Was Abraham a flip-flopper?

As we saw yesterday, Paul says that Abraham, our prototype of faith, staggered not (or “wavered not”) at the promise of God (Rom. 4:20). However, when we read the Old Testament, it certainly seems as if he staggered and wavered. Twice he lied about Sarah being his sister in order to protect himself. And he also committed immorality with his servant.

In each of these incidents it looks very much like Abraham staggered. So how can Paul say he staggered not?

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is to say that Abraham was too much like Jacob. Hebrews tells us that Jacob was a believer who valued the Gospel promise and God’s blessing. However he repeatedly sought it the wrong way. Similarly it could be argued that we can preserve the unstaggering nature of Abraham’s faith by saying that even in his sin, he was seeking the fulfillment of the promise. He was sinning in a good cause – the pursuit of the blessing of the world!

Another way of looking at this, and the right way I believe, is to look at Abraham’s life as a whole. Although Abraham stumbled in a few incidents, and stumbled badly, the general tenor of his life was of unstaggering faith.

Flip-flop or slip-up
Perhaps some of our politicians might serve as good examples. One of the most devastating critiques that can be made of a politicians, as John Kerry found out in 2004, and as Mitty Romney is in the process of finding out, is that they’re a “flip-flopper.” A flip-flopper is someone whose whole life was going in one direction (liberal views on social issues, the role of government, etc.) when running for one office in one place, only then to go completely in the opposite direction (conservative views on social issues, etc), when running for another office in another place. No one likes a flip-flopper.

But there’s a difference between being a flip-flopper and making a few verbal stumbles about your policies under pressurized questioning. All politicians have slip-ups, but they don’t constitute the general direction of his policies and principles.

I’m proposing that we should view Abraham’s sins as “slip-ups” rather than “flip-flops.” They were stumbles (albeit very serious one) under huge pressure, but they did not constitute a total change of direction in his life.

Social and spiritual pressure
We have to remember the pressure Abraham was under. God had given him a new name “Abraham” meaning “Father of multitudes.” Can you imagine what that was like? When he met other nomads, or entered a city, and they asked his name, he would have to reply, “Father of multitudes.” “Oh, really!” they would reply, “How many children do you have?” “Well. None yet!” “None yet! You’re in your nineties!” and so on. What a social pressure.

But what a spiritual pressure too. Abraham’s whole salvation rested on him having a child. Without a child, there could be no blessing for him or the nations. Without the nation-blessing child there would be no crushing of the serpent’s head. Without that devil-defeating child, there was no salvation for Abraham or anyone. This wasn’t about wanting to be a daddy. This was a deep, deep struggle upon which his own and the nations’ salvation rested.

No wonder he stumbled a couple of times. And what an encouragement his stumbles are too, if I may say so. If Abraham was a perfect prototype, he wouldn’t be much help to the rest of us believers who have rolled off the assembly line of faith in subsequent years. He’s a great example of faith, but he’s also a great encouragement to belivers who have stumbled. Faith does not need to be perfect to save. But our faith must be in a perfect Someone to save us.

Check out

Facebook, Privacy & Marital Oneness
This is a must-read: “Maybe it’s me, but there seem to be an awful lot of couples posting things on their facebook accounts to each other about their relationship. From “you’re the best boyfriend ever” to “he said ______ when he proposed” to “I’m pregnant, Honey”.”

Top 10 priorities for every pastor revealed
Do you agree with Brian Croft’s top 10? I’d like to move #10 up the list but it’s difficult to see what it could displace.

Finally get to hold baby Martin again
No doubt many of you have been prayerfully following Steven and Jamie Lee’s trial, with their newborn Martin requiring heart-surgery within days of being born. If you want to put a smile on your face and tears in your eyes, look at the first photo on this post, and join with the Lees and all who love them in celebrating the grace and goodness of God to them. And here’s another set of great photos.

Spiritual Map Quest
Bob Kellemen asks: “Is there a biblical model for spiritual friendship, one-another ministry, biblical counseling, and pastoral counseling?”

The Biblical Counseling Movement after Adams
Still on the subject of counseling, this is one of the best book reviews I’ve read in a long time. The book is extremely important for anyone in pastoral ministry.

How exercise fuels the brain
For me the most exciting frontier at the moment is brain research. It’s incredible how much God is now allowing scientists to discover about the most complex organ He created. I’m hoping and praying for many Christians to dedicate their lives to studying in this field and then interpreting the discoveries through the lens of Scripture for the glory of God and the good of souls.

Republicans are waking up and dreaming dreams

After last week’s lament about the lack of big, bold, positive vision coming from the present Republican candidates, I was encouraged today by news of some Republicans beginning to wake up and dream dreams:

Mitch Daniels at ABC News:

The problem I would worry about, and have all along, is that our side might not offer a bold enough and specific enough and constructive enough and, I would say, inclusive enough alternative to America.

