Faith Proven by Works

Hebrews 11:17-19 (NLT)

It was by faith that Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice when God was testing him. Abraham, who had received God’s promises, was ready to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, even though God had told him, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted.” Abraham reasoned that if Isaac died, God was able to bring him back to life again. And in a sense, Abraham did receive his son back from the dead. 


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

As was noted in last Monday’s reflection, Abraham for all intents and purposes had mentally offered his son to God before he attempted the physical act. Because of his demonstrated faith, God later reiterated his plans to bless Abraham and give him descendants beyond number (Genesis 22:16-18). 

Abraham not only believed God, he clearly demonstrated through his willingness to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering that he was prepared to prove his faith through his actions. As James later wrote, faith without works is no faith. James cited the example of Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac on the altar as faith and action working together.

According to James, Abraham’s “actions made his faith complete.” (James 2:17, 21-22.) God was never interested in Abraham offering his son as a sacrifice and later gave the Israelites strict instructions through Moses that anyone who offered their children as a sacrifice to the pagan god Molech should be put to death. (Leviticus 20:1-5.)

In what ways are you putting your faith in the Lord into action? Can people see through my actions that I have faith in God and believe his promises? Even though God does not require us to sacrifice our children as burnt offerings, he freely gave his only begotten Son as atoning sacrifice for our sins. All that he asks is that we offer ourselves to him as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2) by demonstrating unwavering faith through our actions. As Scripture tells us, “It is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6). 

Just as God tested Abraham to be sure that his faith was real, God is going to test our faith in the crucible and furnace of affliction. It is not a question of IF but WHEN. We can be sure that God is not going to demand that we sacrifice our children as a burnt offering to him. God does not delight in our offerings as much as in our obedience. But God will test our faith to be sure that we are truly on his side. 

I do not know how God will test my faith or how your faith will be tested. It will come through our trials and tribulations, but when we abide in Jesus regardless of whatever comes our way, we will definitely be able to pass the testing of our faith like Abraham and Job and many others before us have done. It is important to remember that it is through our actions in the face of travails that we demonstrate the vitality of our faith. 

The only way to be sure that our faith will not fail is to keep our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus became the pioneer and perfecter of our faith because he learned obedience through his own temptation and looked beyond the pain of the cross to the joy that awaited him.

Almighty and ever living God, we thank you for your love for us demonstrated through the sacrifice of your beloved Son Jesus Christ. Help us to persevere when our faith is tested by looking unto Jesus who alone is the author and finisher of our faith. Let us follow his perfect example as we live out our faith one day at a time. By abiding in Jesus, we can overcome our trials and tribulations and bring God glory. Keep us faithful to the end in the power of your Holy Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for your nearness to us at all times. Accept our humble prayers offered in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen.

When Our Faith Is Tested

Genesis 22:1-2 (NLT)

Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. “Abraham!” God called. “Yes,” he replied. “Here I am.”  “Take your son, your only son—yes, Isaac, whom you love so much—and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.”


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

After a long wait of 25 years from when the Lord first called and entered into a covenant with him, Abraham and Sarah against all odds had Isaac, the child of promise. Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah 90 years old when Isaac was born.

What we learn from the story of these two biblical characters is that when our Lord makes a promise, it can be trusted. Abraham’s greatest desire to have a male child through Sarah became a reality when all seemed hopeless. After having experienced a lot of challenges as part of his walk with the Lord, it was reasonable for Abraham to expect to live out his remaining years in peace. However, God had other plans for Abraham and decided to put his faith through the wringer.

A cursory reading of the story surrounding today’s verses brings an obvious question to mind. How could a loving God who had made promises to bless Abraham through his seed now ask that Abraham should go and sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? There is no doubt that this instruction by God would be repugnant to any right-thinking person. But the introduction tells us that this was a test, although Abraham was not aware that it was a test. If you were in Abraham’s shoes, what would you have done?

