The Faith of Abraham (Hebrews 11:8)
One might get the idea that Abraham, who is called “the father of all them that believe” (Rom. 4:11) as well as “the friend of God” (Jam. 2:23), was born a man of strong and impermeable faith. But this is not true. In fact, as Joshua reminds us, Abraham did not come from a long line of preachers but from a long line of idolators: “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood [i.e. the Euphrates River] in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nachor: and they served other gods” (Josh. 24:2). Abraham was born in a pagan city (Ur) and into a pagan family. He was not brought up fearing the true God.
And yet God got his attention. He called him to faith and Abraham responded: “Now the LORD had said to Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great, and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran” (Gen. 12:1-4).
Now it isn’t a surprise that Abraham comes into the Faith Hall of Fame. After all, if a Jewish man or woman had been asked (then or now) to think of the personification of faith and faithfulness, they would have immediately thought of Abraham. But not only does Abraham get a verse or two, but basically verses 8- 19 are devoted to primarily to him (though specifically in 8-12 and 17-19). In other words, what our author is saying is that if you want to know what a life of faith looks like, look to Abraham. Incidentally, the apostle Paul does this also in his epistle to the Romans. He had spent a lot of time in chapters 3 and 4 dealing with the importance of faith in justification. That begged the question, the apostle must have known, as to what justifying faith looked like. And so Paul points his readers to Abraham in Romans 4:17- 24 as the quintessential example of what true faith looks like.
But not only is Abraham an example of what godly faith looks like, he is also an inspiration to follow him in his faith. He is not meant to be a museum piece. As Paul puts it in Romans 4:12, Abraham is the father of those who “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham.” However, one of the ways he is inspiring is not only in the fact that he lived a life of faith but also (frankly) in the fact that he doesn’t come across as a flawless example of faithfulness. Abraham wasn’t perfect. He lied about his wife on at least a couple of occasions, not a stellar moment, and definitely not a moment in which he was living by faith. So when we talk about living by faith, we shouldn’t think that if we ever stumble and fall into unbelief that we must give up the fight. We must not think that just because we have given up on God in our past that God has given up on us. And what is most encouraging is that when the apostle many years later apprises Abraham’s life, he describes him – despite his failings – of “being not weak in faith” (Rom. 4:19), that “he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God” (20). God doesn’t hold our mistakes against us. We can, like the father who approached Jesus on behalf of his son, say, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
So I don’t want us to consider the life of Abraham and get discouraged. That would be to defeat the purpose of this chapter. The point is that we be encouraged to imitate the faith of Abraham, just as we’ve been encouraged to imitate the faith of Abel, Enoch, and Noah. And in order to do that today, I want to drill down and consider a single verse. We haven’t done this often; but occasionally there is something in just one verse that begs for more attention. Verse 8 is one such verse. There’s a lot here, and I think it will be beneficial for us to hear it on its own merits. Here is verse 8: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.”
What I want to particularly notice about this verse is the link it establishes between faith and obedience. Faith produces obedience to God: “By faith Abraham . . . obeyed.” But that’s not all that needs to be said. I not only want us to consider that Abraham obeyed by faith but also how he obeyed by faith. And as we consider these two things, I hope that we will be convicted and motivated and encouraged to follow Abraham in the footsteps of his faith.
Faith obeys God
Abraham’s faith motivated him to obey God. He obeyed God when God first told him to leave his homeland and to go to a land of which God would show him. But obedience didn’t just mark out the first part of the patriarch’s life. His life was continually marked by believing obedience. In verses 17-19, we are reminded of the time God told Abraham to offer up his son Isaac, and unimaginable sacrifice on Abraham’s part. But he did it. And the Lord responded to his faith and obedience with a reaffirmation of his promise to him: “By myself I have sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:16-18).
However, you may wonder if this is always the case. That is, does faith always create the fruit of obedience in the life of believers? Maybe it did in the life of Abraham, but maybe it doesn’t always come out. Maybe some people can be true believers but not bear the fruit of obedience to Christ in their lives.
The answer to the above question is yes. Faith always, in some way, in some measure, will produce obedience; otherwise it is not true faith. You see this in a number of ways demonstrated in the Bible. For example, the apostle James tells us that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (Jam 2:17). Now what does James mean when he talks about a “dead faith”? Well, clearly, he means that it is worthless. That is to say, it is worthless in every sense of the word. It is not an evidence of salvation at all; in fact, this is the kind of faith that devils can have (2:19). Incidentally, I think it is interesting that James goes on to produce Abraham as an example of a faith that works, and he does so as a pattern for all of us. In other words, if your faith does not mimic Abraham’s faith then it is a dead faith.
