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The Faith of Abraham

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

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8. By faith Abraham, etc. He comes now to Abraham, who is the chief father of God’s church on earth, and in whose name the Jews gloried, as though by the distinction of being the holy race of Abraham alone, they were removed from the common order of men. But he now reminds them of what they ought to possess as the main thing, that they might be counted among his children. He therefore calls their attention to faith, for Abraham himself had no excellency which did not proceed from faith.

He first teaches us that faith was the cause why he immediately obeyed God when he was commanded to remove from his own country; and then that through the same faith it was that he went on without wavering, according to what he was called to do even to the end. By these two things, — his promptness in obeying, and his perseverance, was Abraham’s faith most clearly proved.

When he was called, etc. The old Latin translator and Erasmus apply this to his name, which is extremely tame and frigid. On the contrary, I refer it to the oracle by which he was called from his own country. He indeed did in this way undergo a voluntary exile, while yet he did nothing but by God’s command; and no doubt it is one of the chief things which belong to faith, not to move a step except God’s word shows us the way, and as a lantern gives us light, according to what David says. (Psalm 119:105.) Let us then learn that it is a thing to be observed through life, that we are to undertake nothing to which God does not call us.

To go out into a place, 216216     This is differently connected by Calvin, his version is “by faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed, so that he went forth,” etc. Bloomfield by supposing ωστε understood before ἐξελθεῖν, seems to be of the same opinion. Beza renders the verb by a gerund, “abiendo,” by departing. This construction is more agreeable to the location of the words; the other introduces an unnatural transposition. Besides, the idea is somewhat different. There are thus two things in the verse stated more directly, as evidences and proofs of faith, — his departure from his own country, and his ignorance as to the country where he was going. His faith was such that he obeyed, so as to leave his own country, and also to go to a country, of which he knew nothing. — Ed etc. To the command was added a promise, that God would give him a land for an inheritance. This promise he immediately embraced, and hastened as though he was sent to take possession of this land. It is a no ordinary trial of faith to give up what we have in hand, in order to seek what is afar off, and unknown to us. For when God commanded him to leave his own country, he did not point out the place where he intended him to live, but left him in suspense and perplexity of mind: “go”, he said, “into the place that I will show thee.” (Genesis 12:1.) Why did he defer to point out the place, except that his faith might be more and more exercised? Besides, the love of his native land might not only have retarded the alacrity of Abraham, but also held him so bound to it, so as not to quit his home. His faith then was not of an ordinary kind, which thus broke through all hindrances and carried him where the Lord called him to go.

9. By faith he sojourned, etc. The second particular is, that having entered into the land, he was hardly received as a stranger and a sojourner. Where was the inheritance which he had expected? It might have indeed occurred instantly to his mind, that he had been deceived by God. Still greater was the disappointment, which the Apostle does not mention, when shortly after a famine drove him from the country, when he was compelled to flee to the land of Gerar; but the Apostle considered it enough to say, as a commendation to his faith, that he became a sojourner in the land of promise; for to be a sojourner seemed contrary to what had been promised. That Abraham then courageously sustained this trial was an instance of great fortitude; but it proceeded from faith alone.

With Isaac and Jacob, etc. He does not mean that they dwelt in the same tent, or lived at the same time; but he makes Abraham’s son and grandson his companions, because they sojourned alike in the inheritance promised to them, and yet failed not in their faith, however long it was that God delayed the time; for the longer the delay the greater was the trial; but by setting up the shield of faith they repelled all the assaults of doubt and unbelief. 217217     The preposition μετὰ may often be rendered “as well as.” See Matthew 2:3; Luke 11:7, 1 Corinthians 16:11; “dwelling in tents, as well as Isaac and Jacob, co-heirs to the same promise.” It means not here the same time, says Grotius, but parity as to what is stated. — Ed

10. For he looked for, etc. He gives a reason why he ascribes their patience to faith, even because they looked forward to heaven. This was indeed to see things invisible. It was no doubt a great thing to cherish in their hearts the assurance given them by God respecting the possession of the land until it was after some ages realized; yet as they did not confine their thoughts, no, not to that land, but penetrated even into heaven, it was still a clearer evidence of their faith.

