Just believe (3/4)

OK…The Abraham story continues…

God visited Abraham yet again, by sending three angels that appear in the form of 3 men to announce that the child of the promise was about to be born! When all human effort and strength was gone, God started moving. Abraham receives the message of the 3 men. In one year from now they’d be parents. Abraham 99 years and Sara 89 years. If that would happen today, it would be on Nine News for sure. The story would for sure go viral on Social Media… Who knows…someone may even call it a Fake-News-story. It simply is not possible.

And that is exactly the point of the whole story. God’s story with Abraham is not possible in human eyes. No human effort, reasoning or plan can come up with this story. It really has to come fully from God.

A year went by and Sara gave birth at the age of 90 (!) to Isaac. We (post)modern people look at stories like these and perhaps wonder: ‘How on earth…?’ Sometimes you do hear these stories in the news of women in their forties or even fifties having a perfectly healthy child. But 90 years??

Isaac was born. After 8 days Isaac was also circumcised. It was the visual reminder of the promise God made 25 years earlier to Abraham. Reading Genesis 12-21 is something like a Hollywood Story. Lot’s of drama, failures, intrigue and still a happy ending. And that is what crosses our mind: ‘It is simply too good to be…possible.’

Yet, the best is still to come in this amazing faith journey…

Isaac grew up and Abraham, very advanced in age, obviously was the proud dad of the son of an incredible promise. Then, the most unlikely scenario unfolds. God calls Abraham out! He asks something from him that just doesn’t make sense.

He asked Abraham to sacrifice the apple of his eye, Isaac. Abraham and Isaac went to bring a sacrifice to God. Abraham went with his son, but Isaac didn’t know he was the ‘animal that was going to be sacrificed’. Nevertheless, they went. Abraham obeyed and as they were preparing the place for making a sacrifice. The wood was prepared, the fire lit. But where was the animal of sacrifice? In fact, that was Isaac’s question to his father (Genesis 22:6-7)

God put, yet again, Abraham’s faith to the test.

“God will provide the lamb, my son!”, Abraham replied. Abraham got his son, his only son that he had with Sara, his most precious ‘possession’ and put it on the altar. Again, we need to understand the culture better of 4000 ago. Human sacrifices in pagan settings were not uncommon and although Abraham was coming out of a pagan society and started learning what it meant to walk with God, he obeyed. God was talking to Abram in ways that – culturally speaking – did make sense to him, how strange it may sound to us 4000 years later.

Just imagine the picture. Wood. Fire and an ignorant little fellow that is unware of what is about to happen. Abraham strapped Isaac up. He got his knife and just before he would sacrifice his son Isaac, an angel intervened. Now God knew that Abraham could actually follow through and actually obey God, believing Him completely. And God provided the animal for sacrifice. They got the ram and offered it up as a sacrifice to the Lord.

The story is a picture of the obedience of Jesus Christ to His Father, who actually went all the way to the cross. Jesus is God’s provision for us, because being fully obedient, He took away the sins that were committed by humans. He exchanged our guilty record with his blameless record. We can start over with a clean record, which is actually His and our wrongdoings are really gone because they were put on the cross. The blood paid for that, once and for all. The good news really is good news. So many people would like to start all over again, but often they don’t know where to find that place of peace. If they only understood and trusted the Gospel…

In Romans 4 Paul retells part of the Abraham story to make a very important point. Right standing with God is fully based on faith in Him and not through works. No works can save people! In Romans 1-3 Paul as the prosecutor gives a bleak picture of human beings. Everyone is guilty. Nobody can really live up to God’s standards. It is simply impossible. We humans may want to compare our righteousness with each other, but still we fall short to His standard, regardless of what our standard may be.

But here’s the genius plan of God. Apart from the law of God, Christ came and fulfilled the requirements of the law. God as a righteous and good judge has to punish sin, but at the same time he loves people and does not want to condemn them. His genius plan was to allow His Son to be sacrificed. He, who had no sin, became sin, for us, so that we may become right with God again.

Based on Romans 4, let me draw some conclusions that will help us understand the nature of faith and how it relates to justification. Three conclusions we can draw about faith and righteousness.

First off, faith is relational and it is only affirmed by obedience.

When I say: ‘I believe!’, similar to ‘I love’, you immediately think: “believe what? Believe in whom?”

Faith is totally relational, but here’s the catch. True faith is not intellectual consent, it’s not an ‘it’. It’s related to a person. We believe in God. It must involve also trust AND obedience. Like with Abraham, his faith was established by his actions and God counted that as righteousness. NOT WORKS, but faith. Yet true faith shows!

