most practical thing you can do, because it links you with the all-sufficient Sovereign Lord.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is “trusting in the Lord” impractical advice when it comes to dealing with tough problems? Why/why not?
  2. How can a person learn practically to trust in the Lord?
  3. How can we know whether particular promises of God apply to us today so that we can rightfully claim them by faith?
  4. What’s the difference between “using God” for personal happiness and trusting God’s promises in the proper sense?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith

Lesson 31: Justification by Faith Alone (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-5)

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The late theologian John Gertsner once spoke to a group of business people on the subject of justification. There was a reporter from a local newspaper in attendance. Gertsner preached the great doctrine of justification as emphatically, clearly, and persuasively as he knew how. But he was a bit discouraged when he looked at the paper the next day and discovered that he had spoken the night before on the theme of “just a vacation by faith”!

Since I just took a vacation, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m speaking today on how you can have a nice holiday by faith alone! Rather, I’m speaking on one of the most important truths in all of the Bible for you to understand and apply. You may not realize that this is so, but it is. You may a young person who thinks that the most important thing in your life is how to find the right marriage partner or how to know what career to pursue. You may be a married person who thinks that the most important matter is how to be happy in your marriage or how to raise your children properly. You may be a business person who is concerned about financial pressures and how to make wise business decisions.

While each of these issues is important, none are nearly as significant as the issue which lies behind the biblical doctrine of justification by faith: How can I be right before a holy God? None of the things that we now think are important will matter in that moment when we die and stand before God. Since we all must face that day, no issue is more important than that of knowing that you are in right standing with the eternal God who spoke the universe into existence. The answer to this matter of how to be right with God hinges on a proper understanding of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.

This doctrine is first clearly stated in the Bible in Genesis 15:6, which says of Abram, “Then he believed in the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is not the first time in the Bible that anyone was reckoned righteous by God, but it is the first time that the doctrine is clearly stated in so many words. As we saw in our last study, Abram had entered into a right standing with God before this time, but it is stated here to show that from start to finish, a person is accepted by God apart from good works and solely on the basis of the righteousness of God credited to that person’s account through faith (see Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:408-409). The apostle Paul quotes this verse twice (Rom. 4:3, Gal. 3:6) as he explains how a person comes into a right standing with God. Since your relationship to God and whether you are under His judgment or not is of utmost importance, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek to understand and lay hold of this great doctrine of justification by faith alone.

I need to say one further word by way of introduction. This doctrine played a central role in the Protestant Reformation, and it represents the fundamental difference between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in our day. There are many other differences, such as liturgy, the veneration of Mary, prayer to the saints, penance, communion, purgatory, etc. But by far the most crucial difference between Roman Catholicism and Bible-believing Protestantism is this matter of justification by faith alone.

There is a strong movement in our day to break down all denominational and doctrinal distinctives among professing Christians, even those that divide Catholics and Protestants. We’re being told that since both groups believe in Jesus Christ, we shouldn’t get hung up over some theological fine points on this matter of justification by faith alone. Love and unity are more important than precisely correct doctrine, so let’s not debate or draw doctrinal distinctions.

Hear me carefully: Biblical love does not keep silent when it comes to matters of life and death. If you love someone, you must speak the truth when they are in serious error. The apostle Paul wrote Galatians to warn the churches about some men called Judaizers who believed in Christ, but who taught that faith in Christ alone is not enough to make a person right with God, but that people also had to keep the Jewish law, especially circumcision. Paul didn’t reason, “Well, these men believe in Christ, and unity and love are more important than right doctrine.” Rather, he said that these men were accursed because they were preaching a false gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).

At the Council of Trent (in 1547), the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Protestant Reformation, including the doctrine of justification by faith. The Canons and Decrees of Trent represent the official teaching of the Catholic Church to this day. The Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s declared these doctrines “irreformable.” Trent did not deny that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. But it added works to faith by combining justification (right standing with God) with sanctification (our growth in holiness subsequent to being justified) and by making justification a process that depends in part on our good works. To quote:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, ... let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 9, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:112.)

If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 12, in Schaff, 2:113.)

If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 24, in Schaff, 2:115.)

If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened [to him]: let him be anathema. (Session 6, Canon 30, in Schaff, 2:117.)

In other words, the Catholic Church declares that we are justified before God by grace through faith, but not through faith alone, but that our good works must be added to that faith in order both to preserve and increase our right standing before God. This process is not completed at the initial point of faith in Christ, and not even in this life, but only, hopefully, in Purgatory. Thus the Catholic Church denies the sufficiency of the guilty sinner’s faith in Christ’s sacrifice as the means of right standing with God. (For further treatment, see Justification by Faith Alone [Soli Deo Gloria], ed. by Don Kistler, especially pp. 7-14, by John MacArthur, Jr.)

I do not say any of this to be unkind to Roman Catholics. Quite the contrary, I say it because I care deeply that Catholics come to a biblically correct understanding of this most crucial matter of how a person gets right with God. I say it because many of you have Catholic loved ones, and I want you to be able to help them see this clearly. And, I don’t want us to compromise on the altar of so-called “love and unity” crucial biblical truth that divides Catholicism from Protestantism. There is an uncrossable chasm here. With all of that by way of introduction, let me state what Paul is teaching in Romans 4:1-5 as he quotes Genesis 15:6:

The guilty sinner is declared righteous by God on the basis of Christ’s death at the instant he believes in Christ.

To understand this, we need to discuss four points:

1. Justification is God’s declaring the guilty sinner to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s death.

Most people have the idea that when it comes time for the judgment, God, who they conceive of as a “nice” God will not be harsh as long as a person has been sincere and has tried his best to be a good person. In other words, people pull God down from His position of absolute righteousness as revealed in Scripture and make Him out to be tolerant of some sin, as long as it isn’t too bad (by human standards). And, they lift sinful men up from their condition of hostility toward God as revealed in Scripture and make them out to be basically good folks who mean well. So they erroneously conclude that the “pretty good God” will be nice and let “pretty good people” into heaven in spite of their faults.

But the Bible reveals God to be absolutely holy, who can tolerate no sinner dwelling in His presence. And, He is absolutely just, which means that the penalty for all sin must be paid. He never just brushes sin aside by saying, “Hey, no big deal. Don’t worry about it!” Also, the Bible says that if a person keeps all of God’s law, but stumbles at one point, he is guilty of violating the whole thing (James 2:10). As Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, keeping God’s holy law is not just an outward manner of not murdering anyone; it is an inward matter of never being angry with anyone! It is not just an outward matter of never committing adultery; it is an inward matter of never lusting after a woman in your heart (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28)! He sums up His teaching by saying, “Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)!

So we have a huge problem: How can a just and holy God maintain His purity and yet be reconciled with people who have violated His commandments repeatedly in thought and deed? As Paul argues in the first three chapters of Romans, everyone from the raw pagan to the most religious Jew has violated God’s law and is under His just condemnation. Paul is arguing, using Abraham as his prime example, that no one can gain right standing with God through good works. The only way to be right with God is to trust in God’s provision for sin in Christ.

The biblical meaning of both the Hebrew and Greek words used for “justify” is, “to pronounce, accept, and treat as just, i.e., as, on the one hand, not penally liable, and, on the other, entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law. It is thus a forensic term, denoting a judicial act of administering the law--in this case, by declaring a verdict of acquittal, and so excluding all possibility of condemnation. Justification thus settles the legal status of the person justified” (J. I. Packer, “Justification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 593). Justification does not mean to make righteous, as the Catholic Church teaches, but rather, to declare righteous. It is a legal term as used by Paul, and it has two aspects: Positively, the sinner is declared or reckoned as righteous (Rom. 4:3, 5); negatively, his sins are totally forgiven (Rom. 4:7, 8). The basis for this legal transaction is the shed blood of Jesus Christ whose death satisfied God’s righteous justice (Rom. 3:24-26).

2. The means of justification is faith in Christ’s death.

When Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” at first glance, you may think that “it” refers to Abram’s faith, so that God exchanged his faith for righteousness, in a sort of trade. But that would give some sort of merit to faith, which it does not have. In God’s “ledger” in heaven, on the debit side is all our sin. No amount of faith would balance that out on the credit side, because faith cannot pay for sin. Faith is not the basis of our justification; rather, it is the means. Faith is the hand which receives God’s provision in Christ. The basis for justification is that the just penalty for sin has been paid by an acceptable substitute. The justice of God must be met, and Jesus Christ paid that penalty.

Remember what Abram believed: He looked forward to the promised Savior who would be his descendant (“seed”) and believed God concerning that Savior. God, in a judicial accounting procedure, took Abram’s sin and credited it to the book of Jesus Christ, who would bear that sin on the cross. Then He took the righteousness of Jesus and credited it to Abram’s book, so that Abram received the very righteousness of God. Faith was merely the channel by which the transaction took place.

If you were being held captive by a band of terrorists and I organized a commando raid, where we swept into the camp by helicopter and brought you out to safety, it would be ridiculous for you later to say that it was your faith that saved you. No, the commandos saved you. Your faith was merely the means that allowed you to climb aboard the helicopter. In the same way, it is not your faith that saves you from your sin, much less any good deeds. God justifies the guilty sinner through Christ. Faith is simply the means by which His justification is applied to us.

If you come to God with your sin and say, “God, I want to exchange my sin for the righteousness of Jesus Christ,” God will take care of the transaction and declare you righteous in Him. God made Christ, “who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Faith means taking God at His word on the matter. It is the channel through which God’s promised blessings flow to us. You can be sure of heaven if you have let go of any supposed righteousness or goodness of your own and have laid hold of the death of Christ on the cross as the just payment for your sins.

To summarize: Justification is God’s declaring the guilty sinner righteous based on the death of Christ, and this transaction is applied to the sinner when he believes in Christ. Note further:

3. The only kind of people God justifies are the ungodly who do not work to be justified.

This may shock you and it certainly goes against what most people think. But Paul makes it very clear in Romans 4:5: God justifies the one who does not work, and who in fact is ungodly! God does not justify pretty good people who go to church and try to live a decent life. He does not justify those who give money to the church and volunteer their time. God does not justify Catholics or Protestants, Episcopalians or Lutherans, Methodists or even Baptists! God justifies only one sort of person: the ungodly, and among the ungodly, specifically those who do not work for their justification, but believe in Him!

That we cannot work for salvation and that we are not pretty good people who deserve heaven is one of the most stubborn ideas to dislodge from the proud human heart. In 1974 a researcher surveyed 7,000 Protestant youth from many denominations, asking whether they agreed with the following statements: “The way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life.” More than 60 percent agreed. “God is satisfied if a person lives the best life he can.” Almost 70 percent agreed. “The main emphasis of the gospel is on God’s rules for right living.” More than half agreed (cited by Dr. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made [Zondervan], p. 108).

Hear me on this: You cannot and will not be justified in God’s sight as long as you think that you can earn it or deserve it. You will not be right with God as long as you think of yourself as a pretty good person. We must come to see that we are ungodly sinners who are under God’s condemnation. Only then will we despair of ourselves and flee to God’s remedy in Christ. At the moment you do that, God credits to your account the very righteousness of His Son Jesus, and He takes your sin and puts it on Christ so that you stand before Him acquitted! It all depends on God and not at all on you. Faith is simply the hand that receives the free gift of God in Christ. Herman Kuiper wrote, “As little as a beggar, who puts forth his hand to receive a piece of bread, can say that he has earned the gift granted him, so little can believers claim that they have merited justification, just because they have embraced the righteousness of Christ, graciously offered them in the Gospel” (cited in Justification by Faith Alone, pp. 62-63). Note a final thing:

4. The transaction of justification takes place the instant a sinner believes in Christ.

Abraham believed and God reckoned. It happens as quickly as the judge banging the gavel and saying, “Not guilty!” At that moment, a soul passes from condemnation to acquittal, from the sentence of death to life, from the darkness and chains of the dungeon of sin to the light and liberty of God’s free grace.

May I ask you right now, do you believe that at this moment you are right with God entirely through what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, so that if you were to stand before Him right now, you would not enter into condemnation because Christ has borne your sins? If you say, “Well, I need to go home and read my Bible more and pray more before I settle that,” you have not grasped this great truth. If you feel that you still have to do something more or feel something more or rid yourself of some sin before you can come to God, you do not understand justification by faith alone.

In regard to this truth, Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “If you cannot see that you can become a Christian immediately, at this moment, you have not grasped the doctrine. The moment one sees this doctrine one says, ‘Yes, I see that it is as possible for me to become a Christian now as it will be in a thousand years. If I withdrew from the world and became a monk or a hermit and spent my whole days in fasting and sweating and praying, I would be no nearer than I am now.’ God justifies the ungodly” (Romans: Atonement and Justification [Zondervan], p. 179) at the instant they believe in Christ.

Conclusion

Charlotte Elliott was a young woman who was deeply concerned about her relationship with God. She went to church and had heard the gospel several times, but she had not yet trusted Christ to forgive her sins. One day an old Huguenot preacher visited her home. In the course of conversation, he said in his direct way, “Charlotte, when are you going to come to Jesus?” Taken aback, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know how.” The old preacher said, “You don’t know how? Why, you come to Jesus just as you are.” Later that evening, she couldn’t shake those words. She knelt by her bed and put her trust in Jesus Christ as her sin-bearer. From that experience, she wrote a hymn:

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou biddest me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot;
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

If you will come to Jesus right now, acknowledging your ungodliness, but trusting in His shed blood as the just payment for your sin, like the man Jesus spoke of who cried out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” you, too, will go down to your house justified today.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to emphasize justification by faith alone, with nothing added? (See Rom. 4:2.)
  2. Can a Catholic understand and believe in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and be truly saved?
  3. Is God fair to justify a terrible sinner the instant he believes and also to justify a good person in the same way (see Matt. 20:1-16)?
  4. James 2:23 quotes Genesis 15:6 while arguing that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. Is he contradicting Paul? How do you harmonize James and Paul?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 32: Assurance (Genesis 15:7-21)

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A man and his wife went to a marriage counselor. When the counselor asked what the problem was, the woman sobbed, “My husband never tells me that he loves me.” When the counselor looked over at the husband, he snarled, “I told her that 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind.”

Even though we know we’re loved, it’s nice to hear it over and over again, isn’t it? Life is uncertain and unsettling. We need to be assured time and again that we are loved so that we feel secure in our relationships. The same thing is true spiritually. We know that God loves us and that nothing can separate us from His love. But we need to hear it over and over. When things don’t seem to be going as we had hoped, when our prayers don’t seem to be answered, when trials hit, we need assurance that God is there, that He is for us, that His promises will be fulfilled.

We might think that a giant in faith would not need God’s assurance, because his faith would never waver. But that is just not so. Even Abram, our father in the faith, needed to be assured concerning God’s promises to him. By faith Abram had obeyed God’s call to leave his home in Ur and go forth to the land which God would show him. God promised to give Abram a son and to make of him a great nation through which all families of the earth would be blessed. God promised to give the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. But a few years had gone by and Abram still had no son and the Canaanites, not Abram, possessed the land.

Also, Abram had some fears. He had surprised the armies of four eastern kings and rescued his wayward nephew, Lot. And he had given up his right to the spoils of battle, lest he be indebted to the king of Sodom rather than to God. But now he feared retaliation from the eastern kings and he worried about poverty as he lived in the barren land of Canaan. So the Lord told him, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; [I am] your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1).

But Abram was still concerned because he had no son. He expressed that concern to the Lord in a submissive spirit (“Adonai Yahweh,” = “Sovereign Lord,” 15:2) and the Lord graciously confirmed the promise of a son by taking Abram out into the night, showing him the stars, and promising him that his descendants would be as numerous as those stars (15:4-5). Abram “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (15:6). So verses 1-6 confirm God’s promise to Abram of a son.

But what about the land? In verse 7, the Lord reminded Abram that He is Yahweh, who brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give him this land to possess it. But Abram needed assurance about this part of the promise also. The Canaanites possessed the land, and as far as Abram could tell, there wasn’t much progress being made toward his taking possession of it. And so he asked the Lord, submissively again (he again uses “Adonai Yahweh,” acknowledging God’s sovereignty as Lord), “How may I know that I shall possess it?” (15:8).