He calls heaven a city that has foundations, because of its perpetuity; for in the world there is nothing but what is transitory and fading. It may indeed appear strange that he makes God the Maker of heavens as though he did not also create the earth; to this I answer, that as in earthly buildings, the hands of men make use of materials, the workmanship of God is not unfitly set in opposition to them. Now, whatever is formed by men is like its authors in instability; so also is the perpetuity of the heavenly life, it corresponds with the nature of God its founder. 218218     The words, “builder and maker,” are rendered by Calvin, “master builder and maker.” The terms seem reversed. The first word means the maker or worker; and the second, the master-builder or planner. Beza’s version is, “the maker, (artifex) and the founder, (conditor).” The order is, according to what is very common in Scripture, the effect mentioned first, then the cause, of the maker first, then the contriver. The last word, no doubt used in the sense of a worker or maker, but also in the sense of an architect or planner; but the former word means a skillful worker or artificer, but not a master-builder. In order, therefore, to give a sistant meaning to each, the sentence is to be thus rendered, — “Whose maker and planner is God;” he not only made it, but also planned and contrived it. — Ed. Moreover, the Apostle teaches us that all weariness is relieved by expectation, so that we ought never to be weary in following God.

11. Through faith also, Sarah herself, etc. That women may know that this truth belongs to them as well as to men, he adduces the example of Sarah; which he mentions in preference to that of others, because she was the mother of all the faithful.

But it may seem strange that her faith is commended, who was openly charged with unbelief; for she laughed at the word of the angel as though it were a fable; and it was not the laugh of wonder and admiration, for otherwise she would not have been so severely reproved by the angel. It must indeed be confessed, that her faith was blended with unbelief; 219219     “The same thing is affirmed of Abraham, Genesis 17:17. The truth is the first annunciation, that a child would spring from them, occasioned both in his and Sarah’s mind a feeling of incongruity, of impossibility, that the course of nature should be so reversed. Subsequent consideration brought both to a full belief in the reality of the promised blessing.” — Stuart.
   It is remarkable, that at the first announcement Abraham laughed, as Sarah did afterward; and not only so, but he also said, “O that Ishmael might live before thee!” evidently showing that he did not then believe the promise which had been made to him. In the following chapter, the 18th, the promise is repeated, when Sarah laughed. And in order to confirm them both, they were reminded of God’s power, verse 14. Then faith overcame unbelief. — Ed.
but as she cast aside her unbelief when reproved, her faith is acknowledged by God and commended. What then she rejected at first as being incredible, she afterwards as soon as she heard that it came from God, obediently received.

And hence we deduce a useful doctrine, — that when our faith in some things wavers or halts, it ceases not to be approved of God, provided we indulge not the spirit of unbelief. The meaning then is, that the miracle which God performed when Isaac was born, was the fruit of the faith of Abraham, and of his wife, by which they laid hold on the power of God.

Because she judged him faithful, etc. These reasons, by which the power and character of faith are set forth, ought to be carefully noticed. Were any one only to hear that Sarah brought forth a child through faith, all that is meant would not be conveyed to him, but the explanation which the Apostle adds removes every obscurity; for he declares that Sarah’s faith was this, — that she counted God to be true to his word, that is, to what he had promised.

There are two clauses to this declaration; for we hence learn first, that there is no faith without God’s word, for of his faithfulness we cannot be convinced, until he has spoken. And this of itself is abundantly sufficient to confute the fiction of the sophists respecting implicit faith; for we must ever hold that there is a mutual relation between God’s word and our faith. But as faith is founded chiefly, according to what has been already said, on the benevolence or kindness of God, it is not every word, though coming from his mouth, that is sufficient; but a promise is necessary as an evidence of his favor. Hence Sarah is said to have counted God faithful who had promised. True faith then is that which hears God speaking and rests on his promise.

12. Therefore sprang there even of one, etc. He now also reminds the Jews, that it was by faith that they were the descendants of Abraham; for he was as it were half dead, 220220     Calvin renders ταῦτα adverbially “quidem,” “and indeed dead;” Doddridge “in his repeat;” Macknight, “to these matters;” Stuart “as to these things.” But the word is rendered in Luke 6:23, “in the like manner;” and this would be the best rendering here. Abraham was like Sarah, “dead” as to the power of begetting children, — “Therefore even from one, and him in a like manner dead, there sprang so many as the stars,” etc. — Ed and Sarah his wife, who had been barren in the flower of her age, was now sterile, being far advanced in years. Sooner then might oil be expected to flow from a stone, than a nation to proceed from them: and yet there sprang from them an innumerable multitude. If now the Jews are proud of their origin, let them consider what it was. Whatever they are, everything is doubtless to be ascribed to the faith of Abraham and Sarah. It hence follows, that they cannot retain and defend the position they have acquired in any other way than by faith.

