THE NEW TESTAMENT
Epistle to Hebrews #17
Supplement to Chapters 11 and 12
Lessons in how faith works
Ever sing the children's chorus "Father Abraham"? While most
songs demand little more of us than to move our lips, "Father
Abraham" requires our minds, mouths, arms, legs, hands, and feet,
all coordinated to the beat of the music.
"Father Abraham" is a parable for our time. It asks, "What
is the nature of this faith that makes Abraham "the father of us
all"(Romans 4:16)? Is faith a song that rises up from deep
within, animating body, soul, and spirit? Or is faith a shallow
song to be sung seated and passive?
While the book of James holds that Abraham's justifying
faith was a working faith (2:20), Christians today are more often
influenced by Paul, who appears to say just the opposite:
Abraham's justifying faith is "to him who does not work but
believes on Him who justifies the ungodly ..." (Romans 4:5). Both
apostles appeal to Abraham; both cite Genesis 15:6. Have they
reached contradictory conclusions?
Due to misreading Paul's writing, many Christians believe
that faith and works are diametrically opposed. If we hear the
word works in conversation at all, it is often as a term of
derision. Much confusion exists regarding the relationship
between faith and works. All of us have probably scratched our
heads, wondering how to make sense of it all. How does faith
OLD TESTAMENT FAITH
Since the New Testament writers delight in appealing to the
faith of Abraham, let's return to his story to see how faith
operates there and elsewhere in the Old Testament.
In "Reverberations of Faith," Walter Brueggemann explains
how faith functions within the larger context of covenant. He
calls covenant "The central theological construct of the Old
Testament ... a passionate, interactive relationship between YHWH
and YHWH's people."1 Because covenant is grounded and sustained
in that love shared by two committed partners, fidelity is
crucial to the covenant.
Brueggemann notes that one of the Hebrew words used to
denote covenant fidelity is 'emeth, or faithfulness, the word
behind the terms believed in Genesis 15:6 and faith in Habakkuk
2:4: "the just shall live by his faith."
Brueggemann also says that, as in any marriage, "'Faith'
concerns attentive engagement in a promissory relationship....
Israel is also expected to know and honor its covenantal
commitments...:"2 With the accent firmly on covenant, "Only
rarely does the Old Testament suggest that 'faith' is a body of
teaching that Israel is to 'believe.'"3 It is more "trust in"
than "assent to." But this "trust is not to be understood
primarily in emotive terms. Trust is a practice that entails
obedience . . . ."4
This description of faith as a trusting obedience within a
divine covenant relationship is in the story of Abraham. It
begins with God's gracious initiative. The first words "Now the
Lord" (Genesis 12:1 a) are simple and suggestive: It is our God
who acts; it is our God who finds. This is God's work through and
That God is primary in creating and sustaining covenant
relations is stressed in the five "I will" promises that follow.
God will do what Abraham cannot dream of asking, much less doing:
He will bestow land, nation, name, and blessing for Abraham and
for others (vv. 1-3). Here, God offers the lost and barren a
future that rises above the limits of life as they know it.
This calling also comes with a command: to make a dangerous
departure and relinquish the status quo (v.1 b). Like promise,
command is an integral aspect of covenant life. Commandment names
that road implied by the covenant commitment. It is a loving
dynamic in relationship that moves and directs Abram as he
journeys from past to promise.
What does Abraham do in response to the gracious initiative,
promise, and command of God? He departs, as God had said (v. 4a).
We can't distinguish the movement between trust and obedience
here. They are simply two stanzas of the same hymn. Faithfulness
exhibits both stanzas: mind and body, belief and work, confidence
and obedience. To separate them is to misunderstand them.
As his relationship with God moves through time, Abraham is
ready to trust and obey the extraordinary claims of his God. When
Abraham contemplates that his servant will end up as his heir,
God counters that he and his wife, Sarah, will have their own
baby. Aged and barren as they are, Abraham says, "OK" (Genesis
15). When God has him offer up this very miracle named Isaac,
again Abraham says, "OK" (Genesis 22). This is faithfulness.
But Abraham's faith is not perfect. He doubts God's way of
working and tries to work it out himself. He lies about Sarah to
the Egyptians (Genesis 12). He has a child with Hagar, hoping to
fulfill the promise (Genesis 16). These defective faith events we
call "Ishmaels," and their presence in an exemplary life reveals
that repentance (our desire to remain in covenant) and
forgiveness (God's desire to preserve covenant) are always
cardinal works of covenant faith.
Because faith is characteristic of both covenant partners,
works and faithfulness are frequently ascribed to God. When
Israel sings about faithfulness, the song is not about her but
about God (Lamentations 3:23) because God's works of faith are
infinitely more true and reliable than hers.
Similarly, the Psalms mention works dozens of times, mostly
in celebration of the "wonderful works" of God (40:5). For people
to live in covenant relation to a faithful and working God is to
humbly anticipate that His mighty works of faithfulness will be
revealed in them (90:16, 17).