The Lord graciously adapted Himself to Abram’s culture by “cutting a covenant” with him. In that day, there were no written contracts. When two men wanted to make a contract, or covenant, they would take some sacrificial animals, split them in two, and the parties of the covenant would ratify it by walking between the split halves of the animals. There are different guesses as to what this symbolized. Some say that it meant to invoke that the same thing that happened to the animals might happen to the party who broke the covenant. Others say it pointed to the essential unity of the two parties, and that there is life and strength in unity, death in separation. Thus the two parties were solemnly signifying their commitment to the covenant.

God took that cultural convention and used it to assure Abram concerning God’s promise about the land. Abram prepared the animals, but then fell into a deep sleep. In this condition, he heard the Lord prophesy concerning the future of his descendants and he saw a smoking oven and flaming torch, symbolizing the Lord, pass between the animal pieces, thus ratifying the covenant. Abram himself did not pass between the animal pieces, because this was a unilateral covenant, dependent only on the Lord. The Lord went on to restate the promise concerning the land (15:18-21) and even to expand it to include all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates River, boundaries which were approximated under the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 4:21), but which still await complete fulfillment. All this was God’s gracious assurance to Abram concerning His promise about the land. These verses show us that ...

God wants believers to feel assured about His promises.

This is especially true about God’s promise of eternal life to all who believe in Jesus Christ. If you have trusted in Christ as your sin-bearer, as Abram had done (15:6), then God wants you to be assured about your standing before Him. If you are continually plagued by doubts about whether God accepts you, you won’t be able to grow in your walk with God or in your service for Him. We must be careful, since there is the danger of having false assurance, where you mistakenly think that things are right between you and God, but someday you will be shocked to hear Him say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). For sake of time, I cannot deal thoroughly with this. If you’re interested in a good treatment, I recommend John MacArthur’s book, Saved Without a Doubt [Victor Books, 1992]. But I want to explain the assurance which God here gave to Abram and apply it to us who know the Lord by faith in His provision in Christ.

1. Assurance rests on God’s sure promise, not on our shaky performance.

It is clear in God’s dealings with Abram that God was the one who initiated, sustained, and followed through. God reminds him of this in verse 7: “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” Abram didn’t dream up the idea of moving to Canaan and starting a new religion. He didn’t map out a master strategy for taking the land. God did it. God was the one who promised; Abram just received what God promised.

Here God initiates a covenant with Abram. God didn’t negotiate the terms; He announced them. So perhaps “promise” would be a better term. The promise was that God would give the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. The physical boundaries of the land are given to show that it was the literal land that was in view. You know the history of Abram’s descendants, how they never fully claimed and conquered the land God had promised them. They came close under David and Solomon. But then the nation was divided and they were finally taken into captivity. After a remnant returned, they were under the domination of the Greeks and then the Romans. Then, in A.D. 70, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman general Titus and the Jews were dispersed. God’s promise to Abram went unfulfilled.

There are two main ways of dealing with this in terms of biblical interpretation. The amillennialists say that these promises concerning the land will never be fulfilled literally with Israel, but only spiritually in the church. (Some amillennialists say that this was fulfilled with Solomon, and thus there is no future fulfillment.) The premillennialists interpret these promises to Abram concerning the land in their normal sense. That is, God will yet do exactly as He said. Abram’s physical descendants through Isaac and Jacob (the Jews) will inherit the land of Canaan to the borders described here. It will happen when Christ returns and literally reigns on the throne of David.

There are good men on both sides of the debate. It makes the most sense to me to take these promises in their normal sense. God promised a piece of land to Abram’s descendants, and I think He is going to keep His word. It’s easier for me to believe that, living since 1948, when the Jews were given part of the land again after 1,900 years, than for those who lived before then. But it’s refreshing to read F. B. Meyer (born in 1847), who wrote, “Somehow the descendants of Abraham shall yet inherit their own land, secured to them by the covenant of God. Those rivers shall yet form their boundary lines: for ‘the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it’” (Abraham [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 72). It’s exciting to live in a day when we can see the first glimmer of the fulfillment of God’s promise made to Abram 4,000 years ago. Verse 18 makes it clear that it’s a done deal: God affirms, “I have given this land” to your descendants.

Abram saw a smoking oven and a flaming torch pass between the animal pieces (15:17), which are symbols of God. They would have reminded Moses’ readers of the pillar of cloud and fire which had accompanied them in the wilderness. A similar manifestation of God occurred when Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. There were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain (Exod. 19:16). These two symbols, the fire and the cloud, as Alexander Maclaren observes, point to the double aspect of God’s nature, that “He can never be completely known; He is never completely hid.” But also, “It speaks of that twofold aspect of the divine nature, by which to hearts that love He is gladsome light, and to unloving ones He is threatening darkness. As to the Israelites the pillar was light, and to the Egyptians darkness and terror; so the same God is joy to some, and dread to others” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 1:109).

The significant thing about the vision is that God alone passed between the animal pieces. It was a unilateral covenant, dependent on God alone. All Abram could do was receive what God provided.

Just as God gave Abram a graphic picture of His covenant and its ratification to assure him, He has given us a graphic picture of the New Covenant He has made with us through Christ. In the symbols of the Lord’s Supper, we have a visual reminder that God has entered into a covenant with us and that He will keep His promises. He initiated it by sending His Son to die for us. He chose us when we were dead in our sins. He sealed the covenant with Christ’s blood. All we can do is receive what He has done. Our assurance of salvation doesn’t depend on our shaky performance, but rather on God’s sure promise. If our salvation rests on our choice of God, then you can never be sure of it. But if it rests on God’s sovereign choice of us and on the finished work of Christ, we can be assured that “He who began a good work in [us] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

There is a story told of Martin Luther, that one day the devil approached him and tried to get him to doubt his salvation by presenting the reformer with a long list of sins of which he was guilty. When he had finished, Luther said to him, “Think a little harder; you must have forgotten some.” The devil did this and came up with more to add to the list. At the conclusion of this, Luther simply said, “That’s fine. Now write across that list in red ink, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin.” There was nothing the devil could say to that. Assurance depends on God’s sure promise, not on our shaky performance.

“But,” you ask, “isn’t there something we must do to have assurance?” Yes, with Abram, we must believe in God’s promise.

2. Assurance is for believers, not skeptics.

This assurance concerning the land follows the declaration that Abram believed in the Lord (15:6). As we’ve seen, this means that Abram believed God’s promise concerning his seed who would be the Savior. And yet, right after God verbally confirmed the promise of the land (15:7), Abram asked for more confirmation (15:8)! It sounds as if Abram was doubting God.

But we can know that Abram wasn’t doubting God by God’s response. God knows our motives. You will recall that when the angel appeared to Zecharias and told him of God’s promise to give him a son, John the Baptist, he replied, “How shall I know this?” He asked in unbelief and as a result was struck dumb until John’s birth (Luke 1:20). When the angel appeared to Mary, she said virtually the same words: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). And yet she was not punished. The angel explained things to her. What was the difference between Zecharias and Mary? He asked in unbelief, she in belief. How do we know? By God’s response. So here, we know that Abram asked in the spirit of, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,” not in doubt, because God confirmed Abram’s question.

Also, as I already said, Abram’s submission to the Lord is seen in his reverently addressing God as “Adonai Yahweh.” He wasn’t shaking his fist in God’s face, demanding an answer. He was submissively asking for the confirmation he needed, if it pleased the Sovereign Lord to give it.

Abram’s submissive spirit is further revealed in his obedient response to God’s command to bring these animals (15:9). Some see significance in the number and kind of animals, but I have trouble putting much trust in those interpretations. Apparently God also told Abram to divide the animals; at least in some way it was clear to him what he was supposed to do. He prepared the animals and waited. Nothing happened. Then the birds of prey began coming down to get the carcasses, and Abram drove them away (15:11). Many commentators see symbolism in this; for example, that it is a prophecy of the future enemies of the nation Israel attacking her, or that it is Satan trying to get God’s people. Maybe. I see it as an evidence of Abram’s obedient faith in waiting on the Lord, even when the Lord delayed His answer. Others might have given up when there was no immediate response, and let the birds of prey distract them from meeting with God. But Abram wasn’t about to be distracted. By faith he did what God told him to do. By faith he waited for the greater confirmation of faith for which he sought. God gives greater assurance to believers, not to skeptics.

God doesn’t meet the skeptic’s demand for proof, because the need of the skeptic isn’t for evidence, but for repentance. But He does give assurance to those who have put their trust in the Savior if they come to Him with a submissive, obedient heart, and ask Him for the assurance they need to go on believing. As Jesus said, “For to everyone who has shall more be given, and he shall have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (Matt. 25:29).

“Well, then,” you say, “how can I have the faith I need to get assurance? It sounds like when employers tell you that you need experience to be hired but nobody will hire you to give you the experience!” The answer is, we need to repent of our unbelief. Unbelief is not a condition which we are helpless to remedy. Unbelief is sin; we choose not to believe because we don’t want to turn from our rebellion against God. But if we’ll submit to Him as our Sovereign Lord and persevere in seeking Him in spite of things which would distract us, He will give us the assurance we need to go on believing, even though we never realize God’s promises in our lifetime (as Abram did not). And so we must yield our will to God and cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Assurance is for believers, not skeptics.

But what if, like Abram, we die not seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises? How can we know God’s assurance in the face of delays and trials?

3. Assurance is confirmed by God’s prophetic word.

God here tells Abram that he can “know for certain” some things about the future (15:13-16). Knowledge about the future gives assurance in the present. Abram could go on trusting God concerning His promises because he knew that God was working things out in His great timetable for history, which was far bigger than Abram’s life span.

God reveals to Abram that his “descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (15:13). This is a prophecy of the Egyptian bondage, which lasted 430 years (here rounded off). Also, God reveals that He will judge the nation they will serve and that afterward they will come out with many possessions. This literally happened as the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for things before they left, and thus plundered the Egyptians (Exod. 12:35-36). But Abram would die at a good old age. (By the way, verse 15 is an early promise of life after death. God is saying that Abram would be reunited with his ancestors.) Then, in the fourth generation (counting a generation as 100 years, which fit that age), Israel would return to Canaan.

Then the Lord adds a phrase which lets us peek into the mysteries of His eternal purpose: “for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (15:17). “Amorite” is here a general term for all the residents of Canaan. That phrase tells us that God has a predetermined limit to which He allows nations to go in their sin before He steps in and judges them. It shows us the awesome sovereignty of God, who knows in advance when the sins of a nation will be ripe for judgment.

It also shows us the great patience of the Lord, who “is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). Even though it meant that His chosen people would endure 400 years of hardship, God would not let them invade the land and wipe out the wicked people there until those people had filled up their iniquity in His sight. What’s the practical point of God’s prophetic word to Abram here? It is that Abram could endure without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises in his lifetime, because he was assured by God’s prophetic word. And Abram’s descendants could endure 400 years of bondage in Egypt without doubting God, because they knew that God had predicted it and even ordained it, and that it was working into His sovereign purpose for the nations.

And that’s the great value of biblical prophecy for us today. While God’s timetable is not always to our liking, it is always on schedule. While it seems that the wicked are prospering, God is keeping tally of their sins. When His time comes, judgment will fall. He is working all things in history after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)! Even if we as His people suffer persecution or trials, we can trust His sovereign plan and be assured that God will fulfill His promises to His covenant people. Whatever view you take of biblical prophecy, the bottom line is the same: God’s side is gonna win! We can trust Him and be assured that our salvation is secure because His Word reveals His great plan for the future!

Conclusion

Adoniram Judson, the great 19th century missionary to Burma, lost two wives and several children to death in that difficult land. He saw very little fruit from his labors, and had many discouragements and setbacks. Then a war between England and Burma broke out and Judson, being a foreigner, was imprisoned in squalid conditions. There, sick with fever, he received a letter from a friend who asked, “Judson, how’s the outlook?” Judson penned his classic reply, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God!”

God wants you to have that same assurance of His promises to you. Perhaps you’re in some difficult trial. Look to the sure promises of God’s Word, not to your own shaky performance. Submit to Him as the Sovereign Lord and repent of any unbelief, because God’s assurance is for believers, not skeptics. And know for certain that His prophetic word will be fulfilled exactly as He has revealed it in His Word. Jesus shall reign! Then, no matter what your circumstances, you can say, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God!”

Discussion Questions

  1. What causes you the most doubts in your walk with God?
  2. When are we especially vulnerable to doubt and the attack of the devil? See 1 Pet. 5:8 and its context.
  3. Is it contradictory to say that assurance depends on God’s promise, not our performance and yet to say that we must believe to have assurance? Why/why not?
  4. Can a person who does not believe in God’s sovereign election to salvation have assurance of salvation? Why/why not?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Assurance

Lesson 33: Why We Have Family Problems (Genesis 16:1-6)

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There are few joys in this life that compare to a harmonious family life. The late Dr. M. R. De Haan said, “The nearest thing to heaven on earth is a happy Christian home.” At the same time, few things in this world are as stressful as a home filled with strife. Solomon, with his 1,000 wives and concubines, must have known what he was talking about when he wrote, “It is better to live in a corner of the roof than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Prov. 25:24).

Of course, no home is going to be free of all conflict this side of heaven. We all struggle with the flesh. When self-centered sinners live in close contact with one another, conflict is inevitable. Children in even the best of Christian homes will fight. Christian husbands and wives will have misunderstandings, disagreements, and hurt feelings. We should not expect perfection. But at the same time, a home that follows God’s plan for the family can be such a joyous, warm, loving experience that we can agree with Dr. De Haan that it’s the nearest thing to heaven on earth.

Is your home like that? If you must admit that it falls short, take heart! So did Abram’s home. There was strife in his home because he and Sarai went along with some cultural customs regarding the family and violated some of God’s principles. The conflict continues even to this day between Abram’s descendants through Ishmael (the Arabs) and Isaac (the Jews). But by learning from Abram’s mistakes, we can avoid the problems he fell into and repair the damage in our families. The incident recorded in Genesis 16:1-6 teaches us that ...

We have family problems when we go along with wrong cultural customs rather than follow God’s plan.

In every culture there are some elements that are favorable to family life, some that are neutral, and some that are harmful. As God’s people, if we want to have harmonious families, we must think biblically about our culture, and resist those customs that are adverse to God’s plan for the family. I want to focus on three lessons:

1. Our culture puts pressure on families to violate God’s Word.

The pressure on families is greater now than at any other time in history because of the modern mass media that bombard us with ideas and examples that erode the family structure: “Illicit sex is exciting; in fact, it’s not really illicit. It’s O.K. And everybody does it!” Or, “Nobody stays committed to a troubled marriage. You deserve some happiness. Besides, it’s better for the kids to live with one parent than to live in a house filled with constant arguing. Bail out!” Or, “Happiness comes from financial success. Both husband and wife need a career to be fulfilled and to get ahead financially. Your career comes first.”

Bruce Wilkinson of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries observes, “The church, reflecting trends in society, no longer takes marriage as seriously as God does!” (Promotional letter, italics his.) He quotes a law professor who points out that it’s easier in this country to walk away from a marriage than from a commitment to buy a used car. Most contracts can’t be unilaterally abrogated, but marriages “can be terminated by practically anyone at any time, and without cause.” And even Christians are bailing out by the thousands.

In Abram and Sarai’s day, the cultural pressures were perhaps not as pervasive as they are now, but they were still powerful. Like fish who don’t realize they’re wet, we all tend to be so immersed in our culture that we don’t realize how much it affects us. In their culture, there was a strong pressure to have children, especially sons. Sons guaranteed that your family name would be carried on. Sons showed that you were prosperous and blessed. To be childless was a mark of reproach. This stigma was so strong that if a wife could not produce children, the custom was for her to give one of her servant girls to her husband as a concubine. The children of that union became the children of the wife.

In Abram’s case, the pressure to have a son was increased by two factors. The first was his name, which meant, “father of many,” or “exalted father.” In chapter 17, God gives him a new name, Abraham, “father of a multitude.” You can imagine how Abram must have felt when a band of traders passed by his tents. “What is your name?” they would ask. “Abram,” he replied. “That’s wonderful,” they would respond, “how many children do you have?” “None.” “None?” They would hold back the laughter as they glanced at one another. “But,” Abram would add, “God has promised to give me a son and make me the father of a great nation.” Right!

