Born Through Promise

Text: Galatians 4:21-31

Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,” St. Paul said, “and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.”[1] St. Paul wrote these inspired words to the congregation at Rome as they struggled with the question, just who were the children of Abraham, that is, of God? Was it those descended from Abraham according to the flesh? No, said Paul; but those who shared Abraham’s faith in the promise of Christ.

The Galatians faced a similar question, though earlier in time than the Romans. How does one become – and remain – a child of God? Is it through faith in the promise of Christ, as St. Paul said, or by – in addition to faith – observing the laws of Moses, as some others said. To put it into contemporary language: are the children of God those who live perfectly moral and upright lives? Or, are they those who struggle against sin and temptation – and often fall – but look to Christ for forgiveness and rescue? Those who seek to appease God by their own moral perfection will ultimately find themselves condemned by the same law they claim to uphold. But, those who have been called by the Gospel, who look to Christ for forgiveness, are set free from the condemnation of the law and are children of the Jerusalem above.


This text from Galatians 4 is one that’s hard to understand on first glance. This is a text where it’s very important to know the context. The congregations of Galatia were Gentile converts to the faith who heard the Good News of Jesus Christ through the missionary work of Sts. Paul and Barnabas. As these new brothers and sisters in Christ grew in the faith and love of God, some other missionaries came to them. These other missionaries came down from Jerusalem with a supplemental message. St. Paul, indeed, laid a good groundwork by sharing with them the Good News that Jesus had died and rose for the forgiveness of their sins. However, to remain in that forgiveness, they must continue to observe the laws of Moses. By this they meant, the dietary and ceremonial laws, the moral law, and, particularly for these Gentiles, circumcision. In terms we would be familiar with: they had faith, which is good, but the Galatians needed works to be true Christians.

Tell me,” St. Paul said to the Galatians, “you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.”[2] Right. Those who came to the Galatians to add to what St. Paul taught them used Abraham as an example. So, St. Paul fired right back – from Abraham. Abraham had two sons, but only one of them came from God’s promise. Remember that God had promised that through Abraham’s offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed. After some time had passed, thinking that God was being slow to make good, Sarai had Abram lay with her servant Hagar. Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. He was the son born according to the flesh. He was not the one born according to God’s promise. That would be Isaac.

The Lord said to Abraham, “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”[3] The Lord promised Abraham, who was 100, that his 90 year old wife, would give birth to a son. And she did. It was through this child that the Messiah and forgiveness would come: the child of the promise. The true child of Abraham, the one who would inherit the promises of God, was not the one born through the work of the flesh, but the one born according to the promise, the one born through faith.


As you probably feel, this is a difficult text – but the concept less so. What is it that St. Paul is trying to stress to the Galatians? At some point you’ve heard this word from James, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”[4] St. Paul is trying to stress to the Galatians that those who are the children of God, are not those who seek to fulfill the Law themselves. For, since the Fall into Sin, the Law does not bring life – only condemnation. We hear in the Law, by this we mean the Commandments, which things are pleasing to God – but which we are unable and fail to do. If we seek to earn righteousness or to be righteous before God by good works, we will pull the whole house down around us and suffer eternal condemnation. For, whoever fails the Law in one point fails the whole thing.

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise,” St. Paul said.[5] He recalled to them earlier in the letter how it was they first received the Holy Spirit, not by their works but by hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Galatians heard through St. Paul that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took on our human flesh. He became subject to the Law, yet kept it perfectly. By His perfect keeping of the Law, Jesus fulfilled the Law. By His death, He made the full payment for our sins. This forgiveness He gives to all through faith and, at the same time removes from us the curse of the Law. The curse of the Law is that those who fail to keep it shall die. The Good News of the Gospel is that Jesus died, so that those who believe in Him live eternally.

What does this mean for us? We, like the Galatians, are children of the promise. We have heard the Good News of Jesus Christ and have been called to faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. Though we were under the curse of the law, rightly headed to eternal death for our failure to keep even a single Commandment, that curse has been removed from us. How? By Christ becoming a curse for us. He Himself bore our sin on the cross and suffered the condemnation of the Law for us. By faith in His death we are set free. We no longer live beneath the eternal condemnation, but the eternal light of the Gospel. That is why St. Paul called the Galatians – and all who believe in the Gospel of Christ – children of the Jerusalem above.

But, as we learned on Sunday, the temptation to sin remains. One of those temptations is to turn inward into ourselves. We either tell ourselves things are good because of all the good works we have or we assume that we must be condemned for our lack. That is what the Galatians were tempted to. Any attempts to justify ourselves by works of the Law will bring only death. The true children of Abraham, rather, are those who look not to themselves but to Christ for forgiveness. By His death, Christ set us free from the guilt we deserve to bear. And so, we rejoice, as this Sunday in Lent is called. Christ, by His death and through the preaching of His Gospel, has released us from the curse of the Law. We now live freely by faith in the light of the Good News. Though for our sins we deserve eternal death, by faith we now reign in life. “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”[6] Thanks be to God.







