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The Christian Fight (Part Seven)

by John W. Ritenbaugh
Forerunner, "Personal," March-April 2008

Do we fully appreciate faith's value to our spiritual well-being? Outside of God's grace and Christ's blood, nothing—not even love—is as important as faith because, without these three, there would be no love. Faith is our response to God's love. Ephesians 2:8 reminds us that, "We are saved by grace through faith." It is of vital importance to our salvation.

Hebrews 11:6 boldly states, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him." Surely, above all beings, we want to please God. If we do, then we must believe and trust Him. By means of faith, Abel chose to make a sacrifice acceptable to God. Through faith, Enoch was enabled to walk with God and seek Him as he walked. Faith motivated Noah to build the ark, and it so pleased God that He proceeded to save him from the Flood's destruction through the very instrument his faith motivated him to build.

This article will continue to uncover many details essential to understanding more fully the foundational workings of faith in a converted person's life.

Hebrews 11:8-11 reminds us:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.

Part Six of this series focused on three aspects of Christian life:

» First, that God uses Abraham's example as the overall pattern to teach us how we should respond in faith to God's calling.

» Second, that each called person actually receives two callings, but everybody rejects the first one. The first calling comes largely from the created world and the easy availability of God's Word, both of which give ample evidence of the Creator God's existence. Most people reject the initial calling by simply ignoring it, going on with life as if God's existence and requirements are of little importance. The second calling, though, is so personal that Jesus declares in John 10:3 that God calls us by name. This summoning has far more impact, and few called in this manner reject it outright.

» Third, that Abraham is considered to be "father of the faithful." In John 8, Jesus explains this in terms of family resemblance—not physical resemblance, because Abraham's seed is drawn from all nations and races, but spiritual resemblance, that is, similarity in faithful conduct according to God's way of life.

Legal and Practical Ramifications of Our Calling

In this article, we will string a number of scriptures together to show step by step what happened to Abraham when he obeyed God's call. This step-by-step outline parallels what happens to each of God's children legally and spiritually when God's calling is obeyed. It will also help us grasp the roots of some frequently occurring biblical terminology.

Genesis 12:1, 4 sets the foundation:

Now the Lord had said to Abram: "Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you." . . . So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

The Christian—Abraham might be termed "the first Christian"—is called and led from his old position in relation to God and to the world. To this we can add I John 5:19: "We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one." Galatians 1:4 contributes another factor: "Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father." John 15:19 confirms the transaction being described: "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." The first step resulting from God's calling, then, begins to remove the called one from being under the sway of Satan and this present evil world to being under God.

The second step is that, at the same time, our spiritual condition in relation to God and the world also changes. Regarding this, Paul writes in Romans 6:6: "Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin." The apostle John adds: "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him" (I John 3:1).

Romans 8:8-10 describes a more complete change:

So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

The second result is that God's calling brings the Christian into a new spiritual union with new kindred, a new family, and new relationships. Thus, God's very personal calling creates two separations and two attachments: It separates us from the world and death and joins us to the Kingdom of God and life.

Practical Results

Understanding these two separations is important toward growth in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18) because the world concentrates heavily on justification while treating sanctification very superficially. Practically, this world's Christianity places great emphasis on accepting Christ and His blood for the forgiveness of sin but little on obedience to His governance of our lives. Thus, real sanctification rarely occurs among worldly Christians.

I Peter 1:1-2 addresses sanctification. "Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." It is the life that is obedient to God and separated from the world that provides the proof of one's conversion. If the Christian is legally cleared of guilt before God and obedient to Him, he no longer "belongs" to the world; the Bible no longer perceives such a person as being "in the flesh."

Philippians 3:20 offers understanding of another separation from the world: "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." His spiritual separation produces for the Christian a legal transfer of citizenship that he must recognize.