Abraham could have tried to reason with God and offer to give all of his livestock – and he had plenty to sacrifice to God. Even though it is not mentioned, it would have been unreasonable for Abraham to have discussed this matter with his wife Sarah. It is inconceivable that after having waited 90 years to have a son, Sarah would have acquiesced to God’s instruction for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering.

In addition to animal sacrifices, which were quite common in the ancient near East where Abraham lived, some of the pagan nations also sacrificed their children to their gods. If pagans could sacrifice their children to idols that could not do anything for them, God wanted to see if Abraham had enough faith and respect to give up Isaac. 

Without any equivocation on his part, we read that “the next morning Abraham got up early. He saddled his donkey and took two of his servants with him, along with his son, Isaac. Then he chopped wood for a fire for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had told him about.” (Genesis 22:3). Just imagine with me for a second what must have been going through Abraham’s mind. Before he set out with Isaac, he had already sacrificed him in his heart.

On day three of their journey, Abraham parted from his servants and proceeded alone with Isaac. He placed the wood he had chopped on Isaac’s shoulders while he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the father and son walked on together, Isaac, who was definitely a grown lad by this time, realized that something was missing. He had no doubt witnessed many animal sacrifices by his father and therefore questioned him.

“We have the fire and the wood,” the boy said, “but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” 

In one of the most powerful faith responses recorded in Scripture, Abraham responded, “God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” They walked on together and after they arrived at the designated place, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. We are not sure if at this time it finally dawned on Isaac that he was the designated “sheep” for the offering, but there is no record of any struggle as Abraham tied his son Isaac and laid him on the altar on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9). Without further ado, Abraham took the knife and prepared to kill Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering to the Lord. 

But at that moment, the angel of the Lord called to Abraham and told him not to lay a hand on Isaac. The angel said, “Do not hurt him in any way, for I know that you truly fear God. You have not withheld from me even your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12).  Abraham passed the test. God had no desire for Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but chose to test Abraham’s faith to be sure that Abraham was willing to do anything for him, including offering his only son as a burnt offering.

Are you prepared to do anything for the Lord?

Gracious and loving God, you freely gave up your only Son to die in our place. Help us to be willing to do anything as a demonstration of our faith in you. We pray in the name of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen. 

Marked for Life

During August, the Sunday sermons will be rooted in stories from the Old Testament. This Sunday’s story is found in Genesis 4:1-16, where we learn about Cain and Abel. If you want to watch the sermon but cannot attend Holston View United Methodist Church, it will be available online.

Today’s text: Matthew 28:19-20 (NRSV): “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”


By Chuck Griffin

In the story I plan to preach this Sunday, God sentences Cain to the life of a homeless wanderer for killing his brother, Abel.

“Anyone who finds me will kill me!” Cain declares. By some mysterious method, God marks Cain in response to this expression of fear.

In the English language, saying a person has “the mark of Cain” is pejorative, and the story has been used foolishly to justify all sorts of ill treatment of people, including race-based slavery. Cain’s mark was really a blessing, shielding him from violence by others.

Whatever it was that made Cain stand out to those who would do him harm, the mark amounted to undeserved protection from God. We certainly should classify the mark as God’s mercy, and in a way, perhaps it even represents grace, an act of love offered by God to one who has grievously sinned.

We are all sinners, meaning we all deserve death. We all should hope to be similarly marked so we can be protected from what we deserve.

And in fact, it is easy to receive a protective mark, one far better than Cain could have imagined. When we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, God marks us as his. We can think of baptism and confirmation as opportunities to formally accept the mark, which reads “Child of God.”

It also is easier than we might initially think to show our mark to others. As the Holy Spirit works within us, our lives should become signs of the presence of God’s kingdom.

Any time you show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control to others, your mark is showing.

Lord, make us wholly yours, and may your Holy Spirit continue to seal us and keep us from the works of the evil one. Amen.

Blameless Before God

Genesis 17:1-2 (NLT)

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai— ‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.”


