The Long Arm of Grace
Reading the biblical account of Abraham’s life is like watching a tightrope walker who steps onto a thin wire to traverse cavernous depths. The slightest misstep can bring disaster.
Counted as “the friend of God” (Jas. 2:23), Abraham is forever engraved in faith’s so-called hall of fame in Hebrews 11 with others who depended on the Father’s voice to guide their steps along the narrow path. Their testimonies declare to all for eternity that there is only One who is powerful enough to accomplish what is humanly impossible, and He alone is worthy of our absolute trust.
Yet being a man of faith does not mean Abraham was perfect. The graphic honesty of the biblical narrative regarding Abraham (originally Abram) and his wife, Sarah (originally Sarai), is often difficult to comprehend. We shake our heads when faith is abandoned, circumstances rule, and Sarah’s dignity is sacrificed on the altar of Abraham’s well-being (Gen. 12:11–20).
Jewish scholars throughout the ages have wrestled with the patriarchs’ moral choices and behaviors. We are left scratching our heads at their sinful situations. Looking for textual loopholes to explain them away or stretching the texts to find excuses will not suffice if we want to maintain biblical integrity.
There is an answer to the dilemma, however; and it lies not with Abraham but with God.
From the beginning, the Lord reveals Abraham’s difficulty walking the thin line of faith. Comparing the accounts of Genesis 11:31—12:2 and Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:2–4, we discover Abraham’s response to God’s call was not instantaneous. Stephen told of a call that came before the family moved to Haran. Genesis 12 speaks of a second call after they had settled in Haran.
It takes great faith to leave your family and follow God without knowing where you are going. Familial commitment is commendable, and honoring one’s father is godly; but Abraham was called to follow God and leave his family, not to go to a land his earthly father chose. We are left to wonder what blessings may have been missed or challenges avoided if Abraham’s obedience had been immediate.
With a second heavenly nudge, Abraham finally arrived in the land God would give to him. From the divine perspective, it was the land of promise. Surrounded by Canaanites in an area struggling under the weight of severe famine, the chosen patriarch took a step not based on faith, but on sight. He decided to go to Egypt, which held the promise of life. Circumstances became his counselor, rather than the voice of God.
Before he had even entered Egypt, Abraham became concerned for his safety. He informed his beautiful wife, Sarah, that the Egyptians might kill him in order to take her for themselves. So he told her, “Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you” (12:13). These words seem prophetic because that is exactly what happened. Pharaoh took Sarah, but God protected her from violation and rescued her. After being rebuked by the pagan monarch, Abraham was ushered out of Egypt by a military escort.
We might look at him differently if his choice to save his own neck at Sarah’s expense were a one-time failure. But Genesis 20 says that while traveling in Gerar, Abraham again sought to save his life in the same manner.
King Abimelech took Sarah, but the ever-watchful Almighty visited the king and threatened to kill him if he touched her. When the king rebuked Abraham, Abraham made excuses and revealed he had told Sarah (to paraphrase his words), “If you love me, you will save me by doing this” (20:13).
Abraham was no weakling. When Lot was captured, he gathered a large fighting force, brazenly attacked the armies of the foreign kings, and saved his nephew. We are left asking ourselves, If he rescued Lot, why would he abandon his wife? How could God use a man who not only allowed but planned for his wife to be abused immorally for his own well-being?
God often repeated His promises to Abraham regarding the land and nation. Well beyond the childbearing years of life, Abraham and Sarah were promised a son.
In light of biological realities and the passing of time, God’s voice may have started to fade, and Sarah’s voice may have grown more prominent: “Go in to my maid,” she told Abraham. “Perhaps I shall obtain children by her” (16:2).
Abraham’s decision to abandon the path of faith for a path of human reasoning created consequences that reverberate even today. Abraham’s relations with Sarah’s maid produced Ishmael. But he was not the son God had promised.
So God reiterated His covenant and promise to give Abraham a son through Abraham’s aged, barren wife, Sarah (17:16). Though Abraham asked God to bless their human blueprint for Ishmael to be the heir (v. 18), God said no. He would not allow His redemptive plan to be thwarted. The promise would be fulfilled through Sarah, whose son, Isaac, would be the covenant bearer: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year” (v. 21).
And so it happened, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 90, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
Abraham was far from perfect, but God used him greatly. He sinned and he fell, but God’s mighty hand of grace was there to catch and save him.
By God’s sovereign design, Abraham became a central figure in the Almighty’s plan to preserve the Jewish people and bring salvation to the world through His Messiah. Abraham’s pedigree of faith in Hebrews 11 is legendary, an example to all who would believe.
Abraham was not chosen for what he could do for God, but for what God could do through Abraham. Just as God chose and used Abraham despite his faults and failures, God is able to choose and use us as well.
By openly revealing the sinful, faithless imperfections in Abraham’s life, God declares that the biblical narrative is not about Abraham. It is about God and how His redemptive plan is being played out in an imperfect world.
Abraham learned that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works that any man should boast: “And he [Abraham] believed in the Lᴏʀᴅ, and He [the Lᴏʀᴅ] accounted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).
Perfect righteousness will never be found in the heart of any man or woman because everyone is stained with sin. The divine record of sinful choices in the life of Abraham, an ordinary man, testifies to the truth that a personal relationship with God is not something you can earn. Our righteousness and good deeds are but filthy rags in comparison to His holiness (Isa. 64:6).
Abraham’s faith in God was so profound he believed God could bring life from death (Heb. 11:19), and he became an example of God’s power to give life to those who are dead in trespasses and sins.
Most people today believe they will go to heaven based on their own good deeds. But that is not what the Hebrew Scriptures or Abraham’s life teach.
Righteousness is a gift of grace, apart from human works; and God declares us righteous when we place our faith in Him alone.