Let me give you a simple example. Baptism…people today often think that just believing in God will do, yet when it comes to actually dying and living with Christ (pictured in baptism) they start asking legalistic questions like:

  • Well, I don’t need to be baptized. I just believe! That will do
  • God knows my heart. Baptism is just one more law. How can we still be so legalistic?
  • I am ok with God and isn’t baptism just a symbol?
  • The criminal on the cross didn’t get baptized so why should I then?
  • If someone on an airplane came to the Lord and then the airplane went down – so he didn’t get baptized…- is he then going to hell, just because he didn’t take the big plunge?

Or people on the other side of the spectrum may say things like this:

  • Well, I am baptized (think of the Jewish rite of circumcision which functioned as something similar in the OT), so I am good with God…
  • I was baptized as a baby and now I go to church. I pay my dues. That should do. Don’t ask more from me…

Again, I will tackle this point more in Romans 6, but let me say this. If Jesus asks from us this:

“GO, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”, does that sound like a suggestion? He’s not even saying here go and be baptized. He said, go and be baptizers! Big difference!

Or what about this verse in Mark 16:16: ‘He who believes and is baptized will be saved’. These were Jesus’ words. I guess there is something about it that we perhaps don’t fully understand. On top of that, I also thought that our relationship with with Jesus was a love relationship where we obey from the heart. If He is saying this, why are we even getting so technical about whether we should or shouldn’t get baptized? Why are we even asking these questions? I think it literally kills faith…Just being honest with you here.

And for those who ‘trust in baptism for salvation’ rather than in relationship with God, let me also say this. Baptism itself does not save. In itself, without any relationship with God, it doesn’t do anything. Some Jews boasted in their special relationship with God by pointing to the symbol of that relationship; circumcision. We Christians would be very unwise to point at baptism as the source of our security. Our security is in a person, not in a symbol.

Having said that, dying with Christ and rising with Him is still very important. Why would Jesus Himself get baptized if it were just a ritual? Why would Christ give us a great commandment to go and baptize others if it weren’t that important after all? Just read the book of Acts and you will see that every time the Gospel message was preached, it was totally connected to baptism. It was an integral part of the message. It’s not legalism! It’s obedient love.

You see, human nature often does this: ‘Did God really say, mean, ask……from me?’ Since we were born in Adam – in sin – we naturally (without God) go down that path to decide for ourselves what is right and what isn’t and usually convenience, safety and comfort win over courage, faith and sacrifice. I’m just being honest here with you.

True faith shows. It is the outcome of a relationship with God. The basis for salvation is grace and not works, but oxymoronically, the outflow of grace – when activated by faith, is works (of love!).

Let me give you a personal illustration of how this could work out.

My family lived in Amsterdam for 3 years and we all know that this city is considered the most liberal city of the world. ‘Anything goes’ would be the motto of this place. Now, let’s suppose that my wife and three kids would visit family in Brazil and I would be there by myself, all alone. Temptations all around. Easy to catch the train downtown and lavish myself on whatever the city has to offer me. I have this freedom. No angel will appear on my shoulder saying: “Patrick, what are you doing?

The gospel is working in us.

“I can’t!”

I could go but….

But still, I can’t…

Why is that?

Plain and simple. Because I could not violate my clear conscience with such an act of disobedience. That is God living inside of me that drives me to do things He loves and not do things He hates. I believe that God has really set me free and that my record is clean. I love God. Why would I hurt that relationship with something or someone else who can never satisfy me? Only God can fulfil me.

You see, the gospel can never, ever be about trying to be a good or better Christian. Like Abraham was trying to obey the promise and helping God out a bit. Did you see what the consequences were? A disaster…

That’s what human reasoning without God does. It was sown into human nature through Adam and Eve. The only way out is to accept God’s gift of Christ (= grace) by faith. Faith is the channel. That channel is only opened when we actually trust and obey. But the obedience works through grace, not by trying harder…It’s not through biting your lip even more, but it is through allowing and trusting more. Simple as that! I’d even say it like this. In the end there are only two kinds of religion in the world. The first is based on what I need to do to become (works-based) and the other is what I can become by grace if I believe. In the end it is really that simple.

When I believe (think ‘trust’) God’s transforming grace can start operating in my life, giving me the power to live out the law of God. Any other way will result in works. That’s why Paul says in Romans 4:1-3 that it is by grace that we are justified (like Abraham). If we do it through works, it is as if God now is owing us something (debt). Yet, grace is a gift and it can never, ever be earned. God doesn’t owe us grace. If He did, it simply wouldn’t be grace.

Our society works on I do this for you, so you do that for me. Our relationship often work on “I love you, so now you say….” God loves us because God is Love. Simple as that. So faith is relational and is only affirmed by obedience.

In my next blog we explore how faith and justification work out in our daily lives. Stay tuned.