By ‘Debo Onabanjo

Like any human, Abraham was imperfect, but 24 years after God called him out of his father’s land to the land of Canaan, he was challenged to walk blameless before God.  The Hebrew word tamin, translated as blameless, connotes an upright life, a life of integrity that is flawless and perfect before God.

Noah was described as “a righteous man, the only blameless person living on earth” (Genesis 6:9). Noah, like Abraham after him, was far from perfect, but the Bible describes him as someone who walked in close fellowship with God. It was this same life of close fellowship that God called Abraham to. Hundreds of years later, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount told his listeners, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48).  This requirement to walk blameless before God has not changed. 

Abraham (then Abram) had character flaws and often displayed a lack of candor when it suited him. He asked his wife to lie so he would not be killed by the Egyptians (Genesis 12:11-13). Abram went to Egypt because of a famine in Canaan, but there is no biblical evidence that he consulted God on this move.

After God had promised him a son of his own (Genesis 15:4), Abram and his wife took it upon themselves to follow cultural norms by having Abram sleep with Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian servant, to have a child. Hagar became pregnant and later gave birth to Ishmael, precipitating a crisis in Abram’s household. The after-effects of this poor choice on the part of Abram continues to this day. Like Abram, some contemporary believers do not see anything wrong in telling lies to gain an advantage or sometimes adopting the ways of the world to achieve their goals. 

When we adopt shortcuts like Abraham and Sarah did to meet a deep desire, we are demonstrating a lack of faith in God’s ability to keep his promises. Just as God challenged Abraham to a new way of life in our focus text, God challenges us to abandon the ways of the world.

Paul writes, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2). God’s will for us is the same as it was for Abraham. We are to live a life that is blameless and free of sin. 

The only way to walk before God and be blameless is to study his written word and ask for grace to keep to his precepts. God told Joshua, “Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do.”

Committed to living a blameless life before the Lord, the Psalmist declares, “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11).  When Jesus faced temptation in the wilderness, he overcame because he was grounded in the word of the Father.  We must note, however, that the devil also quoted from Scripture, taking the words out of context (Matthew 4:1-11). Like Jesus, we must declare and live the truth of Scripture if we are to walk blameless before God. 

I love the way the hymn writer John Sammis challenges us: “When we walk with the Lord, in the light of his word, what a glory he sheds on our way! While we do his good will, he abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” 

I have taken it for granted that anyone reading this post desires to walk blameless before the Lord. As we purposely choose to honor God in our lives, we can count on our Lord to deliver on his many promises to us in Scripture.   To be clear, God’s call for us to walk blameless before him has nothing to do with our age.

If Abram was challenged to reconsider his ways at 99 years, God wants anyone reading this to do what is right. Our age does not matter. What matters is living a blameless life before God in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Loving God, you want us to live in close fellowship with you by rejecting what the world often calls acceptable. Grant us power through your ever-present Holy Spirit to walk blameless before you in all our ways. We believe we can do this through Jesus Christ, who alone gives us strength. We pray on the authority of Christ’s name. Amen.

The Concept of Covenant

As I mentioned in last Saturday’s posting, the nature of my contribution to LifeTalk is changing a little. I’ll now be writing on Wednesdays and Fridays, with these devotions serving as preludes to what will be preached at Holston View United Methodist Church on Sundays.

The Sermon for Sunday, July 4 is “Covenant with Freedom,” which will draw primarily from 2 Samuel 5:1-5. It will be viewable online.

Today’s Bible passage: Genesis 15


By Chuck Griffin

Religious covenants are serious business, much more serious than a simple contract. Hey, blood usually is involved.

To set aside a people through whom a savior eventually would come, God first established a covenant with Abram, later renamed Abraham after being designated father of the Israelites. In the 15th chapter of Genesis, we see that covenant formalized in a vision, one where God made binding the promises he had offered Abram if the old, childless man would move to a new place.

God’s grant of land, a vast number of descendants and even a blessing unto the whole world became guarantees for Abraham and his descendants at this point. A smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, symbols of God’s zeal and holiness, passed between the halves of sacrificial animals arranged at God’s instruction. In effect, God was saying, “If I fail in my promises, may the same be done to me as was done to these animals.”

