Justified by Faith

Abram’s conversation with God takes us to the heart of the gospel and the best news any of us have ever heard.

Chris Hutchison on February 12, 2023
Justified by Faith
February 12, 2023

Justified by Faith

Passage: Genesis 15:1-6
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“What have I done? What was I thinking?” When’s the last time those words have gone through your mind?

I thought something like this just this past week when I took my kids sledding at the big hill by the hospital. If you’ve been there, you can see that someone has very nicely shaped a smooth track all the way down the hill and formed a sizeable jump at the bottom, and I wanted to show my kids that they had nothing to be afraid of. But about half-way down the hill, I remembered my age, and that things don’t heal as quickly as they used to, and that perhaps I, more than my children, actually did have something to be afraid of.

The good news is that my knee injury is healing up quite nicely and I’m sure I’ll be just fine. But it was one more example to me of a situation I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves in, some more often then others, where we’ve stepped out to do something big and courageous, because we thought it was the right thing to do, and only afterwards does the full weight of our actions settle in and we think, “What have I just done? What was I thinking?”

In Genesis 14, Abram hears that his nephew Lot was captured, and he went off to rescue him and ended up defeating a coalition of four powerful kings in battle.

Four kings who had just gone on a rampage because some cities in Canaan missed sending in their tax payment. And Abram just attacked them and took all their stuff. It’s not hard to imagine Chederlaomer saying to his allies, “Who was that guy? Let’s go back and teach him a lesson.”

And it’s not hard to imagine Abram feeling very afraid right now. Afraid, and perhaps vulnerable, because he doesn’t even have anything to show for all his exploits.

1. God—Reassurance (v. 1)

And that’s one of the reasons why we should love today’s passage so much. Because God knows this. God sees this. And here—after Abram’s war of faith, after he’s back and settled, after he’s feeling that post-war vulnerability—the Lord comes to reassure him. We saw this pattern in chapter 13: after Abram let Lot take the best land, God came to Abram and promised him the whole place.

And He does it again here in verse 1: After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”

By the way, that’s prophetic language. “The word of the Lord came to” is a phrase used again and again when God speaks to the prophets. And this language here is marking out Abram as a prophet, a fact that God Himself confirms in chapter 20.

And what is the Lord’s message to Abram? First of all, it’s a message of reassurance. “Fear not, Abram.” Remember how “fear not” is the most-repeated promise in the whole Bible? Here it is for the very first time. “Fear not.”

And why? Why shouldn’t Abram be afraid? The Lord gives him two reasons. First, “I am your shield.” Yes, maybe he’s got four powerful kings upset with him, but the Lord is his shield. Those guys are going to have to get past God to get to Abram.

And second reason not to be afraid? “Your reward shall be very great.” Yes, he just gave away all of that plunder, but God promises him a very great reward. He’ll make sure that Abram is provided for and taken care of.

2. Abram - Question (v. 2)

Now in verse 2 we read, “But Abram said,” and we just want to stop and think about that for a moment.

This is the first time that Genesis records Abram talking to God. Until now, God has spoken and Abram has obeyed. But now, Abram responds. And that makes today’s passage conversation between Abram and God. You can see that we’ve set up the outline to reflect that. God initiates the conversation, Abram responds, and on it goes. And I just don’t want us to miss how important and wonderful this is that the living God engages one of His creations in a conversation.

And what does Abram say to the Lord? What we see in verse 2 is that he speaks a question: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2).

God had just promised Abram a great reward. And Abram is basically saying, “What good is that to me, when I don’t have a child of my own? What can you give me that will make up for that?”

You can tell that this has been bothering Abram, can’t you? You just poke him and this issue just spills out. And no doubt. Almost every married couple throughout history who can’t have children finds that to be a grief. And especially so in the ancient world, when offspring and the family name were that much more important.

And especially so for Abram, whose name means “Exalted Father,” and who has been specifically promised by God that he’s going to have offspring like the dust of the earth.

So what if he can win battles, and so what if he gets a big reward? None of that means anything to him without the one thing he longs for the most—a son. It’s chewing him up that he’s continuing towards the end of his life and one of his slaves is going to inherit his estate when he’s dead, and he tells that to the Lord.

