I’ve been taking you on the journey I traveled to discover the meaning behind ‘it is by faith that it may be by grace’, in Romans 4:16. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been thinking on that verse for decades, but am sharing here how I learned its meaning along the way.
From last week you’ll remember: In the smorgasbord of gods Abram’s neighbors were used to appeasing and manipulating, we saw how the Lord appeared to Abram, revealing that He cannot be manipulated, and unlike the gods; He is unpredictable.
From religion to faith
When Abram stepped out of the predictable, manipulate-able gods to walk with the Most High God, he left religious efforts of doing something to appease this God. This God could not be manipulated. He was independent. He was unpredictable.
When God moved Abram out of the rituals of religion, He laid the groundwork for what we have today. This is because once a person leaves ritual it requires a one on one relationship with God. No longer could Abram make an offering to the moon or stars to predict if his business venture would be successful, only God could predict. Therefore if Abram wanted His blessing to know if a venture would be blessed, he had to know Him.
The friend of God
If God revealed Himself to Abram as just one of the smorgasbord of gods, just the biggest of them all, Abram would have continued in ritualistic religion trying to appease and manipulate God. Trying to divine the future of his business ventures by doing X so God would do Y.
Once he separated himself from religion to actually know and walk with God, all efforts of trying to manipulate Him stopped because he actually knew Him. Friends don’t manipulate friends. He is the only man in the Old Testament called the friend of God. Not Moses, not Elijah, not Noah or Enoch or Adam. Only Abraham is called the friend of God. He is the father of our faith because he broke out of religion to relationship, and beyond relationship, to friendship. He walked in New Testament realities.
Many of us have known the Lord long enough to have witnessed and perhaps participated in various religious acts trying to manipulate God, trying to divine the future of our lives, acting just like one of Abram’s neighbors in the predictability of their religion, for if it is anything, (false or man-worked) religion is predictable.
Religion is a matter of maintaining control of the people really, going back to the priestesses of Ur – you must be at temple when the doors open to make the right sacrifice and say the right things or you won’t be blessed – all the way down to today’s religion governing giving, time, dress, words, and even who you may or may not socialize with. (Certainly not that family that left the church, everyone knows they have demons :)
100 fold return
For me? It was 1978-’79, the first year Barb and I were married. I worked for the PTL Club in Charlotte, North Carolina – Jim and Tammy Bakker – at Heritage USA. My salary was $150 per week, of which I took home $111.50. We would tithe either $11.50 or $15.00 depending on our need of that ‘extra’ $3.50. Back then, we could go to the local Red Lobster restaurant for their $2.89 all you can eat popcorn shrimp special. This was a huge treat since many of our meals consisted of crackers set on a cookie sheet, 1 tiny piece of diced onion, a tiny piece of cheese, placed in the oven to melt the cheese, a dab of mustard - that was dinner. Often. Very often.
Then we heard about the ’100 fold return’ teaching, in which someone took Mark 4:20 out of context, claimed it was talking about money, and said if you gave to God He would return it to you 100 fold. We were only 20 years old, what did we know? So we gave $15 per week expecting $1500 back any day. It never happened, and it didn’t feel right in our spirits. Something was wrong.
Barb discerned it: “We used to tithe because we love the Lord and His people. Now we tithe because we are expecting something back. We moved from giving out of love to giving to get, and that’s wrong.” So a prayer of repentance later and heart adjustment, and we’ve given only out of love ever since. Grace empowers us to do the right thing, not as a license to not give/do right, but empowers us to do right with a right heart.
Rituals abound in modern ‘faith’: 100 fold return, praying x prayer for the next 30 days to see y result, gather people in a stadium to shout at the top of their lungs (to the God who actually lives inside them and who knows their thoughts before they think them) to convince God to send revival, in a strange twist making God our adversary, the positive confession – many Christians are like the residents of Ur trying to manipulate God!