Contracts usually have a termination point. A covenant with God goes much further, potentially creating an eternal relationship. It takes a lot of reading to explore the biblical concept of covenant—in many ways, it is the primary theme of the Bible. This covenant with Abraham and its ensuing effects keep arising in Scripture until finally we have that great blessing for the world, Jesus Christ.

Christ both affirmed the covenant made with Abraham and established a new way for all people to enter a covenant with God. He did this, of course, by going to the cross, shedding blood and dying to pay for our sins.

Again, God did all the real work and made all the promises in this relationship. Believe in what has been done, and we are drawn into the arrangement.

As the Book of Hebrews reminds us, this new covenant is embedded in our minds and written on our hearts. We are changed the moment we formally enter it through baptism, and the Holy Spirit continues to work within us for our betterment the rest of our lives.

Lord, help us as we read your word to grasp the importance of a covenant life with you. We thank you for the great gift of life you offer us. Amen.

Stop

Genesis 2:1-3 (NLT)

So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation.


By Chuck Griffin

When did you last stop?

I’m talking about a deliberate stop, a scheduled pause, a planned interruption where there is nothing going on except what transpires between you and God.

Those moments are critically important. Let me tell you one of Satan’s best tricks—making our lives busier and busier and busier, ensuring we don’t stop and engage with his mortal enemy, our creator, savior and comforter.

As we see in the creation story, stopping to rest is built into the very fabric of the universe. There is the very important idea of a weekly sabbath, of course, that day where we put aside worldly activities and rest in our love for God and each other. But there also is that need to stop at times each day, as Jesus so often did in the midst of his astonishingly busy ministry.

Taking time to be at rest and talk with God actually can cause our worldly efforts to be more effective. Martin Luther, when asked about his plans for a busy day, is said to have replied, “Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

If necessary, make it a new item on your to-do list. Stop!

Lord, as we stop, settle our minds and souls so we truly rest in your presence, bringing you our troubles and worries and letting your peace and love shape what happens next. Amen.

Bad Timing, Bad Results

“Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away,” woodblock print, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860.

Genesis 16:1-6 (NRSV)

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.


This piece of a larger story can sound foreign, but there is a behavior within that should be familiar to us.

In the previous chapter in Genesis, we hear the Lord make powerful, ceremonially bound promises to the man we now know as Abraham, including the promise of a son. This son was to result in an uncountable multitude of descendants.

While no details were given regarding how the son would be born, there also were no codicils added to the promise—God simply told Abraham, “No one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”

Rather than simply accepting the promise, the ancient man and his old wife, who believed she was far beyond child-bearing years, tried to figure out what they must do to make the promise come true. The plan to impregnate a young servant sprang from Sarai’s mind, but her husband, who had witnessed God’s dramatically presented covenant, did nothing to dissuade her.

What ensues is a story of rivalry, jealousy, and some painful choices that have to be made once the real child of promise arrives.

Need I say it? God’s timing is what matters, not ours. In our haste, in our eagerness to see things the way we want them to be, we may take some of the shine off the miracle that will eventually happen.

It seems to me that the best strategy is to be faithful in our everyday tasks, trusting that God will lead us to better places and situations than we could ever devise on our own.

Lord, we are all afraid to pray for patience, but we do need it. May we rejoice one day in how perfect your timing has been throughout history. Amen.

The Big Promise

Genesis 12:1-3 (NRSV)

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”


I find myself repeatedly referencing these promises while I’m preaching or teaching. The last one, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” is one of those linchpins of the Bible, firmly connecting the Old and New Testaments.

Abram, of course, eventually was renamed “Abraham” by God, who worked through this man to establish a people, the Israelites, with whom God could be in relationship. Sin had broken the relationship between God and humanity, but God has from the earliest pages of the Bible wanted it restored.

