The Triumph of Faith

Dr. Brian Allison

What is your response when God's providence – how He orders all things – seemingly runs counter to His promises? For instance, we read in Hebrews 13:5, "...He Himself has said, 'I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU." God here promises that He will continually grace us with His presence; and yet, often in our experience, God seems to be distant and disinterested. It seems that often we do not personally enjoy the reality and power of that promise of His abiding presence. Again, Philippians 4:19, another promise, reads, "And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus." What is your response when it does not seem that God is supplying all your needs in keeping with that infinite storehouse of glorious heavenly wealth? Further, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, God promises, "No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it." How do you respond when a strong temptation comes your way and overtakes you; and you fall into sin again and decry, "Lord, I have done it again. It seems like I had absolutely no strength, and yet You, Lord, said that You would not allow me to be tempted beyond that which I can bear." His promise of deliverance seemingly appears empty and meaningless. So, what is your response when God's providence runs counter to His promises? It is at this very point that your spiritual reality and substance will be determined, as well as the true nature of your relationship to Him.

Now, your response to the occurrence of God's providence running counter to His promises may be that you question the truth of His promises; you may begin to doubt God's integrity and love. Or you may respond by becoming angry with yourself, and say, "I also have a part to play in all of this. Maybe I have to fulfil some conditions before I experience the truth of these promises." And thus you begin to blame yourself and say, "Well, maybe if I had more faith," or "maybe if I were more determined, more disciplined, then...." Or maybe your response would be like this, "I just need to seek more light, more understanding; something is not right here; something is not fitting. God promised that this would happen, but it is not happening; so I just need to seek more light and understanding."

You need to give a personal response to this disturbing question; it is absolutely critical that you answer it because (in one sense) your spiritual health and progress directly depends on the answer forthcoming. How you answer this question in your own life may determine if you take the upward road or the downward one. It seems to me that when God's providence seems to run counter to His promises, there is only one acceptable option, and that option is one of persistent faith. Now, that may sound like a simple reply, but I want to flesh it out. The option of faith does not mean that we bury our heads in the sand, denying the truth of the trying circumstances, but rather it means that we lift our heads up into heaven and affirm the truth of God's Word; and that is exactly what Abraham did. Hebrews 11:17-19 reads, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, 'IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED.' He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type."

God tested Abraham's faith

Perhaps there is no more moving account, no more revealing account that highlights the glory and the triumph of faith, than this account concerning Abraham. It is clear that with the offering up of Isaac, Abraham was being tested. He was sorely tested, not simply with respect to the content and expression of faith, but with respect to the very ground and fact of faith. The offering up of Isaac was a test of the obedience of faith. It was designed to reveal his heart, where he really stood in relationship to God. God commanded Abraham to offer up his son. He did not invite him, nor encourage him, nor lead him, but commanded him. Genesis 22:1, 2 reads, "Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, 'Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' And He said, 'Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.'" Notice that the language that God used was apparently designed to intensify the temptation by touching Abraham's deepest emotions. God commanded Abraham to offer up his son (his flesh and blood, and not a lamb or pigeon); his only son (uniquely born from the union of Sarah and him); the one he loved (reminding him of his affection and emotional attachment); even Isaac (the one with whom he had established a very personal and filial relationship). This was not only a test of the obedience of faith, it was a test of the trust of faith; that is, not only a test of the obedience of faith to God's Word, demonstrating the reality of faith, but a test of the trust of faith to God's faithfulness and His promise, demonstrating the quality of faith.

So, the question that confronted Abraham was this, "Will you really trust God to perform the promise, even though the very heart and basis of that promise are threatened?" Recall Hebrews 11:18, "It was he to him it was said, 'IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED;'" which is rooted in Genesis 21:12, "But God said to Abraham, 'Do not be distressed because of the lad [Ishmael] and your maid [Hagar]; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named.'" This was God's personal promise; and yet we have the language in Hebrews 11:17, "And he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son."

God severely tested Abraham's faith

So, would Abraham firmly believe that God would really be true and faithful to His promise, regardless of appearances to the contrary? A further question is this: Why would God command Abraham to sacrifice his only begotten son? Why this kind of a test? This kind of a test seemed to reflect negatively upon the very character of God. This was possibly the most stringent test by which God could test Abraham. It was a test designed to clearly, emphatically, indisputably reveal Abraham's true allegiance and commitment of heart to God.

