“No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Rom 4:20
God made a promise to Abraham – he would have a son, and through that son, he would have descendants and a land, and become a blessing to the entire world. And Abraham believed God. But when Paul gives Abraham, the great man of faith, a glowing commendation in Romans 4, astute students of Scripture, knowing the account of Abraham found in Genesis, can’t help but pause to consider how this high praise harmonizes with the actual recorded biblical facts. Surely, we can’t just ignore the embarrassing details of Abraham’s life, even while trusting that neither Paul nor the Holy Spirit are attempting to whitewash the patriarch’s spiritual history. So then, how can we understand and harmonize Romans 4 with Genesis, still believing both to be true? One solution is to understand what Paul meant when he said Abraham ‘grew’ strong in his faith.
Saving faith is not static, and growing implies a process that is played out over a period of time. Indeed, faith, although born in a moment at the time of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, then goes on to grow over a lifetime. Consider how this compares to a journey – let’s call it a faith journey. This journey has a starting point at conversion and a destination at glorification, but progress is made over a lifetime as one learns and grows and walks with God. However, this journey – now let’s call it sanctification – does not usually follow a straight line and almost always winds up taking a lot longer than it appears that it should have been if we had taken the most direct way.
Imagine taking a hike through the woods, starting at one place and aiming to arrive at another, somewhere on the other side; the expedition will almost inevitably take a circuitous route. There will be ravines or steep rocky outcroppings or a swamp or thicket that is too dense to traverse, such that the most direct route is interrupted, and progress toward the goal can only come after detouring around the hazard. At other times, a navigation error or some miscalculation is made, possibly requiring lengthy backtracking to get back to the right path. If our progress were viewed from a bird’s eye, the whole journey would seem very inefficient. Yet, on the ground, at least some degree of circuitousness can hardly be avoided; it’s just the nature of the endeavour.
Abraham grew in faith over the course of a long lifetime journey of faith. And we can map out some of the high points of this journey in Romans 4. These are markers, like pins in a map, that indicate points in Abraham’s journey when his faith reached important milestones:
“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:3). This is Genesis 15, where God promised Abraham descendants like the stars and confirmed it with a blood covenant. Abraham already had faith in Genesis 12, when he obeyed the call to leave his home, but when he believed God that his offspring would be like the starry sky, his faith reached a milestone.
Next, Paul highlights the moment God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision and then told him, “I have made you the father of many nations” (4:3,17). This maps to Genesis 17, where Abraham believed against hope, although his aged body was as good as dead, that God would make good on His promise of a son. He exercised obedient faith, as he quickly responded to the command to circumcise himself and his household, which would have been neither pleasant nor popular.
So we have high points in Abraham’s faith journey – strengthening times that spurred him on. But as we shall see, such exulted trail markers cannot be connected together in a straight line. Abraham grew in faith, but not with linear progress. His sanctification was circuitous.
After starting out so strong, believing God remarkably and having righteousness counted to him, Abraham finds a mudslide in Genesis 16. He listens to Sarah, his wife, and takes Hagar, her servant as another wife, so as to fulfill God’s promise of having a son by having one with Hagar. This is the most perplexing moment in Abraham’s faith journey. To say this was a woeful navigation error would be an understatement. And to suggest mere ignorance about how God would fulfill his promise hardly suffices as an explanation. God had already clearly revealed his will concerning marriage; it is a life-long union between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24).
Abraham would spend the next thirteen years backtracking from this regrettable wrong turn before getting back on track spiritually. When God meets him in Genesis 17, God simply says, “…I am God Almighty, walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you…” (Gen. 17:1-2). It’s a gentle rebuke and exhortation to be much more careful not to leave the path of righteousness. And to help Abraham’s comprehension regarding righteousness and the seriousness of sexual sin, God takes him on a detour for an object lesson in Genesis 18 and 19 – Sodom. As Abraham stood there watching the smoke of Sodom going up like a furnace, no doubt his moral compass concerning God’s will for marriage and sexuality became more accurate. Abraham learned the righteousness of God, and he grew in faith.
Then comes Genesis 20, when Abraham resorts to old patterns of cowardice and lying by deceiving Abimelech with the half-truth that Sarah was his ‘sister’, rather than his wife. The man who was called a friend of God (James 2:23) effectively sells his wife into Abimelech’s harem for the sake of self-preservation. Once again, Abraham wandered from the true path of faith. However, God was gracious and chose to demonstrate the seriousness of these sins by showing its consequences on others, afflicting Abimelech’s household until the Philistine restored Sarah and separated himself from any appearance of evil. And then God revealed His own truthfulness. In Genesis 21, God teaches Abraham truthfulness by showing the faithfulness and reliability of His own divine word – Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, just exactly as God had promised. Abraham learned the truthfulness of God, and he grew in faith.
Although Abraham’s journey was circuitous, God was growing his faith and preparing him for something. So when Abraham hears God’s call in Genesis 22 and responds, “Here I am”, he is not the same man he was in Genesis 15. He is still a man of faith, but faith has grown strong.
And to show Abraham how far he has come and how much he has learned, God gives him a test. It is not that God needs to learn what is in Abraham’s heart; God already knows (Prov. 15:11). But God tests our faith in order for us to see the reality of our salvation, and to help us grow in sanctification (James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:7). Abraham was not ready for this test in Genesis 15. There was more to learn through the valleys of sin and repentance. He needed to walk with God and learn God’s righteousness, justice, grace, truthfulness, and faithfulness. But when God finally brings him to the most perilous bridge in his journey, Abraham is fully prepared.
God gave a direct command – slaughter your son as a sacrifice. Abraham didn’t even waver. Although this bridge seemed to be a death wish, an unstable log spanning a perilous chasm, foolish by any human calculation, nevertheless Abraham stepped onto that bridge without even looking around for other options. He was not using man’s wisdom. Rather, he knew his God. And he knew God to be absolutely true and powerful. He could raise the dead. Regardless of circumstances, no matter what the peril, he knew he could fully trust the Lord to provide. So convinced that God was able and faithful to do as he promised, he went to slaughter his son.
Knowing the end of the story, even hearing it many times, ought not to make it any less amazing. Despite the circuitous path of Abraham’s sanctifying journey, he grew strong in faith by the end. And despite the regrettable wrong turns in our own faith journey, we can also trust this same God – to forgive us, teach us, bring us back from wayward wanderings, reveal more of Himself to us, and give us life when death threatens. He will grow our faith, so that we too can finish strong.