Daily Archives: June 9, 2008

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto….?

I love the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness by Thomas Obediah Chisholm. The phrase “…Morning by morning new mercies I see; All I have needed thy hand hath provided…” is a magnificent picture of God’s sustaining grace. I see God’s mercy every morning when I am allowed to wake up, for I am a sinner and deserve to be struck dead at any moment. God provides for me regularly, though I don’t deserve His provision–I am not rich and my wife and I are struggling to make the financial ends meet, but we have yet to miss a meal or a house payment.

God’s faithfulness is a wonderful thing. But God’s faithfulness may not be what you think it is. Great Is Thy Faithfulness suggests God is faithful to us. I think Chisholm gets this wrong. Follow me as I explain.

One of the things the author of the book of Hebrews wanted to encourage in his readers was hope. The author desired that the reader would “show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 6:11-12)

Hope is an important thing in Christianity. The hope that the author is describing is not a “golly-gee-whiz” hope. In other words it is not a “gee-I-hope-this-will-happen-but-I-don’t-know” hope. Rather, this hope is an assured hope–like we hope for the sun to rise in the morning. The hope the author of Hebrews is describing here is grounded in certainty.

The hope the author wanted the readers to have is a certainty that would lead to them being imitators of those having already inherited the promises of God. Men like Abraham, cited by the author, are a great example.

The author to the Hebrews describes this kind of hope, a hope based on God’s character as seen in His dealing with Abraham, the great Hebrew patriarch.

13 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:13-20)

The certain-hope we are to have is not based on feelings, little angels or demons on our shoulders, or undigested pieces of meat. No, the hope we have is based on the word, the very character of God–what God says He will do, He will do.

(1) As Christians, we must trust in God’s word and His character as the basis of our certain-hope because when God says He will do something, it will happen.

The author to the Hebrews is making his case based on God’s interaction with Abraham in Genesis. God makes some extraordinary and fabulous promises to Abraham (Abram, at the time). In Genesis 12:1-4, God promised Abraham the following:

  1. Abraham will be made into a great nation
  2. God will bless Abraham and make his name great
  3. Abraham will be a conduit of blessing
  4. God will bless those who bless Abraham
  5. Anyone who dishonors Abraham, God will curse
  6. Abraham will be the conduit of blessing for the entire world

This is simply priceless. Abraham is given a truly unfathomable blessing by God.

Abraham obeyed and followed God. In Abraham’s life, however, we can see that God is true to his word in that he protects and prospers Abraham–in spite of Abraham’s sinfulness. In Genesis 12:10-20, God protects Abraham and Sarah in Egypt.  In Genesis 14, God gives Abraham a huge military victory.

When God called Abraham, Abraham had done nothing to be chosen. In fact, Joshua 24 tells us that when God called Abraham, Abraham was an idol worshiper. God’s call of Abraham was based on God’s good pleasure and His own purposes of election. Because Abraham did nothing to inspire God’s calling, he simply did not deserve anything that God promised him. This is God’s grace at work, pure and simple.

(2) We must see God’s taking of an oath as a further act of grace.

Have you ever seen the bumper sticker that says, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it?” I used to like that bumper sticker, but I don’t like it any more. Why? Because the theology is dead-wrong. Isiah 46 tells us:

8 “Remember this and stand firm,
recall it to mind, you transgressors,
9 remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
11 calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man of my counsel from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have purposed, and I will do it.
(Isaiah 46:8-11, emphasis mine)

God’s word and His purposes are the “gold-standard.” The afore-mentioned bumper sticker is absolutely wrong because it does not matter what you believe about what God says, it matters that God said it and that He will bring about what He has said. The bumper sticker should read “God said it, that settles it.”

When God made His promises to Abraham, it was absolutely certain that God would accomplish what He said He would accomplish in the life of Abraham. But, then, why do we see the episode in Genesis 15 where God makes an oath to Abraham?