Consider for a moment that which Abraham was faced with? First, Abraham was faced with a God Who is good and kind, appearing cruel and savage, by not only requesting the death of an innocent youth, but also allowing Abraham himself to go through personal anguish in responding to the command to offer up his beloved son. And remember that Abraham endured that anguish for what must have seemed like an eternity; for the place at which he was commanded to offer up Isaac was a three day journey; and God had planned this. No doubt, humanly speaking, Abraham may have been compelled to question the beneficent character of God.

Second, Abraham was faced with a God Who is moral and trustworthy, appearing deceitful and dishonest, by requiring the death of one whom God Himself had promised as the man through whom the future blessings would be realized. Abraham's posterity, and Abraham's seed, was promised through Isaac; and now God, apparently with caprice, had commanded Abraham to offer up Isaac. No doubt, Abraham, humanly speaking, may have been compelled to question the integrity of God, His righteous character.

Third, Abraham was faced with a God Who is holy, transcendent, and incomparable, appearing earthy and primitive, identifying Himself with the surrounding false deities who required human sacrifices in order to be appeased. No doubt, humanly speaking, Abraham may have been compelled to question the uniqueness of God; the fact that God is holy, sovereign, and subsisting in 'a class all His own'. Clearly, then, this God-ordained test was an incredible trial of faith! Every aspect of this test was designed to disprove and counter his faith. Every aspect! He was not simply being tested in his faith, but rather concerning the very reality of that faith.

Do you really appreciate that which Abraham was faced with? What do you think about this? His whole understanding of God was challenged right to its very core and foundation. Humanly speaking, there was absolutely no reason for Abraham to continue in faith when God commanded him to perform this unthinkable act of human sacrifice. And so here was the question: "Abraham, in spite of everything with which you are presented, in spite of the contradictions that divine providence poses, will you continue to cleave to the promises? When everything is demanding you to abandon God and spurn the promises, will your faith hold?" Everything that Abraham had learned about God, everything that he knew about God, was here being challenged and threatened with this test. It is like someone who works with computers, who knows that a computer runs by means of microchips, circuits, and electronics, and then hearing a news release that soon a new computer would be marketed which does not require any microchips, or circuits, or electronics. "Impossible!" would be the response. It goes against absolutely everything one has learned about computers. This situation is similar to that which Abraham may have gone through. An impossible situation!

What would have been your response if you had been Abraham? Maybe I should phrase it this way: What would have been your reaction if God had come to you, commanding, "Take your son (or daughter) right now and kill him as a sacrifice to Me? Take that little one right now, and kill him on an altar, burn him as an offering to Me." What would be your response or reaction, my friend? Be honest now.

Abraham's faith did not falter

Now, incredibly, there was no resistance from Abraham, no hesitation, no questioning of God's command. Genesis 22:3 reads, after God had commanded him, "So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him." That was Abraham's response (not reaction); and as I mentioned earlier, it was a three day journey away. Again, the various aspects of the test were designed to intensify the struggle and pain of the trial. Think about it. Abraham had three days to think about the ordeal that lay ahead. Often that is our problem: we have too much time to think about a potentially difficult situation. If the situation required an immediate response, an impulsive response, then that would be manageable, but having to think about a dreadful situation for three days – that's torture. For instance, when you have to speak to a large, distinguished group in three days, you would probably think anxiously about it, saying, for instance, "What exactly am I going to say? Will I say something worthwhile? What will be the reception? etc." Or when you know that you have a doctor's appointment, having had a series of blood work, because you are evidencing mysterious symptoms, you may worry, saying, for instance, "Is everything going to be okay? Am I going to die? Will I suffer from pain? etc." Or knowing that you have an interview with your critical, unthankful boss in three days, believing that He is out to hurt you, you may fret, bemoaning, for instance, "Why does he want to talk to me? What did I do wrong? Is he going to fire me? etc." So, Abraham had three days to think about it. It seems cruel that Abraham was given three days, doesn't it? Be honest.

But Abraham was resolved. We read, "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac" (Hb. 11:17). What does it mean, "offered up Isaac." He did not actually offer him up. Yet, the sense of the original Greek language is that it was as good as done in his mind and heart; that is why we have the past tense in the original. There was no question about his obedience. Abraham was resolved. When God had commanded, there were no other options.

This is the man who had received the promises. What is Abraham's obedient response teaching us? Faith annuls all apparent contradictions posed by divine providence and continues to hold on to the promises. Again, faith finds its root and sustenance in the Word of God. Abraham had received the Word of God, the promises, and he did not let them go, even in the face of overwhelming apparent contradiction. Why? How do we explain this? Why does faith annul all apparent contradictions posed by divine providence? Because faith, by its very nature, and of necessity, insists upon and even argues for the truth of God's Word. For instance, if you really believe that Alzheimer's Disease or schizophrenia is the result of a nutritional deficiency, rather than the result of a biochemical imbalance, then, naturally, you will argue for that view. That is self-evident.

