Based on the set readings and TLW Bible study for Sunday, Feb. 28 and
OT: Genesis 17:1-8, 15-16 — God extends His earlier covenant promise
NT gospel: Mark 8:31-38 — Jesus explains how rejection and death must come
NT letter: Romans 4:13-25 — Abraham is the father of all faith
THE QUESTION OF how we achieve salvation, or being made right with God, has been a divisive one. In fact, it was so divisive, that it was the main point of difference behind the Reformation movement of the 1520s and 30s that swept across the known world of that time.
The new trade of printing had become well-established and it was possible (although expensive and risky) to purchase a Bible from Fleet Street or St Paul’s Yard booksellers. And as people read the word for themselves, and as a new breed of preachers and teachers risked punishment, even death, by the church by teaching what it said, the ‘protesters’ became a people movement: the Protestants.
This clash between divinely-revealed truth and humanly-guarded tradition all started way back with Abram (who was renamed Abraham) gazing up at the stars in the night sky while hearing God reveal His purpose to him.
He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:5-6 NIV
Abram was made right in himself, acceptable to holy, exacting, Almighty God — because He took God at His word. And that leads us in to the unfolding story of our salvation, and how that rests on Abraham, hearing God make extraordinary, impossible-sounding promises, trusting them, and holding on to that trust.
He had held on to that promise for years and years. Now he was 100 next birthday and Sarai was about to turn 90 and God had appeared to him again and reminded him of that promise. And the promise was getting bigger:
God said to him, “As for Me, this is My covenant with you… your name will be Abraham (Father of many) for I have made you a father of many nations.” Genesis 17:3-5
Abraham, a giant of faith, is the father of faith who all who express faith in God Almighty who also identifies Himself in this passage as El Shaddai, the Lord of boundless sufficiency.
That’s a reminder that no one, whatever their life story, is beyond the gracious reach of God, and no one is beyond His capacity to transform and renew. Anybody can seek God, find Him and believe what He says — that is the requirement.
One of the most powerful testimonies I have ever heard was from the subject of this story. In the 1950s and 60s in London, Ronnie and Reggie Kray were the main perpetrators of violent organised crime in the East End of London. Towards the end of that time they had a young helper, Chris Lambrianou, as part of the gang who also received a long prison sentence for disposing of the body Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie, of one of the gang’s victims. Chris tells his story like this:
“I was in Maidstone prison sitting on my bed when I saw a vision, I had been given a beautiful garden as a child and I had decimated everything in it. the tears began to roll down my face.
“I had lost my wife, my daughter, my father had five boys and three had fallen ill to the sickness of crime. I reached a place where I couldn’t go on anymore. I paced up and down my cell with the blood raging until I came across the Bible.
“I put it under my pillow, I knew people had built their lives on this book. I then lay with it over my heart and I made it through the night. Jesus saved me, He never let me down.”
Prison education had helped Chris overcome some serious gaps in his schooling and he started reading — including the Gideon donated Bible in his cell. He gave his life to Christ, a dramatic exchange, a shameful old life for a clean slate new life. On release he put his experience to good use working with young people and ex-offenders from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds — and telling his story of how, as a member of a violent and evil gang, he found he was not beyond the reach of God’s love and ability to transform.
For those of us who would prefer a more gentle and respectable path to salvation, Jesus reminds us that we can’t bring respectability — or anything else — to help our case.
“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me and for the gospel will save it.” Mark 8:35
This was in the context of a ‘difficult conversation’ with the disciples when He taught them about the rejection and suffering He would have to go through at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law that controlled the Sanhedrin. Peter, and by extension the other disciples, couldn’t square their picture of a victorious Messiah with being put to death.
Jesus’ teaching is not that everyone should seek to follow Him as a martyr. Neither is it a call to medieval self-denial as a ‘good work’ toward holiness. It is about how being His disciple — being able to say that Jesus is my Lord — does require us to let go of our self-determination. If we are engaged with our desires and ambitions, Jesus doesn’t have us, to help Him with His kingdom purposes. If we’re not sure whether Jesus is Lord of our life, He probably isn’t!
Salvation doesn’t come by doing more of the right things and less of the wrong things, even if some church moralistic homilies might tell you to. Salvation comes by believing who Jesus is, and that He has taken our sin to the Cross to free us from its burden. If Jesus has given His life for us, it’s not unreasonable for those learning His way to give their lives to Him — “losing their life for Jesus and for the gospel”.
Paul rounds off our story of how salvation comes by referring back to Abraham, “the father of us all”.
Romans 4:16-17 NIV
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5). He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed — the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
We are not under law in the way that Jews were, but if we have come to know God through Jesus, we are “those who have the faith of Abraham” and we can look to him and his example as our father of faith. And what was his example? Simply believing God. And that’s all God asks us to do, to believe Him and believe what His Son Jesus has done for us for our salvation.
Therefore the promise comes by faith, so that it may all be by grace… Romans 4:16
The point is, if we try to add to simply believing God for His gift, if we want to add to the mix our church attendance record, our initiation, or regular participation in communion, or good works of any kind, we are denying that we trust in God’s grace. Salvation is His work alone, never ours. Any claim we make about our supposed merit takes from what Jesus has done on the Cross, and undermines our claim to believe it and trust in it.
…fully persuaded that God had power to do what He had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness’.
This teaching on how salvation comes has made no mention on a lot of ‘rites of passage’ and other things which have sometimes been considered important or even essential to salvation in some church traditions. Believing and trusting God for salvation is essential. The other things can follow and give glory to God if they follow salvation and are offered to Him in faith. A good example is baptism, which in the Bible always follows a person’s decision for Christ and marks a turning point, witnessed by others, of ending an old independent life and embracing the new one. Similarly, breaking bread in communion is a celebration of experiencing the continuing and real fellowship in the presence of Christ with other brothers and sisters who are believers. To consider these good actions as a means of salvation degrades them to mere superstition, not Christian faith. It takes away from what God has in His grace done for us.
This teaching, appropriate at the beginning of a season of reflection and repentance, calls us to to think again about where our faith is located. Is is really a personal faith through trusting God’s gift to us in what Jesus has done?