How Faith Grows

James 2:21-24

May 18, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

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A few days ago I posted the following quote as my “Good Words for Today”:

If my love for Jesus never leads me to take a risk, how much do I really love him? If my faith never causes me to do things that make no sense to others, including my Christian friends, perhaps I’m playing it too safe. If everything I say and do seems perfectly comprehensible to the world, then I need to do some soul-searching.

That quote got a number of encouraging responses. Then there was this comment from a man in Nigeria:

“My sincere question is “Why does it take us so long after being a Christian to get to this stage when the disciples got there in 3.5yrs?” Am I missing something here?”

His question is both honest and very common. I would say to my friend, “You aren’t missing anything.” We all wonder from time to time, “Why is it taking me so long to get better?” Here are a few examples:

We get better a little bit at a time

*“I thought by now I wouldn’t struggle so much with anger. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”

*“I still get tempted by pornography. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”

*“I go to church every Sunday but I still have doubts. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”

* “I thought I’d be a better person by now, but I’ve got so many bad habits. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”

*“I’m a bitter person even though I cover it up most of the time. Why is it taking me so long to get better?”

Many of us wish we had an answer to that question. We might assume that upon conversion, we would rapidly sprout wings and fly to heaven. But it doesn’t happen that way. God has ordained that even though we are being made like Jesus, it only happens a little bit at a time. And sometimes that “little bit” seems very little indeed.

Why is it taking so long to get better?

There is victory to be had but it will not come easily or quickly. We are in a war with spiritual foes who will not easily yield their ground. In our series on James, we have come to a passage that helps us understand how God builds our faith through the trials of life. As opposed to a dead faith that produces nothing, Abraham’s dynamic faith was made complete when he offered his beloved son Isaac on the altar.

Would you like to see your faith grow? Then let’s study together James 2:21-24 to learn from Abraham how trials can make our faith complete.

Faith Tested

“Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?” (v. 21).

This was a masterstroke by James because the Jews traced their spiritual lineage back to him. As far as the Jews were concerned, Abraham was the ideal man of faith. After years of walking with God, he is put to the supreme test of his life. It was such a dramatic moment that James says he was “justified by works” when he offered Isaac on the altar.

Rather than retell this familiar story, I’d like to make some observations on the larger context:

Abraham’s obedience proved his faith was real

First, the test came after many years of walking with God. In some ways, Abraham’s whole life was one test after another. It started when God called him to leave Ur of the Chaldees. Hebrews 11:8 points out that he left “not knowing where he was going.” That in itself was a huge test. Genesis 15:6 spells out the moment when Abraham believed God and his faith was counted as righteousness. If we ask, “When was Abraham ‘saved’ in the New Testament sense?” the answer would have to be Genesis 15:6. That’s the point Paul makes in Romans 4. That took place approximately thirty years before he offered Isaac on the altar.

Second, the test came after Abraham had experienced both victories and defeats. We see his faith shining when he left Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 12:1-3). Yet when he took Sarah to Egypt, he lied about her (Genesis 12:10-20). He won a great victory and was blessed by Melchizedek (Genesis 14), received a great promise from God (Genesis 15), and then got into trouble by having a child with Hagar (Genesis 16). He was circumcised in Genesis 17, then he lied about Sarah again in Genesis 20. Abraham was a man of faith, but he was also a man of human weakness.

Third, the test came in a most unexpected way. When God called him to go to Mount Moriah, Abraham had no idea what God intended. He had no reason to imagine God would want him to sacrifice his own son. Nothing in his experience with God could have prepared him for this moment.

This test was never repeated elsewhere in the Bible

Fourth, the test was never repeated anywhere else in the Bible. This is the only time God ever asked anyone to sacrifice his son. As such, it stands alone in the scriptural record.

So how should we view it in light of Abraham’s life? It certainly stands as the supreme and most extreme example of his faith. God meant to put Abraham on the spot by asking him to yield to the Lord the son who was himself the embodiment of God’s promises. Hebrews 11:19 tells us Abraham believed that even if he put his own son to death, God would raise him from the dead:

“Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

In this verse we learn something that is only hinted at in Genesis 22. Twice in that chapter Abraham intimates that he expects that somehow, some way, God was going to work things out so Isaac would live. When he saw Moriah in the distance, he gave this instruction to his servants:

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22:5).

