For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)
History reminds us of the past, defines us in the present, and prepares us for the future. In Scripture, we have something more, something we might call holy history. The narratives of the Old Testament become the palette the New Testament authors used to paint the answers for the great questions of God, faith, and human meaning.
This is the second of a series of five articles on Holy History, examining in particular how the Apostle Paul makes use of Old Testament narratives.
What is our role in history? What is our part in God’s project?
God created a world and created us in it. He blessed us and let us roam around the face of the earth, mostly causing mischief (Genesis 6:5). Based solely on the Adam story and what immediately follows in Genesis, we might conclude that our only role to play is to mess things up.
Instead, holy history offers us the story of Abraham (originally Abram) and an alternative to Adam’s failure.
The story begins with the voice of God. “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Genesis 12:1). Up to this point, we know almost nothing about Abram other than that God speaks to him, offering a summons to action. The initiative is entirely from God, and so it will ever be in human history. When we act first, calamity follows. When God acts first, blessings flow.
God speaks. We listen.
The voice of God offers Abram a promise. “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). Greatness was not an achievement to be sought but rather a blessing to be received. The future could not be planned for by man, but it could be promised by God. A blessing is offered even beyond Abram to his posterity in generations yet unborn (Genesis 12:3). The blessing would redefine Abram such that he would not only receive it but also become it. “You will be a blessing.” All this, but Abram is not promised that any of his own endeavors would produce success or that he would even live to see the results of the promise with his own eyes. Abram’s obligation in this story is neither to strive nor even to understand.
God blesses. We trust.
To his credit, Abram understood his role at that moment. “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4). Because he was able to trust, he was also able to obey.
However, later in the life of Abram, trust would not come quite so easily. Life happened to Abram in the chapters following the promise. He experienced personal risk in a journey to Egypt (Genesis 12). His relationship with his family suffered (Genesis 13). He faced political and martial turmoil (Genesis 14). These incidents led Abram to question the trust that had led him thus far.
“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’” (Genesis 15:1-2)
Even in the life of a spiritual superhero, trust can be elusive and fleeting. God spoke to reassure Abram, but the simple formula had broken down.
God speaks, but we don’t always listen.
Specifically, Abram is struggling to trust God to provide a future and an heir. Abram had been blessed with wealth and success in every other area of life except the one where Abram most wanted to see a blessing. “Behold, you have given me no offspring” (Genesis 15:3). The blessings surrounding Abram were not enough to convince him at that moment that a child was in his future.
God blesses, but we don’t always trust.
Rather than rebuking Abram as a skeptic or searching out a more trusting servant, God repeats and extends his previous promises. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. … So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5). God - merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness - gives us opportunities to trust, again and again.
Abram then, to his enduring credit, lays aside his fears and resumes his role in God’s great story. “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
Centuries on down the road, Paul would remind Christians that our part in God’s story remains the same as Abraham’s. Trust, a virtue that Christians call Faith, remains our means of participation in God’s work in the world.
“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” (Romans 4:1-2). For Abraham and for us, faith makes the story about God, not us. Faith turns the plot to revolve around divine action instead of human achievement.
“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:3). It was Abraham’s faith - not his travels or his flocks or his wars - that connected his life to God’s story and eternal purpose. Abraham’s tale is not about a successful man but rather a generous God.
For Paul’s audience, the temptation was to substitute rote obedience to Torah in the place of genuine trust. For people in Christian churches today, perhaps we have found some other set of rules, traditions, or identity markers whereby to secure - we think - our place in history. Paul reminds us that no religious program changes the principle of faith.
“For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void” (Romans 4:12-14).
Any behavior, even a morally good one, which tempts us to believe we are the heroes of history diminishes the true story of God. God is not looking at our age for people who have finally managed to become morally good. He is looking for people who trust God to be morally good. God is not looking for people who will finally manage to get the world in order. He is looking for people who trust him to manage the world. God is not looking for people whose ambitions and virtues drive them to save humanity. He is looking for people who trust in God to do the saving.
There is one hero in history. There is one protagonist who gains glory by his works and receives praise for his virtue. History is God’s story, not ours.
Our trust, like that of Abraham, connects us to the believers of the past in a long chain of trusting servants who recognize their part in history. Humans were not made to conquer history or be conquered by it. We were made to trust in God, who revealed in Jesus Christ that this story has always been about his love rather than our loveableness.
”That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’ But 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” (Romans 4:22-25).
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.