Justified By Faith


Genesis 15


The text is introduced with the phrase, “After these things.” This involved several events typical of redemptive history.

  • Having received the magnificent promise of chapter 12, Abram went beyond the land into Egypt. His descendants would do the same. Both the conglomerate of Israel and his sons went to Egypt for preservation, as well as the child Jesus with his family. In each case it was to escape disaster, twice in light of famine and once because of the threat of slaughter. Taking precaution in light of threatening circumstance is not always indicative of a lack of faith (John 2:24; 4:1-3; 8:59; 10:39; 11:53, 54). Abram acted fearfully, however, (Genesis 12:11, 12) and intended to deceive Pharaoh, but God remained faithful to his covenant promise and rescued and prospered Abram.
  • In chapter 13, conflict came between Lot’s servants and Abram’s. Abram showed deference to Lot in giving him the right to select the most promising land for himself. Lot “lifted up his eyes” and saw the fertility of the land toward Sodom and took that. Then God told Abram to “lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are” in every direction. That land would belong to his offspring and their number would be as the dust of the earth, impossible to be numbered. Even as God had created the first man from the dust of the earth so would God give to Abram a multitude of descendants as numberless as the dust from which we all are created. Abram, moved at the renewal of this promise and its power, again built an altar (13:18).
  • In chapter 14, Abram shows his loyalty to family connections in rescuing Lot and his possessions. Four kings had defeated five kings and taken all their possessions as well as Lot and his possessions. Abram took his trained servants, 318 in number, divided them into two forces and defeated the kings and recovered all the possessions.
  • He met Melchizedek, and, knowing that he was a priest of the Most High God as well as a king of Salem (the future Jerusalem), gave him tithes “of everything.” This priest brought out bread and wine, clearly typical of Christ’s future work of atonement, and, in that context issued two blessings. One blessing reiterated that the Most High God, possessor of all things by right of creation, had given special favor toward Abram. The second blessing was a praise to God for his having delivered Abram’s enemies into his hands. This not only made clear that the Most High God controlled all the events presently completed, but would place all enemies under the feet of the offspring of Abram (Ephesians 1:19-23; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 2:11-15; Hebrews 2:9, 16-18; Revelation 20:7-10).
  • Abram refused to keep the spoil of his victory and thus profit from the calamity of another. He purposefully avoided dependence on anyone other than “the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (14:22). Biblical teaching on God’s provision of our needs is abundant and encourages generosity on the part of God’s people (2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Galatians 6:6-10; Philippians 4:10-20).

I. God gives another assurance to Abram and gives clearer revelation of the inviolable certainty of his purpose.

A. Fear not – Fear no earthly power.

He had feared Pharaoh and could have feared the armies of the four kings and in both situations found the Lord sufficient. Do not fear any circumstance that could make you doubt my trustworthiness. Paul told Timothy, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7) When Paul was at Corinth, the Lord came to Paul in a vision and said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent” (Acts 18:9, 10).

B. I am your shield. – From this assurance the picture of God as a shield came into the genre of praise in Israel.

In the last words of Moses to Israel, he said, “Happy are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, the shield of your help, and the sword of your triumph!” (Deuteronomy 33:29). In 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18, David calls God “My shield and the horn of my salvation.” In Psalm 3:3, he wrote, “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me.” Psalm 115:9-11 says three times, “He is their help and their shield.” In about a dozen other Psalms, the Lord is imaged as a shield. Ephesians 6:16 exhorts believers to take up the “shield of faith” and the “sword of the Spirit.” The shield of faith is the assurance, based on the promises and revealed purposes of God, that he who called us will perform in us that which is well-pleasing to him, will work all things together for good, and will sanctify us wholly (Hebrews 13:21; Romans 8:28; 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24).

C. “I am your great reward.” – God Himself is the reward of the believer.

The reward for Abram was not the spoil from the war, or the immediate possession of the best pasture land for his flocks, but the favor of God, the blessing of God and the personal presence and company of God Himself.

    1. Paul defined his ministry among the Gentiles in these terms: “Him we proclaim, . . . that we may present everyone mature in Christ..” He is the sum and substance of the message and the substance of all the blessings of the gospel. In him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 1:28; 2:3).
    2. The message of the gospel consists of several propositions that are to be learned and believed. These propositions come to us in Scripture by means of revelation the truthfulness of which is secured by inspiration. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; … he was buried, …He rose again on the third day, according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, 4).
    3. Faith includes the mental reception and the heart embracing these truths. “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (Galatians 3:1).
    4. Neither propositions nor mental reception, nor even the act of faith itself saves, but the very person of Christ in the power and moral absoluteness of his completed work saves. Paul said that this promise about to be delivered to Abram was a covenant confirmed by God in Christ (Galatians 3:17). He is the shield and he himself is the reward.