Did you get that? “We” will come to you. Not “I” will come back, but “we” will come back. Abraham believed he and his son would somehow return together.  Then as the two of them walked along, with Isaac carrying the wood for the sacrifice, the son asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7). Abraham’s reply has become a synonym for the man of faith speaking faith into what is a humanly hopeless situation. “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8).

“God himself will provide the lamb”

The writer of Hebrews tells us why Abraham could talk like that. He believed God could raise the dead.

Didn’t know how.
Had never seen it happen.

He reasoned from what he knew about God to what he knew about the situation. And the only thing he could come up with was, “I’m going to put my own son to death, and then God will raise him from the dead.” That’s pretty fantastic if you think about it, especially since no one in history had ever been raised from the dead, and this happened 2000 years before Christ.

Faith Perfected

“You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected(v. 22).

What was at stake on Mount Moriah? It wasn’t just the life of Abraham’s beloved son Isaac. When Abraham raised the knife to kill his own son, he was also in effect killing the promise of God. If Isaac died, the promise of a great nation would die with him. We might call this the reverse of the temptation Abraham faced when he slept with Hagar. That was an attempt to fulfill God’s promise through purely fleshly means. In that case, Abraham refused to wait for God’s solution. In this case, Abraham doesn’t try to reason out how God will fulfill his promise if Isaac is dead. He determined to obey God without asking how it would all work out.

Abraham obeyed when he didn’t understand

Now we can stand back and see the story in clear perspective. Did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Yes. Was it a legitimate request? Yes. Did Abraham know in advance how the story would end? No. Specifically, did he know about the ram in the thicket? No. Well, then, what was it that Abraham knew? He knew what God had asked him to do, and he knew God had promised to give him a son through whom he would bless the world. What he didn’t know was how God was going to reconcile his promise (to bless the world through Isaac) and his command (to offer Isaac as a sacrifice).

It is at this point that we see Abraham’s faith at its highest and best. Even though the command made no sense from a human point of view, Abraham intended to obey it anyway. He meant to obey God’s command even though it meant killing God’s promise.

Herein lies a lesson for all of us. When God makes a promise, it is folly and disbelief to wonder how he will keep his word. Faith does not reckon with “how.” Faith believes and leaves the “how” in the hands of Almighty God. If we spend too much time trying to figure out “how” God will take care of us, we are likely to talk ourselves into a corner.

Faith Affirmed

“So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend” (v. 23).

A little Bible chronology will help us here. When James mentions the Scripture, he quotes Genesis 15:6. In that chapter God puts Abraham to sleep while the Lord walks alone between the carcasses of the slain beasts. In ancient times, two people made a covenant official by walking together between the pieces of a slain animal. But why does God walk alone? Because the fulfillment of the promise ultimately depends on God, not Abraham. The sequence looks like this:

Abraham believed God!

Abraham believed God.
His faith was credited to him as righteousness.
Abraham falls asleep.
God walks alone between the pieces of the slain animals.

Nothing could be clearer. Abraham was “saved” or “reckoned righteous” on the simple and single condition of believing what God had said. The offering of Isaac came many years later, perhaps 30 years later. We can lay it out this way:

Abraham believed God (Genesis 15).
Abraham offered Isaac (Genesis 22).

So it is perfectly fair to say Abraham was justified by faith. That’s the argument Paul makes in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. It’s also true Abraham was justified by works because the offering of Isaac demonstrated the reality of his faith.

Faith Clarified

“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24).

