September 21, 2013

Chester V. Clark III: Father of the faithful

“To know God is to love him.” — “Desire of Ages”

One of my favorite Old Testament characters is Abraham. Whether as a young man in his hometown of Ur or later in life on the Plains of Mamre, Abraham lived a life of singular fidelity to the will of God. If there was ever an example of a man who lived uncorrupted in a corrupt world, it is Abraham.

In fact, the apostle Paul seizes Abraham as an illustration of how God intends to save individuals by grace through faith. While some in Paul’s day thought that the works or obedience that they were involved in somehow gave rise to righteousness and salvation, the Apostle used Abraham as an example of how justification (forgiveness of sin) and salvation are a gracious gift from God experienced through faith. 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 accounted to him for righteousness.” (Romans 4:2,3)

Paul is referring back to the story of God’s promise to Abraham found in Genesis 15:5: “Then he brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”

Imagine with me the incredulity of childless Abraham as he gazed into the milky heavens spanning the horizons of the desert hills that night. Numberless stars blinked back at him as he attempted to comprehend God’s promise. Could it be? Was it possible? Even at his age?

There will always be room to doubt God’s promises, because, well, what he promises is to do the impossible. Our humanity inserts its emotions, our mind asserts its logic, and with society’s assurance that everything happens in harmony with naturalistic laws we are prone to discount the possibility of miracles. What we can do — well, that’s possible. What’s beyond our abilities we often don’t consider impossible — we just don’t consider it at all. Even in Christianity we sometimes fall prey to this humanifying of God, neutering his power to make it on a comparable scale to ours. “Those kind of people can never change.” “This (habit, sin) can never be overcome.” “I could never love that person.” “I can’t help it, this is the way I am.” And the list could go on and on.

But not Abraham. Staring up at the star-studded, incomprehensible expanse of the heavens, Abraham made a decision to believe. He would believe that God was bigger than his own humanity. He would believe that the one who stretched out the heavens with his hand (Isaiah 45:12) could not be confined to human conceptions of possible and impossible. By believing God, Abraham confessed his own finite limitations and acknowledged God’s infinite capacities. His belief negated any personal claim to take credit for what God accomplished, and allowed God to receive all the glory. No wonder, then, that Abraham’s faith led him into a saving relationship with the powerful, promising God: “And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Later Abraham would obediently follow God’s specifications for a covenant ceremony; and he would comply with the commanded sign of circumcision. But Paul in Romans, chapter four, makes the argument that he was declared righteous, not because of his obedience, but even before his obedience. The Apostle does not discount Abraham’s obedience, but argues that Abraham experienced salvation not by works but through faith. Because he believed. Obedience was the fruit of his experience with God, not the basis for it! He believed the impossible could be done by God, and God never fails to deliver. “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to perform. And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness.’” (Romans 4:20-22)

What does this mean for us? Paul makes it clear. “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” (Romans 4:23-25)

How can we receive the righteousness of God, our only hope of eternal salvation? Through believing, as Abraham did, that God is still able to do the impossible. That God is able to take a hopeless case like me and make me a child of his. That God is able to forgive even my sins, that he is able to change even my heart, that he is able to give even me new habits, and that even my thoughts can be brought into captivity to his mind.  

Too many “bad” people think they’re too bad for God to be able to do this, and they don’t believe. Filling our churches are too many “good” people who, satisfied by their human accomplishments, never even contemplate their desperate need for a miracle and therefore likewise don’t believe.

What about you, my friend?


Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. His column runs on the third Saturday of  the month.