The promise…

To us (part 2)

It’s amazing how God gave credit to Abraham for not “weakening (or wavering) in his belief in God’s promise,” Romans 4:19-20, when it was only because of God “strengthening his faith that Abraham was fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he promised,” verses 20-21. No wonder Abraham “gave glory to God,” not only in God making such an amazing promise to him in the first place, but in giving him the strength to fully believe it too. 

It was all God’s doing, from the initial promise to Abraham believing it. But God, amazingly, gives Abraham the credit for believing. What did Abraham contribute to this process? Absolutely nothing. And it didn’t make him a better person for believing either. His belief didn’t suddenly make him a righteous man, which we see in the many mistakes he made later in Genesis. 

So what was God up to here? He makes a promise, enables Abraham to believe it, and then credits Abraham with righteousness. Why, though? What did it accomplish? 

Paul answers that for us in Romans 4:20 – Abraham “gave glory to God.” That was the goal. It’s what being “credited with righteousness” means too; it means “setting one’s relationship with God to rights.” Well, that’s what happened to Abraham through the process God took him through – from a standing start in Genesis 11, with no record of Abraham knowing much about God at all, to being swept away by God’s greatness. From Abraham possibly having no opinion of God, to revelling in him. 

So is this the process God takes us through? Yes, it’s meant for us too (Romans 4:24). So out of the blue, just as it was for Abraham, we got to hear about God’s promise of justification – that our relationship with God has been set to rights through Christ’s death and resurrected life. 

But why did we take any notice of it, let alone believe it? Because, Ephesians 2:8, “it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this (faith) not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Just as God strengthened Abraham’s faith, he strengthens ours, enough for us to be fully persuaded that God has the power to fulfill the same goal he had for Abraham in us. That from a standing start we too, knowing little about God, end up giving glory to him as well…(more on this tomorrow)  

The promise…

To us (part 1)

So if believing in God’s promises is the key to our relationship with God being ‘set to rights’ – what promises did God make that he wants us to believe in?

Paul answers that in Romans 4:24, that we’re “credited with righteousness” – our relationship with God is set to rights – for “believing in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,” because in that is God’s promise to us, verse 25, that “Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” 

The promise for us, then, is justification, and being credited with righteousness for believing it. And true to God’s nature, it’s a legally binding promise too, because “justification” here is a legal term – so imagine a court case where someone, who is anything but righteous, is hauled before the judge for a verdict. And the judge replies, “This person believes that Jesus was delivered over to death for his sins, so before God he is legally declared justified, case dismissed.”

So the man entered the court with a ton of evidence that, before God, he deserved to die. But he left the court with a clean slate, none of his past life held against him, his non-existent relationship with God restored, and as a free man given a fresh new life to live. 

Which is what the judge picks up on next, because he says to the man (now credited with righteousness, his relationship with God set to rights) – “You realize there’s more to justification, right? You did well believing that Jesus’ death gave you a fresh start, but do you realize – and believe – what Jesus was raised back to life for too?”  

“Because,” the judge continues, “how are you going to live a good life in future? I’m sure you’d agree that having your case dismissed today didn’t suddenly make you a righteous person. You’ve got a long way to go before you’re anywhere close to becoming as righteous as Christ. But if you believe Christ was raised back to life to help you become like him, and he’s as totally committed to doing that for you as he was to Abram in his old age having a son, that too will be credited to you as righteousness. That will probably be harder for you to believe, though – but God strengthened Abram’s belief in his promise, and he’ll strengthen your faith too”…(more on this tomorrow)   

The promise…

To Abraham (part 3)

God made an amazing promise to Abram in Genesis 12:3, that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” starting with Abram’s very own son and heir – which made the promise even more amazing, because Abram didn’t have any children and he was already in his 70’s. 

“Yet,” Romans 4:20-21, “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he promised.” For which, verse 22, “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 

So God had a clear purpose in going this route, promising a childless old man he would have children, and then strengthening the man’s belief in that promise so he’d be “fully persuaded” in God being able to fulfill it. 

So what was God’s purpose, then? According to verse 16, it was to set up Abram as “the father of us all.” Meaning, this is the route God is taking all of us. This is how Abram would have many children, not only in physical descendants, but also in millions of people being strengthened in their belief in God’s promises and his power to fulfill those promises, just like God did for him. 