3. Abram - Complaint (v. 3)

What does the Lord say to Abram in response to his questions? Initially, nothing. Verse 2: “But Abram said.” Look at how verse 3 begins: “And Abram said.” Remember in Hebrew narrative when we see these words, “and they said,” and it’s just the same person talking, it suggests a significant silence from the other person. The first person says something, and the second person says nothing, so the first person elaborates and continues to explain what they were saying.

So here’s Abram, and he’s just asked God a pretty pointed question—“What can you give me when I don’t have a child?”—and God does not respond. He says nothing.

Andrew Peterson wrote a song called “The Silence of God” about the seasons when it feels like God is ignoring us and our prayers go unanswered and we feel abandoned by the Lord. “It's enough to drive a man crazy, it'll break a man's faith / It's enough to make him wonder if he's ever been sane / When he's bleating for comfort from Thy staff and Thy rod / And the heaven's only answer is the silence of God.”

For Abram, as a prophet, very literally in a verbal conversation with God, what must this have been like? To bring his complaint to God and hear nothing?

We don’t know how long God was silent for. We don’t know how desperate Abram got for an answer. We don’t know how much pain was welling up in his heart. But we do know that, after no response, he continues in verse 3: “And Abram said, ‘Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir’” (Genesis 15:3).

Notice that he’s no longer asking a question. He’s bringing a direct complaint. As if he needs to spell it out for God, he’s making it really clear: “Look! You haven’t given me a child.”

Just think about those words. Abram knows God is sovereign over his wife’s womb. He referred to Him as “Lord God” in verse 2, a title of authority and power. He also knows God promised to give him offspring. And so far, nothing has happened. Which means, God hasn’t done something here.

So what Abram is saying here is 100% accurate: God had not given him a child yet. And Abram brings this complaint to the Lord with 100% honesty. And probably a certain measure of emotion. Did he shout this with passion? Does he choke these words out with tears falling out of his eyes?

We don’t know. But I hope we can see here that God is big enough for His children to talk to Him like this. He invites our honesty. Psalm 62:8 says “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8). Trusting in God, knowing that He’s our refuge, and being 100% honest with him all go together.

And we know this even further because of how the Psalms show wrestling honestly through their doubts and questions on their way to faith. Think about Psalm 44, where the Psalmist laments to God that the nation has been defeated and disgraced even though they haven’t done anything wrong.

And in verses 23-24, he asks God to act by saying “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?”

Honest lament is a part of the life of faith. A crucial part—1/3 of the Psalms are laments! This is why why one of the most important things a grieving or hurting Christian can do is read the Psalms and lament to God using the language they find there.

One of the things we know about the Psalms’ laments is they bring us to a place of joyful faith. Biblical lament has a storyline to it. And we’re going to see Abraham get there.

But right now, he’s being honest with God who has not yet delivered on His promise to give Abram offspring.

4. God - Response (v. 4)

Now it’s God’s turn to respond to Abram. We don’t know how long Abram had to wait for a response. But verse 4 wants to draw us into the drama when it says, “And behold, the word of the Lord came to him.” Behold! We’re supposed to see this, to marvel at this, to lean in to this. God responded! God spoke. And what did he say?

“This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” No, Eliezar will not be your heir. You are going to beget a son. “Your very own son” in Hebrew is very specific, even anatomically specific. Abram is going to have his very own son, whom he will begat through natural means, and that son will be his heir.

5. God - Object Lesson (v. 5a)

But the Lord doesn’t stop there. He follows up this response with an object lesson. Verse 5: “And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’”

There’s two important elements to what God is doing here with Abram. One is the simple object lesson. His children will be as uncountable as the stars. God had previously told Abram that his children would be as uncountable as the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), and its a similar point being made here.

Have you ever tried to count the stars? There’s actually only about 5,000 stars visible to the human eye, but counting them, just by looking at them, is next to impossible. And that’s one side of the lesson here. Abram will have so many children that nobody will be able to count them.

There’s a second side to this object lesson, though, that makes it a bit more potent than the dust-of-the-earth language. And it’s the fact that the person speaking to Abram is the maker of the stars.