Colossians 1:12-13 confirms this: "Giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love." As a result of these separations the Christian must live his life as a stranger and pilgrim as if in a foreign land, obeying the laws of his new nation by placing higher priority in his activities as a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

This opens the door to another line of practical thought, conduct, and attitude: "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself the enemy of God" (James 4:4). We normally do whatever we can to avoid our enemies, even to the point of fleeing from them if necessary. This reality should help us to understand why God commands us:

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? . . . Therefore "Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you." (II Corinthians 6:14, 17)

It is by means of conduct motivated by the Holy Spirit that we are to come out from among unbelievers and be separate. We cannot—we must not—straddle the fence; we cannot serve two masters. Once we are called, we must serve God, or we will have received God's grace in vain (II Corinthians 6:1).

Let us carry this thought further with a few more familiar scriptures that bring out our practical, spiritual responsibilities. Romans 12:1 charges us with an important responsibility: "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service."

Romans 13:11-14 adds a sense of urgency to this task:

And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.

In Colossians 3:1, 5, Paul provides positive direction for these activities:

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. . . . Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

Romans 8:1-14 summarizes what these things accomplish:

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

Through our calling, legal justification before God, and sanctification—that is, our spiritual separation from the world—our standing and condition before God passes from carnal to spiritual, from death to life.

Christ's Claims on Our Lives

The practical, day-by-day result of this transition, activated by our calling, is that Christ's claims on our lives become of paramount importance. We, who were slaves of this world, become slaves of Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 6:19-20 reminds us:

Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's.

Colossians 3:24 adds, ". . . knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ." Galatians 6:7-8 admonishes us concerning our responsibility to serve Christ:

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.

Our lives and time now belong to Jesus Christ. Abraham underwent this same process, becoming so encouraged by what he experienced and learned that he set an example for all who are becoming his children.

The practical, daily, experiential reality is that we now walk to the beat of a different drummer. We must do this while contending with two competing, warring dimensions within. With the help of God through Jesus Christ, we will overcome the carnal dimension in preparation for birth into God's Kingdom.

Thus emerges the Christian fight, a spiritual war that this world's Christianity avoids mentioning. It is this conflict that makes Christianity so difficult. Jesus Himself calls His way "narrow" and "difficult" (Matthew 7:14), and He warns all who wish to follow Him to count the cost, because to look back could greatly impede their progress or even end it entirely (Luke 14:26-32).

Into the Unknown

In Hebrews 11:8, the author reminds us of another factor that makes Christian living difficult: "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going." I John 3:2 provides another example of this difficulty: "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."

We are involved in an awesome adventure, but we are blind to many particulars that will affect us. What is emphasized from Abraham's life is his trust in God. Trust is the most powerful fruit, the strongest, clearest evidence, of belief. Trust is faith in action, setting a truly converted person apart from one who believes only intellectually. The Christian must live his life by faith.

Lack of trust is a major reason why young people "go bad" in their teen years. They do not really trust their parents. Rather, they trust other teens; they trust what they see in movies extolling the popular culture; they trust what they hear songs saying to their emotions. They trust their own thoughts and their own experiences, but Mom and Dad are low on the influence scale.

Notice, however, what Jesus says of Abraham regarding this principle: "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Abraham saw Christ as the Savior and Author of eternal salvation in his mind's eye and demonstrated his trust in this fact through his conduct. Abraham's proceeding on despite not knowing where he was going demonstrates that he put himself unreservedly in God's hands. He actually performed what he said he believed despite its potential cost. His feet, as it were, gave proof of what was in his heart by where and how he walked.

Jesus teaches this principle in Matthew 16:24-26:

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?"

Abraham did this to a degree few have even come close to matching. To deny ourselves is to set aside our claims on the day-to-day use of our time and energy in favor of another. Often God's commands seem demanding, even severe, but accepting God's calling has placed the burden of this responsibility squarely on our shoulders.