All things are possible
When Abram was at home in Ur with a god for every cause, the residents of Ur knew the motives of each god. There was a god to bless the grain, a god for the cattle. A god for the business deal. A god to heal, a god to protect, a god for a new baby, a god for the dead. Every god had a specific purpose and therefore they knew each god’s motives. They could appease and manipulate each according to the situation.
When God proved He was not one of them, that He could not be manipulated by ritual, He required a personal relationship, He was revealed as unpredictable – it shook Abram’s world. Yet it is that fact He cannot be manipulated that makes faith possible. If Abram could do X and God would do Y, then faith is not involved nor possible, it is only ritual – works based salvation, not relationship based salvation.
Because God’s motives and thoughts cannot be divined and discovered by ritual, all things are possible. In Ur, X sacrifice got Y result – always, no more, no less. Because God cannot be manipulated by X it takes the limits off – all things are truly possible. Before Abraham faith had no place in religion.
What a risk
If this God who appeared to Abram for the purpose of getting him off predictable religious ritual into relationship was a bad God, Abram risked disaster. At least in the ritual of the gods he knew what he was going to get; A lamb sacrificed in the lambing season netted 50 healthy lambs born, sort of thing. Now actually knowing God meant Abram has everything to lose for the fact there was no top limit also meant there was no minimum he knew he would get.
With the sacrifice of 1 lamb to get 50, he knew at least he would get maybe a minimum of 45 lambs born. But with no ritual which actually served to give Abram confidence in the ritual and then by extension confidence in the god, he had to trust the character of God Himself. He had better be a good God!
The way the Lord showed Abram His goodness was the conception and birth of Isaac. Consider that Abram had a very strong sense of individuality, for when the Lord appears to him in Genesis 15:1, Abram asks in verse 2: “What you going to give me, since I am childless?” That’s bold. That’s strong. That’s confident.
With this God, the individual really matters, emphasizing again that God seeks relationship, not ritual from us. It is that strong sense of self that made Abram such a friend of God. Who else would dare to know God? Consider that the Lord appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – while all around these men people were doing religious acts to manipulate the gods into blessing the crop, or the stock, or life. What boldness for Jacob to wrestle with God! What boldness for his grandfather to ask: “What are you going to give me?”
Religion takes away the individual to make robotic drones. Do X and God does Y. If you want blessed come Sunday night AND Wednesday night so God will know your need is urgent. Leave your hair long lest you offend God. Give to get, have the high prophet talk to God on your behalf and give you a word – it is all ritual, manipulation, and there is nothing individual about it – nothing requiring an individual to actually get to know God. Yet that is the very thing Abram introduced – he was the friend of God.
The individual matters. Fast forwarding to our day, God now lives inside of us, Jesus told the disciples (and all who would walk in obedience with Him future: ‘Now I call you my friends’. THAT is how much He values the individual, how much He values you as a unique one-of-a-kind child of His. He values each of us enough to live inside us! How dare we shrink back to the practices of Ur, treating Him like He is ‘out there’ and one to be manipulated - no! He is inside us! (John 15:15)
The reward of Abram’s risk taking in trusting the character of God, was Isaac. God’s goodness was proven when He gave Sarai the one thing she knew she could never have, but desired most: A son. In fact Hebrews 11:11 states: Sarah conceived and was delivered of a child when she was past age because she judged Him faithful who had promised. She judged God as faithful. Only friends know each other well enough to make judgement calls on their character like that. Amazing. Not a ritual to be found, they knew each other.
If God is good, which He proved to Abraham and Sarah, then there is safety in the uncertainty of not being able to manipulate God. There is safety in not knowing all His purposes. There is safety in trusting His promises. The fact He cannot be manipulated, cannot be predicted, whose motives cannot be discerned makes Him safe because He is Good.
Therefore it is by faith, so that it may be by His grace.
For the first time in man’s religious history, great and wonderful success is possible for the individual, or real and horrible failure, based on their walk with God. Forever off the treadmill of predictable ritual, man is freed to know God, to dream the impossible. Faith undermines and makes obsolete rituals and temples, cast onto the pile of irrelevance, knowing that Christ is in us, and He is the hope of glory.
More next week, blessings,