Text: Genesis 15:1-6
If you could put bright blinking lights into the text of Scripture or somehow change the letters in our Bibles from black to neon yellow, so as to get our attention, our text today would be a wonderful candidate for such treatment. The passage we have today from Genesis is one of the foundational texts of our holy Christian faith. In fact, a good chunk of Romans – which, for many of us is a book high on our lists – is based on this passage, especially the last verse. If we could put bright, blinking lights that grab our attention into Scripture, the passage that teaches how Abram was declared righteous – and who did the declaring – would be a very good one for it.
Although this teaching has always been a part of the Christian faith, and even comes up in Genesis before today, this passage makes it explicitly clear. Abraham, as the Lord changed Abram’s name to, was declared righteous by God through faith. Abraham’s faith, not his works, was counted by God to him as righteousness. Righteousness, in this sense, means to be right with God and to not have our sins weighed against us. This is a comforting thing because if Abraham, a patriarch of our faith, was declared righteous by faith, then so are we. In a world of sin and uncertainty, the Lord declares us righteous – free from sin – through faith.
Now, let’s talk for a little bit about Abraham. The name Abraham means “father of a multitude.” Abraham, through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, is the father of the Old Testament Israel. That much we probably already knew from our Sunday School lessons. Abraham is noted in the Scriptures and the history of the Church as a patriarch and paragon of our faith; but when we examine his life in the Scriptures, we find that he is imperfect. Abraham was, at the same time, saint and sinner. His journey of faith began on a high note, that is true. Abraham was a descendent of Noah who had fallen into idol worship while living with his family in an ancient Babylon. The Lord appeared to Abraham and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3, English Standard Version) Abraham believed God’s promise and went. Abraham left his father’s house and land was led by the Lord in faith for decades.
The journey was not always so joyous, nor was Abraham always on the up and up. When Abraham and his wife were in Egypt, he passed Sarai off as his sister for fear that – contrary to God’s promise – the Egyptians would kill him and take Sarai. After that there was a great battle in which the Lord granted Abraham victory, but there was much violence. Later, Abraham doubted God’s promise again and had a child with Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. His doubt stemmed from the worry expressed in our text today. We heard, “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?’ And Abram said, ‘Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’” (vv. 1-3) Abraham, at that moment, doubted God’s promise to make him father of many nations. After all, he first needs to have a son of his own. At present, a member of his household is his heir.
We bring up these things, these doubts and misdeeds of Abraham, to show that Abraham was not perfect. He was imperfect; a sinner. So are we. The same things, the same patterns, we see in Abraham’s life, we can find in our own upon closer inspection. Like Abraham, our Christian lives began on a high note when we were baptized. Many of us were baptized as infants, some as children, some as adults. In that sacred washing of water and Word, the guilt of our sins – both which we inherited from Adam and that guilt which we have merited ourselves – was washed away. We received the gift of faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. We were united to Christ’s death and resurrection. Just as He rose from the dead, by our Baptism, we expect our bodies to be raised from the dead anew on the Last Day. With our Christian lives beginning on such a high note, we should expect that they continue to be fruitful and blessed lives, right? But is that what we experience?
Remember what Jesus said when He encountered the woman caught in adultery? “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone.” (Jn. 8:7) The Holy Spirit is a wonderful storyteller, because He says that, beginning with the older ones, all the people walked away. The older ones walked away first because they’ve had the time to reflect on their lives, and have noticed how they conducted themselves. Would that God grant us the same introspection. When we look at our own lives, honestly, we find that we, neither, have been perfect. We have lied. We have stolen. We have failed to do right by our neighbor; we have taken advantage of them. We have been silent when we should have spoken. We have been fearful when we should have been bold. We, like Abraham, have doubted God’s Word and called His promises into question. If we were to take all things we have ever thought, said, and done and put them into a scale – which would be heavier, the evil deeds or the righteous ones?
“[The Lord] brought [Abraham] outside,” it says, “and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.’” (vv. 5-6) The Lord just told Abraham that Eliezer of Damascus would not be his heir. God would keep His own promise and give Abraham a son of his own body. The Lord took Abraham outside to see the stars; such would his offspring be. Here come the bright letters. Abraham believed God’s promise and God counted his faith as righteousness. To be righteous means to be right with God, to be in fellowship with Him, to not have one’s evil deeds measured against you. The Lord counted Abraham righteous not because of Abraham’s good deeds – of which there are many – but by faith.
If Abraham was declared righteous by God through faith then so are we, so says St. Paul in Romans. This is a comforting thing because, as we well know, we are sinners. To use St. Isaiah’s words last week, we are unclean people living among an unclean nation. Yet, the Lord in His mercy did not cast us off for our many sins, but instead sent His Son into the flesh to redeem us. He sent His Spirit into our hearts through the Word to create in us faith – faith in Jesus and the forgiveness that is through Him and a joyful expectation of the life to come in the Resurrection. God counts this faith to us as righteousness. Through the faith He created in our hearts, God declares us righteous. Yes, we are sinners. Yes, we wage war against the sin that still clings to our flesh. Yes, every day we do fail and fall into sin. Yet, our Lord is merciful. He sent His Son to die for us and, by faith in Jesus, declares us righteous and brings us into His kingdom.