Jeb Bush in the same article:

It’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are.

John Huntsman at the New Yorker:

I was thinking last night as we were watching some of the debate play out, gone are the days when the Republican Party used to put forward big, bold, visionary stuff. I thought about Eisenhower and the Interstate. I thought about forty years ago this month when Richard Nixon stepped off the plane in China and changed the world by that balance of power relationship. You think about Ronald Reagan bringing an end to the Cold War. A lot of big bold visionary stuff locked up in the history of the Republican party…

I think we’re going to have problems politically until we get some sort of third-party movement or some alternative voice out there that can put forward new ideas…Someone’s going to step up at some point and they are going to say, “We’ve had enough of this.” The real issues are not being addressed and it’s time we put forward an alternative vision of bold thinking.

William Schambra is Director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Writing in The Chroncile of Philanthropy about the caricature of conservatives as uncaring, hardhearted skinflints, he says:

Conservative philanthropy once helped dispel that stereotype by developing thoughtful private approaches to poverty. Unhappily, it now simply reinforces unfavorable impressions by focusing on short-term political advocacy rather than long-term civic problem solving…But now the patient pursuit of long-term vision has given way to the lunge for an immediate legislative or electoral win on a specific, narrow-bore issue closely reflecting conservative ideology…The quick political pay-off has replaced the gradual reshaping of the social and cultural environment.”

Still hoping that one of the present candidates manages to rise above the fray, think big and bold, and refuse to come back down into the mud.

The Prototype Believer

Most of us remember long boring road-trips during our childhood. Before the day of portable DVD players, iPods, and Nintendo 3DS’s there wasn’t much to do apart from read or count cars.

Not being much of a reader then, car-counting was my thing. One of the games my twin brother and I used to play was to see who could spot the most models of our own car on the road. It always amazed me how many there were when you started looking.

But there was a time when there was only one. Before the assembly line started rolling out thousands of Ford Cortinas, there was one, the prototype that all the others were modeled upon.

That’s how Abraham is set before us in the Bible; he’s a prototype of all other believers. Although there were believers before Abraham (e.g. Abel, Enoch, Noah, etc.), God presents him as the prototype believer, the one that all subsequent believers are to model themselves on (Rom. 4; Gal. 3).

So, what was exemplary about Abraham’s faith? I’d like to highlight two key features from the last few verses of Romans 4:

His faith diminished obstacles and difficulties.
God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Aged 99, he was still not a father. Indeed, Romans 4 tells us that the child-producing part of his body was already dead, as was his 91-year-old wife’s womb. These were huge obstacles in the way of fulfilling this promise.

But Abraham “did not consider” this double deadness (Rom. 4:19). That does not mean that he ignored the difficulties or that he denied reality. That’s not faith; that’s stupidity. Rather, “did not consider,” means that although he saw and understood the difficulties very clearly, he did not let what he saw and understood determine what he believed.

Faith does not ignore difficulties but rather shrinks them. Faith is like a filter, or a lens, which changes the way we view the world. It reduces the size of difficulties and magnifies the size of God’s promises.

His faith depended on God’s promise.
Paul also tells us that Abraham did not waver or stagger at the promise of God through unbelief (Rom. 4:20). But what promise did Abraham believe? Well, Abraham is given the same promise three times, each time with a slightly different wording: “ I will make you a great nation” (Gen. 12:2); “Count the stars if you are able to number them…so shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15:5); “You shall be a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4).  It’s the latter wording of the promise that’s referred to twice in Romans 4:17-18.

But that doesn’t sound like the Gospel, does it?!

So how can Abraham be a prototype of saving faith if he believed something different to us? If Abraham just believed a promise that he was going to be a daddy with lots of grandchildren, that seems very different to believing the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, doesn’t it.

Well, the good news is that Abraham did believe the Gospel, the same Gospel as we do. And we have no less a theologian than the Apostle Paul to confirm this: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).

That certainly preserves Abraham’s prototypical and exemplary position for us. He and we believe the same Gospel.

But the question still remains: “How?” How did Abraham believe the Gospel? Where is the Gospel in that promise: “In you all the nations shall be blessed” or any other version of it?

The answer lies in remembering a prior promise. In Genesis 3:15, God promised that he would send a descendent of Eve to crush the devil’s head. Subsequent believers kept hoping that their child would be that appointed one who would bless the dying world with new life (Gen 4:25; 5:29).

So, when Abraham received the promise that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed, that he would be the father of many nations, he put the two promises together and believed that one of his descendants, perhaps even his first child, would be the one who would crush the devil, and bring life-giving, life-multiplying blessing to the world.

