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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Grace vs. Works


Shane Rosenthal

Release date:

June 5, 2021



There’s a wonderful anchor for the doctrine of justification by faith alone all the way back in Genesis 15:6. After God promised to be Abraham’s shield and to provide him an offspring, the patriarch “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” In other words, according to this verse, he wasn’t righteous by nature, but was credited as if he had always been righteous in thought, word and deed. And this “alien” righteousness was not awarded to Abraham on the basis of good motives, or because he at least attempted to do the right thing. No, according to the Genesis narrative, he was credited righteous by faith alone.

Genesis chapter 15 then goes on to outline a bizarre treaty ritual in which animals were cut in two and a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces. Jeremiah 34:18 gives us a clue as to what this strange ceremony signifies. God himself explains that, “the men who…did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts.” In other words, in Ancient Near Eastern treaties of this kind, we often find individuals making self-maledictory oaths as they promise to keep the laws entrusted to them by some higher authority. In other words, the slaughtered animals are symbolic of what will happen to them if they do not keep their part of the bargain.

But the odd thing about the treaty we find in Genesis 15 is that God himself, in the form of the smoking fire pot, is the one who passes through the animal carcasses while Abraham is fast asleep. Surprisingly, it is Yahweh alone who is found making the self-maledictory oaths and promising to do all that he has promised. 

But when we turn to the first few verses of Genesis chapter 16, we see that ten years have passed, and that there is still no sign that God’s promise is about to be fulfilled:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was  Hagar.  And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.  So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.  And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived (Gen 16:1-4).

In his Genesis commentary, Gordon Wenham notes that “throughout the ancient East, polygamy was resorted to as a means of avoiding childlessness” and that the “practice of surrogate motherhood is attested…from the third to the first millennium BC, from Babylon to Egypt.” In other words, the events recorded in Genesis 16 fit well with what e know of the Ancient Near East. But, there is a more important question we should stop consider, and that is whether this is the means by which God’s earlier promise to Abraham will actually be accomplished.

One of the things we’ve discussed on a number of White Horse Inn episodes over the years is that throughout the history of redemption, we frequently encounter echoes of the fall, and often these echoes appear just at the time we’re introduced to a new character who may actually be a candidate to be a kind of “new Adam” who will set things right by being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth with image bearing offspring. But time and again, these candidates fail in some way that reminds us of the failure of our first parents. And this is clearly the case here in Genesis 16. Look closely, for example, at verses 2 and 3 of this chapter. Here we’re told that Abram “listened to the voice of Sarai” when she gave her servant Hagar to Abram as a wife. Gordon Wenham notes that a number of key verbs and ideas from the Genesis 3 narrative are echoed here. In Gen 3:6, we’re told that “Eve gave the forbidden fruit to her husband, and he ate.” Later, God specifically condemned Adam for “listening to the voice of is wife,” rather than obeying the word of the Lord (3:17).

What Abram and Sarai have done is also a clear deviation from God’s purposes for men and women in marriage. Though polygamy and surrogate motherhood were established customs in their day, this was actually a worldly practice that was out of step with the words of Gen 2:24 which says that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” All this is clear evidence that Abram is not the good guy in the story or the hero to be emulated, but is just another fallen sinner who, like us, stands in need of rescue. As Gen 22:18 makes clear, it is in his seed that all the world will ultimately be blessed.

So the point of Genesis 16 is that, because so much time had elapsed since they had initially been given the promise of an heir, Abraham and Sarah decides to take matters into their own hands — and the result was the birth of Ishmael. 

In Gen. 17:16 God reaffirmed his promise to Abraham, adding that it will be fulfilled through his wife Sarah. But in verse 17 we’re told that “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” Abraham, the man who believed God, and was credited righteous, here in this scene falls on his face and laughs as God reveals his plans. Reflecting on this part of the narrative, Gordon Wenham writes that strangely, “The Lord is not put off by this.” 

In verse 18 Abraham pleads with God saying, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” Have you ever prayed for something that never came to pass? Take heart, this also happened to Abraham. Sometimes it’s actually a good thing that God says no to our prayers. Here, not only does Abraham laugh at God and fail to trust his plan, but he’s actually asking the Lord to change his plans in favor of his illegitimate son Ishmael. But in verses 19-21 God responds by saying: 

No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.

The Lord appears to Abraham again in the next chapter, and this time in bodily form. In verses 2-4 of Genesis 18 we’re told that Abraham “lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, ‘O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree…’”

It’s amazing how understated this scene is. The Lord of heaven and earth is standing in front of Abraham in human form and continues to make promises. And what is Abraham response? He provides a bowl of water for God to wash his own feet. Think about what a contrast this is to that scene in the upper room in which Jesus took off his robe and began washing his disciples feet (Jn 13:1-17). “Who is greater,” he asked, “the one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk 22:27).

In Gen 18:10, The Lord tells Abraham, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” When Sarah heard this from behind the tent door, she laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (v. 12). The Lord then asked, “Why did Sarah laugh…Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (v. 13-14). Out of fear, Sarah denied that she laughed at God’s announcement, but he responded by saying, “No, but you did laugh.” (v. 15).

When Isaiah saw a vision of this very same God seated on his throne, high and lifted up, he immediately felt the weight of his sin and exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am lost…I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:1-5). And yet here, in Genesis 18, God’s great glory and majesty seems to be veiled as he appears in human form to Abraham and Sarah. In fact, he even shows himself to be gracious and patient with them, even in the midst of their doubt, unbelief and sin.