Faith and the Theology of the Cross

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

30 years ago, this March, Irish rock band U2 released its fifth studio album. The Joshua Tree. The album’s theme was based off the wide-open spaces of the American west. The album, which has gone on to sell more than 25 million copies, truly does bring out a sense of vast openness throughout its 50-minute length – particularly in the second track, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s still up in the air what exactly the song is about. There are references to the devil, to Jesus, and heaven. But, we’ll leave it to song critics to discuss it more. Whatever it means, the song brings out this idea of searching; of longing for something you know is there…but you haven’t found it yet.

Our text today from Genesis finds Abram in a similar situation. In the Bible, three chapters pass between when God first came to Abram and called him out of idolatry, promising to bless him and make a great nation out of him. Three chapters pass, but in time it’s about a decade between these chapters, maybe a little more. It’ll be more than that, still, before Isaac is born. Isaac, the child promised in our text. As we’ll see, Abram was a little fearful about his situation, about whether the things God had promised would actually come to pass. Then God appeared to him. He reassured Abram that the promise was not forgotten. Abram believed God, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness. St. Paul said that these things were written not for Abram’s sake alone, but for ours. Today, we confess that, like Abram, the righteous live by faith in God’s promises – and they are not disappointed.


We should all know the story of Abraham, but let’s recap it for a moment. The Flood happened in Genesis 6. Noah entered the ark with his wife, his sons, and their wives. 8 souls in all. Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the Flood, the three sons all spread out and had children. Abram is a distant descendant of Shem. Abram and his family lived in a place called Haran and they had become pagans. They were unbelievers who worshipped idols. Then, in Genesis 12, God called Abram. He called him out of idolatry to worship the one true God and to go where the Lord would lead him. The Lord promised to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. So, Abram went.

Abram went as the Lord said, but it maybe wasn’t as straightforward and easy as he might’ve liked. There was a famine, so they went down to Egypt. While they were there, Abram did do somethings that were sinful. He doubted God’s promise; yet God forgave him. God also kept His promise and blessed Abram, who came up from Egypt a rich man. He amassed a large household and many servants – but no children. Abram rightly understood God’s promise to make him into a great nation required a son. But, as time went on, no son came. Abram started getting into trouble with neighboring nations, and with no son to inherit if he were to die, Abram began to fear and doubt whether this promise would pan out. In other words, Abram still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”[1] As Abram began fearing for his future and doubting the promises of God, the Lord spoke to him in a vision. The Lord told Abram not to fear. For, despite appearances, the Lord was with him. Abram was sure that the Lord had reneged, or at least was second-guessing His promise. Abram said to God, “‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus…Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’”[2] What Abram meant was: God promised to make him a great nation, and so far, that hadn’t happened. Sure, Abram was wealthy; but with no son by birth, that wealth would pass from his name to someone else. No great nation.

Then the Lord said, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”[3] Abram was misled by his own conscience and felt that God wouldn’t make good. Things appeared to be the opposite of what God had promised. Abram felt abandoned. Then God made Abram another solemn promise. It wouldn’t be Eliezer of Damascus who would inherit him, but a son from Abram’s own body. Then God took him outside, and told Abram to number the stars. So, would his offspring be. Our text concludes with one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, “He believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[4]


The readings this week direct our minds to this idea: Even when it appears to the contrary, God doesn’t go back on His promises. God promised to make of Abram a great nation, and this nation would come from a son of his own flesh. The rest of Scripture – and history – tells us that, of course, this promise came true. Isaac was born when Abram was 99 years old. Isaac fathered Jacob, from whom is descended – according to the flesh – Jesus. St. Paul tells us that God’s promise to Abram was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and the great nation, now of billions, who have believed in His name. Abram believed God’s promise, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. God counted his faith as righteousness. Eventually, Abram did find what he was looking for.

If Abram, that great patriarch of our faith, was fearful and doubting God’s promises, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves suffering the same temptations. Like Abram, we have each been called out of pagan idolatry. We were all by nature born sinful and unclean, desiring to be our own “God.” But we were called out of that in the washing of Baptism. At our Baptism, the name of the Triune God was spoken over us and we were made heirs of the promise of Christ. Namely, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that are found through faith in Him. At our Baptism, we were made heirs of the promise, and we are continually reminded of it through God’s Word – yet we are filled with doubts and fears.

