Abstract of a Sermon Preached on July 22, 2001
Paul calls Abraham “the father of all them that believe,” obviously not because he was the first who believed, but because of the pre-eminence of his faith. Abraham's faith, though not perfect, was yet of the sterling sort, and of a high degree also. Not perfect, surely, and it is a most interesting fact that we may learn so much of the ways of unbelief by studying the man of pre-eminent faith. More on that in its place. Meanwhile, we only affirm that as Abraham had great faith, his faith was greatly tried. I have long supposed that the greater our faith, the greater the trial of our faith will be. The Lord never tried anyone in his earthly ministry, as he did the woman to whom he said, “O Woman, great is thy faith.” Great faith will bear a great trial, and only shine the brighter, where little faith would faint and fail. The greater our faith, the greater the trial we may expect.
Paul speaks twice of the faith of Abraham, once in Romans 4 and once in Hebrews 11, and both times in connection with the trial of his faith. Abraham's faith was subjected to two great trials, first to obtain his Isaac, and then to slay him. These trials were not of the same sort. The first was of a milder nature, but long continued, wearing, and tedious. The second was sharp and short. God subjects our faith to both these kinds of trials.
Of Abraham's faith we read in Romans 4, “(As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were; who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.”
I have preached so often on this phase of Abraham's faith that I need say the less about it this morning. But I observe in the twenty-first verse that he was fully persuaded of the promise. This is the key to all the rest. Without this he must certainly have broken down. He did indeed break down once, when he took Hagar to be his wife, and thought to procure the promised seed by her. This was the impatience of unbelief. Men are unwilling to wait for God when they have little or no expectation that God will act for them after all. They must be always grasping, running hither and thither, meditating one scheme after another by which they can take themselves what they have no faith to wait upon the Lord for, and almost always compromising in the process, lowering standards, giving up principles, and calling good evil, and evil good. Of all this I have seen a great plenty, for though I have seen many who follow Abraham in his impatience and unbelief, I have seen few indeed who follow him in his faith and patience. And of course all such impatient spirits will call all their schemes and their grasping by the most noble names. This is zeal for the cause of Christ. This is doing the will of God. Waiting upon God they will call by hard names. This is laziness. This is lukewarmness. Yet faith will have its day and its reward, and all those things which unbelief and impatience have obtained by their grasping will prove to be only trouble in the end. So it was with Ishmael.
Ishmael was born of unbelief, and for many years Abraham clung to that scheme of his own, thinking to fulfill the promise of God himself, without any help from God. He must compromise to take Hagar, lower standards, give up holy principles, and of course look about for others who would sustain him in his waywardness, by their example or approval. He would doubtless now plead Sarah's approval, as much as he should have God's. But he can have no very strong confidence that God is in the project at all, and he must labor to pawn off his devious plan upon the Almighty. “And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!” There never was any occasion for him to so plead for Isaac, but he had his misgivings about his own plan, and none of that certainty which belongs to faith. Such was Abraham's unbelief. But it was not thus that God would be glorified. He had his own plan, and he would not own Abraham's. His word was, “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed.” This had been rather assumed than affirmed in the original promise given to Abraham. It was only the impatience of unbelief, on the part of both Sarah and Abraham, which had abandoned that assumption, but now that God affirms it explicitly, Abraham lays hold of it again, and it is on this foundation which he stands when he is a hundred years old. The case is now hopeless, physically and naturally. His own body is now dead—-whatever that may mean, though certainly not dead in any technical or absolute sense. I don't think it can mean anything more than weakened by age. Sarah's womb is dead also. Her natural cycle is ceased, and she can no more bear children—-not that she ever could. It is in such a plight that Abraham hopes against hope, and staggers not at the promise through unbelief. Here it was that he was fully persuaded, both that the promise was of God, and that God was able to perform it.
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
And looks to that alone,
Laughs at impossibilities,
And cries, It shall be done.