There can be no doubt that Abraham's neighbors thought he was loopy, even as Noah's neighbors undoubtedly thought he was crazy for building an ark. People of the world cannot truly understand the actions of one who walks by faith because their perspectives on the value of things are usually quite different. If confronted with similar knowledge and circumstances without God's gracious calling and gift of faith, the unconverted will adjust through compromise and self-justification. They will rationalize that under their "special" circumstances, God would surely not expect such things of them. The world of the unconverted is governed by its limited, carnal senses and feelings, not by faith in God's character. They walk by sight.

What If He Had Not Stepped Out?

Hebrews 11:8 also tells us that Abraham was drawn by faith to a land that he would afterward receive as an inheritance, the Promised Land, a type of the Kingdom of God. What if he had refused to step out?

What God has recorded of Abraham's life reveals that how he responded illustrates a path, a way of trust that will lead us to our inheritance. It is the "narrow way," the difficult way that leads to life. That way would have existed even if God had not revealed it to him, but Abraham's following that way in faith proved that his heart was one with God's. God expects us to follow the same trustful attitude that motivated Abraham's actions.

Abraham's obedient response suggests that no proud, stiff-necked rebel will be in the Kingdom of God. No one wrapped up in himself will survive this difficult path, only those who by faith are humbly submissive to God's will. In short, God's calling begins severing us from a number of important negative worldly and carnal factors. At the same time, it also attaches our loyalties, our responsibilities, and our purposes in life to God and His Kingdom.

In biblical terminology, we are transferred from death to life; from fleshly minded to spiritually minded; from Israelite or Gentile to Abraham's seed; from uncircumcised to circumcised in heart; and from the world to the Kingdom of God. It is essential that our severing from the old way be as complete and continuous as possible because, despite what happens to our heart in our attachment to God and His way, the world and carnality remain as constant threats, almost like magnets drawing us back toward them.

From this arises our need for faith to wage the Christian fight so that we do not backslide to where and what we were before. We see this in a small way from Abraham's life; his breaking away was not as smooth as it appears on the surface. Genesis 12:1 contains God's original charge: "Now the Lord had said to Abram: 'Get you out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you.'"

God was severing Abraham from his country, his kindred, and his father's house. Our severing rarely involves a physical separation from the nations of our birth, but it almost always involves a spiritual division from our natural families. Frequently, this severing causes strained family relations. It appears that it caused Abraham problems as well.

In Luke 14:26-27, Jesus admonishes all who desire baptism to consider well what He says:

If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.

As our calling begins, problems do not generally arise because the uncalled family members hate us outright. Instead, they love us in their carnal fashion, but our desire to obey God upsets their sense of family unity, loyalty, and responsibility. A related factor irritates them: They understand that we are rejecting many, if not virtually all, of the spiritual values they taught us.

Abraham's Background

This connects to a problem Abraham appears to have had at the beginning of his conversion, showing that he was not perfect in his obedience. It also reveals God's patience in dealing with us, as well as how little control we sometimes exercise over some circumstances. In such times, we must continue trusting God and fighting to overcome as He leads us through them and teaches us aspects of His character.

Joshua says of Abraham's family background:

Thus says the Lord God of Israel: "Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River, led him throughout all the land of Canaan, and multiplied his descendants and gave him Isaac." (Joshua 24:2-3)

Abraham's family members were outright pagans, as was Abraham before his conversion. We need to add Genesis 11:27-32 to the mix:

This is the genealogy of Terah: Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran begot Lot. And Haran died before his father Terah in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. Then Abram and Nahor took wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah. But Sarai was barren; she had no child. And Terah took his son Abram, and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram's wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there. So the days of Terah were two hundred and five years, and Terah died in Haran.

Barnes Notes contains a fairly complex study of these verses, showing that Abraham actually received his initial calling when he was 70 while living in Ur of the Chaldeans. Why "initial"? Verse 31 says they left Ur and then came to Haran, adding that Abraham's family dwelt there. "Dwelt" indicates that they remained there for an extended period—it was no mere overnight stop by a group of pilgrims at a motel.

