Faith in God’s Promises

Faith in God’s Promises

In considering the story of Jonah last week, we saw how prophecy from God worked at two levels: The first level is how we commonly think of prophecy, namely as a prediction of some event that will take place in the future. And this is certainly a key component of prophecy. However, a second level of prophecy that we perhaps think about or notice less often is that what is being prophesied may also have a conditional component.[1] Therefore, in the case of Jonah, if upon hearing about the judgment to come, the recipients of the prophecy believe what they hear, repent, turn from their evil ways, and turn to God, as occurred with the Ninevites to whom Jonah prophesied, then the judgment is canceled—wiped out—and replaced by God’s forgiveness and grace.

Well, our passage this morning similarly provides an opportunity for us to consider another important aspect of God’s revelation, of his communication to his people: that of God’s law. If we had to define or describe to somebody what God’s law is, I suspect that we would probably begin by saying something to the effect of: God’s law is a list of do’s and don’ts of various behaviors. And we might go on to provide examples from what is arguably the most well-known list of do’s and don’ts we find in Scripture—the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. Hence—and I’ve modified and shortened them to fit into a “do” and “don’t” format:

“[Do not] have other gods before—or besides—me.

“[Do] not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. [Do] not bow down to them or worship them;….

“[Do] not misuse the name of the Lord your God….

“[Do] Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God….

12 “[Do] Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “[Do] not murder.

14 “[Do] not commit adultery.

15 “[Do] not steal.

16 “[Do] not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “[Do] not covet your neighbor’s house. [Do] not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”[2]

That’s all well and good but if we think of God’s law strictly as a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” we will miss the richness and importance of why God gave his law in the first place—much in the same manner that we’ll miss the richness and importance of prophecy if we view it merely as predicting thereby missing that it can be a means of reconciling people to the God in whose image they are made and for whom they are created that they might be loved and embraced by him.

So why then did God give his law?

Well, first, and as we recently noted,[3] God gave his law because it became necessary after the Fall. Whereas prior to the Fall the law wasn’t needed because Adam and Eve, our first parents, had unbroken fellowship with God, each other, and God’s creation, after the Fall all of those relationships suffered as that perfect image of God in which Adam and Eve had been created was damaged. But rather than leave them to suffer alone, God continued to care for them. Yet with the murder of Adam and Eve’s son, Abel, by their other son, Cain,[4] the need for being taught God’s law— for being taught God’s ways—was immediately evident for fallen human nature, unrestrained by God, will follow the misguided ways of its fallen heart.

Second, and related to this, given that the Fall changed our God-created good nature to a corrupt nature, God gave his law that we might become aware of our sin—which is a way of saying that we might become aware of how different our desires and priorities are from those of God. For now often what comes “naturally”—following our desires, doing things our own way—is, in fact, unnatural; our “natural” behavior is often destructive to our relationship with God, others, the created world, and even ourselves. So God gave his law to protect the creation he loved—especially us.

Third, God gave his law that we might know how seriously he, as a holy God takes sin. Whereas God brings forth his wrath on sin for marring his good creation and therefore he seeks to destroy it, we are quite content and might embrace sin even when we become aware of its destructive consequences. Part of what resulted from the Fall is that human beings no longer take sin as seriously as God does. So God gave his law that we might have a way of understanding fallen human behavior from God’s perspective.

Fourth, God gave his law that we might learn that God’s perspective is the way of love for ultimately what the law teaches us is how God created us to live. As we often note, the way in which God created and therefore desires us to live is by loving him and each other. This is an important part of what his law teaches. So if we return to the Ten Commandments, part of what they are summarizing is what love for God and each other looks like in action. So do you want to know what is required in order for us to love him? Then don’t worship any other god besides him; don’t make an idol that you then bow down and worship; don’t misuse God’s name; do keep a Sabbath day in which you refrain from work and take—and make time—to remember the greatness and goodness of who God is and all he has done.

Similarly, do you want to know what is required in order for us to love each other? Then do honor your father and mother; and, unlike Cain, do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not give false testimony against your neighbor; do not covet your neighbor’s house or anything that belongs to your neighbor. Again, this is what Christ, God’s Messiah, taught when he came to earth; when he, eternal God became incarnate, taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. When asked what the greatest law is, Jesus made clear that the sum of the law and the prophets was first to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, minds, and strength and second to love our neighbors as ourselves.[5]

Well, with this background about the purpose of God’s law in mind, yet another point that the apostle Paul teaches with regard to God’s law is that it cannot and was never intended to be the means by which God carried out his promises. The law couldn’t save Abraham or any of God’s people whether Israelite or Gentile. For in order to receive God’s promise what is required first and foremost—which we also saw with the Ninevites last week—is that we believe God’s word; that we believe he will bring about that which he has promised, that which he has committed to do.

