Faith Must Precede Sacrament

“And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.” (Genesis 17:25)

Genesis 17 closes with Abraham and the men of his household obeying God’s instructions by carrying out the rite of circumcision. Abraham believed all that God has told him (Romans 4:18-22) and responded in faith to God’s directions. But what of the others who partook of this ceremony that day? Were they, too, moved by faith in God’s promise — or were they merely acquiescing to Abraham’s wishes, since he was the master of the house? What of the young man Ishmael, Abraham’s son? He, too, possessed a very personal portion in the promises that God handed down to his father (Genesis 17:20); was he moved by faith in God to obey of his own volition the directives of God Almighty?

We brush upon a phenomenon at the closing of Genesis 17 that we have but to look around us in our own day to see is still being practiced. The unrepentant and the unconverted go through the same motions that the genuine children of God do. Ours is not to search the hearts of others and determine their hidden motives, that prerogative belongs to our Lord alone. But we do well to realize that chaff grows also among the fields of wheat and that they often perform the very same observances. Ishmael was circumcised right alongside his godly father, both in obedience to God’s commandment, yet Ishmael’s later words and actions (e.g., Genesis 21:9) would betray that he did not have the underlying faith that Abraham had.

There are two great lessons that we can learn from the circumcision of Ishmael. First, although God gives certain signs and sacraments that identify a person with God, not all who partake in that sacrament are truly servants of God. We will find throughout the Bible men who were of the circumcision that were clearly not genuine children of God. Second, we see that the sacrament itself does nothing to produce faith or righteousness in those who perform it. Abraham and the men of his household gained nothing that they did not already have once they had carried out their circumcision. Nobody’s faith was boosted by this, nobody’s eyes were suddenly opened, neither was anybody made acceptable or presentable to God by going through this. The merit in what they did was valid only when they moved in voluntary obedience to the Lord and enacted this as an outward token of an inward conversion. The rite itself could produce no inward conversion at all.

And what of our own signs and tokens that identify a person as a child of God? Does Baptism, taking of the Lord’s Supper, or even belonging to a local church body affect any change in a person? In and of themselves, no they do not. A person does not become a child of God by doing these things, a person does these things because they are a child of God. Our sacraments are of a great value to the authentic believer and serve as an outward identification that we are a member of the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as circumcision served to identify people as members of the nation of Israel. But they do not produce faith in us, nor do they endear us to God when our hearts are far from Him. Ishmael went through the motions that said that he was a genuine member of God’s covenant, yet he was not. Apparently, he did not truly believe God and circumcision did not change that. If the faith does not exist before the sacrament is carried out, it will not be created by carrying it out, for faith comes not but by hearing and believing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Faith must precede sacrament for the sacrament to be of any value.

To Jesus Christ goes all glory. In service to Him,

Loren

loren@answersfromthebook.org

[This post was originally published January 12, 2010]

**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.

[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]

Lord, Will You Accept This?

“And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18)

In Genesis 17, God confirms and clarifies His covenant with Abraham. In verse 3, we see Abraham fallen upon his face and quietly listening to what the Lord tells him. God spells out the details of what He is going to do in his life: He renames him Abraham (formerly Abram), He confirms that the land will belong to his offspring forever, He institutes circumcision as a sign of the covenant, and He renames Sarah (formerly Sarai).

Abraham listens to all that the Lord tells him. He laughs joyfully at the prospect of truly having a child with his beloved, Sarah. Then a thought enters his mind. What about Ishmael? What about the son that he already has, born to him by the servant girl of his wife? Moved by a genuine love and compassion for this young boy, Abraham cannot contain his emotion and exclaims to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”

Do we not often react in this same manner when God announces a new blessing He is bringing into our own lives? We rejoice over what He is bringing to us, but what of the things that we must release in order to make room for it? Abraham had grown accustomed to having Ishmael around these 13 years and had doubtlessly been preparing him to inherit all that he had. He had been teaching him the family business, grooming him to become his heir. Now, God tells him that another, namely Isaac, shall be the one through whom God will bring about His purposes. What will become of Ishmael, Abraham wonders, Will You not accept him to fulfill Your covenant?