Luther, considering this passage, failed to come up with an answer as to why God orders our lives in such a way. At times, we say that our suffering we endure teach us to rely on God or another lesson. Sometimes, we plumb the depths of reason and empathy to find a reason for our suffering. We know that suffering comes as a result of sin. But, more often than not, we fail to find an answer to, “Why me?” Then we begin to doubt, to fear, and to be angry that we also still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Paul did write, “The words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.”[5] Meaning, this passage of Scripture wasn’t written for Abram’s sake alone, but for our benefit, also. We are meant to look at Abram’s suffering and fear, and Lazarus’, and find in them fellowship. Abram suffered, Lazarus suffered, our Lord suffered, we suffer. Abram suffered, at times thinking the Lord would not fulfill His promise; then He did. So, will He also fulfill His promise to us. What promise? The promise to remove our sins from us, which He has done in Christ. The promise to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, foreshadowed by the Promised Land and fulfilled in the New Creation. The promise to bring us through this valley of the shadow of death, and feed us beside still waters. The Lord spoke these things and others to Abram. Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted that faith as righteousness.

God grant that we also, by that same faith, would continue to be counted righteous. Scripture does say that the afflictions of the righteous are many, but also that the Lord delivers them out of them all. At times, it does feel like we aren’t finding what we’re looking for. But, God’s promises are sure and will ever stand true – even for us. Abram believed the Lord’s promise of deliverance, God counted His faith as righteousness and did deliver Him. He will deliver us, too. Amen.

[1] Gen. 15:1, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 15:2-3.

[3] Gen. 15:4.

[4] Gen. 15:6.

[5] Rom. 4:23-24.

When Life Hands You Lemons

Text: Genesis 22:1-18

They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. This means that, when life gets you down, just well up your strength, and pick yourself up. When life deals you a bad hand, you make your own luck, right? Good people can make the best out of the worst situations. Okay, one more and I’ll be done with the clichés. People say that when life hands you lemons, you best make lemonade. All of these sayings imply that when life gets hard, if you just dig in deep, you’ll barrel on through it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Take Abraham for example. God told him to leave everything behind and go to an unspecified place, and he did. God told him that he would be blessed, and he believed it. Scripture says Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. But, Abraham was old. His wife was old, well past the age for bearing children. They had resigned themselves to the fact that they will die childless. And then, God promised to Abraham, “’Your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’[1] God promised a son, and that is what Abraham got. Isaac.

But here in our text today, it seems that life is turned upside down for Abraham. Isaac, his beloved son and gift from God, is demanded by God to be sacrificed, as a test. Not knowing it was a test, Abraham obeyed God and went to sacrifice his son. This is because he knew the promise of God, and he believed that, even when life looks contrary to the promise of God, it is especially then that He remains true. You see, when God hands you lemons, you’ve already got lemonade.


What an unthinkable request! God had just promised Abraham, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be blessed.”[2] We know that it’s a test, but Abraham didn’t. In this situation Abraham might’ve wondered if this was a trick of Satan. He could’ve said that God’s promise about Isaac is sure and clear, but then wondered why God wanted him killed. Even worse, Abraham was the one who is to do the slaying and not a robber or bandit in the woods. Maybe Abraham could’ve figured that God is going back on His Word, or that he himself committed some grievous sin against God, and for that reason God is taking back His promise.

By nature we all have a habit of thinking this way, too. Whenever our lives go to the gutter financially or personally, whenever our health or relationships fail, our conscience goes to work within us. The devil torments us inside, telling us that these bad things are the sum of our lives, or that we offended God and now He is punishing us by ruining our lives. When faced with the contradiction of a loving God and a painful existence in this world, our sinful flesh will never make sense of the conflict. Very rare is the person who goes their entire life without thinking that maybe God isn’t good, or that He doesn’t exist.


In Hebrews 11 we read more about the Sacrifice of Isaac: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead.”[3] In hope, Abraham believed God. He knew that as God was able to give him a son in his old age, God would just as easily be able to raise up offspring from Isaac. Abraham believed in the resurrection of the dead, that from the ashes of the sacrifice God would restore Isaac and make good on His promises. He knew and believed that when God handed him lemons, he already had lemonade.

It’s a silly saying, I know. But it’s true. God can never go back on His Word. It is contrary to His character. The Word that He gave you in Baptism will stand true for all time. In Baptism you were given the name of the Triune God as you were washed in the water and the Word for the forgiveness of sins. In Baptism, God claimed you as His own and made a promise to bless you and keep you. God does not go back on His Word. We all struggle in our lives. We do not always struggle with the same things, nor do we share all the same suffering, but we do know one who shares equally in all our sufferings. This One is Jesus Christ, whom Scripture says, is the propitiation for our sins.

Though the world gives way around us, we have a great Lord and King who remains steadfast with us in our suffering. The Son of Man was tempted in every way, including the despair of being abandoned by His God and Father as He hung on the cross, forsaken. He bore those temptations, and the guilt of our sinfulness and despair, and died for our forgiveness. Thus, even when life appears to be stacked against us, He remains true. In His forgiveness we are made more than conquerors and His promise will always stand true, even as He says to us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[4] Therefore, when God gives you lemons, you already have lemonade – salvation through faith in Christ, who remains beside you until the end of the age.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Gen. 15:4–5.

[2] Gen. 21:12

[3] Heb. 11:17–19.

[4] Matt. 28:20.