In our morning’s passage Paul makes this point by considering two promises—one made to father Abraham and his offspring, the other made to those who would one day be adopted as heirs to Abraham’s promise, in other words, us. So beginning with Abraham, Paul states in verse 13, “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” This makes sense if we think about it for the law was given to Moses 430 years after the promise was given to Abraham therefor the promise can’t be dependent on the law because the promise precedes the law.[6] The promise being spoken of here is the promise God made to Abraham when he first chose to make him holy—to set him aside from all men and make him the means of one day bringing God’s blessing, God’s salvation, to the entire world. This promise is stated for the first time in the opening verses of Genesis 12: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘1 Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’” Notice the unconditional nature of this promise from God:

I will make you into a great nation;

I will bless you;

I will make your name great;

You will be a blessing;

I will bless those who bless you—which, by the way, is true for believers today as well, demonstrating God’s consistency;[7]

I will curse whoever curses you—which is also true for believers today;

All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

So from the beginning, God determined that Abraham would be the means of bringing his salvation not only to Israel, the nation that was brought into existence by means of Abraham and Sarah, but also to all peoples of the earth. For the LORD who called Abraham is the one, true, Lord and God of all peoples. He is the only means of our being delivered from the devastating effects of the Fall. So the only means of our being brought from blindness to sight, from death to life, has ever been belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob who was later revealed even more clearly and gloriously in the person of Christ Jesus—the very one who proclaimed, “Before Abraham was, I am.”[8]

But had the law been what Abraham and others depended on to receive God’s promise to be his heirs, verse 14, then neither faith nor the promise matter for the law results in wrath because it highlights our inability to keep it in its entirety. The law reminds us of just far we have fallen in our desire and ability to be the people God made and called us to be. Elsewhere Paul speaks of the law as our guardian,[9] a means by which we are trained in God’s way. But ultimately the law enables us to know what high standards of behavior God expects of us that we might see our need and turn to and fall upon him. So again, God’s promise comes not by the law but, verse 16, “by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” The point here is that if the promise was by means of the law, then we’re all doomed because who among us would be able to keep all of its requirements and demands, especially if we consider that the law was never simply about keeping its precepts externally but included our internal thoughts and attitudes. As Jesus taught, for example, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” Or again, “27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[10] So thank God that the law was never intended as the means of God following through and delivering on his promises. For if that were the case we would never be able to receive any of his promises for we would never be able to keep the entirety of God’s law. No, Paul, says, even the initial and momentous promise God made to Abraham was by faith that Abraham and all who followed might be recipients of God’s grace, of God’s unmerited favor—unmerited because we were incapable in both desire and action of doing what God had willed.

So, Paul continues in verse 17, “As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’[11] [Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” Then Paul goes on to use Abraham and Sarah as an “exhibit A” of those to whom God gave life though they were dead and through whom he brought into being things that were not. Paul begins with Abraham verse 18: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” And what the LORD said to Abraham was that his offspring would be like the stars in the sky—in other words, innumerable.[12] Now believing such a promise would have been difficult even if Abraham had been a young man of say 25 years. But we know that Abraham wasn’t a young man when God first made this promise to him. In fact, he was 75 years old.[13] And, as Paul notes in verse 19, “he was about a hundred years old” when this promise was actually fulfilled with the birth of Isaac. In other words, Abraham was 99 when Isaac was conceived.[14] But to fully appreciate how miraculous this promise from God and its fulfillment was, we must turn to Sarah as well for Paul notes that Abraham not only had to face the fact that his body was as good as dead but that “Sarah’s womb was also dead” (v. 19). Sarah was ten years younger than Abraham so she would have been 65 when the LORD promised Abraham he would become the father of many nations. And she was 90 when Isaac was born.[15] So with this promise of heirs—and the fulfillment of this promise—Abraham and Sarah were being asked to believe in a miracle—a divine suspension of the laws of nature that had been established by God—since neither of them were in their childbearing years.

Yet notice Abraham’s response to all of this in verses 20–21: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” Are you catching a theme here? When presented with the truth of God’s communication, our response should be belief in him. We saw how last week God’s enemies, the Ninevites believed when presented with God’s word by means of Jonah’s proclamation; and here we see Abraham, God’s friend, believed when presented with God’s promise. No works are necessary to earn God’s favor. The only thing required is believing he will do what he has promised. This belief—over a 25-year wait between the giving of the promise and its eventual fulfillment—ultimately resulted in Abraham’s faith being strengthened. And when God did bring about the birth of Isaac, despite Abraham and Sarah’s inability to conceive, you better believe that all the glory went to our great and mighty and good Lord and God.