So sang Charles Wesley of the faith of Abraham, but all this concerns Abraham's faith to obtain his Isaac. He had a greater trial to come, which required still greater faith. To obtain his son he must look to the promise alone. To slay him he must look to the command alone—-and to such a command!
The long, weary years of languishing are over, and he has now entered into his rest and enjoyment, in the possession of the promised seed. The Lord has blessed him, the Lord has kept his word, the Lord has vindicated his faith, the Lord has made him to laugh, and repaid him for all his weary years of waiting. He walks now under the clear blue sky, and basks in the warm sunshine of heaven. But while he does so, a thunderbolt falls upon him without warning, which must have well nigh overwhelmed him. God said, “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.”
This is a trial of an entirely different sort from his weary years of waiting. But the fact is this, there are two great spheres in which our faith must operate. We must have faith to endure, and faith to act-—faith to suffer, and faith to obey. God tries our faith in both spheres. The long continued trial was a test of the endurance of Abraham's faith. This sharp and short one is a test of the obedience of his faith. Both of these trials were extremely difficult to flesh and blood, but we suppose the second required the greater faith. It was hard, no doubt, to wait twenty-five years for his son, but it was a son he had never seen, never known, never loved. It is another matter to slay that son after he is known and loved. God knew this, of course, nor does he make any attempt to shield Abraham from the full force of the trial. Just the reverse. “Take now thy son,” he says, “thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and offer him up for a burnt offering.”
Now observe, there is only one way that Abraham could obey such a command. He must have the absolute certainty that it came from God. He must be fully persuaded that it was God who required this of him. For the faith to endure, he must be fully persuaded of the promise. For the faith to obey, he must be fully persuaded of the command. It is this certainty which gives to faith all its stability and stamina. And we can have that certainty, and we must have it. Without it we will certainly break down under trial. The certainty which we need may encompass more than an explicit command of God, such as Abraham had. We must be “fully persuaded” of our call and commission, sure of our ground. We may act without this—-so long as it is easy to act—-but we cannot endure. We will break down. A fellow who was going to Peru as a missionary—-not, as I suppose, because he was called of God, but because he was restless, and determined to go somewhere—-asked me what he should do if he had no success, if people did not support him, and if he found himself useless and friendless and penniless in the place to which he was going. I told him I would not tell him what he should do, but would tell him what he would do. Said I, “If you are certain that God has called and sent you there, you will stick it out, regardless of every difficulty, but if you lack that certainty, you will quit and return home.” He quit and returned home in a year. I believe that if he had walked by faith, he never would have gone out in the first place. By faith he would have endured where he was, endured the years of longing and languishing, as Abraham did waiting for his Isaac, as Moses did in the back side of the desert, as David did in the wilderness. But these restless, unstable souls never walk by faith. They have no “faith and patience”—-and no patience because no faith. They have no faith to endure the obscurity of the back side of the desert, but must always be grasping for the throne, the kingdom, the pulpit, the ministry, the limelight, and yet they soon prove that they have no faith to endure that either. What they call faith is nothing but grasping, impatient unbelief.
Anybody can act, and endure also, when things are easy. The whole army of Israel can rush to the spoil when the giant is slain, but they stood trembling and paralyzed when he was alive and threatening. It took a David to act, and it was the certainty of faith which enabled him to do so. He knew his divine call, knew his divine ground, and could therefore stand firm on it, giant or no giant. It is for the hard times we need faith. The hard times and the hard commands are the test of faith, and to stand under those tests we must be “fully persuaded” that the ground we occupy is of God. We may have that certainty, and we must have it. It belongs to the nature of faith. But we will not obtain that certainty in the same manner that Abraham did. God will not speak directly to us. We gain our certainty from the Bible, and not necessarily from any direct or explicit command, but from a broad spectrum of principles. Yet our certainty may be just the same as Abraham's was, and indeed, it must be, if we are to walk by faith.