Unfortunately, some folks will latch on to the fact that James tells us Abraham was justified by his works and not by faith only (2:24) in order to say that we are justified – that is, declared to be forgiven and righteous in the sight of God – by faith and works. In other words, there is an opposite ditch we can fall into. On the one side is the ditch of a dead faith, and to say that true faith does not have to make a difference in a person’s life. Such folks will rail against what they call “lordship salvation.” But on the other side is the ditch of works-based salvation. These folks, basing a person’s acceptance with God on their works, make salvation to be a matter of trying rather than trusting, of doing rather than depending. We need to avoid both ditches. So on the one hand, we want to affirm that true faith – saving faith – necessarily produces the fruit of obedience. But on the other hand, we also want to affirm that we do not depend upon our works at all for the basis of our acceptance with God, but rather entirely upon the finished work of Jesus Christ. We don’t trust in our righteousness, but in the righteousness which God provides for us which he gives us through union with Christ. Jesus Christ obeyed God perfectly and his righteousness is freely given and imputed to those who belong to him by faith. Jesus Christ also suffered the punishment which our sins deserve, and his payment for sin is accepted in our place for those who belong to him.
But what do we do with James’s language? Doesn’t it mean that our works play into our acceptance with God? Doesn’t it contradict the apostle Paul, who said plainly that we are not justified by works but by grace through faith (Gal. 2:16)?
The answer to this is to recognize that James and Paul are doing two different things. They don’t contradict one another; they complement one another. Paul is talking about our legal status before God when he talks about justification. He is talking about the justification of our person before God. He is saying that God declares the believing sinner to be righteous, solely on the basis of God’s righteousness (not man’s) received by faith. James, however, when he talks about justification, is not talking about the justification of our person, but rather the justification of our faith. Paul is answering the question: “How does a sinner get right with God?” James is answering the question: “How does a person determine whether or not their faith is living or dead?” Hence the answers are different because the questions are different. If you want to know how to get right with God, the answer is to look to Christ and receive God’s righteousness in him, an act of faith. But if you want to know if your faith is living or dead, you need to look to your works. Because if your faith is real, then it is going to produce good works.
Even in Romans and Galatians, where the apostle Paul proclaims justification by grace through faith, you see a faith that works. In fact, in Gal. 5:6, Paul says that “faith . . . worketh by love.” In Romans, Paul begins and ends the epistle with references to the obedience of faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
This can also be seen in the nature of faith. The faith to which we are being called is not a bare intellectual acceptance of certain facts. It is the embracing of Christ as Lord and Savior and to entrust and commit ourselves to him as such. We not only embrace him as Savior but as Lord. He is not one to you if he is not the other. Hence it is that the apostle John writes that all who are begotten of God believe; and all who believe overcome the world (1 Jn. 5:1-4). Surely, we can see that it is impossible to live in disobedience and overcome the world. If fact, to be called a child of disobedience, according to the apostle Paul, is to put yourself in the category of those upon whom the wrath of God shall come (Eph. 5:6).
So yes, the faith which is a product of God’s work in the heart will always manifest itself in works of obedience. It is inevitable. Like Abraham, this doesn’t mean perfection. It doesn’t mean that we won’t sometimes slip into a mindset motivated by unbelief. It doesn’t mean that we will never sin. What it does mean is that it is impossible for the work of the Spirit of God in the heart to be so muted that it never manifests itself in holiness and hungering and thirsting after righteousness. The faith God gives us is living, not dead, and it would be blasphemous to imagine otherwise.
How faith obeys God
The really exciting part of this verse, however, is not just the reminder that faith produces obedience. It is rather the way in which Abraham’s faith manifested itself in obedience. So now let’s look at the different ways in which Abraham’s faith produced a lifestyle of obedience to God. In particular, I want us to notice that Abraham’s obedience was immediate, directed, sacrificial, unconditional, and hopeful.
Again, as we look at these things, I hope we are being encouraged and motivated to follow Abraham’s example.