In summary, though the vocabulary was different, in essence Abraham’s faith was the same as ours, that is, Messiah-centered.

There was a difference in clarity (he saw in the shadows, whereas we see in the light) and in direction (he looked forward, whereas we look back), but the core, the essence, the focus was the same. His faith wrapped itself around the promised Satan-crushing, world-blessing, life-giving Seed, just as ours does. And the result is also the same – He believed in the Lord and it was credited to him for righteousness.

Great stuff! That’s that sorted then, isn’t it?

Or is it? Paul says Abraham “staggered not, “did not waver,” at the promise of God?

Eh, what about Hagar? And did he not lie about his wife being his sister – twice? Sounds like he’s staggering and wavering all over the place. How can Paul commend Abraham’s unstaggering and unwavering faith as a prototype for ours?

We’ll answer that question tomorrow.

Check out

The Spiritual Gift of Discouragement
James Faris helps us to lose this gift and develop its opposite.

Don’t Tase me bro’
Simply asking questions is not application. It’s more like being Tased.

When is indecision loveless and sinful?
John Piper challenges procrastinators everywhere with this lesson drawn from Bonhoeffer’s life.

The Quest for Comfort
Guy Waters reviews the latest children’s book from Bill Boekestein.

Meet the bloggers
John Brand, Principal of the Faith Mission Bible College in Edinburgh, interviewed me about blogging.

Contraception? Where’s the vision?

Looks like contraception could be President Obama’s ticket to re-election.

Despite handing the Republicans an open goal with his despotic attempt to coerce religious institutions to pay for their employees’ birth control and abortions, the Republicans have contrived not only to miss the goal but also to shoot into their own net by getting mired in a debate about the rights and wrongs of contraception, instead of keeping that debate focused on freedom of religion and of conscience. And while scoring own goals, for good measure let’s throw the whole game away by questioning Obama’s theology, and even whether Obama is a Christian or a Muslim.

Rick Santorum has been the worst offender among the candidates. It’s just so foolish for a Presidential candidate to not only allow himself to get drawn so deeply into the contraception issue, but to deliberately keep it alive, and then to launch out on Obama’s “phony theology,” followed by unconvincing attempts to say he was only talking about his “green theology.” And to top it all off, Franklin Graham disgraces himself with his horribly unconvincing, defensive ramblings about the genuineness of Obama’s Christianity, climaxing with the “Son of Islam” nonsense – on breakfast TV!

This is not just miles “off message,” it’s inter-planetary. And it’s so small-minded in the face of such huge societal and economic problems. At this rate, President Obama can start writing his inaugural address.

Where, O where is the grand vision? And where is the candidate who can cast the vision with attractive, compelling, and persuasive words – without getting distracted by every gnat that buzzes in his ears.

That vision must have two simple parts – The Economy and Society. And it’s got to be ruthlessly focused, rousingly big, and relentlessly positive.

When the Republicans talk about the economy, all people actually hear is: “Cuts, cuts, cuts.” That’s so small, so expected, and so negative. It’s designed to appeal to the 50+1% who like to think that the cuts are going to fall on the other 49% or perhaps on the next generation.

Where is the Republican who can honestly and courageously articulate the benefits of proportionate shared sacrifice for huge long-term gain? Where is the Republican who can reach out to the poor (both “deserving” and “undeserving”), the “entitlement generation,” the takers, and persuade them that there’s a much better way for them and their families? Is there no one who can connect with them, motivate them, and unite them with the rest of society? Is no one even going to try?

And, of course, the economic problems cannot be solved without addressing societal problems, especially that of family breakdown.

But when the Republicans speak about society, all people hear is “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” Gay marriage? Wrong! Abortion? Wrong! Single motherhood? Wrong!

These things are wrong, but angry condemning never helped anyone. We need a Republican who can paint a much bigger and much more positive vision of a renewed and revitalized society built on the basic building block of the family and respect for precious life. Holier-than-thou tones and denunciatory attitudes won’t cut it.

Again, is there no Republican who can compassionately reach out to the tens of millions of broken homes and broken lives with care, concern, and constructive efforts to at least slow down the rate of failing families and murdered babies. Is there no one who can inspire a new generation of young people to live lives of purity, commitment, and loyalty. Sounding like a whiny Pharisee won’t cut it here either.

The present range of candidates look terribly small, undisciplined, blinkered, and short-sighted. Maybe one of them could still grow into the desperately needed, big-vision leader who will be ruthlessly yet positively focused on the economy and society. But the time is very short.

And the opposition is very great. There’s a huge political class with an intense personal interest in growing the numbers of the dependent poor in order to maintain their own demoralizing and divisive power.