And [Abram] believed in the LORD; and he reckoned it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
It is lamentable how this verse has become the focal point for the controversy regarding the roles of faith and obedience based on its quotation in both Romans 4:3 and James 2:22-23. Paul uses the incident to show how Abram’s faith here justified him without any works; James speaks of how it is fulfilled when Abram demonstrates his obedience to God by being willing to offer Isaac his son upon the altar (cf. Genesis 22). Abram’s example does not teach either that faith only saves or that works save– Abram’s example shows us that we must have faith and be obedient to God in order to obtain the blessing.
Such controversy often overshadows the great depth of faith put forward by Abram. Abram here is in his eighties; Sarai his wife is in her seventies. She has borne him no children, and he has no biological heir. God has made all of these promises regarding Abram’s offspring inheriting the land, yet Eliezer of Damascus, Abram’s servant, currently stands to inherit what remains to him (Genesis 15:2-3). Yet God promises that he will have a son, and his son will be his true heir (Genesis 15:4-5).
On what basis should Abram believe God? After all, he is well over the age most people have children, and women do not often have children in their seventies! According to the human, earthly perspective, there is no reason to believe God. On a physical level alone, Abram is doomed to have no descendants if he is waiting on Sarai.
But Abram knows that what is impossible with men is possible with God (cf. Matthew 19:26). He and 318 men just defeated four Mesopotamian kings whom the five kings of the valley could not best (Genesis 14). God had brought him from the land of Ur and Haran and had blessed him so far (Genesis 12:1-4). Abram was willing to trust God, and God counted it as righteousness.
Abram’s faith teaches us what faith should be. Faith is trust and confidence, even if there is no good earthly or physical basis on which to base that trust or confidence! The Hebrew author speaks of faith as “assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1), and this was certainly true in relation to Abram and his children. Abram had every reason not to trust in God’s promise, and he trusted anyway.
God proved faithful to Abram even when Abram was not as faithful to God. The very next chapter shows what happens when Abram and Sarai attempt to meddle in God’s purposes– Abram fathers Ishmael through Hagar, but he is not the chosen one (cf. Genesis 16). Instead, God waits another 15 years, and Sarah bears to Abraham a son, Isaac, in his old age, she at 90, he at 100 (Genesis 21, Romans 4:18-22)! What is impossible with man is possible with God.
Are there good earthly, physical reasons to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, crucified for our sin, and raised on the third day in power? Upon what basis should we accept that God will raise us also from the dead and provide glory and eternal life if we are found faithful? Why should we think that God loves us and is willing to give us all things, especially when things do not look so good for us? According to an earthly, human perspective, there are no good reasons. That’s why faith is so critical– no mere intellectual assent to a proposition, but a willingness to trust and cling to God no matter how implausible or impossible His promises may seem.
If God is able to create the universe as we know it and allowed a woman of 90 years to give birth, He is certainly able to redeem us from sin and gather us to Him for all eternity. Will we be willing to believe what is impossible according to men? Can we trust in things hoped for and show conviction despite not seeing? And are we willing to obey and serve, even if it costs us everything? If so, we will have a faith that God will count for righteousness, and we can share in all those “impossible” promises!
Ethan R. Longhenry