God is concerned with the destiny of Ishmael, and He will tell Abraham as much in verse 20. “But My covenant will I establish with Isaac“, says the Lord (v. 21). The problem with Ishmael was not that God was unable to fulfill His purposes through him, the problem with Ishmael was that he was not the son that God had planned for Abraham to have. Ishmael was born through a union that God had not approved of, by a plan that God had not endorsed, from a person that was acquired in a land that Abraham had no business going into in the first place! Ishmael was the product of Abraham’s actions apart from the will of God from start to finish. It wasn’t Ishmael’s fault, of course, and God would bless the young man in spite of this, but He simply could not accept him as the seed of promise through whom His perfect will would be carried out.

Do we not also offer the works of our own hands, produced through our own efforts, to be used by God in order to fulfill His perfect will in our lives? God simply will not accept these things. He wants to achieve his purposes for us, but He will do it in no other way than His own. Like Abraham, we too grow weary of the sometimes lengthy wait that we are called upon to endure and we begin to busy ourselves with the tasks of preparing those things by which we ourselves believe the will of God must rely on. When the Lord visits us in the time that He Himself has established, we are found having  Ishmaels of our own, produced by our self-reliance and rashness. When God is ready to bring about His best plan for our lives, may we not be found in need of displacing our second-best in order to accommodate it.

To Jesus Christ goes all glory. In service to Him,

Loren

loren@answersfromthebook.org

[This post was originally published January 11, 2010]

**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.

[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]

What’s In A Name?

No longer shall your name be called Abram,
But your name shall be Abraham;
For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”  (Genesis 17:5)

Nowadays, people tend to give their children names because either they have a family member who bears that name or else simply because they like the sound of the name. In the culture of the Bible, we do see that the practice was sometimes made of naming children after family members (e.g., Luke 1:59-61), but more often it seems that children were given a name that would be descriptive of them, or would reflect the circumstances surrounding their birth (e.g., Genesis 25:25-26). In other words, names meant something. You could actually learn something about a person just by knowing their name.

We see at times in Scripture where God will change the name of an individual to show what He has done in that person’s life. Jacob (literally, he supplants or heel-catcher) is named by his parents because he is born holding onto his twin brother’s heel. Later, God will call him Israel (literally, God prevails) because he spent a night wrestling with God (unsuccessfully, we might add). As God confirms and clarifies His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, He will give new names both to Abraham (heretofore called Abram) and to Sarah (Sarai before now). Why does God do so?

Abraham (Father of a multitude) is called so because God will bring from him a multitude of descendants. Sarah (Princess or Queen) is identified as such because these descendants will come through her. There is something very striking in this instance of God renaming them, however, and that is their situation at the time that God does it. Lest we forget the context, may we imagine for a moment a 99-year-old man whose only child is a young man born to him by a bond-servant, telling those around him that his name is now Father of a multitude. Not only so, but this man declares that his 90-year-old wife who is without a child of her own is now to be known as Queen, for she will be the mother of this great multitude. What was the reaction from those in his household? What did Hagar and Ishmael think of this? We can only imagine the sneering and ridicule that went on behind the backs of Sarah and Abraham because every time their names were spoken, it was a sharp reminder of the ledge of faith that they had stepped out onto.

“(As it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.”  (Romans 4:17)

But we learn in this encounter between God and Abraham that, from God’s perspective, all things are past tense. God tells Abraham that He will make him a father of nations, but from where God is standing, it’s a “done deal.” Abraham would not appear to have earned his name until long after he is dead and gone, but God renames him at this time because what the Lord has said shall most surely come to pass. Abraham and Sarah exhibited their faith by bearing these new names even when it must have appeared to others that such titles were nothing more than an ironic joke. They may have tried to bring about the promise of children through their own efforts before, but now they would simply believe that God was able to bring it to pass in His own time and in His own way. God Almighty had declared that they were the parents of a multitude of descendants, and that was all that mattered.

To Jesus Christ goes all glory. In service to Him,

Loren

loren@answersfromthebook.org

[This post was originally published January 8, 2010]

**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.

[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]