The grammatical structure of this verse in the Greek implies that as soon as God called Abraham, he obeyed. It is the immediacy of his response of obedience that is being underlined here. Philo, the first century A.D. Jewish philosopher, wrote of him, “Abraham departed the moment he was bidden. . .. Taking no thought for anything, either for his fellow-clansmen, or wardsmen, or schoolmates, or blood relations on father’s or mother’s side, or country, or ancestral customs, or community of nurture or home life, all of them possessing a power to allure and attract which it is hard to throw off, he followed a free and unfettered impulse and departed with all speed from Chaldea, a land at that time blessed by fortune and at the height of its prosperity.”i
You see this also in the incident involving the sacrifice of Isaac. We are told that after God gave him the dreadful summons, “Abraham rose up early in the morning” in order to go to the place God told him to go. If there was ever a reason to drag your feet on something, it would at least have been understandable in that instance! And yet, even then, Abraham not only obeyed God, but obeyed him quickly.
Brothers and sisters, God calls us to obey quickly. Think about your life. What matter of obedience are you not doing? If you are dragging your feet over an issue of obedience to God, then you need to repent and obey and obey now. Slow obedience is often just plain disobedience. Let the words of the psalmist be your words: “I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments” (Ps. 119:59-60). Let us run to God’s commandments.
Another very important feature of Abraham’s faith was that it was a directed obedience, in the sense that it was directed by the word of God. “When he was called,” the text says – this is the word of God to Abraham. He didn’t just decide it was a good idea to leave home and go off into the unknown. It wasn’t an adventurous spirit that made him decide to go. It wasn’t after carefully thinking through his options that he went. No, it was God’s word and God’s word alone that determined the path that Abraham took. Now we have God’s written word to us, a word which the apostle Peter says is “a more sure word of prophesy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). As John MacArthur says, if you want to hear God’s word, read the Bible out loud. In other words, just as Abraham heard God’s word and obeyed, so we too hear God’s word in Scripture and ought to obey.
We need to be careful that we don’t evaluate our obedience on the basis of what we think is best for us. God does not call us to direct ourselves, but to be directed by him. “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Prov. 3:5-6). “Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass” (Ps. 37:5). We are to let God’s word be the lamp unto our feet and the light unto our paths (Ps. 119:105).
We are to let every aspect of our lives be governed by the word of God. And though it is true that God’s word doesn’t speak to every detail of our lives, it does give principles which ought to govern every thought we think, every decision we make, and every project we begin. It is by the word of God that we become “perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:17). The only good works are Biblical ones.
So let me repeat: if you want to know what God wants you to do, what God’s will is for your lives, then read your Bibles. And, by the way, God is speaking to us in the Bible whether we read it or not. You can either listen to him there or choose to ignore him. But you cannot silence him; we either obey his word or disobey it.
Another aspect of Abraham’s obedience was its sacrificial nature. To leave your homeland for an unknown place is an amazing act of faith. Note the way the Genesis text puts it: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee” (Gen. 12:1). Your country: that is, your homeland, the place you grew up. Familiar places, customs, language – all gone. Your kindred and your father’s house: your family, the people who mean the most to you, and the people who care for you the most, and exchanging that for a strange land full of strange people who don’t know you or your history. Though it is true that Abraham took Lot with him, that was it. And he never went back home. The moment he left Ur, and then Haran after his father’s death, he never visited his native land again. I think many of us know something of what that must feel like. What God told Abraham to do must have been hard. It was hard. And yet Abraham did it.
Let us beware of thinking that faithfulness to God is always going to be an adventure and accompanied always with excitement. Sometimes the reality is that obedience to God might be the very hardest thing you have been called to do. For our Lord, obedience to his Father’s will meant going to the cross. And though we cannot imitate our Lord in giving our lives as an atonement, that does not mean that we are not called to bear a cross. We are. That is the meaning of discipleship: a willingness to bear your cross, die to yourself, and follow Jesus. Let us remember what our Lord told the people following him: “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. . . . So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27, 33).
Now one of the points of this epistle is that this is absolutely worth it. There is no sacrifice you will ever make for Christ that you will end up regretting in the end; on the other hand, there is no sinful comfort this world offers that will ever be worth it in the end. For we have in heaven a better and an enduring substance (Heb. 10:34). Our Lord put it this way: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works” (Mt. 16:24-27). It is in losing our lives that we find them.
Nevertheless, it is sometimes easy to forget this in the heat of the battle. Obedience is often sacrificial and can be very painful. But Abraham endured. We should endure as well. Don’t give up when the going gets hard.
Here is where we get to the most amazing part of Abraham’s obedience. You see it in the words: “and he went out, not knowing whither he went.” God did not tell Abraham where he was going. He simply told him to leave his land “unto a land that I will shew thee.” He didn’t leave with a handful of brochures in his hand. No way to do an internet search for Canaan and look at some images. No way to look at Google maps. I’m not even sure the Lord even told him Canaan was the final destination at the beginning. He was just to leave, and as he left, he was in a very real sense walking out in blind faith.