13. These all died in faith, etc. He enhances by a comparison the faith of the patriarchs: for when they had only tasted of the promises, as though fully satisfied with their sweetness, they despised all that was in the world; and they never forgot the taste of them, however small it was either in life or in death. 222222     “These all” must be limited to Abraham, and those mentioned after him, for to them the promises had been made; and he speaks only of such. So Beza and Stuart. — Ed.

At the same time the expression in faith, is differently explained. Some understand simply this that they died in faith, because in this life they never enjoyed the promised blessings, as at this day also salvation is hid from us, being hoped for. But I rather assent to those who think that there is expressed here a difference between us and the fathers; and I give this explanation, — “Though God gave to the fathers only a taste of that grace which is largely poured on us, though he showed to them at a distance only an obscure representation of Christ, who is now set forth to us clearly before our eyes, yet they were satisfied and never fell away from their faith: how much greater reason then have we at this day to persevere? If we grow faint, we are doubly inexcusable”. It is then an enhancing circumstance, that the fathers had a distant view of the spiritual kingdom of Christ, while we at this day have so near a view of it, and that they hailed the promises afar off, while we have them as it were quite near us; for if they nevertheless persevered even unto death, what sloth will it be to become wearied in faith, when the Lord sustains us by so many helps. Were any one to object and say, that they could not have believed without receiving the promises on which faith is necessarily founded: to this the answer is, that the expression is to be understood comparatively; for they were far from that high position to which God has raised us. Hence it is that though they had the same salvation promised them, yet they had not the promises so clearly revealed to them as they are to us under the kingdom of Christ; but they were content to behold them afar off. 223223     Mention is made of “promises;” and then “heavenly country” is the only thing afterwards specified. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had received many promises which were not fulfilled to them — a numerous seed, the land of Canaan, the Messiah, the resurrection (implied in the promise of being their God) and the heavenly country. There is no reason why all these should not form the “promises” which they saw afar and embraced, though the promise of the heavenly country is alone afterwards, expressly mentioned, it being as it were the completion of all the other promises, and suitably referred to after the acknowledgment they made of being strangers and sojourners on the earth. Their faith embraced all the promises, while it had a especial reference to the eternal inheritance, which though they entered into rest, as to their spirits, they have not yet attained, and which shall not be attained either by them, or by us, until Christ’s second coming, when we shall together be introduced into the heavenly country. See a Note on the 39th and 40th verses. — Ed.

And confessed that they were strangers, etc. This confession was made by Jacob, when he answered Pharaoh, that the time of his pilgrimage was short compared with that of his fathers, and full of many sorrows. (Genesis 47:9.) Since Jacob confessed himself a pilgrim in the land, which had been promised to him as a perpetual inheritance, it is quite evident that his mind was by no means fixed on this world, but that he raised it up above the heavens. Hence the Apostle concludes, that the fathers, by speaking thus, openly showed that they had a better country in heaven; for as they were pilgrims here, they had a country and an abiding habitation elsewhere.

But if they in spirit amid dark clouds, took a flight into the celestial country, what ought we to do at this day? For Christ stretches forth his hand to us, as it were openly, from heaven, to raise us up to himself. If the land of Canaan did not engross their attention, how much more weaned from things below ought we to be, who have no promised habitation in this world?

15. And truly if they had been mindful, etc. He anticipates an objection that might have been made, — that they were strangers because they had left their own country. The apostle meets this objection, and says, that though they called themselves strangers, they yet did not think of Mesopotamia; for if they had a desire to return, they might have done so: but they had willingly banished themselves from it, nay, they had disowned it, as though it did not belong to them. By another country, then, they meant, that which is beyond this world. 224224     “But now they desire,” etc. The historical present is used here instead of the past tense — “But now they desired, etc.” So Beza, Grotius, and others. — Ed.

16. Wherefore God is not ashamed, etc. He refers to that passage, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Exodus 3:6.) It is a singular honor when God makes men illustrious, by attaching his name to them; and designs thus to have himself distinguished from idols. This privilege, as the Apostle teaches us, depends also on faith; for when the holy fathers aspired to a celestial country, God on the other hand counted them as citizens. We are hence to conclude, that there is no place for us among God’s children, except we renounce the world, and that there will be for us no inheritance in heaven, except we become pilgrims on earth; Moreover, the Apostle justly concludes from these words, — “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob,” that they were heirs of heaven, since he who thus speaks is not the God of the dead, but of the living.