So this belief, Paul goes on to explain, “was credited to [Abraham] as righteousness.”[16] Again, Abraham’s belief, his trust in God, was that God would follow through on what he had promised. This is the way faith functioned then; this is the way faith functions now. Starting in verse 23 Paul makes this very connection when he says, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, 24 but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness.” So let’s pause here because we need to ask for what God will credit righteousness to us? If it isn’t a promise that our offspring would be heirs of the world as it was in Abraham’s case, then what? What promise of God are we being asked to believe? What promise of God are we being asked to acknowledge—to trust that he will follow through with? By way of reply Paul first identifies the basis of our believing in God’s promise, namely “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (v. 24). So first we’re being asked to believe a historical fact—that God raised Jesus from the dead; but next we’re being asked to believe the reason for Jesus’ death and resurrection, verse 25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”[17] Now negatively, justification means that those who accept Christ Jesus’ sacrifice in our place are declared, “Not guilty” in the sight of our holy Lord; but positively, justification means that when God looks upon those who have believed in his Son, he sees his Son’s obedience—which is another way of saying he declares us to be righteous, holy and without sin. As our substitute Jesus died in our place—for our disobedience—for our sins. This is what is meant when Scripture says he became a curse for us.[18] He suffered God’s wrath for our sins—took upon himself our guilt. And when he had suffered in our place, experiencing our death on the cross, God raised him back to life for our justification. In raising Christ to life, God demonstrated that he had accepted Christ’s sacrifice, his death for our sin, on our behalf. Because Christ took upon himself our guilt, when we or anyone believes he died and rose for fallen humanity, we are declared “not guilty.” We are declared righteous, holy and without sin, in God’s sight, able to know the love of our great and kind and heavenly Father.

So our righteousness, as was true for Abraham, isn’t based on our acts, but on our belief in God’s promise that Christ Jesus is the one and only way God has provided for us to return to him—to cleanse us from our sin—to clear out our debt—to declare us “not guilty” in God’s sight—to declare us righteous in God’s sight because of Jesus’ obedience. Christ’s death bore the legal penalty for our guilt; his resurrection from death confirmed that his death was a sufficient offering for human sin. So now God approves and provides his eternal love to all who believe in his Son—and nothing, not even death, can sever his love towards those who are his. So much so that all who know and believe and trust in Christ are eternally united to him and our heavenly Father by the Holy Spirit Christ sent—who also unites us to each other, now and forever. What a wonderful message of God’s goodness this is to consider this 4th Sunday after Epiphany as we continue to ponder God’s manifestation of his love to all who simply believe in his promise of salvation through his Son. As the voice ensemble sang this morning,[19] this is news worthy of telling on the mountain—for the reason the humble Christ was born down in a lowly manger was to send to us salvation that blessed Christmas morn. So let us all Go, tell it on the mountain!

And all of God’s people said, “Amen!”

Let us pray.




[1] Again, I am grateful to Bruce Ware who in his God’s Lesser Glory, his response to open theism, discusses how prophecy functions by using Jonah as an example.

[2] Exodus 20:3–17. These are also recorded in Deuteronomy 5:7–20 (I’ve also reduced here to parallel above):“You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…. 11 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God…. 12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…. 16 “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 17 “You shall not murder. 18 “You shall not commit adultery. 19 “You shall not steal. 20 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. 21 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

[3] Sermon preached on January 14, 2018 on I Samuel 3:1–10, Seeing Dimly, Hearing Clearly.

[4] Genesis 4:2b–8: Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

[5] Matthew 22:34–40:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” and Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

[6] Galatians 3:17–18: 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

[7] Two important illustrations of this may be found in 1) Acts 9:1–4: 1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 2) Matthew 25:34–40: 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

[8] John 8:54–59: 54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” 57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” 58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

[9] Galatians 3:23–29: 23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. 26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

[10] Matthew 5:21–22; 27–28, respectively.

[11] Genesis 17:5: “No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Abram means exalted father; Abraham probably means father of many.

[12] Genesis 15:5: [The LORD] took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

[13] Genesis 12:4: So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.

[14] Genesis 17:1–2: 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

[15] Genesis 17:15–17: 15 God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16 I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” 17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

[16] Genesis 15:6: Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

[17] This was in fulfillment of what Isaiah prophesied about the Messiah, God’s Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53:12: Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

[18] Galatians 3:10–14: 10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

[19] Amen! Tell It On the Mountain! Arr. by Mary McDonald.

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