To Abraham the certainty of faith was a plain necessity, to enable him to act at all, to slay his son. In his long trial of endurance, everything was against him but the promise of God. To that promise he must cling in the face of difficulties, impossibilities, and a quarter century's contrary experience. It was only the certainty of faith—-being fully persuaded of the promise—-which enabled him to endure at all. And now, in this sharp and short trial, he needed the same certainty, for here everything was against him but the command of God. Everything—-wife, heart, conscience, truth, love, principle, reputation, family, friends, enemies—-literally everything would have taken him clean contrary to the obedience of faith; everything, that is, but the command of God. If he had not been fully persuaded that the command was of God, he could not have acted at all.
Consider what things stood in the way of his obedience. First, in order to do what was right, he must seemingly do what was wrong. And not only wrong in the eyes of others, but wrong in his own eyes also. Now it was God who put him in this place. It was God who commanded him. It was God who made the trial as severe and difficult as he could make it. And rarely does God ask easy things of us. When he will try the faith of Abraham, it is not “Abstain from candy for three days,” but slay thy son. Do what is not only extremely difficult, but what appears to be wrong. Renounce father and mother, or wife, or children. Disobey your husband. Slay your son. God requires what no man could bring himself to do at all, except for the positive command or call of God. And to act at all in such a case, we must have the certainty that we are called of God to do so. We realize, of course, that God never intended that Abraham should actually slay his son. But Abraham didn't know that. And it is a plain fact that God sometimes calls us actually to do those things which are seemingly wrong—-and things which will certainly be regarded as wrong by others.
In the next place, therefore, consider the great reproach which would come to Abraham for this act of obedience to God. Abraham had a reputation. He was a godly man, a man of faith, a righteous man, the friend of God, a man who had left all, and gone out not knowing whither he went, to obey the call of God, but all of this will count for nothing when he puts forth his hand to slay his son. All his righteousness and faithfulness, all his sterling character for the past twenty-five years, will be ignored and forgotten, while he is condemned for this one act. Who knows but what Abigail endured the same reproach for aiding the Lord's anointed? There are some who would overlook all of her obvious goodness, all her transparent sterling worth, while they condemn her for this one thing, that she acted against her husband's will—-and that when he was obviously in the wrong, and when she obviously acted by faith. Hannah may have endured the same reproach, for leaving her son at the temple as soon as he was weaned. Such reproach was sure to fall upon Abraham when he slew his son. It would avail nothing to plead that God led him to this, that God required this of him. He would be told he was mistaken, deluded, insane. He was in violation of the most rudimentary righteousness, and who would believe that God had anything to do with it? It was his pride, his self-will, or some delusion of the enemy, but it was not the will of God, and the perpetrator of such a deed would be condemned even by the best of men, and all his record of godliness forgotten.
Such was the reproach which Abraham would have to bear for rendering to God what was God's, and the only thing which could sustain him in the face of that reproach was the certainty that his course was of God. He was fully persuaded that it was God who required this of him, and therefore he would go forward through thick and thin, through evil report and good report. When his old friends and allies condemned him, he would remain just where he was. Their arguments and their reproaches were alike powerless to move him, for he knew that his course was of God. He was fully persuaded.
But next, how would he answer to Sarah for this? This was her Isaac, her laughter, the child for which she had languished for a quarter of a century, the child for which she had longed and hoped, her tree of life, when her heart had long been made sick by hope deferred, the child which she had suckled and dandled and loved. When Ishmael had but mocked him, her verdict was decided and peremptory: “Cast out the bondwoman and her son.” And what would she now say when his father slew him? Well might Sarah have denied his right to act at all in such a case, for Isaac was her child as much as his, and did he not grievously wrong her in depriving her of her son? All this Abraham doubtless felt, and nothing could have moved him above it but his certainty of his ground. He knew that he was led of God, commanded of God, and surely God had more right to Isaac than Sarah could have. If Sarah is wronged, God must answer for it, for Abraham is certain that God requires this of him, and he must render to God the things that are God's, whatever the feelings, or rights, or arguments of Sarah might be.