What did we hear about God in the last chapter? That He’s the “possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19, 22). He made this all, and it belongs to him.

And one of the purposes of God’s creation is to preach to us about His incredible power. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

Or think about Isaiah 40:26: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing.”

As I child I used to wonder why God bothered with so many stars, when what were they good for? And the answer to that question is that the stars are preachers. The heavens are preaching to us, all the time, about the power and might of the person who made them.

By the way, do you know how privileged we are to live in a small town? There’s so much less light here at night compared to the city, and it just blew me away when we moved here how much more of the sky we can see. I can stand on my deck and see the Milky Way.

And we need to do that, so that we can listen to what the stars are saying to us. You know the feeling of awe that comes on you after staring at the stars for a while, that sense of your own smallness and the universes’ bigness. That’s what the Lord is inviting Abram to experience here. He brings him out to see this dazzling array of pure, creative power as all creation preaches to Abram about the capacity of the God who is speaking to him.

6. God - Promise (v. 5b)

And we need to notice something else here that is just so beautiful. Look at how verse 5 is written, and remember this is all so important. The Lord brought him outside, told him to look towards the stars, and number them if he could. Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” By reintroducing God’s speech like this, we should understand that it was Abram’s turn to be silent. The Lord let Abram stand there for a while, soaking in the majesty of the night sky in silence, letting the stars preach to him and impressing their glory on his soul.

And then like a parent who leans down to whisper in their child’s ear, the Lord says to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

7. Abram - Faith (v. 6a)

Now just try and put yourself in Abram’s shoes at that moment as he hears the promise again. Think of all of the emotions and experiences that his heart must have tasted. Fear, disappointment, years of pent-up shame and sorrow at his inability to have a child. Uncertainty, exhaustion, perhaps anger.

But there under the skies, with the word of the Lord ringing in his ears, the stars shining in his eyes, and maybe a lump in his throat, Abram responds to the Lord in the most beautiful, simple, fitting way possible: he believes what he’s told. Verse 6: “And he believed the Lord.”

We should know how rare this kind of comment is. In most Old Testament narrative, we typically read about what people do or say, but very little is said about what’s going on inside of a person. So this is a really important moment here when we read one of the few comments about how someone responds, on the inside, to the word of the Lord.

And how Abram responds is by believing. Nothing has changed for Abram. He holds no baby in his arms. His wife, asleep in the tent, is still barren. But the God of heaven has made him a promise. And Abram knows that if the God who owns the stars wants to give him a child, he can.

Abram’s faith was bound up in what he knew about God. Romans 4:17 explains his faith “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.” That was Abram’s perspective. He knew what kind of person God was and what He was capable of, and so he believed what he was told.

Further down in Romans 4 Paul unpacks Abram’s faith even further: “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

“‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord.”

Isn’t this beautiful? “'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus / Just to take Him at His word / Just to rest upon His promise / Just to know thus saith the Lord.”

That’s all Abram’s got. And he believes.

8. God - Justification (v. 6b)

And finally we come to the climax of this passage, which is not Abram’s faith. As important as it is, it’s not the most important part in this passage. God has the last word, as it were, as the last part of verse 6 shows us how God responds to Abram’s faith.

Before we answer that question, we should ask—how does God need to respond to Abram’s faith? And the answer is: he doesn’t. The creator of heaven and earth made a promise, and Abram’s only appropriate response is to believe it. What he did is what he should have done. What’s he going to do—disbelieve? Tell God that he actually knows better? Think that God is powerful enough to make the stars but not a baby? Of course not. Unbelief, when you look at it that way, is insane.

Abram just believed God. And yet what does God do? “He counted it to him as righteousness.”

Abram has received more than a promise. Abram has received the status of “righteous.” Not that he himself has become perfectly righteous in his behaviour. But rather he’s been counted righteous, credited with righteousness. Just like in a courtroom, when a judge makes a declaration of “not guilty,” Abram has received from God the status of “righteous.” That’s the meaning of the word “justified.”

And what did he do to earn this righteousness? That’s the wrong question, right? He didn’t earn this righteousness. It was given to him, counted to him as a gift from God, by faith. His simple faith—just saying “ok” to God’s promise—gets credited to him as righteous.