What a sweeping promise: All the families of the earth shall be blessed! When we really start to think that through, it boggles the mind.

Yes, Abraham is known widely, having influenced the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But being known and being the conduit of a blessing spanning millennia are two very different matters.

As Christians, we understand that God came among us in flesh through the Israelites, the promised descendants of Abraham. Jesus Christ died on the cross because “God so loved the world.” Through the work of Christ, restoration to God—the great blessing granting us forgiveness from sin and eternal life—is possible.

The promise to Abraham seems to go beyond mere possibilities, though. “All” and “shall” hint at the completeness of God’s plan, which will play out in ways that should astonish us. Salvation through Jesus Christ will be global; no family will be untouched.

The astounding quantity of God’s grace should fill us with hope, whatever our circumstances.

Lord, we seek new visions and evidence of how widespread your loving work extends, and we look forward to the day when it is complete. Show us our role in all that is to transpire. Amen.

The Zechariah Effect

Zechariah and the Angel Gabriel

Luke 1:18: Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”


There is an odd reaction people sometimes have to gifts from God. I call it the “Zechariah Effect.”

We receive what we have so long desired. Clearly, what we receive is a blessing from God. And yet, we question whether what is happening is real.

I guess we could also call this the “Sarah Effect.” After all, Abraham’s wife laughed when she heard from a divine source that she would bear a child in old age.

The opposite to these startled, inappropriate responses is Mary’s response to hearing from the angel Gabriel that she would bear Christ. After asking a childlike “how” question, she simply replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.”

Be sure to read the full story of how Zechariah learned he and his wife would have a child in old age, a child who would come to be known as John the Baptist. (I preached about him last Sunday.) There’s no doubt Zechariah knew an angel standing in a very holy place was telling him good news. He simply struggled to believe!

Some of you may have ideas regarding why we might react to divine gifts in such ways. I can think of at least a couple of possibilities.

First, it’s possible we’ve lived with a particular form of brokenness for so long that we have learned to accommodate it, using little mind tricks to keep our related sadness or dysfunction at bay. It can be disturbing to discover God is going to disrupt our stasis, even if we’ve been preserving something negative in our lives.

Second, maybe we’re discovering our faith isn’t as strong as we thought. Even with a miracle before us, our human doubts may briefly outrun the increase in faith we are going to receive from the experience.

By biblical standards, Zechariah’s punishment was relatively mild. Sarah was chastised, but just slightly. It would appear God is patient with our human reactions, even if he does want a more Mary-like faith from us.

Lord, grant us not only the changes we seek for our lives, but the wisdom to recognize when they have arrived. Amen.

Ultimate Covenant

By Chuck Griffin
LifeTalk Editor

Jeremiah 31:31-34

“The day is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and brought them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant, though I loved them as a husband loves his wife,” says the Lord.

“But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”


If we are going to grasp what’s going on in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, there are a handful of critical concepts. Two major ones are in this prophecy from Jeremiah.

First, there is the idea of “covenant.” God’s covenants with humanity evolve through time, growing ever more expansive regarding whom they reach. You can see the potential for expansion was there from the start, when God entered a covenant, a holy contract, with the man we would come to know as Abraham.

Genesis 12:1-3: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.'”

Followers of Jesus Christ see his death on the cross thousands of years later as establishing a new covenant that makes salvation possible for all the families on earth. 

As covenants are established through time, we better understand a second critical concept, the idea of holiness. As God expands his relationship with humanity through Jesus Christ globally, he also begins to penetrate the hearts of his followers more deeply.

Jeremiah speaks of a time when holiness is complete, when God’s followers are so closely aligned with him that they have no need of written or spoken instruction. God will be so present within us that we simply will know God’s will for ourselves, enabling us to live in perfect harmony.

We obviously are not there yet. But as we practice faithful discipleship, it’s good to know where we are headed.

Lord, help us grow in holiness as we accept the eternal covenant offered us through Jesus Christ. Thank you for meeting us in our imperfect states, rescuing us from sin and death. Amen.