The second reason Abram felt pressure to have a son was God’s repeated promise to give him a son. And yet he was now 85, Sarai was 75, and even with the longer life spans in that day, they were getting close to that age when it becomes physically impossible to reproduce. If God was going to come through, it seemed that it had to be soon.

It was in that context that Sarai came up with her plan in accordance with the custom of the day to give Abram her maid (16:2). Perhaps the thought had crossed Abram’s mind before and he had dismissed it, not wanting to threaten Sarai. But now it was coming from her. Besides, Hagar was an attractive, younger woman. She was most likely part of the dowry which Pharaoh had given Abram for Sarai when they had gone down to Egypt (Gen. 12:16). So Abram’s past sin of going down to Egypt and trying to pawn off Sarai as his sister comes back to haunt him in a different form. He yielded to this culturally acceptable custom, went in to Hagar, and she became pregnant with his child. I draw three lessons from this part of the story:

(1) The greatest temptations often come from those who are closest to us. I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that if Abram’s friend, Mamre, had suggested this, Abram would have resisted the idea. But when Sarai suggested it, he was vulnerable. That’s the way we’re made. We’re most influenced by those we are closest to emotionally. Satan got to Adam when he listened to his wife (Gen. 3:17). The same phrase here (16:2) warns us that we need to be on guard not to be wrongly influenced by those closest to us and not to tempt those closest to us. The temptation to cool your zeal for the Lord will most likely come from a lukewarm mate. Be on guard (Luke 14:26)!

(2) Right motives are not enough; we need right methods. Both Abram and Sarai had pure motives. They wanted to bring about God’s will by producing the heir God had promised. They wanted to help God out. Their motives were right; but their method was wrong. In God’s work, methods are often just as important as the results. The ultimate question is not the bottom line, the results. It is rather, how did you get there? Did the result come from dependence upon God or was it produced by the flesh? Is God the source, or is fallen human nature?

This is a special problem for us, because Americans are a pragmatic people. If it works, it must be right. After all, look at the results! “These methods are proven to build your church!” But notice that Abram got the intended results with Hagar. He got a son. But it wasn’t from the Lord, and it created all sorts of problems in the short and long run. Right motives must be accompanied by right methods.

(3) Right methods involve seeking the Lord, not using culturally acceptable means to escape our problems. When Sarai said, “... the Lord has prevented me” (16:2), it should have set off warning lights. If the Lord has prevented you, then it’s wrong to try an end run to get by other means what He has prevented you. When the Lord has shut you up to some trial, be careful of removing it through your schemes. It is permissible to work to alleviate the problem if you truly seek the Lord in the process, submitting to His sovereign hand. But if you resort to human solutions that leave God out or just give God polite recognition in passing, you’re in trouble.

Sometimes people ask why I am against the various 12 Step programs. They mention a Higher Power, and they seem to help people. My problem with them is that no matter who or what your Higher Power is, the programs still work. If any Higher Power will do, even if you call it God, then the Higher Power is not essential to the process. Also, the programs have a selfish focus. Their goal is to help people overcome their problems so they can be happy, not to deal with their sins so that they can learn to please and glorify God. So even though the programs often “work,” the results come from the flesh, not from God’s Spirit. Right methods involve seeking the Lord and depending on Him.

So we’ll have family problems when we yield to wrong cultural customs instead of following God’s plan. And our culture puts pressure on our families to violate God’s Word.

2. Pressure coupled with passivity leads to problems.

One of the greatest problems in American marriages is the passive male. By passive, I mean not assuming responsibility for the spiritual direction of the marriage and family. The man dumps it on his wife, buries himself in his job, and tells himself that he is being responsible by providing financially.

But it’s not just an American phenomenon. It was a problem 4,000 years ago. In chapter 15, we find Abram listening to the word of the Lord (15:1, 4); but in chapter 16, he listens to the voice of Sarai (16:2). Abram passively goes along with Sarai’s suggestion, and then, when problems result, he tells her to do whatever she thinks is right (16:6). But he didn’t deal with it himself. He allowed Sarai to mistreat Hagar, who was now also his wife, when he should have protected her.

I’m not implying that it’s always wrong to listen to your wife. Often that is the smartest thing a husband can do! God has given us our wives to give us wisdom and insight which we often lack. The problem isn’t listening to your wife; the problem is abdicating spiritual leadership if your wife suggests something that isn’t from the Lord.

God is strangely absent from verses 1-6. He is given the credit (or blame) for preventing Sarai from conceiving, and His name is invoked to justify her point of view (16:5). But He is never sought. Abram didn’t bother to ask the Lord whether this crucial decision, which would affect the rest of his life and the rest of human history, was God’s will.

Please observe that the Lord didn’t stop Abram from doing this. All He would have had to do was say, “Abram, don’t do it!” But God was silent. In fact, the biblical record indicates that God didn’t talk to Abram again for 13 years (compare 16:16 with 17:1). Why didn’t God stop Abram? The only answer I know is that Abram didn’t bother to ask the Lord for His counsel. God won’t step in and prevent His children from making some serious mistakes if they don’t seek Him.

Sometimes I hear someone say, “I’m going to go ahead with this action and if God wants to stop me, He can.” Or I’ve heard, “I’m going to marry this non-Christian because I’ve prayed about it and feel a peace about it.” You don’t need to pray about it! God has clearly forbidden it in His Word. If you pray about it, you’re sinning, because you’re asking God to change His holy standards. God isn’t impressed with your prayers unless your heart is ready to obey, and then He will reveal what we should do. But He won’t necessarily stop us if we don’t seek Him with an obedient heart.

These verses are so true to life. First a wife pressures her passive husband into a scheme to alleviate her embarrassment in the eyes of society. He goes along with things and she gets what she wanted. But it doesn’t satisfy her, so she blames him for the problems. (Verse 5: “May the wrong done me be upon you” has the nuance of, “It’s your fault!” The NIV reads, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.”) Rather than taking responsibility at this point, Abram responds, “Do whatever you want, dear.” He was acting like a wimp, not a patriarch!

What a nagging wife really wants from her husband is usually not the thing she’s nagging about. She wants her husband to take the loving leadership in the home God intended him to take. But so many Christian husbands are just like Abram here. He wants peace, and so he abdicates spiritual leadership to avoid further conflict. But it just frustrates his wife. She wants her husband to be the loving, responsible leader in the home. If he doesn’t know what to do, he can at least admit it and say, “Let’s search the Scriptures and seek the mind of the Lord on this matter.” And then he can lead her in doing that.

Notice the problems which resulted from Abram’s passivity: There was competition between Sarai and Hagar. Common sense could have predicted that. Every time you see polygamy in the Bible, you’ve got problems. God’s design was for one man and one woman to be together for life. It is impossible for a man (or woman) to be sexually involved with another partner without it causing severe problems of jealousy and competition.

Also, it led to false pride on Hagar’s part. She now boasted that she was better than Sarai. It led to conflict between Abram and Sarai. She blamed him for the situation: “You’re the one who wanted a son so bad! I was just trying to help you out, and look what it got me!” It led to false spirituality on Sarai’s part, as she piously claimed, “May the Lord judge between you and me.” In other words, “I’m in the right; God is on my side.” It led to Sarai mistreating Hagar. While Hagar was not without her own sin in the situation, she is the victim of the scheme. She really had no choice but to go to bed with her master, and then she got caught in the cross fire. Then, of course, Ishmael resulted from Abram’s passivity in going along with Sarai’s scheme. And his descendants have plagued the descendants of Isaac ever since.

These verses teach us that we should not give in to expedience, even if we have the right motives and are seeking a godly goal. If you give in to expedience, you never get what you were after. Sarai thought she would gain a son by Hagar, a son who would fulfill God’s promise. Instead, she gained contempt for Hagar and conflict with Abram. Suddenly Sarai was the outsider in her own home.

Also, be careful when you’re trying to escape pressure. God often allows pressure to drive us to greater trust in Him. He can remove the source of the pressure when we have learned to trust Him. If you bail out of your marriage because you’re unhappy, you may find immediate relief, but you and your children will reap long-term painful consequences because you have violated God’s principle of lifelong marriage. If as a husband you take the easy way toward peace by saying, “Whatever you want, dear,” rather than by sensitively leading your wife to work through things in a godly manner, you may get quick peace but long-term conflict. The main thing is to wait on the Lord and actively seek Him in every family problem.

So we’ve seen that our culture puts pressure on our families, and that pressure, coupled with passivity, leads to problems.

3. Following God’s plan for the family is the way to resist cultural pressure.

Abram told Sarai to do to Hagar what was good in Sarai’s sight (15:6). Bad counsel! He should have told her to do what was good in the Lord’s sight. The Bible gives us God’s blueprint for the family. The main goal of the Bible is to teach us how to love God and one another (Matt. 22:37-40). We don’t need to turn to worldly wisdom (which has flooded into the church through psychology) to learn how to get along in our families. At the heart of most psychological counsel is that you need to learn to love yourself and boost your self esteem. At the heart of God’s counsel is that you need to learn to deny yourself and boost your esteem for others. Invariably, when there is conflict in the home, it is because one or both partners are failing in personal devotion toward God and they are failing to apply God’s principles for loving one another.

Conclusion

By way of conclusion, let me list four action points suggested by this text.

1. Shift your focus from seeking personal fulfillment and happiness to seeking to please and glorify God. Christians have gotten caught up in our cultural pursuit of personal fulfillment and happiness. We’ve fallen into the trap of using God and the Bible to make us happy. But if it doesn’t seem to be delivering the goods, then we bail out of our marriages or seek fulfillment in worldly pleasures, rather than submitting ourselves to God’s purpose for our personal and family lives. If you are unhappy in your marriage, the reason you should seek counsel is not so that you can become happy. You need to get help because a marriage marked by conflict does not please and glorify God. That should be your focus.

2. You cannot please and glorify God apart from saturating yourself with His Word. If you do not know God’s Word, you will simply be swept downstream with the powerful currents of our culture. As much as you need to eat to stay healthy, so you need to feed daily on God’s Word. Read it, memorize key verses, meditate on it, and seek to obey it. Psalm 1 promises blessing to the one who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, but who delights in God’s Word.

3. Strive to become a biblical thinker who challenges our culture with God’s Word, especially in family matters. Why should career success be your main goal in life? Why does your family need all the latest junk, instead of giving generously to God’s work? Why should your TV set be on for several hours every evening? Why should you run your schedule at a frenzied level like everybody else? How can your family develop a ministry mind-set? Become a biblical thinker!

4. Husbands need to assume loving leadership in the home and wives need to let them to take it. I’m not talking about becoming an Archie Bunker, who barks commands at his cowering wife and kids. That’s not biblical leadership! I am talking about leading by example from the strength of a growing, personal walk with God. The main job description for a husband is to love his wife sacrificially as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Eph. 5:25). That means never acting selfishly, but always for the ultimate good of your family. If a husband focuses on his God-ordained responsibility out of a desire to glorify God and the wife on hers, there will not be competition, but complementarity. Husbands should learn to practice the servant leadership exemplified by the Lord Jesus. Husbands should always remember that an exhaustive study of police records has shown that no woman has ever shot her husband while he was doing the dishes (Reader’s Digest [11/79])!

If we follow wrong cultural customs rather than God’s plan, we’ll have family problems. But, if we’ll focus on pleasing and glorifying God by obedience to His Word, if we learn to think biblically and lead lovingly by example in our homes, we’ll avoid many family problems and begin to experience a little bit of heaven on earth.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some pressures which our culture puts on the family that didn’t exist 100 years ago?
  2. Why is passivity among American men so common? What can Christian husbands and wives do about it?
  3. What are some ungodly American values and customs we need to challenge? What adverse affects do they have on the family?
  4. What do the biblical headship of the husband and submission of the wife mean practically? Are these roles valid for today?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Home, Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Leadership, Marriage, Parenting

Lesson 34: The God Who Sees (Genesis 16:7-16)

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Dr. James Boice tells a poignant story about an incident from his childhood. In the closing days of World War II, when Boice was seven, his father was in the Air Force, stationed in Louisiana, with the family. Many servicemen were being discharged, but since there was the risk that discharge orders could be canceled if a man didn’t leave immediately after receiving them, Boice’s family had begun to pack.

When the orders came, school was in session, so James was told that the family would leave as soon as he got home that afternoon. He was so excited he could hardly wait. He jumped off the school bus, ran up the steps to his house, and found that the door was locked. Surprised and a bit subdued, he ran around to the back door and found that it was locked too. At last he found a window he knew would be unlocked, pried it open and crawled through. To his shock, the room was empty. So was the entire house. As this seven-year-old boy made his way slowly from room to room, he got the sinking sensation that in the rush of packing and leaving quickly before the orders were canceled, his family had forgotten and left him behind. Actually his parents had gone off on a last minute errand and were waiting outside in the car for him to come home from school while he was inside wandering through the empty house. But it was a sad little boy they saw backing out of the window after his tour of the abandoned house. (Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 1:295-296.)

It’s terrible to feel abandoned by your parents. It’s also tough to feel abandoned by God. Most of us have felt that way at one time or another. Maybe things were going well and suddenly the bottom dropped out of your life. In the confusion of the events, you wondered, “Where is God in all this?”

That’s how Hagar must have felt when she fled from Sarai. Things had seemed to look up for a brief moment. Her lowly status as a servant had changed when Abram, according to the custom of the day, had taken her to produce a child on behalf of the barren Sarai. But when Hagar became pregnant, she communicated an air of superiority toward Sarai, who then mistreated her. Finally, things got so bad that Hagar took off in the direction of her homeland, out through the desert. It was a dangerous thing for a woman to do. She could have been abused or taken captive by nomadic traders. Being pregnant, she could have lost her baby from the rigors of traveling in that rugged terrain. Having had to escape, probably in the night, she would have had few supplies. But somehow she made it to a spring of water in the desert and sat down exhausted.

Hagar knew about Abram’s God, the living and true God. She must have wondered if that God knew or cared about her situation. No doubt she was confused. What could a pregnant, single woman do, even if she reached her homeland? If she had family there, they would have been too poor to help her. Her future was uncertain, her past too painful to think about. She felt abandoned by everyone on earth and forgotten by God in heaven.

It’s in that context that we read, “Now the angel of the Lord found her” (16:7). What a beautiful picture of our compassionate God, who is concerned even for this poor, confused servant girl! The angel tells her what to do and then promises that he will multiply her descendants through the child she is carrying. Hagar, encouraged and awed by this experience, gives a new name to God--”El Roi,” “the God who sees.” She then returns to Abram and Sarai and Ishmael is born.

There are two dominant themes in these verses: First, God sees Hagar (16:7-12); and second, Hagar sees God (16:13-16). God saw Hagar’s affliction; as a result, Hagar saw God’s mercy and submitted to Him. Applying it to us, we can put it:

Because God sees our affliction, we can see His mercy and submit to Him.

This story is encouraging if you are suffering and feel that God has abandoned you. He has not forgotten; He sees your affliction. Because He sees, you can see His mercy, and submit to Him.

1. God sees our affliction (16:7-12).

God saw Hagar’s affliction: “The angel of the Lord found her ....” Isn’t that great! The Good Shepherd went looking for her. God is a seeking God! We may think that we found Him, but the reality is, He found us. We were lost and confused, wandering away from Him. He came looking and found us! If you know Christ as Savior, you realize that you didn’t think, “I need a little help in my life. I’ll decide to let Jesus be my Savior.” The Son of Man did not come to seek and to save those who needed a little help. He came to seek and to save those who are lost (Luke 19:10)! It is our sinful pride that keeps us from seeing our true condition: We are lost! We must own up to that fact. But the good news is, no one, not even a lowly Egyptian servant girl, is too lost in God’s sight. The angel of the Lord found Hagar!

Who is this angel of the Lord? There is debate among scholars, but I believe that it is the Lord Jesus Christ in a preincarnate appearance. In verse 13 it is stated that it was the Lord who spoke to Hagar. (See also, Gen. 18:1-2, 17, 22, 27, 33, 19:1; 22:11-12; 24:7; 31:11, 13; 48:15-16.) So Hagar was found by and was speaking to the Lord Jesus Christ!