God will sometimes take an oath to encourage us, as an act of grace. We see this in the life of Abraham. Genesis 15 shows God encouraging Abraham that his reward will be very great. Abraham, on the other hand, counters with a discouraged question. He asks God what will be given to him since he had no son, no heir, to pass this great reward on to. In fact, Abraham’s chief servant Eliezer of Damascus was going to be Abraham’s heir (as was the custom in that day). Abraham audaciously reminds God (as if God didn’t know) that He has not seen fit to give Abraham and Sarah a son to be the heir.

God then shows Abraham the stars and tells him that his offspring will be unable to be numbered. Abraham, we are told, believed God and that belief was credited to him as righteousness. But, later in the passage, we see Abraham’s doubts–even as God is instituting a covenant with him. Abraham says, “How will I know that I will possess it [the land that God has promised].” God institutes a covenant with Abraham (and his offspring, which he doesn’t have yet) with a bizarre ritual dividing several animals into two parts.

Abraham was questioning what God would do. Abraham is understandably confused–God has promised him great things. But, Abraham knows he has no blood-heir. He is wondering how God will accomplish all He has promised.

As Christians we do this often, don’t we? We doubt God’s promises.  All we need to do is look to Christ and the Cross to see that God is dead-serious about sin, its wages, our penalty, and His great love demonstrated in Christ’s death for our sin.

It is interesting to note that the bizarre covenant-ritual between God and Abraham leads directly to the cross. The “Path of Blood” covenant ritual is supposed to be for both parties (God and Abraham, in this case) to walk through, signifying that if one party breaks the covenant, the offending party will be cut in two, just as the animals are.

Notice that God prevents Abraham from ratifying the covenant. God causes a deep sleep to fall on Abraham (just like the deep sleep He caused to fall on Adam before the taking of the rib) and a great and dreadful darkness fell on Abraham–a clear sign that God Himself was present. Instead of Abraham and God walking through the Path of Blood, only God goes through–in two persons as signified by the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch. At this point, God binds Himself to pay Abraham’s penalty if Abraham or his offspring should break the covenant. From the rest of the Old Testament, we know that the Israelites broke the covenant early and often. While they did lose their land, God paid the price for His elect remnant in Christ on the cross. God paid Abraham’s offspring’s penalty.

This whole episode is not for God’s sake, but for Abraham’s. God had already promised everything to Abraham. And Abraham, as we shall see, was less-than-faithful. God re-assures Abraham through the covenant so that Abraham will understand the truthfulness of God’s word. This is an act of God’s grace. God condescends to demonstrate the truthfulness of His word to Abraham in a “language” Abraham will understand–the covenant ritual which was common in Abraham’s day.

This is precisely why the author to the Hebrews writes, “16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us.” (Hebrews 6:16-18 )

Do you see what the author is saying? God had already made His verbal promises to Abraham and that was as good as gold. Since God cannot lie, this was as good as a done-deal. But, to show more convincingly, for the sake of Abraham, God took an oath upon Himself. And in that oath, He swore by Himself. So here we have the two unchangeable things: (1) God’s character as seen in His word and (2) His oath which was sealed in Himself. Here we have two equally phenomenal gold standards–God’s word and God’s oath–both of which are rooted in God’s absolutely perfect character.

God does not tell fibs; He cannot lie. When He takes an oath, it cannot be broken. This is a proverbial “double stamp.” God’s word is always trustworthy. It never needs to be confirmed by an outside source. God never consults anyone to see if what He is saying is true. Because God says something, it is by definition true. If at some point in History Past, God decreed that 2+2=5 we would all have learned that 2+2=5. That’s why His promise is Golden. It bears the “Gold Standard” of Himself.

An oath is taken with someone higher as a witness. How many times have you heard someone, usually in anger, say “With God as my witness . . .” They are making an oath. God is called to witness because He is the Greatest Person there can ever be. So when God makes an oath, who does He swear by? Only Himself. There is nothing greater than Himself.

