Promises, Law and Faith – Episcopal Cafe

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not reach Abraham or his descendants through the law, but by the righteousness of faith. If the heirs will be followers of the law, faith is null and void and the promise null and void. For the law provokes wrath; but where there is no law, there is no violation. For this reason it depends on faith, so that the promise rests on grace and is guaranteed to all his descendants, not only the adherents of the law, but also those who share Abraham’s faith (for he is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I made you father of many nations’) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls to the existence of things that do not exist. Hoping for hope, he believed he would become the ‘father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So shall your descendants be so numerous.’ – Romans 4: 13-18

Abraham is one of the most significant figures in the Hebrew Bible for many reasons. He was portrayed as an obedient follower of God from the time of his youth in Ur of the Chaldees until the day of his death. Because he was successful, he took his orphan nephew, Lot, and did not give him goods and land in the new land where God led Abraham. He illustrated desert hospitality by receiving and feeding three strangers who happened to be at his camp, not knowing the heavenly origins of his visitors.

These visitors relayed to him some news that he could hardly believe, namely that he and his older wife Sarah would indeed have a son, which is amazing given their age. Abraham already had one son, Ishmael, by Sarah’s maid Hagar. God promised Hagar that her son would be the father of the multitude, the same promise that God later gave to Ishmael himself. Some Muslims believe that Ishmael is the origin of Islam.

God gave the same promise to Abraham that his son Isaac, whom Sarah bore, would produce offspring more numerous than the stars. God has made a promise, and now the time has come for it to become more than just a verbal promise, but to be fulfilled, visitors say.

Paul argues that the promise to Abraham did not come through the law, but through faith. Faith first, laws generations later, when Moses first gave the Ten Commandments. Abraham obeyed God through faith, not because the law required it of him. Because of faith, God appointed Abraham as the foundation of a people dedicated to God.

We have many laws that are supposedly designed to protect and benefit everyone. Too often we ignore laws because they act awkwardly or because of some more urgent need. The speed limit sign says 45, but we’re pretty sure we broke the limit by driving 54 easily, and in emergencies even more.

There were 613 commandments that Abraham’s descendants said to follow. Some were reserved for certain people, namely priestly clans. Some were positive, like “do it …” Others were negative, like bans on consuming certain foods like shrimp, which are often ignored. Similarly, we wear mixed fabrics and grow multiple crops on a plot in the backyard. We feel that these laws do not apply to us, and may not. It is not so much about God wanting us to be slaves obedient to the law, but about faith.

Faith is a ticklish word; to different people it means different things. Some believe that nothing bad will ever happen because they believe in God and / or have done the proper faith using certain words and expressions. Some are more cautious and believe that bad things happen to good people because they have somehow gone bad. They must have broken the law, taken some actions they shouldn’t, or used words that were contrary to what God wanted them to do. Some, however, simply believe that God is with them and that God will continue to be with them no matter what happens.

God never told Abraham that if he did not or that he would be punished forever. God never said what would have happened if Abraham had not obeyed and taken Isaac to the mountain to be sacrificed; God told him to do it, and Abraham obeyed. That obedience was faith and a very difficult test of that faith. Faith can mean doing what is right whether or not we understand the consequences. Jonathan Myrick Daniels headed in front of the African-American woman as a shotgun blast erupted, and he died in her place. The law did not require him to do what he did. Daniels didn’t think about his action. He simply believed it was the right thing to do, believing it was something God would want him to do. He paid for it with his life.

Faith is like other skills: it should be practiced regularly. We need to revise the law from time to time, as we do from time to time in the church, listening to the law and the prophets. It is a way to review the situation, to re-examine where we are and what we need to be, and to adjust our paths to be in harmony with what God wants. But we have to practice faith, taking action where necessary, but in everything believing God will be with us. This is not to say that bad things will not happen to good people; it simply means that God will not force us to go through anything alone if we just look and believe that God is there.

The number of Abraham’s descendants that Abraham himself saw never reached the number of stars in the sky, but he believed it would happen because God said so. Practicing faith also offers us a lesson in that.

I don’t think God would tell me to play the lottery if I didn’t have enough money to pay my electricity bills. No matter how much I believe, I don’t believe God would choose the winning numbers for me or offer extra money. I seem to lack faith in divine protection when I try to cross the street against the light and cars come towards me. It’s not that I lack faith that God is with me, but I seriously doubt that God would give me common sense and a sense of consequence if I didn’t use it.

I believe God is present and close to my next breath. That’s the best reason I can keep breathing. I don’t respect civil law because it suits me; it’s more about making things safer for others and ourselves. I try to obey God’s laws, especially the ones Jesus emphasized, for the same reason. It is a way to love my neighbor as myself and to take care of others more than myself. For this reason, I wear a mask, just as I try to drive carefully or treat others with respect and compassion. My faith informs me of what I should do – and how I should treat others. I may often succeed, but God always gives me a second chance.

That is my basic statement of faith – God gives a second chance. For everyone. Always.


Image: Biblijski bukvar, Stari_zavjet, for use in the primary class of Sunday schools (1919), author Adolf Hult, Augustana Synod. Publisher: Rock Island, Ill., Augustana Book Concern. Contributed and digitized the Library of Congress.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor of the Education for the Ministry group, an avid reader, a fan of baroque and renaissance music and retired. She runs Jericho’s Daughter blog. He lives with his three cats near Phoenix, Arizona.


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