Do you see how massive this is? This tells us so much about God. God is the one who justifies—who counts people righteous. And God justifies His people—counts them righteous—not when or because they actually are righteous. But simply when they believe.

Listen to how Paul unpacks this passage in Romans 4: “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:1–5)

Abram’s righteous status was not some kind of a pay-check for his righteous behaviour. Rather, it came as a gift, and was received through faith, because that’s the kind of person that God is. He justifies the ungodly on the basis of faith. Just believing him.

So can you see that this isn’t really about Abram at all? Abram’s faith wasn’t about him. Abram just believed God. And Abram gets righteousness counted to him, because that’s who God is and that’s how he works.

And here’s why this is so beautiful and so important: this is the same God we serve. And this is the same way that God is welcoming and saving people today. Romans 4:23: “the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”

Abram—and us—are justified because Abram’s offspring suffered God’s judgement for our sins, and rose up from the dead to share His righteous status with us.

Yes, God is working to make us actually righteous. But long before that work is finished—in fact, right at the start of the process—we get a righteous status, counted to us by faith, on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

That’s actually how Abram was counted righteous, though he didn’t know it yet. Romans 3:25 says that Jesus died to pay for the sins formerly committed which God had passed over—like Abram’s. And together with Abram, we can be counted righteous by faith alone in the God who gave up Jesus for our sins and raised Him up to declare us righteous.

Isn’t this good news?

Isn’t this good news for the world? This world is full of unrighteous people who need to hear the good news that God justifies the ungodly. This is the good news that Sharmyn and her team get to take with her. And I can’t wait to hear the stories about the people who otherwise never would have been able to hear this news becoming sons of Abraham by faith.

All the nations will be blessed, and that blessing is this good news of the gospel.

Isn’t this good news for Nipawin? How many people do we live with and work with and go to school with need to hear about the God who sent His son to justify the ungodly?

Isn’t this good news for us this morning?

Let me ask you: are you righteous? That’s a trick question, right? By ourselves, if all you took was our actions and thoughts and behaviour and desires, no one is righteous, no, not one. And even after we’ve come to know the Lord, while He is working to make his children look like their elder brother Jesus, none of us are all the way there yet.

But I also hope you know that the answer is yes. If you’ve believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, your faith has been counted to you as righteousness. You have the status of “righteous” in God’s courts. That’s who you are. Your past, present and future are secured in the strong hands of your saviour.

When you know that you’ve been counted righteous by God, it changes everything. It changes our hearts here and now today because we no longer need to prove ourselves. We don’t need to show off our own righteousness to others or God. We can own our sin and accept rebuke and walk in humility and grow in holiness because we don’t need to justify ourselves. We know that the highest court in the universe has already found us righteous and so we’ve got nothing to loose and nothing to prove.

Justification by faith is also so precious because, like Abram, the walk of faith is not a walk in the park. We struggle. We suffer. We wrestle with temptation. We wait for promises to be kept. But the faith that justifies is a faith that, rather than looking at ourselves or our circumstances, looks to God and rests in the truth that He’s enough for us.

And that’s why we’re closing this morning by singing “He Will Hold Me Fast” again. This is not a song about faith. This is a song that itself expresses faith. Abraham-like faith that God is also our shield, and that the eternal reward of being with Him is great indeed. Faith that God is going to keep His promises in whatever pain and uncertainty and difficulty we might find ourselves in.

The faith that justifies is a faith that also says “He’s going to hold me fast.”

We had chosen to sing this song today and I think it’s so beautiful that this gets to be the soundtrack for our commissioning of  Sharmyn. But the truth is we all need them.

Now a final word—maybe you’re here this morning and you don’t think you have this faith. It’s true that we can’t cook it up ourselves. The faith that justifies is a gift from God. Philippians 1:29 says that believing in Jesus and suffering for him have both been granted to us—given as a gift.

But would you come to the Lord this morning and ask him for the gift of faith? Ask Him to help you believe? Ask Him to make you trust that He’s enough for your past, your present, and your future?

Let’s look to Jesus together now.

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