The result being many millions of Abram’s “children” being “credited with righteousness” just like he was. Abram was simply the first to be given unwavering belief in the God of promises and “it was credited to him as righteousness,” verse 22 – but, verses 23-24, “The words ‘It was credited to him as righteousness’ were written not for him alone, but also for us.”

So in Abram God was setting up a pattern, a process, that would show us humans how he would view us as righteous in his sight. Which surely is the most important piece of information we humans need to know, because our view of God and our relationship with him has been abysmal. But now we see in Abram how God has ‘set us all to rights’ – or credited us with righteousness – by us simply believing he’s a God who fulfills his promises. 

And God will strengthen our belief in that, because in us he’s proving his promise to Abram is true, that he did have many children, who just like him are being credited with righteousness for their belief as well…(more on this tomorrow)   

The promise…

To Abraham (part 2)

Ten years of waiting for God to fulfill his promise in Genesis 12:7 to give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring – and still no offspring. So it looked like Eliezer, born into Abram’s household, was the ‘son and heir’ God had in mind. But “Not so,” says God, “a son coming from your own body will be your heir,” Genesis 15:4

Think that’s impossible, Abram? Then come outside, look up and count all the stars you can see, because if I can make all those stars possible, it’s just as possible for me to make as many offspring for you too. So quit looking for shortcut solutions for a son and heir down here, Abram, and look up. The power that made those stars is your solution.   

And Abram gets the point, thanks to God giving him the assurance he lacked. It’s what “believed” means in verse 6. Abraham “believed” God, the Hebrew word meaning certainty, like knowing for certain you can lean your whole weight on something and it will hold, like lake ice, or a fallen tree bridging a stream. 

Or in Abram’s case, that he could lean his whole weight on God’s promise to give him a son, and it would hold. And of course it would hold. If God could create thousands of stars he could create thousands of children. And in Abram’s mind that was enough. 

But it was God who got him to this point, and enabled him to believe. So why did he do that for Abram? Because (verse 6 still) in “Abram believing the Lord, he was credited with righteousness.” For believing in God being a God of promises, with the commitment and power to make his promises happen, Abram was the first human in history to be considered righteous for his belief. And that was a pivotal moment for all humanity, because it set in concrete all through the rest of Scripture and human history The Great Promise from the God of promises, that anyone following Abram’s example of belief would also be considered righteous.

But what’s so great about being credited with righteousness? Because that’s what God wants for all of us, the chance to get “back to rights” with him, so we can experience getting back to what he created us for. And where that begins for us is the same place it began for Abram, being faced with amazing promises that God enables us to believe too…(more on this tomorrow)

The promise…

To Abraham

For Abraham it all began with a promise, “the promise that he would be heir of the world,” Romans 4:13. And Paul used a powerful Greek word for “heir” too – kleronomos (clare-oh-nomm-oss) – meaning “taking possession of.” So imagine being Abraham and hearing you’re going to take possession of the whole world – as a promise, and legally bound by God himself too. 

But this was God’s way of introducing himself to Abraham – or Abram as he was then – as a God of promises. It was part of God’s nature to want to make legally binding declarations that humans could rightfully expect him to come through on. So when God tells Abram, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you” in Genesis 12:2, there’s a relish in those two words, “I will.” I will do this for you, Abram, because that’s who I am; I’m a God who makes promises.   

And makes promises out of the blue too, to a man seventy-five years old already (12:4), and then telling this old man to leave his home country and head for a land that his children would possess (12:7) – when the poor chap had never been able to have children. Is it any surprise, then, that ten or so years later and still no son, Abram says to God, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless, and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You’ve given me no children; so it’s a servant in my household who’ll be my heir” (15:2-3). 

To Abram, then, this was an impossible promise. It’s like me saying to my wife, “I promise you the whole world” (which I did just now to try it out – and she laughed). And to Abram it must have seemed just as crazy.  How could God make such promises to him and his non-existent children, when the circumstances weren’t in place to make them happen? 

So God “took Abram outside (15:5) and said, ‘Look at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” Well, that just made God’s promise even more impossible, telling this old childless chap he’s going to have more children than he can count.  