Hagar could flee from the presence of Sarai, but she couldn’t flee from the presence of the Lord. You can try to run from difficult circumstances, but you can’t hide from the God who put you there. Notice the irony of verse 8: The Lord knows Hagar’s name and her station in life, yet He asks her where she has come from and where she is going. Wherever in the Bible you find God asking a question, you can assume that He is not looking for information. He wants the person to think about the situation. The Lord wanted Hagar to think about two things: Where have you come from? and, Where are you going? She had come from being Sarai’s maid. As such, she was not free to flee from her duty. Where was she going? She really didn’t know. But, clearly, she wasn’t seeking after the Lord and His will.

Those are good questions to ask yourself when you’re in a difficult situation: Where have you come from? Did God allow that trial for some reason? Where are you going? Did you seek His permission to run? Our real need in a bad situation is not to escape, but to seek and to submit to the Lord. The Lord has some bad news and some good news for Hagar, and for us, at such times. First, the bad news: Hagar needed to go back and submit to Sarai. The good news: then God would bless her.

A. The “bad” news: our need in affliction is to submit to God.

We don’t like to hear that. We sputter, “But, Lord, don’t you know how I’ve been mistreated? Don’t you know how bad it is? Give me the blessing first, then I’ll submit.” But God’s way is, submit first; then He blesses. Obedience always comes before blessing.

Submit is a dirty word in our day. We Americans have a history of not submitting to anyone who oppresses us. Our country was founded because the settlers said, “The king can’t do that to us! We’ll revolt!” If we’re treated unfairly or harshly, we stand up for our rights. The very word, “submit,” makes us mad. We don’t like it.

But the Lord, who made us and who knows our real need, says, “Your number one need in a time of trial is to learn to submit to Me. And you don’t learn to submit to Me by running from the situation.” Ouch! Can’t you feel yourself wanting to fight? Don’t you want to cry out, “But, God, You don’t understand!”? But He does understand. He says to Hagar, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.”

The book of First Peter is about submission to authority in a time of trial. The Christians to whom Peter wrote were suffering, some as slaves under harsh masters, some as wives under disobedient husbands, all as citizens under an unjust government. Peter’s word to each group of victims was, “Submit” (1 Pet. 2:13, 18; 3:1). He sums it up, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7). Your number one need in a time of trial is to submit to God--humble yourself under His mighty hand. He is in control of the circumstances. He cares for you; don’t doubt His love. There are lessons which our rebellious nature cannot learn except by submitting to God in trials, even when we’re being treated wrongly or unfairly.

Some people never grow in the Lord because they have a habit of running from difficult situations where He has put them for their training. They had problems with their parents as teenagers, so they rebelled. They get a job and have problems, so they quit. They get married and have conflict, so they walk away from it. They seek counseling, but they don’t like what the counselor tells them, so they either quit or else look for a counselor who agrees with them. They join a church, but can’t get along with the people or don’t like something, so they find another church. But guess what? They discover that the new church has the same problems.

At some point they need to realize that they’re carrying their own baggage with them. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The problem is, they’ve never learned to submit to God and to allow Him to use the authority structures He has ordained to sandpaper off their rough edges. God sees our need in our affliction: To submit to Him in the difficult situations where He has sovereignly placed us.

While that’s a difficult word, it’s also a merciful word. As I said, Hagar may have suffered greatly or even perished if she had continued her flight into the wilderness. God often mercifully checks us in our disobedience to prevent us from even greater damage. The way of obedience is hard, but the way of disobedience is even more difficult. It was better for Hagar to be associated with Abram and Sarai, even with Sarai’s harshness, than with her native Egyptians, who worshiped false gods. It’s better for you to be in a local church, with all the imperfect people and their faults, than to be in the world, where God is not known.

Some of you may be in trying situations right now, but you haven’t submitted to God. Maybe your pattern has been to run from one difficult situation to the next, always blaming others or complaining about bad luck, but never humbling yourself under God’s mighty hand. You won’t know His blessing until submit to Him in whatever circumstances He has placed you. It’s hard news, but it’s not really bad.

B. The good news: When we submit to God in our affliction, He will bless us and our descendants.

The Lord says that He heard Hagar’s affliction, not her prayer (16:11). Whether Hagar was calling out to the Lord or not, we don’t know. But the Lord graciously hears our affliction, even when we fail to call out to Him as we should. But He not only hears and sees our affliction, He sees the future after our affliction is over. The Lord goes on to tell Hagar how He will greatly multiply her descendants. Concerning the son in her womb, the Lord tells her to name him Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because the Lord heard her affliction. Every time she called her son’s name, Hagar would be reminded of God’s faithfulness, that He had heard her affliction.

God reveals that Ishmael will be a wild donkey of a man, meaning, a strong, independent, untamed man. He will be a fighter, whose hand will be against everyone. In the last line of verse 12, the word means both “to the east of” and “over against.” Both were true; Ishmael’s Arab descendants both lived to the east of and were over against (in opposition to) Isaac’s descendants. There is a divine mystery here: God sovereignly chose Isaac and his line through Jacob while He set Ishmael and his descendants against His chosen people. And yet Ishmael and his race were responsible for their sin and rebellion against God. All we can say is, “How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). But it was enough for Hagar to know that her son would not, like her, be enslaved, and that he would prosper. Thus it was a word of hope to her.

There’s an application here for us: God allows U-turns in the desert! Even though we’ve run from God, if we will turn around and submit to Him in our trials, His blessing will be on us and our descendants. We can be assured that He will work out His sovereign plan for us and for our children if we will make a U-turn and submit to Him.

So the first great theme in these verses is that God saw Hagar. But Hagar also saw God. When she realized that God had seen her, she responded by acknowledging that she had seen God and she named both the Lord and the spring after her experience. Then she returned to Abram and Sarai in submission to the Lord. Even so, when we realize that God sees us in our affliction, we will gain a fresh glimpse of God.

2. We see God in His mercy and submit to Him (16:13-16).

Hagar wouldn’t have seen the Lord if it hadn’t been for her trial. God often uses trials to open us up to some fresh vision of Him which we would have missed if we hadn’t been in the difficult situation. “Hagar called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God who sees’” (16:13). God sees! Not only does God see, but even better, God sees me, and in spite of my confusion and rebellion, He lets me get a glimpse of Him!

Scholars disagree about how to interpret the Hebrew of the last sentence of verse 13. It literally reads, “I have seen here after the One who saw me.” The expression is almost identical to Exodus 33:23, where God tells Moses that he will see His back, but not His face, for no one can see His face and live. So the meaning may be, “I have caught a glimpse of God.” But since there is the motif in the Old Testament that no one can see God and live, because His glory and holiness are too awesome, some understand Hagar to be marveling that she has actually seen God and is still alive. (The NASB takes this interpretation.) The well was called “Beer-la-hai-roi,” which means either, “the well of the Living One who sees me,” or, as the scholarly C. F. Keil argues, “the well of the seeing alive,” since Hagar saw God and remained alive. The idea is, Hagar saw the God who saw her need and was merciful to her in spite of her sin. In our trials, ...

A. We see God who is merciful in spite of our sin.

When God meets you in a time of trial, as He did with Hagar, and you see Him, your first thought is, “Oh, God, how can You be so merciful to me, a sinner? I’m in this mess because of my own rebellion and sin, and yet You didn’t strike me down or let me go. You directed me in the way I need to go and promised me Your blessing if I will do it. Thank You, Lord!” You gain a fresh glimpse of the mercy of God.

When that happens, it becomes a source of testimony to others. They named the well with this unusual name, Beer-la-hai-roi: “The well of the Living One who sees me,” or, “the well of the seeing alive.” When travelers asked, “How did this place ever get this name?” the story would be told again, how God met Hagar there in her time of need, told her what to do and promised His blessing. In the same way, when God has met you in your trial and you’ve seen Him in a fresh way, use it to tell others of His great mercy.

B. God’s mercy moves us to submit to Him.

“The kindness of God leads you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Hagar submitted to God by returning to Abram and Sarai. Submission is the proper response when we see God and His mercy toward us in Christ. The text says that Abram (not Hagar) called the name of his son Ishmael. That means that Hagar told Abram of her meeting with God and of God’s command to name the boy “God hears.” That was a gentle rebuke to Abram, who had taken Hagar as his wife because he was beginning to wonder if God did, in fact, hear. He was trying to help God out.

But in our affliction, when it seems that God has forgotten us and that He isn’t hearing our prayers, we need to learn to submit to Him, not resort to our human schemes. We need to go back and put ourselves under the authority structures God has ordained for our benefit. If you’re a teenager, you need to submit to your parents. If you’re married, you need to commit yourself to your partner, in spite of the difficulties. If you’re hopping from church to church, disgruntled with each one because of the impossible people who have wronged you, you need to commit yourself to a church where Christ is honored and His Word is preached. Stick it out and work through the problems in a spirit of submission to the leadership God has placed in that church, even though they aren’t perfect. As one wag said, “If you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it. You’ll spoil it!”

Conclusion

Dr. James Dobson tells of a time when he watched his daughter’s pet hamster trying to gnaw its way out of its cage to what, no doubt, looked to the hamster like freedom. But Dobson saw what the hamster did not: the family’s pet dog, watching expectantly from a few feet away. If the hamster had worked its way free, it would have met sudden death. The cage was really its protection and blessing.

We’re often like that pet hamster. We try to break free from some confinement or trial that God has put us in, thinking that then we could really live. But God sees that our real need is to submit to Him in the trial. We need to realize that even as God saw Hagar, He sees us. He especially sees our affliction. If in our trials we will look, like Hagar, we will see God in His mercy toward us. Our response will be to submit ourselves to His loving purpose. The French writer, Paul Claudel, wrote, “Christ did not come to do away with suffering; He did not come to explain it; He came to fill it with His presence.” I pray that if you’re suffering, you’ll see the God who sees you.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is every trial from God or can trials come from Satan? Does it make any difference with regard to our response?
  2. Is it always God’s will for a Christian in a difficult trial to submit? Does submission mean not seeking a way out? When can we rightly seek a way out (e.g., of a difficult job)?
  3. Is it ever right for Christians to stand up for their rights, to rebel against their government, or to fight for the abolition of unjust social institutions, such as slavery? When? How?
  4. Is God endorsing slavery by making Hagar go back and submit to Sarai? Was God being unfair to her?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 35: Why We Do Not Baptize Infants (Genesis 17 and other Scriptures)

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Since in our study of Genesis we have come to chapter 17, which is one of the main Old Testament Scriptures used in the argument for infant baptism, and since we have people who attend our church from many denominational backgrounds, and since we are having a baptism today, I thought it would be helpful to explain why we do not baptize infants, but rather baptize by immersion only those making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Few subjects arouse more controversy among Christians than that of baptism. The Quakers do not practice it at all. Lutherans, Episcopalians, Orthodox Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church officially hold that baptism is the direct means of regeneration (the new birth). Since those churches baptize infants, they believe that those babies are being saved through their baptisms. For example, in a pamphlet titled, “Why Baptize Children?” Lutheran theologian John Theodore Mueller writes, “... Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, by which the new birth is wrought” (pp. 10-11, Concordia Publishing House). Presbyterians baptize infants, but most of them stop short of saying that baptized babies are saved. They view it as introducing the children into the covenant community and as serving as the sign and seal of the new birth, which it is hoped the child will enter in the future as he grows up in that community.

I’ll say at the outset that many of my favorite theologians held to infant baptism. They were all men whose scholarship and godliness far exceed my own. I find myself agreeing with much, for example, that John Calvin writes about the meaning and significance of baptism (Institutes, IV:XV & XVI). But when he applies it to infants, I think he is utterly inconsistent with himself and with Scripture. While I strongly disagree with infant baptism, I think we must be gracious and agree to disagree with those who hold that view. But if anyone teaches that the new birth is conveyed through water baptism, whether with infants or adults, he is teaching serious heresy on that crucial point of doctrine. The Scripture is clear that the new birth comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone (John 3:1-16).

First I want to set forth fairly the arguments in favor of infant baptism; then I want to present why we do not baptize infants and show what Scripture teaches about the meaning of baptism. It is Scripture and not church tradition which is our authority on this important matter.

Why some churches baptize infants:

The main argument for infant baptism is the connection between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New, especially as seen in the context of the covenant community. This is sometimes buttressed with the example of Noah, whose entire family entered the ark and was thus saved from the flood. First Peter 3:20-21 connects Noah’s flood with baptism. Also, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul states that all Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Since this included the children, it is argued that they are proper subjects of baptism. But the main argument is the continuity between circumcision in the covenant community under the old covenant and baptism with us, who are under the new covenant.

In Genesis 17:7 God makes it clear to Abraham that He is establishing His covenant both with him and with his descendants (“seed”) after him as an everlasting covenant. In verse 12, the Lord stipulates that every male eight days old must be circumcised. An uncircumcised male must be cut off from his people because he has broken God’s covenant (17:14). Thus the sign of the covenant was commanded to be administered to infants. In Abraham’s case, he had already believed in God when the sign was performed; but in Isaac’s case, it was done before he was old enough to believe in God’s promise, with a view to his believing later.

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul states (Col. 2:11-12), “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” Thus he connects circumcision with baptism, and so, it is argued, establishes that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant.

Also, it is argued, the household baptisms recorded in the New Testament (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor. 1:16) surely included infants. In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul refers to the children as “holy” or “sanctified” in a marriage where one partner is a believer, which is taken to mean that they are a part of God’s covenant people, presumably through baptism. The church fathers of the second and third centuries argued for infant baptism as an apostolic tradition. Since it is primarily a covenant sign and not a sign of faith on the part of the one receiving it, it is argued that we should baptize our infants into the community of faith where they will be exposed to the other means of grace. These are the main arguments for infant baptism as fairly as I can state them in the time allotted to me.

Why we do not baptize infants:

We do not baptize infants because baptism is a public confession of faith in obedience to Christ.

The clear teaching of Scripture is that all who believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord should be baptized in obedience to Him. The New Testament order is always: The preaching of the gospel; faith in the gospel; then, baptism. Never once is there an example of baptism preceding faith as the norm to be followed. And there are no examples or commands concerning the baptism of the infants or yet unbelieving children of believing parents. Consider the following verses from Acts, noting the order of belief first, then baptism:

2:41: ... those who had received his word were baptized; ...

8:12: But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.

8:36-38: And as they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch; and he baptized him.

While verse 37 [in brackets] lacks strong textual support in the earliest Greek manuscripts, its insertion in later manuscripts shows what the church held to be the necessary qualification for baptism.

10:44, 46b, 47, 48a: While Peter was still speaking these words [the gospel], the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.... Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

16:30-34: [The Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas] “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

If any children were baptized that night, the text is clear that they had believed. There is not a shred of support for infant baptism here.

18:8: And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with his whole household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

Thus the abundant testimony of the New Testament is that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ precedes baptism.

What about the argument that infant baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant (based on Col. 2:11-12)? While there are some parallels between the two signs, there are many differences. The sign of circumcision was administered to the male, physical descendants of Abraham in obedience to the specific command of God. But the New Testament is clear that it is not the physical seed of Abraham who are saved, but the spiritual seed (Rom. 4:16; 9:8; Gal. 3:7). There simply is no command to administer baptism to the physical seed of Christians, male or female. If baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers. But Jesus made it clear that the sign of the New Covenant is the Lord’s Supper, not baptism (“This cup is the new covenant in My blood ...” (1 Cor. 11:25).

Also, note that in Colossians 2 Paul is talking about believer’s baptism. He specifically states that baptism pictures being raised up from spiritual death through faith in the working of God. The parallel between baptism and circumcision concerns the picture of dying to the flesh or old life so that we can live holy lives in Christ. Paul is taking the spiritual meaning of circumcision and applying it spiritually to believers, not physically to the baptism of believers’ children.

