Some time afterward, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: Do not fear, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.
But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you give me, if I die childless and have only a servant of my household, Eliezer of Damascus?” Abram continued, “Look, you have given me no offspring, so a servant of my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the Lord came to him: No, that one will not be your heir; your own offspring will be your heir. He took him outside and said: Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so, he added, will your descendants be. Abram put his faith in the Lord, who attributed it to him as an act of righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)
If Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, he has reason to boast; but this was not so in the sight of God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Romans 4:2-6)
In chapter 4 of his letter to the Romans, Paul discusses Abraham as a model of righteousness given through faith. God makes His covenant with Abraham in chapter 15 of the Book of Genesis. God tells Abraham to count the stars of the sky, “if you can.” Even so, God promises Abraham that He will make his descendants as numerous as the stars, and Abraham believes. It’s tempting to read this passage and assume it takes place at night. But several verses later, “as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram” (Genesis 15:12). So when God invites Abraham to count the stars in the sky, it is daytime, and in the desert, no less. (1) God and Abraham both know the stars are there, even if they can’t be seen during the daytime. Just the same, God knew each and everyone of us before He formed the heavens and earth. He knew His plans for us, and His plans are good. It falls upon us to follow the example of Abraham and trust in God’s plans, even when we can’t see or can’t fathom what God has in mind. Our faith will be credited to us as an act of righteousness, of living as God intends for us.
It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith. For if those who adhere to the law are the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law produces wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason, it depends on faith, so that it may be a gift, and the promise may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not to those who only adhere to the law but to those who follow the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into being what does not exist. (Romans 4:13-18)
The promise made to Abraham was that he and his descendants would inherit the promised land, and this promise, this gift, is extended to all who join Abraham’s family through an act of faith. The promised land is Heaven. The promise is not dependent on an external sign like circumcision, for Paul tells us that Abraham made his act of faith before he was circumcised, and Abraham is therefore “the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Romans 4:11).
Paul credits Abraham for trusting that God would grant him descendants despite his and Sarah’s advanced age:
He believed, hoping against hope, that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “Thus shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body as [already] dead (for he was almost a hundred years old) and the dead womb of Sarah. He did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God and was fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do. That is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:18-22)
Abraham exhibits greater faith still, when God, after finally giving him the heir he had waited so patiently for, asks him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Now God had explicitly promised Abraham, “It is through Isaac that descendants will bear your name” (Genesis 21:12). What could have been going through Abraham’s mind, as he climbed the mountain with his son Isaac, ready to sacrifice him? Was the Lord abandoning His promise? That couldn’t be: men might break the covenant with God, but the Lord never breaks the covenant. So how could God be asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
The church father Origen, commenting on Paul’s letter to the Romans in the third century AD, explained that, since God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be through Isaac, then Abraham must have believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead. Of course, it didn’t come to that, God spared Isaac, yet Abraham’s faith that God could raise his son from the dead anticipates what happened in the New Testament. The Father willed that His only begotten Son would be offered as a sacrifice, and that He would rise from the dead to bring eternal life to all who believe. Thus Paul can write:
But it was not for him [Abraham] alone that it was written that “it was credited to him [as righteousness]”; it was also for us, to whom it will be credited, who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:23-25)
Abraham was justified by his faith in God, even to the point of sacrificing his son, and we are justified by our faith in Jesus, the Son whom God the Father raised from the dead.
Image: Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).
(1) I learned about Abraham and the stars through one of Jeff Cavins’ Bible studies, Unlocking the Mystery of the Bible.