Paul held Abraham to be the father of faith in both Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Let’s turn to Genesis 11 to 25 to see what Paul had in mind.
Abraham’s story centers on God’s promise to the patriarch in 12:1-3—“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” So Abram was: 1) called to leave his home and family; and in, 11:31, 2) to move to Canaan.
It also had three elements: a son (see 12:7), a homeland for the son, and a blessing for all humanity through the son. The promised son was Isaac; the place was Canaan (now called Israel); and the promised blessing, as we trace it into the New Testament, is salvation through Jesus Christ.
So the blessing is for are all who, like Abraham, trust God’s promise. Jesus is the ultimate Son of Abraham who broke the power of sin and death for all his followers. And in that role he is still the promised blessing for today.
An upshot of Paul’s summary is that proper faith isn’t presumption—getting whatever we want from God. Instead it’s a response to God’s promises. We rely on what he tells us we can expect. So wishful-thinking-faith—as in, “Ok, Lord, I believe you want me to have a new car”—needs to be anchored in God’s clear indication that he wants you to have a new car…and that the car fits within God’s ultimate promise in Jesus. It’s possible, but that’s another conversation!
Patience is another feature of Abraham’s faith. His faith emerged as a multi-decade process! God’s three-feature promise—son, setting, and blessing—may have come to Abram (later Abraham) while he was in Haran. But a case can be made that God actually spoke to him much earlier, while he was living in Ur. I’ll adopt that view here.
Isaac was finally born when Sarah was ninety years old and Abraham was a hundred—at least a few decades after the promise was made. But if God first spoke to Abram in Ur we can speculate that Abram was a young man when God first spoke to him–possibly six or seven decades before Isaac finally arrived.
Why the long delay? Was God just being arbitrary?
No. It seems instead that Abram’s faith was flawed: it took that long for him to get it right!
First was his delay in Haran. Assuming that God promised Abram the blessing while he was in Ur, Abram’s time in Haran came when he ignored God’s call for him to leave his family. Instead his father Terah went with him and decided they should settle in Haran—hundreds of miles short of Canaan.
It was only when Terah died that Abram finally moved on to Canaan. And before long he moved hundreds of miles south, to Egypt, and there he gave Sarah to Pharaoh as a wife. God quickly intervened and the Pharaoh exiled Abram to Canaan. So more time was wasted and Abram’s faith was still inadequate!
Back in Canaan Abram’s nephew Lot, who was still with him despite God’s instructions, became a problem. When Abram and Lot parted ways God restated his promise to Abram. Only then had Abram finally aligned himself with God’s twin parameters of family separation and a relocation to Canaan. Lot, however, still played a role in Abram’s faith. Lot moved to Sodom where four marauding kings captured him and all his neighbors. Abram then raced to their rescue.
God’s providential protection was obvious in the rescue as Abram defeated four kings with a band of 318 men! He acknowledged God’s help to Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem. But the blessing Melchizedek extended to him seemed hollow because Abram was still childless.
God heard his heart and invited him outside to count the stars as a measure of his future offspring. Abram then “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). What made the difference? How did Abram’s half-steps turn into an authentic faith?
It was a heart change. In his moment of stargazing Abram realized God’s care for him was the basis for the promise. God cared for him even more than he cared for himself. And that released him to trust God.
Yet Abram’s newfound faith didn’t ensure his own faithfulness. The birth of the promised child Isaac was still years away. In the meantime Abram tried to “help” God by using Sarah’s maid, Hagar, as a surrogate in achieving the promise. God rejected the scheme. Abram also tried to give Sarah away to another king, Abimelech, and God once again intervened to protect her.
Let’s say just a bit more. Abram’s great ambition was to have a family; but God was able to convince him to refocus his devotion: to trust God, the Promiser; and to allow him to take care of the promise in his own time and in his own way.
The new trust took time to mature. The Hagar-Ishmael fiasco and the second Sarah give-away made that clear. But real maturity emerged in chapters 22 and 24 when Abraham’s bold faith was displayed by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God; and, later, to trust God to provide Isaac with a wife.
What changed? Abraham’s now trusted God’s love and power. We see this in Hebrews 11:17-19, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead…”
What, then, what does Paul’s use of Abraham’s faith as a model tell us today?
First, God’s great Promise in Jesus is meant to be our ultimate life ambition. We’re called to be like Abraham rather than the faltering Abram. And second, we’re called to wait patiently until the time comes when we’re seated in Christ next to the Father, finally trusting him wholeheartedly.
Let’s try it sooner rather than later!