In 1 Peter 3:20-21, Peter makes it clear that he is not referring to the physical act of baptism, but to what it symbolizes, namely, appealing to God for a good conscience, which infants who are baptized are not doing! In 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, Paul is applying the experiences of Israel spiritually to the church. Just as not all who came through the “baptism” of the Red Sea were right with God in their hearts, as evidenced by their unbelief and immorality, so not all who profess faith in Christ through baptism are necessarily regenerate. If the Corinthians think that they can claim that their profession of faith in baptism made them right with God, but continue in their ungodly living, they are greatly deceived. The text does not support infant baptism in any way; it’s just not there.

Beyond this, we can argue that infant baptism is potentially detrimental. If an adult mistakenly assumes (as it would be most easy to do if brought up under this teaching) that because he was baptized as an infant, he possesses salvation and is a member of Christ’s church, then he is sadly deceived on the most important issue of all, eternal salvation! There is no grace imparted in the physical act of baptism, apart from the faith of the one being baptized. To count on one’s baptism, whether as an infant or an adult, as the basis for standing before God is to trust in a false hope. Only personal faith in the crucified and risen Savior saves a person from sin and hell. And to baptize an infant is to rob the person of a very meaningful spiritual experience, namely, the public confession of Christ in obedience to His command after one has come to saving faith.

The meaning of baptism:

Baptism is a public confession of faith in Christ, done in obedience to His command, and as such is a picture of what salvation means. Baptism is important because Christ commanded it as a part of the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). If we neglect baptism, we’re disobeying our Lord. Since true faith always expresses itself in obedience, those who have believed in Christ and have been properly instructed about baptism will obey Christ by being baptized.

1) Baptism is the place where a believer publicly confesses Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and identifies with Christ and His church. In talking of our need to follow Him, Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.... For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34, 38). Going forward or walking the aisle is not the biblical way to initially confess Christ publicly; that came into the church through a man of questionable theology and methodology, namely, Charles Finney. Baptism is the biblical way to confess faith in Christ.

The word “baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek word, baptisma, and some related words which have the meaning of dipping or immersing. Since the immersed object became totally identified with the substance in which it was placed, the idea of identification is central to the meaning of baptism. Jesus’ baptism by John publicly identified Him who was sinless with sinners in anticipation of His death and resurrection as their sin-bearer. For us baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection; our identification with Christ’s church; and, our cleansing from sin.

2) Baptism symbolizes total identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:3-4: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Technically, we were “baptized into Christ” through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is the work whereby the Holy Spirit places a person “in Christ” at the moment of salvation. So what Paul refers to in Romans 6 is not water baptism itself, but what it pictures, namely, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At the instant we believed, we became totally identified with Christ. His death became our death, His burial our burial, His resurrection our resurrection. Going under the water symbolizes death to our old way of life; coming up out of the water pictures the beginning of a new life, lived unto God, in Christ’s resurrection power (see also, Col. 2:11-12).

3) Baptism symbolizes our identification with Christ’s church. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul states, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The main reference here, as in Romans 6, is to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when He places the believer in Christ at the moment of salvation. We become members of His body, the church. Water baptism symbolizes our identification with the church which took place spiritually at the moment of salvation. In the act of baptism, a person publicly identifies himself with other Christians. He is saying, “Now I’m one of them.”

In our culture, with religious tolerance, water baptism isn’t too threatening. But in countries where Christians are persecuted, baptism separates the true believers from the phonies. You open yourself to persecution by being baptized. But even if we don’t risk persecution, baptism should represent that sort of bold, public identification with the church.

4) Baptism symbolizes cleansing from sin. This is the point of 1 Peter 3:18-21 plus several other Scriptures. Cleansing is obviously a main symbol of water. But it is not immersion in water (or sprinkling, pouring) that cleanses the heart. Peter makes that very clear. Water can only remove dirt from the flesh. It is the blood of Christ which removes the filth from our hearts, because apart from the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22).

Because baptism is done with water, and water symbolizes cleansing, it is often mentioned in close connection with salvation. In Titus 3:5, Paul refers to God’s saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” But in the immediately preceding words he says that God saved us “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.” The act of baptism cannot save anyone.

The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Both Romans and Galatians deal extensively with the theme that we are justified (declared righteous by God) through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any works of righteousness. Many Scriptures affirm what Jesus stated, “... he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24). He told the dying thief on the cross, who called out to Him in faith, that he would be with Him that very day in Paradise (Luke 23:39-43). Obviously, the man was not baptized.

At the same time, Scripture is clear that genuine saving faith results in obedience (Eph. 2:10; 2 Thess. 1:8, “obey the gospel”). Thus every true believer who is properly taught and who has opportunity will be baptized in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. But baptism is the result of salvation, not the means to it.

Immersion, sprinkling, and pouring are three common modes. Some who practice immersion do it three times forward (once for each person of the trinity). I don’t believe that the mode of baptism should be an issue worth dividing over.

But immersion is the meaning of the Greek word; it best represents the biblical truths symbolized by baptism; and, it was the method used in the early church. Immersion best represents the truth of total identification with Christ that baptism symbolizes. When the believer goes into the water, it pictures death (separation) to his old way of life. When he comes out of the water, it speaks of the fact that now he is raised to newness of life in Christ. Immersion also pictures total cleansing from sin. While it ought to be done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), there is no indication that it requires three separate immersions. Once under better symbolizes the fact that we are placed into Christ once and for all by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

When Cortez landed at Vera Cruz in 1519 to begin his conquest of Mexico with a force of only 700 men, he purposely set fire to his fleet of 11 ships. His men on the shore watched their only means of retreat sinking to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. With no means of retreat, there was only one direction to move, forward into the Mexican interior to meet whatever might come their way.

Some of you may have put your trust in Christ, but you’re leaving your ship anchored safely in the harbor in case you decide to retreat. Baptism should be that act of setting fire to the ship. It’s a graphic reminder that you have left the old life and now are committed to go ahead with Christ. If you know Christ as your Savior but you’ve never been baptized, I urge you to do so as a confession of your faith in obedience to Christ’s command as soon as possible.

If you’ve never trusted in Christ as Savior, I hope that you will not think that because you have been baptized or that if you will get baptized, it will get you into heaven. Eternal life is the free gift God offers you based upon Christ’s death on your behalf. You can only receive it by faith in God’s promise in Christ.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should believers’ baptism be a requirement for church membership? Why/why not?
  2. Should a person who was baptized as an infant be re-baptized when he comes to faith in Christ? What Scriptures apply?
  3. How should our view of baptism affect our daily lives?
  4. After professing faith in Christ, how long should a person wait to be baptized?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Baptism, Ecclesiology (The Church), Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 36: God’s Sovereignty, Our Responsibility (Genesis 17:1-27)

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A newspaper ran the following correction: “The title of a First Christian Church program in last week’s paper was written as ‘Our God Resigns.’ The actual title is ‘Our God Reigns.’” (Reader’s Digest, 9/93, p. 53.)

Due to the prevalence of man-centered theology in our day, many Christians live as though God must have resigned as the Ruler of the universe. While no sincere Christian would come out and say such, many Christians practically deny the absolute sovereignty of God. For example, I was at a funeral where the pastor, no doubt trying to comfort those who were grieving, assured us that God had not caused this tragic accident. Perhaps he was trying to draw a fine distinction between God’s causing something and His permitting it. But I didn’t find his words very comforting. If God did not ultimately cause it, then who did? If Satan caused it against God’s will, then Satan has equal or greater power than God, which isn’t a comforting thought! If the accident was due to human free will, we must ask, “Did that free will somehow thwart God’s plan?” If so, then man, not God, is sovereign, which again is not very comforting. Either our God resigns, or He reigns.

But many Christians are afraid to affirm the absolute sovereignty of God because they think it then follows that men do not have free will and that God is then responsible for evil. They explain God’s sovereignty by saying that He simply foreknew what would happen (because knows everything in advance), but He did not predetermine or ordain everything. But this makes man sovereign, because it makes God’s plan for the ages depend on what man would do, not on what God determined in advance to do.

The Bible clearly affirms the absolute, total sovereignty of God over His creation, His absolute holiness, and, at the same time, the full responsibility of human beings as moral agents under God’s sovereignty. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are true and true at the same time, but God’s sovereignty is the basis for everything else, and must therefore take supremacy and never be diminished in order to affirm human responsibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith (III:1) strikes the balance this way:

God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

Scripture clearly affirms that God works all things after the counsel of His will, not man’s will (Eph. 1:11). At the same time and because God is sovereign, men are responsible to obey Him and submit to His sovereignty. So a proper understanding of God’s sovereignty is essential for proper obedience to Him.

We see both truths clearly in Genesis 17. Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God appears to Abram and says: “I am God Almighty [“El Shaddai”]; Walk before Me and be blameless” (17:1). God is sovereign; man is responsible to obey Him. Then God clearly spells out what He will do with and for Abraham (17:2-8). There isn’t much human free will or room for debate in these verses! God doesn’t ask Abram’s opinion, even on the personal matter of changing the 99-year-old man’s name! He simply announces, “This is the way it’s going to be; this is what I’m going to do.” Period!

There follows another command (17:9), reflecting Abraham’s responsibility to keep God’s covenant. This is followed by more divine pronouncements about what is going to happen. God changes Sarai’s name, He tells Abraham that He will give him a son by her and make her the mother of nations. When Abraham asks that Ishmael, his son by Hagar, might be God’s chosen one, God denies the request, while still assenting to bless Ishmael. But God sovereignly chooses to establish His covenant with Isaac (17:21). The chapter ends with Abraham’s obedience to God, as he and all the males in his household are circumcised. So the two major themes of this chapter are: (1) God will accomplish His sovereign purpose; (2) God’s people are responsible to keep His covenant with them. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, both in the same context. But God’s sovereignty is clearly the supreme factor, undergirding everything. We see that ...

Because God is absolutely sovereign, we must walk in obedience before Him, no matter how difficult.

1. God is absolutely sovereign.

The Bible starts with God, not with man: “In the beginning, God ...” (Gen. 1:1). Who God is has definite implications for how we should live. Here God appears to Abram and announces, “I am El Shaddai [God Almighty].” This is the first of 48 uses of this name for God in the Old Testament (31 times in Job). Though there is debate among Hebrew scholars, it probably comes from a word meaning “mountain,” thus pointing to God’s strength and stability. The Septuagint (200 B.C.) and the Latin Vulgate translated it, “all-powerful.” In the context of Genesis 17, God is clearly the sovereign One, telling Abram what He as God is going to do and how He expects Abram to obey. This name points to God as the One who has the power to carry out His purposes and promises. Abram’s response of falling on his face before God (17:3, 17) shows that Abram knew who is Lord and who is not!

God’s sovereignty is fundamental to His very nature as God. A non-sovereign God isn’t God at all. R. C. Sproul was once teaching on this. He began the class by reading from the part of the Westminster Confession I cited above, “God, from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” He stopped at this point and asked, “Is there anyone in this room who does not believe the words that I just read?” Many hands went up. He then asked, “Are there any convinced atheists in the room?” No hands were raised. He then said, “Everyone who raised his hand to the first question should also have raised his hand to the second question.” He went on to argue that if there is a single molecule in the universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. That one maverick molecule could perhaps lay waste all of God’s plans and promises toward us. He concluded, “Without sovereignty God cannot be God” (Chosen By God [Tyndale], pp. 25-27).

A. God’s sovereignty means that He initiates, follows through, and fulfills His purpose in His timing and way.

Note the authoritative manner in which God tells Abram what is going to happen. He repeatedly states, “I will,” and “you shall” (17:2-8). God doesn’t dicker or feel Abram out for his opinion. God announces, God commands, God reveals what He has already determined to do. Abram did not set up this interview and he didn’t determine when it would end. God appears without being summoned, tells Abram what is going to happen, and (17:22), “when He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.” God’s sovereignty means that God, not man, determines the course of human history and works it out in His time-table and way, not ours.

God’s sovereignty extends over the salvation of men. It is here that many people stumble. They think that God is not fair if He saves some and not others. But Scripture is quite clear that it is God and not men who sovereignly determines who will be saved. We have already seen how God sovereignly chose Abram when he was dwelling in Ur of the Chaldees, living as a pagan. God did not choose Abram’s countrymen or neighbors. He did not choose Abram’s father or brothers. He chose Abram. Here God tells Abram that while He will bless Ishmael and his descendants in a material and temporal way, His covenant will be established with Isaac (17:20-21).

Was God unfair to Ishmael? Is He unfair to anyone who is not chosen to salvation? Only if Ishmael and those not chosen deserve to be saved. If anyone deserves to be saved and God does not save him, God is most unfair. But if all deserve His judgment and He sovereignly chooses to save some, that is His prerogative as God. As Paul argues in Romans 9:19-23, we who are clay dare not challenge the Potter’s sovereign right to do as He pleases with what He has made. Those not chosen for salvation get precisely what they deserve, namely, God’s justice. But God is not unfair to any by showing mercy to some. In fact, if God had not chosen certain ones unto salvation, none could ever be saved, because the “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14, italics mine).

Why do I emphasize this? It’s not just an abstract theological point that’s interesting to debate. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is important for a proper understanding of salvation. If you think that you are responsible for your own salvation, whether through your good deeds, your free will, or your faith, you will not despair of yourself and cast your hopeless self upon the sovereign mercy of God. But if you come to the end of yourself and realize that there is nothing in you deserving of God’s salvation, then, with the tax collector in Jesus’ story, you cry out in desperation, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). It is then that you are saved.

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is also the foundation for a life of submission and trust, because it humbles our pride and it assures us that God will prevail and that those who oppose Him will ultimately lose. It’s at the heart of all Christian service, because it assures us that our labor is not in vain in the Lord. It enables us to endure trials and to wait upon God, even as Abraham did, because we know that in God’s perfect time, He will do what He has promised, even if we are persecuted or suffer and die. Thus God’s sovereignty means that He initiates, follows through, and fulfills His purpose in His timing and way, as seen here in His dealings with Abraham.

But, why did God make Abraham wait so long before He gave him Isaac? Why wouldn’t God let Ishmael do?

B. God’s sovereignty means that He gets all the glory and man gets none.

Abraham’s response in verse 18 shows that by this time, he was quite content with Ishmael as the promised son. In these 13 years, Abraham had grown quite attached to the boy, in spite of the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar. But God definitely rejects Ishmael and states that Sarah will bear Abraham a son and that this son will be the one with whom God will establish His covenant.

Why not Ishmael? Because Ishmael represented man’s effort helping God out (Gal. 4:29). In Ishmael, Abram could boast, because he was able to produce a son. But by the time Isaac came along, both Abraham and Sarah were humanly beyond their ability to reproduce. They could take none of the credit. All the glory went to God. God’s delay with Abraham and Sarah brought them to the end of themselves so that His grace got all the credit. If our proud flesh can grab any glory for itself, it will. That’s why God waits until we come to the end of ourselves.

Again, this is true of salvation. If we think that we can contribute anything to our own salvation, we’ll take the credit. If we think we came to Christ by our own free will, we’ll boast in our wise choice. If we think it was by our faith, we’ll boast in our great faith. If we think it was by our rational ability, we’ll boast in our great intellect. But if our salvation depends solely on God’s sovereign election, and if God chose those who were foolish, weak, and despised, then no man can boast before God (1 Cor. 1:27-31).

We struggle with the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty because it kills the flesh. We can’t take any credit for our salvation if it is totally of God and not at all from us. By the flesh, we can produce an Ishmael, and it’s good enough for us. But God doesn’t work that way. He wants to bring us all to the end of ourselves, and then He gives us Isaac as a free gift, so that we bow before Him, lost in wonder, even as Abraham laughed in astonishment at what God was going to do (17:17). The only way to come to terms with God’s sovereignty is to submit and let God be God.

But does this mean that we then kick back passively and do nothing? Not at all. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty should motivate us to walk in obedience:

2. We are responsible to walk in obedience before Him, no matter how difficult.

 

It is because He is God Almighty that we are to walk before Him and be blameless (17:1). It is because He has sovereignly established His covenant and because He will carry it out that we are to keep His covenant (17:2-9). Note two things:

A. We are responsible to walk obediently.

Verse 1 may be translated, “Walk before Me and you shall be blameless.” Blameless does not mean perfection, which no believer attains in this life. This word is used to describe both Noah (Gen. 6:9) and Job (Job 1:8), yet neither man was sinlessly perfect. The meaning of the word is “whole,” or “having integrity.” It refers to a person who walks honestly and openly before God, who fears God and seeks to obey Him, and who confesses and turns away from sin. The word “walk” implies a step by step process. A walk is not spectacular and not a quick fix. But if you keep walking in the same direction, eventually you will get where you’re going. For the believer, that direction is holiness.