(3) We must come to realize that when we speak of God’s faithfulness we are truly talking about God’s faithfulness to Himself and His promises, not to us.

The author to the Hebrews encourages his readers that God’s promises are our anchor–the anchor of our soul. A sure and steadfast hope capable of going into the Holiest of places. Our hope, our anchor, our ultimate promise from God is Christ Himself. (Hebrews 6:19-20)

Why would this be important? Why must we see Christ as God being faithful to Himself?

Let’s go back to Abraham. Abraham demonstrated a staggering amount of faithlessness, not faithfulness, after God made His promises. Here are some instances of Abraham’s faithlessness:

  1. Abraham’s scheme to lie to Pharaoh–If it was the case that God was going to give Abraham all the blessings promised in Genesis 12 (and we’ve seen it was), Abraham had nothing to fear from Pharaoh. Remember, Abraham lied to Pharaoh saying Sarah was his sister, not his wife (a half-truth). Abraham was afraid Pharaoh would kill him and take Sarah. He was faithless in that he did not trust God to protect him so that God could keep His word of blessing to him. After all, if Abraham was dead, God could not fulfill His promises–therefore Abraham would have to be protected by God. Abraham pulled this very same charade with Abimelech in Genesis 20.
  2. Abraham, at the request of Sarah, took the matters of childlessness into his own hands–To solve the problem of being childless, Sarah told Abraham to visit Hagar and, sure enough, a son, Ishmael, was born. Abraham demonstrated his faithlessness by not waiting on God to fulfill His promises in His time.

In the middle of Abraham’s unfaithfulness, God was faithful. But, God was not faithful to Abraham. God preserved, prospered, and defended Abraham in spite of Abraham’s sin of faithlessness. This is why Paul applies this principle in 2 Timothy 2:13 when he writes “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”

God’s promises are absolutely trustworthy, they are our anchor.

God is faithful in His promises. But that may not mean what you think it means. I have often heard people say, “God was faithful to me and we accomplished _________.” I hate to be the one to tell you this, but that is a wrong way to think of God. God is not faithful to you. God is faithful to Himself.

Think about it. We are sinners; He is perfect. We are corrupt; He is incorruptible. We fail Him almost all the time; He never fails.

Just as God protected His own promise in protecting Abraham and Sarah, God protects His own promises in our lives as well, and that is God being faithful to Himself.

Romans 8:26-35 shows a beautiful of God’s faithfulness to Himself:

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?

This passage also shows the so-called “Golden Chain of Salvation:” 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

God chooses to save certain people (that is what “foreknew” means, it means God chose. It does not mean God “knew beforehand”). Those whom God chose, He predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. Those whom God chose and predestined He also called, justified, and [will] glorify.

For the Christian, this is a truly golden promise. Because God decreed to save certain people, He will absolutely bring it to pass–for His word is golden. Those whom God chose to save will absolutely be saved and God will bring them to glory–because He has decreed it and has taken an oath (for our sake) to do so–in the “Path of Blood” that led directly to the Cross.

This is precisely why most Christians believe in the so-called “Once saved, always saved” doctrine. The reformers put this doctrine in a better theological light when they referred to it as “Perseverance of the Saints.” The doctrine states that God will cause the truly saved to persevere in the faith. Certainly true Christians will fail and sin, even grossly. But God will, ultimately, cause the truly saved person to remain in the faith–acting and living in repentance and faith.

We must always be careful to think properly when it comes to God. It must always be the case that He is always the Benefactor and we are always the Beneficiary. Any other view turns the world upside-down.

God is truly faithful. But, His faithfulness is not to us, it is to Himself–to accomplish what He has purposed to do. We can say that God is faithful to us as long as we realize that God’s faithfulness to us is absolutely rooted in His faithfulness to Himself.

So, had I written the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness, I would have written the chorus like this: “…great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto thee.”

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