II. Abram has a question in light of the incongruity between the promise and present situation – verses 2, 3.

A. We are frequently perplexed when a present condition seems to contradict the promise of God.

So it was with Habakkuk when God brought down the haughty, vicious, rapacious, greedy, power-hungry idolaters from Babylon on the chosen nation as a scourge to them. Habakkuk struggled with the question, “Does this not contradict the character of God?” Asaph asked in Psalm 74, “O God, why do you cast us off forever?” and then called on God, “Have regard for the covenant” (Psalm 74:1, 20).

B. The dilemma was caused by the promise’s fulfillment in the offspring, the lineal descendants, of Abram (See 13:15). He had no offspring. His legal heir was Eliezer, evidently born in his house but not of his loins. 

III. Verses 4. 5 – Again the “Word of the Lord” came to Abram.

From the fullness of the witness of the Bible, it seems that we should take most, if not all, theophanies [appearances of the Lord to men] as communications from the Son of God, through whom the revelation of God comes and through whom these promises would be fulfilled.

A. First the Lord gave a clear and forceful correction to the deduction of Abram.

“This man shall not be your heir.” Among the functions of the word of God is reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16). Eliezer’s assuming the role of heir would not be a fulfillment of the promise to Abram.

B. Abram’s own son would be the heir of the promise to Abram.

Later Abram would learn that the heir would be his son through Sarai (Genesis 18:9-14). God’s purpose, established before the foundation of the world, will be done just as settled in his eternal counsels. Though those counsels are untraceable in their transcendent origin, they nevertheless leave a trail of evidence within the sphere of human history that point infallibly to the One in whom all the promises, types, and offices are fulfilled—none but Jesus of Nazareth could be Messiah. The fulfillment also involves a series of interventions that make God’s continual presence in the operation of his world for the specific purpose of redemption a matter of observation.

C. These events were taking place in early morning most likely, the dark before dawn on a very long day for Abram.

The Lord took him outside and had him look at the stars as a symbol of the number and the divine origin of his seed. God called all the lights of the sky into existence and made the stars by his word. Even so, previous to that he had said, even without the existence of sun, moon, stars, “Let there be light.” The new birth exhibits the same sovereign purpose and independent power of God (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). Abram’s offspring will be as bountiful, will come into existence by no less power, and will be a demonstration of the wisdom of God analogously to the stars.

IV. The text for justification – “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (verse 6).

This is the first instance of the union of these words—belief and righteousness. The reality obviously has occurred before [e.g Enoch “walked with God” (5:24); Noah found grace, Noah was righteous (6:8, 9);], but from this framework of words that reflect that fundamental reality the doctrinal substance is developed (Romans 4:4, 5, 20-25; Galatians 3:5-9, 13,14)].

A. Abram believed The Lord Himself, submitting to the proclamation of divine faithfulness, even in the face of apparent impossibility “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21).

B. He believed the divine remedy for sin was through sacrifice of innocent blood as had been set forth from the time of Adam and Eve.

This truth had been kept alive within human culture but had been taken to heart by few. Now Abram sees, by divine grace, that the promises of redemption will come to fruition through the seed of his own body. He not only believes in the power of God to perform his promise, and the truth of God’s promise, but he manifests a cordial approval of the way of God with men. Even as Abram did, so must his seed, spiritually conceived, embrace with full affection of heart the wisdom, power, justice, holiness and graciousness of God’s redeeming purpose through the blood of his Son.

C. He believed that through his seed “all nations” would be blessed.

The great expansion of the salvation and rule of God in the hearts of people of all nations would develop from God’s operation of faithfulness in this particular situation (Galatians 3:28, 29).

V. Verses 7, 8 – God initiated another act of revelation of Himself and the certainty of his purpose by reiterating that the promise also included this specific land for the growth and development of the nation that would come from Abram.

A. This God, the one speaking to him, and no other, brought him out of Ur (even before the specific call came to Abram in Haran) in order to give this specific land to Abram’s nation.

B. “How am I to know that I shall possess it?”

    1. Again, as Abram surveyed the situation of the land, such a displacement seemed impossible in light of the numerous inhabitants presently occupying and multiplying in it (verses 16, 19-20). Abram the believer asked, “Is there a way you are going to do this, Lord, that will give me some apprehension of the manner in which this possession will take place?”
    2. In a breathtaking manifestation of the grace of revelation, God lays out to the mind of Abram his plans for his people for more than half a millennium (if measured from the birth of Isaac to the exodus)—and shows that all this is in pursuit of the redemptive covenant by which Abram has been justified.

VI. Verse 9-21 – God’s answer to Abram

A. It is by the blood of the covenant that these things will come to fruition.

“As I have committed myself,” so said the Lord, “to a redemptive purpose to be accomplished by blood, so I will not fail to bring it to pass.” Abram, knowing the condition of forgiveness was through the shedding of blood, took the animals God required and cut them apart, with the exception of the small birds, laying them side by side, and waited for God to come in covenantal action upon them. He drove away all carrion eaters, for this covenant would not be ineffectual like that in which men make vows but break them. See Jeremiah 34:17-20 for a similar covenant made before God by men, whose failure in keeping it made them prey to the “birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.”