Sometimes, frankly, obedience is a struggle. If Abraham struggled over God’s rejection of Ishmael, there is no word in Scripture. And if he struggled over the command to be circumcised, there is not a hint of it here. His obedience was thorough and instant (17:23, 26). But it wasn’t easy.

B. We are responsible to obey even when it’s not easy.

There are several difficult things in this story that Abraham had to submit to. First was his name change. It was hard enough to be named “Exalted Father” (Abram) when he didn’t have any children. But at least with the birth of Ishmael the sting was mitigated. But now, before the birth of Isaac, God tells the 99-year-old Abram that he gets a new name: “Father of a Multitude” (Abraham)! If his name was an embarrassment before, what now? It would be like a totally bald man named Harry whom God told, “Now you’re going to be called, Bushy-headed Harry.” Abraham would have been the butt of every joke around!

Then there was this matter of circumcision. And it wasn’t just a private matter that Abraham could take care of behind closed doors. He had to do it to every male in his extended household! It wasn’t just the excruciating physical pain that was difficult to endure. This rite permanently disfigured a man at the place of his virility, where he would most want to blend in with everyone else. Why couldn’t God just make the sign of the covenant be a tattoo on the arm or an earring or something?

By submitting to God’s command for circumcision, Abraham was yielding his procreative powers totally to God. He was acknowledging his total dependence on God to produce the promised heir. It meant Abraham’s putting no confidence in his flesh, but rather trusting God totally to do what He promised to do so that all the glory goes to Him.

In the case of the men who followed Abraham, circumcision pictured the importance of sexual purity in obedience to God. It set the Hebrews apart, so that if a Hebrew young man decided to have sexual relations with a pagan woman, she couldn’t help noticing that he was different. At that point, he would be reminded that he belonged to the living God, and he would be faced with a rather awkward witnessing situation!

The application is, obedience to God is often difficult, and it sets you apart as distinct from our wicked culture, so that you may become the object of ridicule. But because our God is the sovereign God, the God who has chosen us and entered into His covenant with us, we are responsible to obey Him, even when it is difficult or embarrassing.

Conclusion

I believe that a major cause of the worldliness and impurity that permeates the modern evangelical church is that we have a watered-down view of the sovereignty and supremacy of our God. It was when Abraham had this vision of God as God Almighty, who sovereignly gives and keeps His covenant with a man who had messed up as often as Abraham had, that he obeyed without question. Recovering a proper vision of the Sovereign God is the basis for obedience, even when it’s not easy.

Pastor John Piper tells of a time when he felt impressed to preach on God’s greatness as revealed in Isaiah 6. Normally he would have tried to apply the text, but on this Sunday, he simply tried to lift up and display the majesty and glory of God, without a word of application. He did not realize that one of the young families in his church had just discovered that their child was being sexually abused by a close relative. They were there that Sunday and heard his message.

Piper says that many advisors to us pastors would have said, “Pastor Piper, can’t you see that your people are hurting? Can’t you come down out of the heavens and get practical? Don’t you realize what kind of people sit in front of you on Sunday?” Some weeks later he learned the story. The husband took him aside after a service and said, “John, these have been the hardest months of our lives. Do you know what has gotten me through? The vision of the greatness of God’s holiness that you gave me the first week in January. It has been the rock we could stand on.”

Piper concludes, “The greatness and glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. Our people are starving for God.” (The Supremacy of God in Preaching [Baker], pp. 10-11.)

I direct your attention to the Sovereign, Covenant-making, Covenant-keeping God. When you see Him as God Almighty, you will be able to join Abraham in walking in obedience before Him, even when it is difficult, as it often is.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the explanation that God’s election is simply due to His foreknowledge not biblically sound?
  2. How can God be absolutely sovereign and yet not responsible for sin and evil?
  3. One popular author says that God has done all He can do to bring all to heaven, and now it’s up to our choice. Why is this not biblically defensible?
  4. Some argue that if God sovereignly predetermines everything, it makes the warnings of Scripture a sham. Your response?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Predestination

Lesson 37: Friendship With God (Genesis 18:1-8)

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(2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23; John 14:21, 23)

When Jimmy Carter was President of the United States, on several occasions he spent the night in the homes of common Americans, picked somewhat at random. It was an attempt on his part to show that he was in touch with the average American, that he understood the way we live and the concerns we have.

I’m sure that it would be a memory of a lifetime to have the President spend the night in your home. But I’ve also wondered what kind of panic it would have created in many homes to receive a call from the White House asking if the President could stay in your home. What kinds of maintenance and repairs would you have to do to get your house ready for a presidential visit? Would it need fresh paint inside and out? How much cleaning would you have to do? Would you have to buy new furniture? What about the carpets? What about your yard? Would you want to hire a gardener to do some major landscaping or at least some weeding and bush-trimming? It could get expensive just to have the President as an overnight guest!

What if you got a call from heaven saying that the Lord Jesus Christ and a couple of angels planned to visit your home? How much lead time would you need to get it ready? You’d want to clean and paint and do the yard work. But also, what would Jesus think about the magazines and paperbacks laying around your house? What about the TV and videos that frequently play? Would you be embarrassed for the Lord to see all the stuff you’re spending your money on? Would you be comfortable for Him to see the way you normally live? Of course you’d want to warn the kids to behave perfectly while the Lord was there, or they’d catch it later! And, you and your wife would want to make sure there weren’t any flare-ups between the two of you. No doubt after your guests left, you’d all heave a sigh of relief and get back to life as usual!

But what if the Lord didn’t just come for a visit? What if He moved in as a permanent resident? Every time you come home, He is there, watching everything that takes place. Would you view it as a blessing or as a burden? As Christians, we talk about having a personal relationship with God. But, if the truth were known, many of us don’t want it to be too personal! It’s one thing to invite the Lord in for an occasional meal, when the house is in order and the kids are on their best behavior. But having the Lord move in as a permanent resident and observer of all that goes on would be a bit too much! We couldn’t let our hair down and be comfortable with His constant presence.

The extent to which we block God out of certain areas of our lives is a measure of the distance in our relationship with Him. Friends are comfortable and open with one another. Close friends don’t block each other out of certain areas. They don’t hide how they really live. A close friend feels free to drop by and catch us when the house is a mess, and we don’t feel uncomfortable with the visit. Those who are friends with the living God welcome Him into the most intimate and personal areas of life, and count it a privilege to know Him and be known by Him.

Believers are privileged to enjoy friendship with God.

This is one of the lessons that emerges from one of the most remarkable incidents in human history, recorded in Genesis 18. The Lord Jesus Christ, in human form 2,000 years before He was born to the virgin Mary, along with two angels in human form, visited Abraham (see 18:1, 10, 13, 17, 22; 19:1). The three heavenly visitors ate a meal and then the Lord revealed to Abraham and Sarah that the promise concerning a son would be fulfilled the following year. The two angels left and went toward Sodom to rescue Lot and his family before the Lord rained fire and brimstone on that wicked city. The Lord stayed behind and revealed to Abraham what He was about to do. Abraham then interceded with the Lord on behalf of Sodom.

It is based on this chapter that three times in Scripture Abraham is called the friend of God, once by God Himself* (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8*; James 2:23). There is debate as to how soon Abraham recognized the heavenly character of his guests. Some say that he didn’t know it until after the meal, when the Lord called Sarah by name (without being introduced) and repeated the promise about Isaac. The verse in Hebrews 13:2 about some entertaining angels without knowing it may lend support to this view. Others say he recognized the Lord immediately. I’m inclined to agree, because Abraham had seen the Lord before (12:7; 17:1), and it seems likely that the Lord would take the same human form in successive visits. Also, Abraham’s lavish hospitality, while perhaps typical of that culture, seems to indicate that he knew that these men were special guests. His plea that these men not pass him by (18:3) also would point to Abraham’s perception that these men were unique.

Friendship with God is something that sounds wonderful at first, until you stop to think about the implications. Remember, we’re talking about being friends with the Lord and His destroying angels, who were on their way to wipe out wicked Sodom and Gomorrah! This is the Lord who knew when Sarah laughed in her heart in unbelief, even though she was not in sight (18:12-13)! He could be a rather threatening sort of friend! Do you want that kind of friend? If we would dare to have a personal relationship with God, this chapter has some principles on how to cultivate friendship with Him.

1. Friendship with God begins when we are reconciled to God through faith.

Scripture teaches that by nature we all are children of wrath, hostile to God and alienated from Him (Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18; Rom. 8:7). This applies to those raised in the church as well as to those who have lived outwardly wicked lives. It applies to decent, law-abiding folks and to those who have committed terrible crimes. It does not matter whether or not we feel hostile toward God; what matters is how God views us. Our sin, both the sin we inherit from birth and the acts of sin we commit after birth, separates us from Him and makes us His enemies. It’s vitally important that we accept what Scripture reveals about our sinful condition rather than how we feel about ourselves, because Satan blinds the minds of those outside of Christ so that they cannot perceive their true condition or their need for the gospel (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4). He uses false teachers to deceive people by proclaiming peace with God to them when there is not true peace (Jer. 8:11; 23:17).

Because alienation from God due to sin is the universal human condition, we must be reconciled with God through a just resolution of our sin problem before we can begin a friendship with Him. This happens when a sinner believes God concerning His provision of an acceptable substitute who paid the penalty for sin on the sinner’s behalf. Abraham believed God concerning the Son who would come forth from him who would be the Savior of the world, and God credited the work of that Savior to Abraham as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). The apostle Paul cites this verse twice in the context of arguing that we are declared righteous by God on the basis of faith, not by works (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6). James cites the same verse in the context of arguing that genuine faith always results in a life of good deeds (James 2:23). In other words, we are saved (justified) by faith in Christ alone, but genuine faith in Christ never stops there, but always shows itself in a life of progressive godliness. But the point I am insisting on as foundational is that you must trust in Christ as your sin-bearer before you can develop a friendship with God.

2. Friendship with God requires being available for it.

Friendships take time, and friendship with God is not an exception. Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent when these three heavenly visitors came by, and he wasn’t so busy that he couldn’t spend the time with them. He wasn’t rushing from one appointment to the next, with dozens of things to do crying out for his attention.

I realize, of course, that Abraham lived in a completely different culture than ours. It would be centuries before somebody invented the clock and the telephone, let alone the beeper and car phone! I’m no stranger to busyness. I have to use an appointment calendar to survive. When I was in college, the couple who worked with our church college group were mavericks who decided that the clock is our enemy. So they got rid of their clocks and wrist watches, so they wouldn’t be under such tyranny. This was nice for them, but it thoroughly frustrated all of us who had to work with them, because they somehow never managed to get to meetings before everyone else. They were always the late ones who inconvenienced the rest of us!

So I’m not suggesting that we should get rid of our appointment books or throw away our watches! But I am saying that if you want to be a friend of God, you’ve got to take the time to spend alone with Him. If you’re married and you only spend a few minutes a week together as a couple, but you spend hours of time with seductive women (or men), you won’t be doing very well in your marriage. If you’re so busy that you do not take time regularly for reading, studying, and memorizing the Bible, for prayer, for reading good Christian books, and for being with God’s people, but you’re spending hours with a world that is trying to seduce you away from God, you will not be growing in your relationship with God. You may have to put it on your daily or weekly schedule. But a friendship with God is not magic. It won’t happen if you’re not available for it.

3. Friendship with God requires being hospitable toward God.

Hebrews 13:2 uses this incident as an example of the kind of hospitality we are to show toward strangers. Hospitality is a wonderful quality we all need to work at improving. It is a qualification for a church elder (1 Tim. 3:2). A hospitable host makes his guests feel welcome and comfortable. Here Abraham entreats these visitors to stay and be refreshed (18:3-5). Matthew Henry observes, “God is a guest worth entreating.” If we covet God’s friendship, we should do everything we can to be hospitable toward Him, so that He is welcome in our lives and homes. Abraham demonstrates several ingredients of hospitality:

(1) Eagerness of hospitality--As you read these verses you are struck with the eagerness on Abraham’s part. He ran from the tent door to meet these men and earnestly entreated them to stay. When they agreed, he hurried into the tent and told Sarah, “Quickly, make some bread”; then he ran to the herd, selected a calf and gave it to the servant who hurried to prepare it. Remember, we’re talking about a man who was 100 years old and it was during the heat of the day in Palestine! All of this hurried activity shows how eager Abraham was to fellowship with his heavenly guests.

Do you have that same eagerness to fellowship with the living Lord? Or could your initial enthusiasm have died down over the years? Spending time alone with God shouldn’t be a duty; it should be a delight! In the little booklet, “My Heart, Christ’s Home,” Robert Boyd Munger compares his heart to a home where Christ has been invited to dwell as the heavenly guest. He goes room by room, showing how the Lord cleaned the dirty books off the shelves of the study, took down the filthy pictures, how He cleaned the dining room of unhealthy appetites and desires, etc.

The drawing room was a comfortable room with a quiet atmosphere. The Lord agreed to meet him there each morning for fellowship. At first, it was wonderful, as they met and the Lord would pull a book of the Bible from the book case and they would commune together. But as the pressure of outside responsibilities grew, that time with the Lord got crowded out. Soon, he was missing several days in a row.

Then one morning as he was rushing out the door, he passed the drawing room and noticed that the door was ajar. Looking in, he saw the Master sitting in there, alone. Grieved, he said, “Master, have you been here all these mornings?” “Yes,” said the Lord, “I told you I would be here every morning to meet with you. Remember, I love you. I have redeemed you at great cost. I desire your fellowship. Even if you cannot keep the quiet time for your own sake, do it for mine.”

One of the things that strikes me about Abraham’s eager hospitality is that he is totally focused on ministering to his guests--washing their feet, feeding them, seeing that they are refreshed. There doesn’t seem to be any consideration of what’s in it for himself. So often we think about a devotional time from the angle of what’s in it for me, but we fail to consider doing it for the Lord’s sake. In Acts 13:2, we read of Paul, Barnabas, and some other men “ministering to the Lord.” It’s not that the Lord is lacking anything in His perfections as God. He doesn’t need our ministry to Him in that sense. The Lord and the two angels didn’t need Abraham’s food or footwashing. But friendship is two-way, and the Lord is pleased to accept our ministry, even as He was willing for Abraham to show hospitality to Him. If you’ve lost the eagerness of meeting with the Lord, remember, it’s not just for you. He wants to fellowship with you because He loves you as a father loves his children. Like Abraham, we need to be eager to meet with the Lord.

(2) Effort of hospitality--I’m also struck by the effort Abraham put into his hospitality. He didn’t walk--he ran to get everything going to make preparation for his guests, and then he stood by as they ate, attentive to their needs. His effort showed his guests how much he desired their fellowship.

If you only spend time with the Lord when it’s convenient, when you feel like it, and it’s no trouble, you won’t be growing in friendship with Him. Some people feel as if relationships should be totally spontaneous and effortless. I agree that there is a spontaneous aspect to good relationships that keeps them fresh. But relationships also require effort. If you never give any thought or effort toward how to foster your marriage relationship, I would predict that your marriage isn’t going very well. It’s easy to get busy and let all sorts of things crowd out the relationships you really cherish. To make time for those relationships takes effort.

It’s the same with the Lord. You have to say no to some good and enjoyable things so that you can spend time with Him. You have to think about how to foster that friendship. You have to set some goals and do some hard study and reading. Again, I’m not denying the spontaneity and fun of friendship with God. I’m just saying that if you don’t put effort into it, you won’t be growing in it.

(3) Expense of hospitality--Abraham’s friendship with God wasn’t cheap. He modestly says that he will bring his guests a piece of bread (18:5) and then has Sarah bake enough bread for a small army (about 8 gallons of flour)! He kills a choice calf and adds curds and milk. He spared no expense to entertain his heavenly visitors. Hospitality is expensive.