Finally, what would he do with the promise of God if he slew his son? For twenty-five years that promise had been the dearest thing he knew. For twenty-five years he clung to that, when he had nothing else to which to cling. All the faithfulness and truthfulness of God hung upon that promise—-for can God promise, and not perform? Isaac was not the fulfillment of that promise, but only the necessary foundation of it. “In thee and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Abraham had no fulfillment of this as yet, and without Isaac could have none. “So shall thy seed be”—-as the stars of heaven, and as the sand of the sea. Abraham had no fulfillment of this, and without his Isaac could have none, for God had said to him, “In Isaac shall thy seed be called.” Abraham certainly knew that to slay his son would be to thrust the fatal knife into the promise of God as well, and how could he do so? There was but one way: he was fully persuaded that God required this of him. Without this he would have been paralyzed. Everything but the command of God stood directly in the way of his obedience, while the command alone moved him to it. He could never have moved a hand or foot to obey, had he not possessed the certainty that his course was of God.
That certainty he had, and this it was that moved him not only to obey, but to count upon God for a miracle to salvage his own promise. “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”
Understand, the Old Testament account says nothing of this. How does Paul know it? How does Paul know that Abraham went to the sacrifice counting upon God to raise his Isaac from the dead? The same way we might know it. It was a simple necessity. And mark, it was no certainty concerning the command that led Abraham to expect God to raise Isaac from the dead. No, it was his old certainty in the promise. Once upon a time, “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb. He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.” That promise remained yet unfulfilled. God has promised him a seed as the sand of the sea, and he has received but the first grain, from which all the others must spring. How shall he put that first grain to death with his own hands? But as then, when he had not so much as a single grain, “he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief,” yea, “he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb,” so now he staggered not at the command of God, nor troubled himself about the deadness of Isaac. Once upon a time it was his own body and the womb of Sarah which must live that the promise might be fulfilled. Now Isaac must live. But he troubled himself about neither the one nor the other. God could see to that. “Where there is life there is hope,” men say, but Abraham could hope when life was gone. God had wrought once to give him his Isaac, in spite of the deadness of Sarah's womb, and he could work now to give him back, in spite of the death of Isaac himself. And all this because Abraham was fully persuaded, of both the promise and the command.
This is the proper ground of faith, and upon this ground every soul of man may stand if he will. Not that we think many do. No, “When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” Not much of it, surely. Faith links the soul directly to God, whether to his promise or his command. It therefore enables us to stand alone, against the whole world, as Noah did. It enables us to stand in the greatest of difficulties.
But where are we to get that certainty of faith? How are we to become fully persuaded of either the promise or the command of God? By a course which is really very simple, though not at all easy. We must walk before God. We must have a single eye. We must seek no approval from men. We must renounce father and mother, and wife and children, and Pharaoh and Pharaoh's daughter, and country and kindred, and seek that approval which comes from God only. “Get thee out” was at the foundation of all Abraham's certainty. Not only so, but we must hate our own life also. We must mortify our pride and our lusts, embrace the reproach of Christ and the offence of the cross, and seek no great things for ourselves—-unless it be by prayer. Pride and lust and unbelief and impatience are all bosom companions, and 'tis little use to think of faith where pride or impatience are indulged, or the reproach of Christ shunned. Then man and self become our reference points, and we can no more walk before God than a politician who is always reading the polls. Faith withers, and certainty is gone. We are double-minded, thinking to please both God and man, and so unstable in all our ways. Unstable because we have no fixed principle on which to stand, or by which to walk. Our principle is to be accepted with men—-for noble ends, of course!—-and the compass becomes a weather vane. The certainty of faith will make us as solid as a rock. Without it we shall be carried about as the sands before the waves.