Now you know I don’t really like that term, “blind faith.” I don’t like it because it is used by people in the West to describe a kind of religious credulity, a faith that does not take into consideration any kind of evidence. Indeed, it is often pictured as if faith means to believe despite what the evidence says. However, that is not what Christian faith is. We are not told to believe in things that are not true. We are not told to believe something for which there is no evidence. Our faith is based on God’s word, for which there is plenty of evidence of its truthfulness and trustworthiness. So our faith is not blind if by that you mean a faith that is unreasoning and unthinking.
But there is another sense – a different sense altogether – in which faith is often blind. After all, this is the implication of Paul’s description of him and others: “for we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Paul was talking about heaven there, and just like Abraham was on his way to a place he had never seen, every believer – including Abraham himself – sees himself or herself on the way to a “city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). What God has promised us we cannot now see (11:1). That doesn’t mean it is unreasonable to believe what God has promised; indeed, it is most unreasonable to doubt God’s word. But the fact that we cannot now see it means that our faith is blind in that sense. “We are saved by hope,” Paul says to the Romans, “but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Rom. 8:24-25).
However, this can be hard. To trust on the bare word of God can be difficult for the flesh. It is difficult precisely because it means that we have to die to ourselves; we have to die to the proclivity that we have to control things. We want to be our own masters and commanders; we are loathe to turn the reins of our lives over to God. We want to know what is going to happen. We don’t want to go blind into an unknown future, even though God has told us to go there.
But this is what Abraham did, isn’t it? This is what I mean by unconditional obedience. Abraham put no conditions on God when he received the command to go. He simply obeyed. He didn’t say, “Yes, Lord, I’ll do what you tell me to do, but please let me know a little about the way I am to go and the place I am to go to. Help me to see that it is a good thing for me to be leaving my homeland and my family.” But Abraham didn’t do that. God told him to go and he simply went.
We need to be careful that we do not condition our obedience to God on anything other than the trustworthiness of his word. If God tells us to do something in his word, then we ought to do it, if for no other reason than God says to do it. If you are waiting until you feel better about it, then you are wrong. That is not obedience. If you are waiting until it is a better time to obey, then you are not obeying. If God tells us to do something, we ought to do it immediately and without conditions.
So let me ask all of us, myself included: what conditions are you placing on your obedience to God? Perhaps it is something very hard for you to do and you don’t want to do it. You think that if God really wants you to obey him, he will make it easier for you. Do you see what you are doing? You are putting conditions on God. You are tempting him, and that is never right. Be like Abraham: obey God without placing conditions on your obedience to him.
Well, how do we do this? How do we maintain ourselves in an obedience that is immediate, directed, sacrificial, and unconditional? We do it by being hopeful, hoping in God, and that is our final point.
Abraham’s obedience was determined by hope because it was determined by faith: “By faith Abraham . . . obeyed.” And “faith is the substance [assurance] of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1). As we noted there, this demonstrates the forward-looking nature of faith, and the fact that faith is firmly fixed on the sure promises of God to us. As Calvin put it, “faith properly begins with the promise [of God], rests in it, and ends in it.”ii
We can go into the unknown because God has called us. We can endure sacrifices because God has promised something so much better for us. Our hope is not in ourselves, but in God, and if that is the case, we ought to be willing to do whatever he asks and to go wherever he calls.
The problem with us and our lack of obedience is that our hope is not centered on the promises of God, but on some other promise – a promise of this world, the desires of the eyes, the flesh, or the pride of life. But these things will pass away, brothers and sisters, whereas the one who does the will of God will abide forever. Let us therefore not love the world, but rather let us obey and love our Lord (1 Jn. 2:15- 17). As the author of Hebrews will go on to say, Abraham endured because he had his eyes set on the promise, which he knew God would come through on. We must be the same way. Let us endure in light of God’s promise. Let our lives be characterized by a firm and unshakable confidence in God’s word.
Let us, in other words, be like Abraham. Let our faith be like his: immediate, directed, sacrificial, unconditional, and hopeful. And if you are not walking in the footsteps of Abraham, if your life is not based on trust in God and in his Son Jesus Christ, there is only one way that will lead, to destruction. For there are only two paths: the narrow way (the way of faith and dependence on Christ) and the broad way (the way of self-determination). Oh, may we all be following Christ, for his yoke is easy and his burden light. The way may be hard now, but it leads to everlasting rest.