Friendship with the Lord will cost you. Of course, it cost the Lord everything. But there’s also a price you must pay. I’ve already mentioned the time it costs. It also costs money, because as you get into God’s Word, the Lord will put His finger on your finances and say, “I want you to honor Me by being more careful about how you spend the money I entrust to you so that you can be more generous in giving to My work.” He will want you to be generous in showing hospitality to others. You also may need to invest some money in good books that will enable you to grow in your friendship with God. I’m amazed at how some Christians spend $25 or more each month to get the sewage from the TV cable pumped into their homes, but they won’t spend the money to purchase basic Bible study tools.

On one occasion, King David wanted to purchase the site of the threshing floor of a man named Araunah as a place to offer burnt offerings. Later it actually became the site for Solomon’s Temple. Araunah offered to give it to his king, but David replied, “No, but I will surely buy it from you for a price, for I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (1 Kings 24:24). Again, salvation is the free gift of God. You can’t buy it for any amount. But if you’ve received it, I encourage you to invest some money toward your friendship with God in the ways I’ve mentioned.

Thus, friendship with God begins by being reconciled to Him through faith in Christ. It requires being available for the relationship and being hospitable toward the Lord. Finally,

4. Friendship with God requires obedience to God.

It is significant that the Lord’s appearance here to Abraham (18:1) follows immediately on Abraham’s obedience to the sign of the covenant (17:23-27). The Lord reveals Himself to the obedient. Jesus said, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him.... If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him” (John 14:21, 23). If we want God to make His home with us, we must be growing in obedience to Him.

As I said last week, Abraham’s obedience in being circumcised wasn’t an easy thing to do. It was painful. It would have invited ridicule. It probably didn’t make much sense. But Abraham did it. We’ll see in chapter 22 the ultimate test of obedience, when God commands Abraham to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering. I can’t imagine a more difficult command, and yet by this time Abraham had such implicit trust in his heavenly Friend that he obeyed without question! While none of us may reach Abraham’s pinnacle of obedience, we must be growing in obedience if we want to cultivate friendship with God. It may not be easy. The Lord may be asking you to break off a relationship with an unbeliever for whom you have deep feelings. He may be asking you to go to another country to serve Him. Perhaps He is putting His finger on a sin that you love, insisting, “That has to go now!” If you’re His friend, you’ll obey.

Conclusion

It’s always an honor to be friends with someone important, such as a president. Around Washington, certain people are called F.O.B., which stands for, “Friend of Bill” (Clinton). But every Christian has a much higher honor, to be a Friend of God. We begin that friendship by being reconciled to God through faith in Christ and His shed blood. We cultivate the friendship by making ourselves available to God, by being hospitable toward Him, and by growing in obedience to Him. I hope that the thought of God Almighty paying your life and your home a visit wouldn’t make you uncomfortable, but that you welcome Him and commit yourself to a growing friendship.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you counsel a Christian who says he has lost the joy of fellowship with the Lord?
  2. Can a Christian be close to God without being a reader (of the Bible and of good Christian books)? How?
  3. Does being a friend with God mean being “good buddies”? Where is the balance with the fear of God (see 18:27, 30)?
  4. How do you square God’s unconditional love with John 14:21 & 23? Does God love everyone just the same?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Relationships

Lesson 38: Nothing Too Difficult For God (Genesis 18:9-15)

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One of life’s embarrassing moments is when you’re in a crowd and you laugh at something which no one else laughs at. About all you can do at that point is to turn your laugh into a cough to try to cover it up. At those moments, you wish you could become invisible.

Have you ever thought about how embarrassing it would be if your thoughts were uncontrollably linked to your vocal cords, so that whatever you were thinking was broadcast for everyone to hear? Instead of, “I’m pleased to meet you,” you would blurt out, “Oh, no! I’m going to miss the kickoff if I talk to him now!” Instead of, “Great sermon, pastor,” as you go out the door, you would hear yourself saying, “I thought it never would end!”

You can identify, then, with poor Sarah. She laughed when God did not. She managed to conceal her laughter, but that doesn’t work with the Lord, who knows the very thoughts and intentions of our hearts. When the Lord said, “Why did Sarah laugh?” she denied it and said, “I didn’t laugh.” But the Lord knew differently and said, “No, but you did laugh.” It wasn’t a laughing matter to the Lord.

The problem was that Sarah’s laughter reflected her unbelief in the promise of God. Unbelief is a more serious sin than most of us realize. To doubt God’s promise is tantamount to calling God a liar. It is to say that I know better than the eternal Creator. It is to demote God from His place of sovereign power and to promote myself over Him. God doesn’t take kindly to unbelief.

All of us struggle, at different levels, with the problem of unbelief. Perhaps, like Abraham and Sarah, you’ve prayed for something for years, but God has not answered. Life is passing you by while you wait. You struggle with doubt as you often wonder whether He is hearing your prayers. You may have suffered some tragedy, such as the loss of a close loved one, and you wonder, “Where was God when this happened?” Maybe it’s a family problem that has dragged on for years. You wonder, “Why doesn’t God do something? Why doesn’t He answer?” Sometimes I’ve struggled with doubt when I’ve needed some small thing that would be easy for God to provide, something which I knew would further His work, and yet in spite of my prayers, God did not answer.

The Lord’s word to Sarah speaks to all who struggle with unbelief (and that’s all of us): “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The absurdity of the question gives it its punch. How could anything be difficult for the Lord, who spoke the universe into existence? And if nothing is difficult for Him, then how can I persist in my unbelief? God goes for the jugular. He makes us confront our doubt. This story of Abraham and Sarah waiting all these years for the promised son teaches us an important spiritual lesson:

God brings us to the end of our strength so that we will trust in His ability to do the impossible.

By nature we all trust in ourselves most of the time, and in God only when we really have to. If we trust in ourselves, then we glory in ourselves. But God’s purpose is that we glory in Him alone. So through various means He graciously brings us to the place where we have no hope except in Him, so that we trust in Him and He gets the glory. The first step in this process is ...

1. God brings us to the end of our strength.

After the meal, the guests ask Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife?” (18:9). It’s an interesting question, since they know the name of Abraham’s wife without any mention of it by Abraham. Later the Lord knows what Sarah is thinking. And yet here He asks, “Where is she?” Why does He ask this? I think the Lord asked so that Sarah, hearing her name spoken, would eaves-drop on the conversation to follow. Abraham had already heard the promise concerning Isaac (17:15-19). Surely he had told Sarah. But she was struggling with doubt. So now the Lord comes so that Sarah can hear it straight from His mouth and believe.

Note that the Lord begins by promising that which was humanly impossible: “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son” (18:10). We are informed, “Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.” The Lord couldn’t see her from where He was standing. We’re also reminded that Abraham and Sarah were old, and that Sarah was past the age of childbearing (18:11). It was humanly impossible for her to bear a son. She was already through menopause. In her natural strength, she was barren.

That’s where the Lord wants us in our relationship with Him, to recognize our weakness so that we will trust His strength. Many people mistakenly think that the reason they struggle in their Christian lives is that they’re too weak. That isn’t so. The reason we struggle in our Christian walk is that we do not recognize our own weakness for what it is, and so we trust in ourselves rather than in the Lord. When we see our weakness and cast ourselves on the Lord’s strength, then we’re strong. God doesn’t help those who help themselves. God helps those who are helpless. When they helped themselves, Abraham and Sarah came up with Hagar and Ishmael. When they were helpless, God gave them Isaac. Hudson Taylor used to say that when God wanted to open inland China to the gospel, He looked around until He found a man weak enough for the task.

This applies to salvation. One of the main things that keeps people from God’s salvation is the notion that they can do something to contribute to the process. They think that if they clean up their lives a bit, or if they go to church or give money or whatever, they can qualify for salvation. But Scripture is clear that Christ didn’t die for decent folks who have worked hard to put their lives in order. Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6). You can’t receive the salvation He offers until you see yourself as a sinner, quit trying to save yourself, and cast yourself upon His free and sovereign grace, crying out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” Salvation is not a matter of human ability combined with God’s ability. Salvation is totally of the Lord.

But our problem is that even after we’ve trusted in Christ for salvation, we mistakenly think that we’re competent to live the Christian life with just a little help from the Lord. And so the Lord has to bring us again and again to the point of helplessness, where we acknowledge our own insufficiency and depend His all-sufficiency. This is illustrated many times in the Bible.

Take Hannah (1 Samuel 1), for instance. She was another barren woman who desperately wanted to have a son. The Lord wanted her to have a son, too. So do you know what He did? He closed her womb! That’s a strange way to give a woman a son! Her husband’s other wife, Peninnah, who was not a godly woman, had many children. How frustrating for Hannah, crying out to the Lord for a son, to see Peninnah, who didn’t seek the Lord, with many children!

But that’s how God works with His people. He wants us to see that without Him, we can do nothing. If Hannah could have had children on her own, like Peninnah, she wouldn’t have needed the Lord. And the Lord wasn’t getting any glory from Peninnah and her brood. She could get along quite nicely by herself. But when Hannah finally had Samuel because the Lord gave him to her, she sang a song of praise and gave Samuel back to the Lord to serve Him.

God wants each of us to see that our situation is humanly impossible without Him. That way, we’ll look to Him for His power, praise Him when He delivers us, and He will be glorified through our lives. But sometimes, instead of trusting Him with our impossible situations, like Sarah, we doubt Him. What is the source of our unbelief?

2. Unbelief stems from a human perspective that leaves God out.

There is a difference between Abraham’s laughter (17:17) and Sarah’s laughter, as seen in the fact that the Lord did not rebuke Abraham for laughing, but He did rebuke Sarah. Abraham’s laughter may have stemmed from his being startled or astonished at what the Lord had just told him. He had it fixed in his mind that Ishmael would be the son of the promise (as 17:18 shows). But apparently the Lord, who knows our hearts, knew that Abraham was not doubting God’s promise to give them a son through Sarah. He was just surprised by what God had said.

But Sarah’s laughter was different. It stemmed from her unbelief which stemmed from looking at things from a human perspective. She was past the age where she could bear children. Besides, she had been barren even when she was younger. Remember, Sarah’s comment in 18:12 represents what she thought to herself, not what she said out loud. The gist of it was, “I’m too old even to enjoy sex with my husband, let alone get pregnant and bear a child!” Adding up all the human factors, she concluded that she could not in any way bear a son at age 90. But she left out one crucial factor in her calculations: the power of the omnipotent God to do that which is humanly impossible!

We’re so quick to calculate from our human perspective how God is going to be able to do His work. Before Jesus fed the 5,000, He asked Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread, that these may eat?” (John 6:5). Here were about 20,000 hungry people (including women and children) in a remote place. The disciples had already told the Lord their solution: “Send them away, so that they can buy bread” (Mark 6:36). But the Lord tested Philip by asking, “Where are we going to buy bread?” It was a humanly impossible situation.

Philip should have said, “Lord, apart from Your power, there is no way that we can come up with enough bread to feed this crowd.” But what did Philip do? He got out his calculator and determined that 200 denarii (200 day’s wages) worth of bread wouldn’t even be enough. So what? The disciples couldn’t have scraped together 200 denarii if their lives depended on it. But that’s how we think when we look at things from a human perspective. We calculate, but we leave God out of the calculation.

Perhaps you’re facing an overwhelming problem right now. Maybe it’s the salvation of a loved one, and you’ve thought, “There’s no way this person is going to come to faith in Christ. He’s just too far gone in sin. He’s been addicted to drugs for years. He’s been drinking and lying and living for self, with no possibility that he’s going to change.” No human possibility! But is anything too difficult for the Lord? With God, all things, including the salvation of the chief of sinners, is possible! Factoring God into any situation suddenly changes the equation!

As I said, we tend to shrug off our unbelief as if it’s no big deal. But God doesn’t do that. There’s a theologically staggering verse in Mark 6:5, which states that Jesus could do no miracle in His home town of Nazareth, except for healing a few sick people. The next verse adds that “He wondered at their unbelief.” Even though God is sovereign in His almighty power, He has chosen to limit His working through our faith. So He views unbelief as a serious sin, and He confronts it in His people, just as He confronted it in Sarah:

3. The Lord confronts our unbelief so that we will see things from His perspective.

The Lord’s confrontation got Sarah to face her sin and to look at things from His perspective. Isn’t it interesting that the Lord first confronted Abraham about Sarah’s sin (18:13)? The Lord viewed Abraham as spiritually responsible for his family (18:19), so He asked him, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Again, how ironic that the Lord who in His omniscience knew that Sarah, behind Him inside the tent, laughed (the text says she did it silently, “within”), asks, “Why did Sarah laugh?” He wanted Abraham and Sarah to think about that question. The answer was, “Sarah laughed because she didn’t believe the Lord.”

As I said, unbelief is sin because in effect it calls God a liar and me the truthful one. It says, “I know better than the omniscient, all-powerful God, what He can do or not do!” It implies either that God doesn’t know what He’s talking about or He isn’t able to do it. So the Lord asks a second question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” Is there anything you can think of which would make the Lord exclaim, “I’m not sure I can pull it off!”?

Unbelief is also serious because invariably it leads to other sins. Sarah denied that she did what the Lord says she did: “I didn’t laugh.” The text adds that she was afraid. But how foolish to think that we can hide our sin from the Lord who knows every thought in our heads! The Lord didn’t let Sarah off the hook. He confronted her with the truth: “No, but you did laugh” (18:15). He got her to face her sin of unbelief and to think about things from His perspective with the rhetorical question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”

The most loving thing the Lord can do is to make us face our sin of unbelief: “No, you did doubt Me. Admit the truth yourself, because I know your heart.” Then He lovingly gets us to consider things from His almighty perspective: “I could never be in any situation which would be too difficult for the Lord to work.”

Think about it: Is there any problem you’re facing that is too hard for God? Is there a family problem that just got so bad that the Lord would have to say, “Now it’s too tough for Me to handle”? Are any of your circumstances outside of His control? Do you suppose He’s in heaven, wringing His hands, and saying, “Oh no! I didn’t expect that to happen! I can’t deal with it now!”? Can you dare to think that there is some sin which you have committed or some awful habit to which you are enslaved which the Lord is not able to forgive and deliver you from? Is anything in your life too difficult for the Lord?

A woman once came up to the famous Bible teacher, G. Campbell Morgan, and asked, “Dr. Morgan, should we pray about the little things in our lives, or only the big things?” In his British manner, Dr. Morgan drew up and said, “Madam, can you think of anything in your life that is big to God?”

The Lord’s rebuke brought Sarah to faith. Hebrews 11:11 states, “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.” In fact Sarah received more than faith. Her reward was faith, laughter, and the Lord’s commendation (as James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:156-157, points out).

4. When we trust God to do the humanly impossible, He rewards us.

Because she faced her sin of unbelief and thought about things from God’s perspective, Sarah received the faith to conceive Isaac. Faith is a gift God is ready to give us the moment we will turn from our unbelief and see Him for who He is: the God for whom nothing is too difficult.

Also, Sarah received laughter. Her laughter of doubt (18:12) was replaced with the laughter of joy when Isaac was born (21:6). In fact, Isaac’s name means “he laughs.” Since that was the name God gave the boy, it means that God wanted to give Abraham and Sarah the right laughter of His blessing in place of the wrong laughter of doubt. God has a way of turning our sin, when we repent, into that which brings praise to Him and joy to us.

And Sarah received commendation from God. In 1 Peter 3:6 the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to use Sarah as an example of a holy woman who submitted to her husband by calling him “lord.” The only place in the Bible it is recorded that Sarah called Abraham “lord” is in Genesis 18:12, right as she was laughing at God’s promise. The Lord, in His grace, looked beyond Sarah’s doubt and picked out her submission to her husband and held it up as an example.

In the same way, the Lord is gracious, ready to forgive us and meet our every need when we turn from our unbelief and trust in His mighty power. He may not give us an instant answer. As with many of those in Hebrews 11, the great chapter on faith, we may die without receiving the fulfillment of His promises this side of heaven (Heb. 11:13, 39). But that doesn’t undermine the faithfulness or power of our great God, the God with whom all things are possible. We may not understand His ways and the reason for His delays. But we dare not doubt His goodness toward His chosen ones or His power to fulfill His purpose with them in His time and way.