In his Genesis commentary, Walter Brueggemann observes that “the total Abraham / Sarah story is about a call embraced. But in this central narrative, the call is not embraced. It is rejected as non-sensical.” In fact he says that the story “is constructed to present the tension between this inscrutable speech of God (that comes as promise) and the resistance and mockery of Abraham and Sarah who doubt the word and cannot believe the promise.” Abraham and Sarah, he argues, “are not offered here as models of faith but as models of disbelief. For them, the powerful promise of God outdistances their ability to receive it.”

Brueggemann then poignantly adds the following:

The resolve of God to open a future by a new heir does not depend on the readiness of Abraham and Sarah to accept it. God keeps his own counsel and will work his own will. It will happen, if not in a context of ready faith (which is here denied), then in a context of fearful, resistant laughter…But the word has been uttered and Sarah and Abraham and the listening community can never again live pre-promise. All their lives are now impacted by this promissory word which will find its own fulfillment…Every believer and every believing community knows about the futility of our best faith, and of our deep resistance to the gospel, just when we intend faithfulness. In that recognition, this lordly word to Peter and the disciples is the very same lordly word given first to Abraham and Sarah and then to the whole church: “With humans it is impossible, but not with God for all things are possible with God (Mark 10:27 — author’s translation).

Let’s turn now to Galatians chapter 4 in order to see how the apostle Paul interacts with this Genesis story. In verses 21 and following, Paul says this:

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

First, what does Paul mean when he says these things can be interpreted allegorically? Looking closely at the grammar of this passage in the original language, Paul doesn’t actually say “these things may be interpreted allegorically, rather, he actually says, “these thing are being taken as an allegory,” or perhaps even better yet, “these things are being treated symbolically,” since the word allegory in Paul’s day was also used to convey a simple analogy, likeness or representation. He’s not saying that these two women are fictional characters, but that these two historical individuals can be viewed as representatives of two distinct covenants. 

The first woman, he says, “is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.” Sarah, on the other hand, represents freedom and “the Jerusalem above” (Gal 4:24-26). Some have speculated that here, when Paul personifies the heavenly Jerusalem as our mother, that he might actually be borrowing imagery from a text such as Ps. 87 which says of Zion, “This one and that one were born in her” (v. 5). In other words, in this psalm, Jerusalem is presented in a kind of glorified state, and she is personified as the mother of all the faithful.

In Revelation 11, we’re told of a great war that will happen in the “great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where the Lord was crucified.” The great city, therefore is Jerusalem, and yet in John’s vision, it is symbolically referred to as “Sodom and Egypt” — names that were evocative of judgment rather than mercy. Yet in contrast to this, John speaks in a later chapter of a Jerusalem which he saw “coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband.” This is identical to the point that Paul makes in Galatians 4 when he contrasts the present city of Jerusalem who is in slavery with her children, with the Jerusalem above who is our true mother.

In verse 28 Paul says, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” What’s interesting is that Jesus makes precisely this same contrast in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 saying, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Ishmael, you see, is the product of human striving, and work. He was born of flesh. But Isaac on the other hand was a child of promise, and was born of the Spirit’s work, rather than through natural means. 

Ishmael, therefore, is symbolic of human willing, running and striving, whereas Isaac (who’s very name means laughter) points to God’s gracious gift that comes in his good time. And this is why Paul spends so much time in his Galatians contrasting law law and promise, because at the end of the day, the law focuses on all that we do; it’s about our effort and striving, rather than Christ’s finished work for us. In fact, in Gal. 3:12 he says that the law is not of faith, but rather, “The one who does them shall live by them.” But a promise is not a work to be performed, but something to be believed. Therefore “If the inheritance comes by the law,” the Apostle says in 3:18, “it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” At the end of the day, the law of Moses was not given to us as a kind of ladder for us to climb up to heaven. Instead, it was given to reveal our true condition as rebellious sinners, to the end that we might cry out to God in mercy, and cling to Christ who descended from heaven in order to rescue us.

In verses 30-31 of Galatians 4, Paul says, “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.’ So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” If you recall, Hagar and Ishmael were ultimately cast away and were not included among those who inherited the promise. And again, this is because together they represent human striving, ingenuity and practicality. The point is that whenever we think along these lines as a way of pleasing or appeasing God, we will always be cast away from his presence. This is the great question posed by Psalm 24 when it asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” The answer is very simple, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” So, if you’re trying to ascend the this hill without clean hands or a pure heart, you will be turned away. And this is why all of us need rescue. None of Adam’s descendants are able to climb into God’s presence by perfect obedience to the law — which is why we need to place our trust in the second Adam.

We cannot earn God’s favor by the things we do, and we cannot climb our way up to God’s presence. Apart from God’s grace, we can’t even see God’s kingdom, much less do anything to qualify for it. So stop trying. Stop trying to earn God’s favor by your own obedience to God’s commands. God has one perfect son, and he pronounced his blessing upon him that day by the Jordon river when he said, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). The one who does not work, but trusts in this beloved son — “his faith is credited as righteousness” (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:5).

What kind of faith is required here? Simply the faith of a mustard seed. Or if you think back throughout the story of Abraham, it’s a kind of faith that is often mingled with doubt. But a weak faith, holds on to a strong Christ. And though he is strong, he has descended to you in humility and grace in order to wash and cleanse you from all your sin. “All we like sheep have gone astray, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).