A Commentary by John Stott
Paul moves on from the priority of Abraham’s faith to its reasonableness. The description of faith as ‘reasonable’ comes as a surprise to many people, since they have always supposed that faith and reason were alternative means of grasping reality, and mutually incompatible. Is not faith a synonym for credulity and even superstition? Is it not an excuse for irrationality, for what Bertram Russell called ‘a conviction which cannot be shaken by contrary evidence.?’
No. Although, to be sure, faith goes beyond reason, it always has a firmly rational basis. In particular, faith is believing or trusting a person, and its reasonableness depends on the reliability of the person being trusted. It is always reasonable to trust the trustworthy. And there is nobody more trustworthy than God, as Abraham knew, and as we are privileged to know more confidently than Abraham because we live after the death and resurrection of Jesus through which God has fully disclosed himself and his dependability. In particular, before we are in a position to believe God’s promises, we need to be sure both of his power (that he is able to keep them) and of his faithfulness (that he can be relied on to do so). It is these two attributes of God which were the foundations of Abraham’s faith, and on which Paul reflects in this passage.
Take God’s power first. Two evidences of it are brought together at the end of verse 17, where God, the object of Abraham’s (and our) faith, is called *The God who gives life to the dead*, which is resurrection, *and calls things that are not as though they were*, or, perhaps better, ‘calls into being things that are not’ (REB), which is creation. Nothing baffles us human beings more than nothingness and death. The ‘angst’ of twentieth-century existentialists, is, at its most acute, their dread of the abyss of nothingness. And death is the one event over which (in the end) we have no control, and from which we cannot escape. Woody Allen epitomizes for many modern people this inability to cope with the prospect of death. ‘It is not that I’m afraid to die,’ he quips; ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens’. But nothingness and death are no problem to God. On the contrary, it is out of nothing that he created the universe, and out of death that he raised Jesus. The creation and the resurrection were and remain the two major manifestations of the power of God. It was a prayer to the sovereign Creator, who had made the world by his ‘great power and outstretched arm’, that Jeremiah added, ‘Nothing is too hard for you.’ (Je. 32:17). It was also in prayer that Paul asked that the Ephesians might know God’s ‘incomparably great power’ which he had displayed in Christ ‘when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph. 1:17ff.).
This firm conviction about the power of God was what enabled Abraham to believe, both *against all hope* and *in hope* (18a) at the same time, when God promised him that his descendants would be as many as the stars, although at that time he and Sarah did not have even a single child (Gn. 15:4f.). He *became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’* (18b). It is not that he ran away from the realities of his situation into a world of fantasy. On the contrary, *without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact*, indeed the two painful, stubborn facts, that he could not beget a child and that Sarah could not conceive one. For the facts were *that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and Sarah’s womb was also dead* (19) (See Gn. 17:17 and 18:11). Yet out of that double death God brought a new life. It was at one and the same time and act of creation and of resurrection. For this is the kind of God Abraham believed in. Indeed later, when facing the supreme test of his faith, whether to sacrifice his one and only son Isaac, through whom God had said his promises would be fulfilled, Abraham even ‘reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death’ (Heb. 11:17ff,). Hence Abraham *did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in (or, better, ‘by’) his faith and gave glory to God* (20). The alternative responses to God’s promise are here contrasted: *unbelief (apistia)* and *faith (pistis)*. If Abraham had given in to unbelief, he would have ‘wavered’ or been ‘at odds with himself’ (*diakrino*, BAGD). Instead, he strengthened himself by means of his faith. In this way *he gave glory to God* (20). That is to say, he glorified God by letting God be God, and by trusting him to be true to himself as the God of creation and resurrection.
It is this concept of ‘letting God be God’ which forms a natural transition from his power to his faithfulness. There is a fundamental correspondence between our faith and God’s faithfulness, so much so that Jesus’ command, ‘Have faith in God,’ (Mk. 11:22) has sometimes been roughly but justly paraphrased, ‘Reckon on the faithfulness of God’. For whether people keep their promises or not depends not only on their power, but also on their will, to do so. Put differently, behind all promises lies the character of the person who makes them. Abraham knew this. As he contemplated his own senility and Sarah’s barrenness, he neither turned a blind eye to these problems, nor underestimated them. But he reminded himself of God’s power and faithfulness. Faith always looks at the problems in the light of the promises. ‘By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.’ (Heb. 11:11). He knew that God could keep his promises (because of his power) and he knew that he would do so (because of his faithfulness). He was *fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised* (21). *This is why*, Paul adds, namely because he believed God’s promise, ‘it (sc.his faith) *was credited to him as righteousness*’ (22).