But God knew exactly how to get through to Abram, because as Abram stared up at the stars that’s when it hit him, that what God was promising was real. Which is good to know – because of what happened next…(more on this tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 14)

Salvation in James 3:13 is the “humility that comes from God’s wisdom,” because it saves us from so much of the hurt and chaos caused by the “envy and selfish ambition” of the devil’s wisdom. 

Imagine how much trouble our churches would be saved from, therefore, if we were all “peace-loving, gentle, approachable, full of tolerant thoughts and kindly actions,” verse 17. What a display we could be of what God’s good living looks like, and what a light in the darkness of a world that can never stop conflicts, and how “peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” verse 18. God set up his church to be such a light, and promised his wisdom in great generous dollops to make it possible.  

The test on us then, is do we believe his promise of wisdom? According to James it’s a good idea if we did, because life in this world doesn’t make being a peacemaker easy. People in high office exploiting fear, fomenting hate, confusion and division, for instance, can make us highly critical and condemning, and vocally so too. Which in turn can make us quarrelsome and argumentative, and a rather unpleasant person to be around. So much for raising a harvest of what good living looks like

That really came home to me during the pandemic when I found myself becoming very angry at our government leaders, and feeling the need to express it too. Which was dead against Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 2:17 to “Show proper respect to everyone,” including “honouring the king” – meaning anyone in a position of authority (verses 13-14). 

To me that was a test I could not pass. But James’ point is that we prove our faith by our works. Well, God made a promise to give me the humility that comes from his wisdom – so – could I take the nasty critical thoughts toward our leaders that I cherished expressing, and like Abraham taking his cherished son to be sacrificed, be willing to sacrifice them too?  

Fortunately, yes. Just like that too. Out went all my sources of anti-government justification, and I haven’t watched them since. And has it ever been my salvation. No longer angry. And all because of believing what God says, proving one’s belief by acting on it, and seeking his wisdom to make it possible. And that’s the salvation James is talking about – that we can experience in this life now, again and again and… 

(A new series, entitled The Promise, starting tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 13)

According to James 3:13, the “good deeds” we do, that truly show “the righteous life God desires,” are displayed at their best when “done in the humility that comes from God’s wisdom.” 

To make it clear what James means by that, he compares it to the “earthly, unspiritual ‘wisdom’ of the devil,” verse 15, the driving forces of which are “envy and selfish ambition” – the obvious fruits of which are “disorder and every evil practice,” verse 16

There are two wisdoms in operation, therefore, both with clearly visible characteristics and results. On the one hand humility and goodness, and on the other selfish ambition and evil; two clear opposites. 

So James is boiling things down to basics, and he’s aiming right at Christians too, because in James 4:1 he asks a rather piercing question: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” – “you” meaning his readers, and in particular Christians who considered themselves “religious” (1:26). Because word had got back to James that there were fights and quarrels going on in their Christian communities. So rather than being shining lights in a dark world riddled with envy and selfish ambition, they were bringing the devil’s darkness into the light. 

So why would they do that? 

Well, James, the ever practical, has a clear answer in verses 1-2: The reason you’ve got fights and quarrels is “what’s going on inside your own heads. You want something you can’t get, or you want what someone else has so desperately that you’d be willing to kill to get it.” Like kill a reputation, or kill someone’s chances for promotion, or kill friendships others have out of jealousy. Or put down anyone who gets in the way of our own personal ambitions in church – to sing the solo, for instance, or lead the Bible study, arrange the flowers, be on the Council making the decisions, etc., etc. How much wreckage in churches has been caused by “envy and selfish ambition” (3:14) and personal desires thwarted?  

And with so much experience of that all through church history, why on earth would Christians choose that over what God’s wisdom provides in James 3:17-18?…(more on this tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 12)

Back in James 1:5, James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom,” which he ties in with becoming “mature and complete,” verse 4. So to become truly skilled in “the righteous life that God desires” (verse 20) is going to need God doling out wisdom to us “generously” (verse 5), and for us not to doubt for a second that he will (verse 6), because we will need it.

Because one thing that plagues us Christians is “considering ourselves religious” (verse 26) and “wise and understanding” (3:13), and maybe even fully qualified to teach God’s word as well (3:1), because of what we’ve discovered in God’s word, which creates in us the attitude that we’ve got things put together where others haven’t. I spent years in a church that thought that way.

And it sounds like James was dealing with people who thought that way too, who could not come to terms, therefore, with why God would put them through hard trials, when in their minds they were such “religious” people. And they were angry at God for treating them like that (1:19-20). 