So, through true faith, and with true faith, one has absolutely no choice but to demand and validate, at all costs, the truth of God's Word. Thus, we read, "He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead" (Hb. 11:19). That is what Abraham reasoned in his heart. Even though God had called him to offer up Isaac, Abraham was convinced that the promise of God was true; and that God, who is faithful, would even raise Isaac from the dead, if needs be, in order to keep His word. Hence Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Delitzsch, an Old Testament scholar, insightfully writes, "Abraham's faith appealed to the omnipotence of God in order not to surrender its reliance on His truth." Abraham, no doubt, affirmed something like this, "God cannot lie; it is impossible, regardless of the apparent contradictions of providence, and regardless of appearances to the contrary." That is what true faith always affirms. That was true of Job, wasn't it? Initially Job knew and professed that God was good, kind, gracious, and just. And yet God's providence, with a few violent strokes, removed all his possessions, all his material goods, and all his children. But what was Job's response? He affirmed, "Blessed be the name of the LORD" (Jb. 1:21). Job worshipped. "In all this Job did not sin with his lips" (Jb. 2:10b). Initially Job did not question the character of God.

Abraham's faith triumphed

Faith neither accepts nor brooks any challenges to the promises of God; and so, in faith, Abraham argued against natural reason, and faith won. True faith always does. Again, the Scriptures state, "He considered [he argued out of his faith, he reasoned] that God is able to raise men even from the dead." Consequently, in demonstrating the reality and quality of his faith, by being tested, God pre-empted the proceedings and spared Isaac. We read, "From which he also received him back as a type [that is as a figure]." So, figuratively speaking, Abraham received Isaac back from the dead, because in his act of obedience, God intervened. No doubt, we have here a picture of the future resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But let us remember, if Abraham had failed the test, there would not have been any covenant. This test also served to ratify the covenant, from Abraham's side. In this one act of the obedience of faith, God confirmed the truth of the covenant that He had made with Abraham. Ratification was necessary. God had promised to bless, but the fulfilment of that promise required the faithful response from Abraham to whom the promise was given. Thus we read, "Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, 'By Myself I have sworn, declares, the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice'" (Gn. 22:15-18). It is clear that covenant ratification was dependent upon Abraham's faith and obedience. Faith secured the eternal blessings of God. Perhaps, if Abraham had failed the test, Isaac would have been taken anyway, for his seed would then no longer be needed, the covenant becoming void. Isaac's life, either way, hung in the balance. That is God's way, and He is not to be questioned.

So, by exercising his faith, Abraham figuratively received Isaac back from the dead, for God intervened and responded to that faith. Now, here is the irony. In the exercise of his faith, he offered up Isaac; however, it was that exercise of faith that actually prevented Isaac from being offered up – the triumph of faith. Don't you agree that Abraham was truly a remarkable man?

God tested Abraham, and Abraham passed 'with flying colours'. Again, why did God test Abraham? Why the test at all? God was pleased to reveal the real devotion and commitment of Abraham's heart. And God is pleased to test our hearts. It is all well and good to follow the Lord when things are going well. Anyone can willingly worship God then; but where will you be, my friend, and how will you respond (or react!) when you are stripped of everything, when it seems that God has become an ogre, when it seems that every conception or understanding that you have had of God is challenged, threatened, and seemingly denied or contradicted? What will your heart say then? Where will you stand then? When you go through your darkest night and your deepest trial, will you then acknowledge God to be your faithful God? Will your faith keep you then? Where will you stand when the suffering and pain come in full force, and you could cry out for death, just to have relief? Then what, my friend? What will you think of God then?

God wants your deepest affections, your warmest devotion, and your strongest commitment, regardless of what life 'throws at you', and not mere lip service. It is relatively easy to give lip service when things are going well, but trials expose the contents and true motives of the heart. What will you think of God then? So, testing proves whether we are His, but more importantly, whether He is ours. True faith never lets go. Never! True faith insists upon, and even argues for, the truth of God's Word. It entertains no other options. Can you say with every confidence, "Though He slay me [after taking everything from me, even my loved ones], yet I will trust in Him" (Jb. 13:15)? If you can, then you too, like Abraham, will know the glorious triumph of faith which can know no defeat.