NEW TESTAMENT FAITH
This is how faith works in the Old Testament, but what about
the New Testament? Do we find continuity?
When the faith chapter, Hebrews 11, celebrates faith, it
recounts mostly faithfulness. By faith Abel offered, Noah built,
Abraham went, Jacob blessed, Moses refused, and Rahab received.
Plainly, belief and behavior are inseparable. Further, we
are invited to recall how this faith relates to God's
faithfulness: "By faith Sarah herself also received strength to
conceive seed ... because she judged Him faithful who had
promised" (v.11). Hebrews beautifully conveys the rich textures
of biblical faith.
Paul also blends faith with works, even fusing the two in
the same sentence: "work of faith" (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2
Thessalonians 1:11); "faith working through love" (Galatians
5:6). When Paul warns of those who "profess to know God, but in
works they deny Him" (Titus 1:16), he sounds a lot like James.
These positive references to works indicate that Paul does
not think of them as a theological problem. He regularly calls
his congregations to good works (2 Corinthians 9:8; Ephesians
2:10; Colossians 1:10) and in typical Jewish fashion believes
that in the last judgment, God will render to every man according
to his works" (Romans 2:6, ASV; Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12;
Matthew 16:27; 1 Peter 1:17).
Paul's understanding of faith agrees with the Hebrew concept
of faithfulness. We can see this best in Romans, where Paul
brackets his entire letter with references to "the obedience to
the faith" (1:5; 16:26). Trusting obedience is the very nature of
a genuine faith and remains the defining characteristic of God's
In his book "The Faith of Jesus Christ," Richard B. Hays
explains "....that our strict distinction between 'faith' and
'faithfulness' is not applicable to the Greek word [pistis,
faith], which contains both ideas."5 Paul illustrates this when
he uses both ideas in the very same verse ("they which be of
faith are blessed with faithful Abraham," Galatians 3:9, KJV) or
as he employs active language in commending faith to his readers
("walk in the steps" of Abraham's faith, Romans 4:12) or when
he uses belief and obedience as if they were interchangeable
(Romans 10:16; 11:30; compare Acts 6:7; Hebrews 3:8-19).
But again, faith is part of the larger story of God's
covenant acts. Since no flesh is just in God's sight (Psalm
143:2; Romans 3:20), Paul, like David, looks beyond universal
human failure to the covenant faithfulness of God and finds it
fully revealed in "the faith of Jesus Christ." In Jesus'
faithfulness, human faithlessness is borne and overcome, and
salvation appears for all who believe (Romans 3:326; Galatians
3:22, KJV). Here is our "faithful High Priest" in action (Hebrews
In His sacrificial death, Jesus mediates both His Father's
perfect loving faithfulness toward man and the partial love and
faithfulness of man toward God (Romans 5:8,15). In Christ,
covenant fidelity is perfected, and in Him we become faithful
participants (19:6). In short, our faith is contingent on His
In Ephesians 2:8-10 and Titus 3:5-8 Paul offers classic
formulas of this covenantal order of faith. God's work of grace
and mercy in Christ is the ground of salvation, not human works.
It is the "gift of God" from which springs the only true
response: faith. But this trusting faith moves naturally as a
working faith. Ephesians 2:10 says we are God's "workmanship,
created in Christ Jesus for good works." we should be careful to
maintain them (Titus 3:8). Faith acknowledges that the God who
worked in Christ is now at work in us "striving according to His
working which works in me mightily" (Colossians 1:29). This is
how new covenant faith works.
We may now understand Paul's occasional objection to "the
works of the law." It is only as this covenant order is distorted
through boasting (Romans 3:27-4:2; Galatians 6:13, 14) that Paul
finds it necessary to attack works. Any belief that would make
God indebted to man; any pride in human efforts as the cause,
rather than the result, of salvation; or any false confidence in
some old work (circumcision, temple) that undermines the
centrality of God's new work (Christ) must be refused in full.
James and Paul both agree that faith works, but Paul would
have us beware of how faith does not work - the dangerous
SONG OF FAITH
Like Father Abraham, we cannot forget that our song of faith
is totally dependent on God. We are not the authors of this
melody; the God made known in Christ wrote the tune and sang it
first. It is only by grace that we find - to our own surprise -
that we are learning to sing along. As loving partners in
covenant with Abraham's God, we are determined to TRUST and OBEY,
because in Jesus Christ we have discovered that faith is not just
a song; it's a dance.
Jason Overman serves the congregation in Jasper, AR.
1. Walter Brueggemann, "Reverberations of Faith," p.76
2. Ibid, pp.78,77
3. Ibid, p.78
5. Richard B. Hays, "The Faith of Jesus Christ," p.157
Taken from The Bible Advocate, March 2007
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SAVED BY GRACE