B. Two manifestations accompanied God’s interaction in this covenant.

One, the smoking firepot seems to be indicative of the furnace of affliction that would characterize the sojourn of the people in the land “in which they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” This was called an “iron furnace” in Deuteronomy 4:20, perhaps symbolic of the task of brick making which was done by the fire of a kiln. This sign, therefore, was an indication of the means by which the people would be oppressed as well as the context in which they would experience the glory of God (See Exodus 9:8-10). The second manifestation was the flaming torch. By this which the animals whose halves had been laid side by side in sacrifice probably were consumed. This torc, flaming as it was, depicted the fire of God in which God would show his revelatory and redemptive presence to the people. We see this in the burning bush (Exodus 2:2-6), the pillar of fire that led them (Exodus 13:21, 22), the glory of the Lord that was in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:38), and the fire that consumed the sacrifices (Leviticus 9:22-24) as well as the presumptuous sons of Aaron (Leviticus 10:1-3).

C. The inhabitants of the land would come to a position of ripeness for destruction even as Sodom soon would be (Chapters 18, 19).

When the iniquity of the Amorites, the most dominant of the groups listed in 19, 20 and thus representative of all, became complete God would eliminate them, bringing them to temporal as well as eternal judgment, by the hands of the descendants of Abram. In the meantime, his offspring would grow into a nation while in slavery in “a land that is not theirs” (13). He himself would live to a “good old age” and would go to his fathers in peace.

D. These prophesied events all were in service of the covenantal dealings of God with the fallen race of men (18), finally to be manifest and consummated in the death of Christ by which he laid down his life for all the people given him by the Father before the foundation of the world (John 17:14-19).

In the salvation of these people, the promise to Abram would finally be culminated, faithfully executed, through the one whom Abram saw from afar and in whom he rejoiced (John 8:56).

VII. A complicated matter arose a decade after moving on to Canaan. Sarai wanted a child that she could call her own. She presented to Abram in a forceful way a plan to consummate her desires (16:1-6).

A. Although the idea of the blessing through Abram’s seed might have seeped into her conscience and increased her desire to see him father a child, the text places a greater emphasis on her frustration at being childless. She rightly recognized the providence of God in her state but did not extend her concept of his providence into trust in his purpose, power, and timing. She wanted a child: “I will obtain children through her.”

B. Perhaps her cooperation with Abraham’s ruse in Egypt made him more responsive to her frustration and her plan.

She would give her Egyptian handmaid to him as a wife to bear children with the idea that a child would be hers. This was an ill-conceived plan from the beginning. It violated God’s plan for marriage and naively projected that Hagar would unhesitatingly yield her personal motherly senses to Sarai. Sarai’s desperation violated God’s pattern for marriage and the rights of Hagar to her own child.

C. She also usurped the covenantal consciousness of Abram in seeking to take the place of God in providing the rightful seed. God had promised; God would provide. Sarai’s desperation, however, overruled Abram’s deepening consciousness of the covenantal certainty of God’s plan for the seed of Abram.

“Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (2). Sarai played to Abram the part of Eve to Adam (Genesis 3:6, 7, 17 – “Because you listened to the voice of your wife.”) and felt in a complex and sorrowful way the reality of Genesis 3:16. Like eating the fruit brought the trouble of a fallen world, so Sarai’s giving Hagar to Abram unleashed immediate and desperate jealousies and a spirit of usurpation(16:4). That which was her own doing, she now blamed on Abram (16:5), and the woman that she thought would lovingly relinquish her child she treated so harshly that she drove her away (6:6).

D. The marvel of grace is that in spite of human sin, and even in the path of our fallenness, God works his purpose of redemptive grace.

Poem on Genesis 14, 15, 16

Bread and wine Abram ate from a priest of God Most High.
King of Peace and righteousness with blessing he brought nigh.
Symbols of atoning love
Came to Abram from above.

God Most High was his reward and also Abram’s shield.
Myriads like the stars above so Abram’s faith would yield.
But Abram had no seed,
No offspring for the need.

Out of his household who would be the first promised heir?
A servant from Damascus was the only one there.
But would this match the vow?
What else could be done now?

Out of his flesh and his own blood the heir would be born.
The word was true, the promise sure; nothing left to scorn.
The promise he’d confess,
And gain its righteousness.

Abram’s servant was no heir nor Sarai’s servant’s seed.
Her deadened womb would be the place to give life indeed.
That Hagar did conceive,
Sara did not relieve.

For his glory and his people God reveals his will.
Though it’s slow in our short life time, we must trust him still.
The Seed has dealt with sin.
And he will come again
To move the curse from earth
And give the whole new birth.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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