But it gave James the opportunity to explain why God’s wisdom was so important. Because it would take away their anger. It would stop them being critical and condemning, and set them on a whole new course of discovery that would truly make them skilled in the “righteous life that God desires.” 

And it was all in that one word “humility” in James 3:13. So when James asks, “Who is (really) wise and understanding?” – or “Who’s the truly skilled, intelligent Christian?” – the key to that becoming real was “good deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” – humility also meaning “gentleness.”  

What God’s wisdom would give them, therefore, was a change, even a transformation, in their personality. It would pump a different nature into them, so that the course of their lives would take a completely different turn. It would become the new rudder in their life, steering them away from being critical and competitive to being “peace-loving, gentle, approachable, full of tolerant thoughts and kindly actions, with no hint of favouritism or hypocrisy, quietly sowing a harvest of righteousness – in other people and in themselves,” James 3:17-18…(more on this tomorrow) 

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 11)

So after two chapters and twelve verses, James poses a question in James 3:13: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Or in the context of what James has covered so far: “Who is truly skilled in the righteous life that God desires?” (1:20). 

And after a lifetime now of “going to church,” starting early in my childhood attending church every Sunday, and years of learning and teaching since, what proof can I offer that I’m truly skilled in the righteous life God desires?

Well that’s easy to prove, James adds, “just show it by your good life,” James 3:13. The proof that we’re truly catching on to what God wants for all us humans, is the obviously good life we’re living. 

And it’s meant to be obvious too, Philippians 2:14-16 – “Do all that you do without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be God’s children, blameless, sincere and wholesome, living in a warped and diseased world, and shining there like lights in a dark place. For you hold in your hands the very word of life.”

In a dark world we shine as lights by the obviously blameless, sincere and wholesome lives we’re living, characterized especially by what comes out of our mouth, and in particular no grumbling or arguing. 

But how on earth is that possible when we can see how wrong and sick the world is, and how much better off we are from living by God’s word? What’s to hold us back, therefore, from criticizing and condemning the stupidity and hypocrisy that characterizes just about every aspect of our world? How can we not spill out on occasion our disgust at how people are acting? 

And be also tempted, perhaps, to mouth off about how good we are by comparison, like: “Well, if I was in charge things would be very different” – or “If I was that child’s parent, I’d know exactly what to do,” etc. 

But James adds a codicil to verse 13, that the good life we show is “by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom”…(more on this tomorrow) 

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 10)

So the extraordinary test that James put to his readers was to keep such a tight rein on what came out of their mouths (James 1:26) that they’d be absolutely faultless in what they said. Never a wrong word, ever (3:2) – an especially tough call for his readers, who’d been through some hard trials and they’d been mouthing off at God and blaming him (1:13).

And all due to a rather tiny part of their human anatomy: the tongue. James compares it to the tiny bit placed in a horse’s mouth that gives power to the rider to control the movements of such a large, strong animal. Ships too because, for all their size and the momentum they have with a strong wind behind them, they too can be controlled by a small rudder in the hands of a helmsman. “Likewise,” James writes in James 3:5-6, “the human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of! A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire, and the tongue is just as dangerous with its vast potential for spreading evil. It can poison the whole body, and make one’s entire life a blazing hell.”  

And how sad it is, verses 7-8, that “for all our skill at taming animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea, we’ve never been able to tame our own tongue. It remains a wild and restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

Tough words for those who “consider themselves religious” (James 1:26). But tougher still in verses 9-12, when faced with the hypocrisy of “using  our tongue to bless our Father, but also using it to curse and judge those he created in his likeness.” Amazing how “Blessing and curses come from the same mouth – how can such a thing happen? Have you ever known a spring pour out sweet and bitter water simultaneously? Have you ever seen a fig-tree with a crop of olives, or seen figs growing on a vine, or a spring pour out fresh and salt water at the same time?” 

So, the tongue is not just brutal it’s also clever, plotting, and subtly deceptive. It is hypocritical and duplicitous, eagerly willing to deceive in order to achieve its own advantage. So how difficult must it be for us humans to control such a monster? And yet that’s what we’re called on to do (verse 2). 

It’s a massive test, so what equally massive purpose has God got in mind for us passing it?…(more on this tomorrow)