For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ – Romans 4:13-18
Abraham is one of the most notable figures in the Hebrew Bible for many reasons. He was shown as an obedient follower of God from the time of his young manhood in Ur of the Chaldees until the day of his death. Being prosperous, he took in his orphaned nephew, Lot, and provided him not goods and land in the new land where God had led Abraham. He exemplified desert hospitality by receiving and feeding three strangers who happened upon his camp, not knowing the celestial origin of his visitors.
These visitors gave him a bit of news he could scarcely believe, namely, that he and his elderly wife Sarah would indeed have a son, unbelievable given their ages. Abraham already had one son, Ishmael, by Sarah’s handmaid Hagar. God had promised Hagar that her son would be the father of multitudes, the same promise God made later to Ishmael himself. Some Muslims believe Ishmael was the origin of Islam.
God made the same promise to Abraham that his son, Isaac, born by Sarah, would produce descendants more numerous than the stars. God had made the promise, and now was the time for it to become more than just an oral promise, but to be fulfilled, according to the visitors.
Paul claims that the promise to Abraham did not come through law, but faith. Faith first, laws generations later, when Moses first delivered the ten commandments. Abraham obeyed God through faith and not because the law required it of him. Because of faith, God appointed Abraham as the foundation of a people dedicated to God.
We have many laws supposedly designed for the protection and well-being of all. Too often, we ignore laws because they seem inconvenient or because of some more pressing need. The speed limit sign says 45, but we’re pretty sure we flout the limit by driving 54 easily, and in an emergency even higher.
There were 613 commandments that descendants of Abraham were told to follow. Some were reserved for certain people, namely the priestly clans. Some were positive, like “thou shalt do this…” Others were negative, such as the injunctions against eating certain foods like shrimp, so often ignored. Similarly, we wear blended fabrics, and grow more than one crop in a plot of land in our backyard gardens. We feel these laws don’t apply to us, and they may not for the most part. It isn’t so much that God wants us to be slavishly obedient to the law as we are to be obedient by faith instead.
Faith is a tricky word; it means different things to different people. Some have faith that nothing bad will ever happen because they believe in God and/or have made a proper profession of faith using specific words and phrases. Some are more cautious and believe that bad things happen to good people because somehow they have transgressed badly. They must have broken a law, took some action they shouldn’t have or used words that went against what God wanted them to do. Some, though, simply go on faith that God is with them and that God will continue to be with them no matter what happens.
God never told Abraham that if he didn’t do this or that he would be punished forever. God never said what would happen if Abraham had not obeyed and taken Isaac to the mountain to be sacrificed; God said to do it, and Abraham obeyed. That obedience was faith and a very tough test of that faith. Faith can mean doing what is right whether we understand the consequences were not. Jonathan Myrick Daniels moved in front of an African American woman as a shotgun blast rang out, and he died in her place. There was no demand from the law that said he had to do what he did. Daniels didn’t think about his action. He simply put his faith in that it was the right thing to do, the belief it was something God would want him to do. He paid for that with his life.
Faith is like other skills: it needs to be practiced regularly. We need to review the law periodically as we do in church from time to time by hearing the law and the prophets. It’s a way of taking stock, reviewing where we are versus where we need to be, and readjusting our paths to put us in alignment with what God wants. But we need to practice faith, taking action where necessary but in all things trusting God to be with us. That doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to good people; it simply means that God won’t make us go through anything alone if we merely look and trust that God is there.
The number of Abraham’s descendants Abraham himself saw never have reached the number of stars in the sky, but he had faith that it would happen because God said so. Practicing faith, and it offers us a lesson in it.
I don’t think God would tell me to play the lottery if I didn’t have enough money to pay the electric bill. No matter how much faith I have, I don’t believe God would choose the winning numbers for me 0r supply the extra cash. I may seem to lack faith in divine protection when I try to cross the street against the light, and cars are coming at me. It’s not that I lack faith that God is with me, but I seriously doubt that God would have given me common sense and a sense of consequence if I were not to use it.
I do have faith that God is present and as close as my next breath. That’s the best reason I can think of for continuing to breathe. I don’t obey civil law because it suits me; it’s more about making things safer for others and myself. I try to obey God’s laws, particularly the ones Jesus emphasized, for the same reason. It’s a way of loving my neighbor as myself and caring about others more than myself. I wear a mask for that reason, just as I try to drive carefully or treat others with respect and compassion. My faith informs me of what I should do — and how I should treat others. I may fail often, but God always gives me another chance.
That’s my basic statement of faith — God gives second chances. For everybody. Always.
Image: Bible primer, Old_Testament, for use in the primary department of Sunday schools (1919), by Adolf Hult, Augustana Synod. Publisher: Rock Island, Ill., Augustana Book Concern. Contributed and Digitized by the Library of Congress.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She lives with her three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.