 Faith has more than one meaning in the New Testament. It can refer to a body of doctrine (“the faith once delivered to the saints”) or it can refer to a living trust in God (“faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen”). When we talk about “faith” today, we sometimes mean something like “a positive feeling things will work out” (“I’ve got faith the Cubs will win the World Series this year”). That last sentiment may in fact finally come true this season. Who knows? It’s a hope based on the team’s good start leavened by more than a century of disappointment. While I don’t deny it takes faith to believe the Cubbies will win it all this year (I hope they do), whatever you call that sort of faith, it’s not the same thing as saving faith. True saving faith springs from a transforming trust in the eternal promises of a God who cannot lie. Said another way, the faith that saves us starts with God, not with us. It is a conscious choice to reach out and trust the promises of God that come to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

That sort of faith is alive because it rests on the living words of the living God of the universe. It’s not as if James is saying, “You should let your faith change you.” He’s going further than that. He means to say, “True faith will change you.” That faith will be seen sooner or later.

Abraham and Jesus

For 2000 years Christians have seen in this story a picture of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. In Genesis 22 we see what a man would do for the love of God.  But at Calvary we see what God would do for the love of man. Abraham was only asked to sacrifice Isaac; God actually sacrificed his only Son. More than that, Jesus endured physical death and spiritual death to obtain redemption for sinners. When God’s hand was raised at Calvary, there was no one to cry out, “Stop.  Do not harm the child.” There was no ram in the thicket to offer in his place. So God’s hand fell in judgment on his own Son, and Jesus died for you and me.

Abraham offered his son.
The Father offered his Son.

Isaac carried the wood.
Jesus carried the cross.

Isaac carried the wood.
Jesus carried the cross.

Isaac was laid on the altar.
Jesus was nailed to the cross.

Abraham was willing to put his son to death.
The Father willed his Son should die.

The ram was offered in the place of Isaac.
Christ was offered in the place of sinners.

Abraham received his son back “figuratively.”
Jesus literally rose from the dead.

What are we supposed to take away from the story of Abraham and Isaac? As I studied Genesis 22, I was struck by something God said to Abraham after the great trial was over, the ram sacrificed, Isaac spared, the promise reaffirmed. It comes as part of the happy ending to a very great trial. God commends Abraham by saying, “You have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (v. 12; see also verse 16).

“You did not withhold from me.”
God says, “I asked for your most precious possession and you gave it to me.”

The real lesson for all of us comes down to this. God intends to bring our faith to completion. The only way that happens is for us to go through a time of trial. Think of it this way. Suppose you like to play chess. Suppose you buy one of those computer games that teaches you how to play chess. You work at it, you study it, you play simulated games day after day. Eventually you get so good you never lose. You are undefeated in your own basement, playing against the computer program. That is indeed a kind of mastery. But it is something else entirely to sit down at a table and play against another person. That’s when you find out how good you really are. In a sense, walking with God means that eventually our faith must become more than theoretical. At some point, we’ve got to get “out of the basement” and into real life.

Not a mite would I withhold

Sometimes we win.
Sometimes we lose.

Look at Abraham. Even though he is the “father of faith” in the Bible, he lied about Sarah twice and got involved with Hagar (at Sarah’s instigation), a situation that came about because his faith was weak and he thought he needed to “help God out.” My point is, God tested Abraham over and over again. He does the same thing with us. That’s the only way our faith can grow stronger.

A beloved hymn contains these lines:

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.

Abraham’s ultimate test was not about money. It touched something much deeper. Would he withhold his own son from the Lord? I’m not sure how well I would have done in that moment.  I’m not sure I would have been as strong as he was. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be like Abraham. His tests and mine are different. But God constantly brings us back to the same place in life where we are asked, “Will you yield what you hold dear to me?”

 Lord, do whatever it takes to bring my faith to completion.

Just as Abraham didn’t know what God was about to ask, we have no idea what tomorrow may bring. But we do know this. God puts us in hard places so our faith will grow under pressure. In that sense, we are justified by faith when first we believe in Christ, and we are justified by works as our faith is put to the test over and over again. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover the road to heaven is filled with danger, toils, trials, and challenges. It’s all part of God’s plan to bring our faith to completion.

The hymn I mentioned earlier ends with these lines:

Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

May that be our prayer today and every day.

 Lord, do whatever it takes to bring my faith to completion. Help me not to doubt or to hold back, but to yield all I have to you. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?