Stephen's speech in Acts 7:2-4 helps us to understand:

Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, "Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you." Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell.

Stephen clearly states that God called Abraham before he dwelt in Haran, but Genesis 12:1 shows God then moved him from Haran after his father died. Apparently, Abraham's account to his father and others in the family—but most especially his father—of the things he was learning and believing in his calling persuaded them, despite being pagan to the core, that they, too, should emigrate to wherever God was leading Abraham.

Recall, however, from Isaiah 51:2 that God says that He called Abraham alone. Genesis 11:31 clearly shows Terah, the pagan patriarch of the family, leading the expedition, not Abraham. Abraham no doubt deferred to his father in this decision, but this was not God's will.

God knew that, because of Abraham's attitude, he would continue to defer to Terah. God did not want Terah's direct influence in what He was establishing through Abraham. Under Terah's pagan, patriarchal leadership, they got only as far as Haran from Ur, by itself an arduous 700-mile journey on foot!

Researchers speculate that the trip from Ur to Haran plus the sojourn there may have taken as long as five years before the party resumed the journey to Canaan. Perhaps Terah had a lengthy, lingering illness before dying. However, when the last leg of the journey was made, it was under Abraham's leadership.

God intends us to understand that the distance to the Promised Land—1,200 miles on foot from Ur to Canaan—plus the time spent getting there, illustrate the difficulty of breaking away from what we were to what God wants us to be. Unfortunately, some people never seem to accomplish the break.

God Shakes Things Up

Genesis 12:1 is translated in the past-perfect tense in the King James Version and others, demonstrating the translators' awareness that Abraham's entourage spent a period of time in Haran. However, modern translations favor a present-tense translation, which indicates two separate summons from God to Abraham to get moving. Whichever it was, it must have been a frustrating period for Abraham, seeing how the Scriptures emphasize his zeal. That Terah's death triggered Abraham's departure from Haran suggests that Terah's death broke the logjam that tethered Abraham to his human family.

Moses writes in Deuteronomy 32:9-12:

For the Lord's portion is His people; Jacob is the place of His inheritance. He found him in a desert land and in the wasteland, a howling wilderness; He encircled him, He instructed him, He kept him as the apple of His eye. As the eagle stirs up its nest, hovers over its young, spreading out its wings, taking them up, carrying them on its wings, so the Lord alone led him, and there was no foreign god with him.

It appears that, through death, God had to shake Abraham's nest in Haran to fulfill His purpose for him. Though Abraham appears to have stumbled around a bit, apparently through no fault of his own, God was faithful in getting him away from there. They may also have added a number of people to their group during their stay there.

Hebrews 11:9-10 identifies what motivated him:

By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

Abraham left Ur by faith, and it was also by faith that Abraham left Haran. He sojourned in the Promised Land by faith as well. Nowhere does it say how Abraham knew that Canaan was where he was to remain or even that it was indeed the Land of Promise. We will pursue how he knew in a later article.

We are told that despite becoming quite wealthy, and with the exception of a burial place for Sarah and himself, never owning a piece of land, he lived the entire time in tents and that the Canaanites lived in the land with him (Genesis 13:2; 23:1-20). This establishes another general pattern for his faithful children. In every sense of the word, he was a pilgrim. No matter where he lived or what were his economic circumstances, he purchased no land—he never even built a house!

Beyond this, the Bible reveals little social interaction with others outside of his family. Except for a league made with his nearest neighbors, Abraham made no alliances, nor took any part in the politics or the religions of the people of the land. He lived this way for one hundred years. Isaac and Jacob shared the same pattern of life.

God shows us all of this so we might see that virtually Abraham's entire post-calling life was engaged in living by faith, focused on maintaining his relationship with God. He truly was in the world but not of it. He did not cultivate its friendship but used it as necessity required, though in a guarded way, lest he should in some way abuse his privileges with God.

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