Conclusion

Jeremiah the prophet was a godly man who faithfully spoke God’s word to a disobedient people who rejected both him and his message. For years he warned them of coming judgment if they did not repent, but they didn’t want to hear it. They mocked him, threw him in a muddy pit, and listened to the false prophets who told them what they wanted to hear, that God wouldn’t judge them for their sin. Finally, just as Jeremiah had warned, the powerful Babylonian king Nebuhadnezzar came and besieged Jerusalem. Jeremiah was thrown into prison by the wicked Jewish king Zedekiah because he was predicting a Babylonian victory.

In that bleak situation, a strange word came to him from God. The Lord told him to buy a field from his cousin because he was the closest relative with a right of redemption. This would be like telling someone to buy a house in Sarajevo when it was under siege. It was obvious that the country was about to fall to a foreign king, who would confiscate all property. So you would be throwing away your money. But God told Jeremiah to buy it as a testimony of the Lord’s faithfulness to His promise to restore His people to the land. So Jeremiah obeyed God and handed over the precious little money he had to purchase this field. In that context Jeremiah prayed, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (Jer. 32:17). The Lord confirmed Jeremiah’s prayer by answering, “Behold, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jer. 32:27).

If God has you in a humanly impossible situation, it is to bring you to the end of your own strength so that you will trust in His ability to do the humanly impossible. You may not ever see the answer in your lifetime. But you can trust in Him and give glory to Him, knowing that His Word of promise will stand, and that He has not forgotten His promise to you. In Genesis 18:10, the Lord says to Abraham and Sarah, “I will surely return to you ....” God’s Word to us is always surely, even when circumstances shout, “No way!” Remember God’s question, “Is anything too difficult for Me?” and trust Him to do what is humanly impossible. May He bless you as you wait on Him!

Discussion Questions

  1. What would you tell someone who said, “I want to believe, but I just don’t have the strong faith you have”?
  2. How can we know whether God’s delay means “no,” or whether we should keep seeking Him for the answer we desire?
  3. Sometimes Christians say that we need a certain amount of self-confidence. Is this biblically sound? Why/why not?
  4. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to trust God for? Why was it so difficult?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Rewards, Spiritual Life

Lesson 39: Prevailing With God (Genesis 18:16-33)

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A bank president was standing in front of the automatic teller in the lobby one day while it performed a transaction rather slowly. After a brief wait, he was heard to say, “Come on--it’s me!

Automatic tellers treat bank presidents the same as everybody else. But what about God? Can I expect Him to respond to my prayers in a special way because it’s me? While it’s true that God is no respecter of persons, it’s also true that some are friends of God in a special sense. They know God and they see answers to prayer more consistently than others. The old saying, “It’s not what you know, but who you know, that counts” is true. Connections make a difference. Being the friend of God is the ultimate connection.

Abraham was the friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). In Genesis 18 we see him entertaining the Lord and two angels who appeared in bodily form. After he served them a meal, they told him and Sarah that the next year the promised son would be given, as Sarah would bear Isaac. Then the men arose, looked down toward Sodom, and began to walk in that direction, as Abraham accompanied them. The Lord spoke so that Abraham could overhear Him, and let Abraham know about the impending judgment of Sodom. Then, as the two angels proceeded toward Sodom, Abraham stayed alone with the Lord and engaged in the first instance of intercessory prayer recorded in the Bible.

It’s a remarkable scene, as Abraham takes the role of a defense attorney for Sodom, arguing before the bench of divine justice. He gets God to agree that if there are 50 righteous people in Sodom, He will stay the execution. Then he cautiously moves to 45. God agrees. Abraham dares to move to 40, then 30, 20, and finally to ten. There Abraham rests his case, having prevailed with God. While God did not find ten righteous people in Sodom, He did honor Abraham’s prayer by rescuing Lot and his family before destroying that region and all its inhabitants (Gen. 19:29). We learn that ...

God wants His friends to prevail with Him as the righteous and merciful Judge of all the earth.

The passage reveals the role of God’s people as the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13). Because of Abraham, God would have been willing to spare Sodom if only ten righteous people could have been found in it. Wicked societies tend to despise righteous people, and yet it is because of the righteous that God’s judgment is often withheld. There are times in history when God declares that a wicked nation has filled up the measure of their sins (see Gen. 15:16). When that occurs, even the godly cannot deliver that people from judgment (Ezek. 14:14, 20). But until that point of no return is reached, God’s people are the safeguard of a nation, as they pray and live righteously before God.

Sodom and Gomorrah had gone over the brink. God had determined to judge those evil cities and hold them up as a warning to all future generations of His coming final judgment. Since that day is drawing near, this passage applies to us all. God wants us, as His friends, to prevail with Him concerning His plan of righteousness and justice for all nations. As we pray, God will be pleased to save many before that great and awful day. The first thing we learn is that ...

1. God reveals His plan of righteousness and justice to His friends.

Verse 19 can be translated as either “I have chosen him,” or “I have known him.” H. C. Leupold translates it, “For I acknowledge him to be My intimate friend” (Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 1:544). The Lord shares His secrets with His friends. Jesus told His disciples, “No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Abraham here is shown to be God’s friend, as the Lord reveals the divine plan to him.

A. God’s plan of righteousness and justice is to be spread to all nations, beginning with the family.

Abraham was God’s chosen channel of blessing to all the nations (Gen. 12:3). The fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham centered in Jesus Christ, the Savior, Abraham’s descendant through Isaac. God’s purpose is to bless all the nations through Abraham’s seed, but not to save all from judgment, as seen here with Sodom. Verse 19 shows the interplay between God’s covenant and Abraham’s responsibilities in light of that covenant. While God’s promises to Abraham were unconditional, at the same time Abraham’s training his family in God’s ways was an essential part of the fulfillment of those promises.

Note the importance of the family in God’s plan. God states that He had known Abraham as His friend “in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice” (18:19). Fathers (the biblical commands for training children are most often directed to fathers, not mothers) are responsible to instill the Lord’s way, which involves righteousness and justice, upon their children.

Righteousness refers to conduct which conforms to the ethical or moral standard stemming from God’s character. Justice points to the administration of God’s righteousness in human affairs, such as government and society, through honest and consistent application of the law. In other words, we are to teach our children through both example and instruction how to live so as to please God both as individuals and in society.

The context of verse 19, where Abraham pleads with God concerning the impending judgment of Sodom, implies that we are to show our children the importance of prayer, especially prayer for a lost world that faces God’s judgment. One tool I have found useful is Frontier Fellowship’s “Global Prayer Digest” (1605 Elizabeth St., Pasadena, CA 91104, available in our narthex), which gives a story and prayer need of a different people group for each day of the month. As parents, we should be praying both for and with our children frequently, especially for the lost.

A Senator was speaking at a church men’s dinner when the subject of prayer in public schools came up. The Senator asked the men how many of them believed in prayer in the public schools, and almost every man raised his hand. Then he asked, “How many of you pray daily with your children in the home?” Only a few hands were raised!

The family is at the heart of God’s plan to bless all the nations through Abraham’s descendant, the Lord Jesus Christ. Pray for your children and train them so that they grow up with a vision of taking the gospel to those who have not yet heard. To do that, we must understand God’s plan of righteousness and justice:

B. God’s plan of righteousness and justice means that no sin escapes His notice and judgment.

The Lord tells Abraham, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave” (18:20). When Cain killed Abel, the Lord said, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). Sin cries out to God. Just as right now there are many sounds surrounding us which we can’t hear without a radio to tune them in, so we are not aware of all the sins around us; but God is. It cries out to Him for His righteous judgment. In speaking to Abraham, God adopts human language in reference to Himself (18:21), but He’s making a point: Whenever He inflicts judgment, He does it on the basis of His perfect knowledge and justice.

The world rejects the notion of God’s judgment. Sodom had a taste of it 15 years before, when the kings of the east conquered the city and captured all the people and their goods. But Abraham had rescued them and restored all their possessions. Most of them shrugged off the incident as bad luck and continued full bore with their sin. But it should have served notice, that they needed to repent of their sin before it was too late.

In Sodom, everybody got up that final morning assuming that it would be like any other day. If you had asked the man on the street, “How’s it going?” he would have replied, “Great! The stock market’s up, the city’s not at war, I’ve got a good job, life is good!” And yet 24 hours later, he and everyone else were dead and the city was destroyed. To the pagans living nearby, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was an unfortunate natural disaster. If it had happened in our day, there would be footage on the evening news, along with explanations by geologists about how this sort of thing occurs. But no one would be saying, “The holy God of heaven has judged a wicked people.”

While God’s judgment always comes suddenly, it never comes without ample warning. These examples have been given to warn us, so that we won’t be deceived into thinking that because God’s judgment is delayed, it’s not coming. I believe the current AIDS epidemic is God’s merciful warning that an even more terrible judgment is going to follow. Our world glibly shrugs it off with the optimism that we’ll find a cure. Meanwhile, make sure that you protect yourself in your immorality by using condoms! You may be safe in your immorality and escape AIDS. But AIDS is mild compared to the terrors of hell! God’s plan of righteousness and justice means that no sin escapes His notice and His judgment. When you stand before God, either your sin will be upon Christ because you have fled to the cross, or you will stand condemned by the holy God.

God has revealed His plan of righteousness and justice to us, His friends. What are we to do with this knowledge? We’ve already seen that we are to do righteousness and justice and teach our children the same. But also,

2. God wants His friends to prevail in prayer with Him.

The two angels start off on the path toward Sodom. The Lord hasn’t directly told Abraham that He is going to judge that wicked city, but Abraham puts two and two together. So he cautiously approaches the Lord and argues his case. Here we see both the heart of God, who delights in the prayers of His people, and the heart of Abraham, who pleads God’s mercy for these sinful people.

There are four principles of prevailing prayer in these verses:

A. To prevail with God we must draw near to His presence.

Abraham was still standing before the Lord and then he came near (18:22-23). Only those who are close to God can intercede with Him on behalf of others. Abraham was separate from Sodom; Lot was living in it and caught up in its sinful ways. It was Abraham, not Lot, who interceded for it. There is a distinct contrast between Abraham, living peaceably in his tent, where he entertains the Lord and the angels, and Lot, living in a house (which Abraham never had), in the fast lane of wicked Sodom.

Donald Grey Barnhouse observes, “The longer one remains in the presence of God, the more proper perspective he gains on the world and all that is therein” (Genesis [Zondervan], p. 158). How true! You don’t have to wallow in the mud of the world to understand it. The Bible gives us an adequate understanding of sin and its consequences. If we walk in holiness before God and meditate on His Word, we’ll have enough insight on the world and on people, so that we can pray for and counsel them properly.

B. To prevail with God we must appeal to His Person.

Abraham appeals to God based on who God is, namely, the just “Judge of all the earth” (18:25), and that He is merciful. Since He is merciful, Abraham could ask that He spare the whole wicked city on behalf of the few righteous. And yet He is just: He will not ultimately treat the righteous and the wicked in the same manner. When we pray, we must keep both aspects of God’s character in view. In Paul’s words, we must remember both the kindness and severity of God (Rom. 11:22), and pray accordingly.

Underlying this is Abraham’s concern for God’s reputation, or glory. He’s concerned that if God wipes out the righteous with the wicked, others will question His justice. Abraham was not quite right, in that sometimes God’s temporal judgment falls on both the righteous and the wicked (Luke 13:1-5). God always does right, no matter how it appears to sinful men. But Abraham’s motive was right, to appeal to the reputation of God and to desire that God look good (= “be glorified”) in the world.

When we pray, we should appeal to Him on the basis of His glory and His person, as revealed in His Word, especially the balance between His mercy and His judgment. Sometimes people will ask me to pray for a loved one who is ill. When I ask, “What should I pray?” they’re taken aback. They assume that we should pray that the person be healed. But the illness may be God’s way of bringing the person to repentance and faith. Our prayers should be in line with God’s glory and His merciful and yet holy person.

C. To prevail with God we must maintain a right perspective.

Abraham displays a reverent boldness toward the Lord, but never presumption (see 18:27, 30, 31, 32). In verse 27, he uses the word “Adonai,” meaning Lord or Master. He is quick to acknowledge that he is but dust and ashes. Note that the Lord doesn’t correct Abraham by saying, “You need to boost your self-esteem!” John Calvin points out “that the nearer Abraham approaches to God, the more fully sensible does he become of the miserable and abject condition of men” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 1:490). God has told us to come boldly before His throne in prayer, but only that we may receive mercy and grace (Heb. 4:16). We draw near only as unworthy sinners who appeal to Him on the merit and worthiness of Jesus Christ.

Abraham also maintained the proper perspective toward those for whom he prayed. There is no hint that he thought of himself as better than those in Sodom. He knew many of these people from the time he rescued them from the kings of the east. He easily could have looked down on them: “I risked my neck for these no-good bums and now look at them! When are they going to wise up?” But Abraham prayed for Sodom with the very real awareness of his own sinfulness. We need that same perspective in our prayers. We need a reverent boldness in coming before the Lord and arguing our case. But we need to remember at all times that we’re unworthy sinners who have found mercy. As Leupold comments, “A man who has himself received mercy seeks to secure mercy for others” (1:549).

To prevail with God we must draw near to His presence; appeal to His person; maintain our perspective; and,

D. To prevail with God we must persevere in our pleading.

Abraham continued on from point to point, daring to ask God for more, until he went as far as he dared. Someone has said that Abraham ceased asking before God ceased giving. My opinion is that Abraham sensed that he was at the limit at ten, and that if he went further he would no longer be pleading according to God’s will. God answered Abraham by rescuing Lot and his family before destroying Sodom. We need to remember that prayer is not getting God to do my will, but rather His will.

And yet Jesus taught that we need to persist in prayer. He told the parable of the man whose friend came late at night asking for bread. The man and his family were already in bed, but this “friend” kept banging on his door. Jesus applied it to our need to keep knocking on heaven’s door (Luke 11:8-10). He also told of the judge, who would not listen to the repeated pleas of the widow. But finally, to get some relief, he gave her what she wanted. How much more, said Jesus, will God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him (Luke 18:4-8). Persevere in prayer!

Conclusion

If we could read a transcript of our prayers over the past week, I have a hunch that many of them would be for personal needs: “Lord, help me with this exam, help me get a job, heal me of this disease,” etc. These are legitimate topics for prayer, of course. But in the Lord’s prayer, the first item of business is the honor and purpose of the Father: “Hallowed be Your name; Your kingdom come, Your will be done” (Matt. 6:9-10). After that comes prayer for our needs. Our prayers, like Abraham’s, should center on what God is doing in the world. Pray for God to be glorified by showing mercy to lost family members, lost friends and neighbors. Pray for lost nations and the missionaries who are seeking to reach them with the gospel. Pray for this church, that God would be glorified here. Pray for our lost city and nation, that God would stay His hand of judgment and that many would turn from their sin and trust in Him.

Years ago, the China Inland Mission discovered that the number and spiritual strength of the converts at one station far exceeded anyone’s expectations and could not be accounted for by anything exceptional about the missionary personnel there. The mystery remained unsolved until Hudson Taylor visited England. There, at the close of Taylor’s message, a man from the audience stepped forward to greet him. In the ensuing conversation, Taylor learned that the man had detailed knowledge of this station.

“How is it,” asked Taylor, “that you are so conversant with the conditions of that work?” “Oh,” he replied, “for four years I have corresponded with my missionary friend there. He has sent me the names of inquirers and converts, and I have daily taken these names to God in prayer.” Taylor realized the answer to the puzzle: the daily, specific, prevailing prayer of this man had brought eternal fruit for God’s glory. God wants us, His friends, to prevail with Him concerning His plan of righteousness and justice for the nations.

Discussion Questions

  1. If God is going to accomplish His sovereign plan, why do we need to pray about it?
  2. Some say that since there is no biblical command or example of praying for someone’s salvation, we should not do so. Your response?
  3. Why is God not unjust if the righteous suffer along with the wicked? How would you answer a skeptic?
  4. How can we know when to persevere in prayer and when God is saying “no”?
  5. What do you find most difficult about maintaining a consistent prayer life? What has helped you most in your prayer life?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Prayer, Spiritual Life

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