by Pastor Douglas Shearer
The story of Abraham is used as a metaphor for salvation throughout the New Testament - including Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews - but most pointedly in Romans Chapter Four, the chapter we’re about to take up, and in Hebrews Chapters Three and Four. And that tells us its use as such was no doubt well established in the minds of the First Century Christians.
The story begins with God’s call to Abraham, a single individual, (#1 on map) and moves toward its climax in the Book of Joshua - with Israel crossing the Jordan River and conquering the Land of Canaan (#7). The author of Hebrews makes the Land of Canaan symbolize the “rest” God has promised believers - meaning their complete and final victory over the power of sin.
Two distinct phases of salvation - justification and sanctification - are depicted in the metaphor. Abraham, a single individual, responds in faith to God’s call to leave Ur and go to Canaan (Genesis 12:1-3) - which God promises will become his eternal possession. But though he eventually reaches Canaan, possession does not immediately pass to him (#3). Instead, God promises Abraham a son by Sarah (Genesis 15:6) - and tells him that it’s through this son and his offspring that possession will eventually be achieved. Abraham, despite his old age and Sarah’s “dead womb,” (Rom. 4:19) believes God - and that belief, we’re told in Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:3, justifies him - meaning God absolves him of his sins and declares him righteous.
Twenty five long years pass between God’s promise of a son and his eventual birth. That son, whom Abraham names Isaac, eventually fathers Jacob - who, in his turn, fathers the Twelve Patriarchs. Still, possession of the land does not pass to “Abraham” - leaving the story of salvation far short of completion. It’s not until “Abraham” - subsumed now in Jacob and his twelve sons - is “incubated” in Egypt for 430 years (#4), becoming thereby a whole people, that God is ready to consummate it. To do that, he sends Moses to bring “Abraham” out of Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai (#5) - where “he” is incorporated into a nation - the Nation of Israel. Only now can Canaan be conquered and the story of salvation brought to completion (#7).
The “Abraham metaphor” teaches the story of salvation in two distinct parts:
American Christians, in whose minds and hearts individualism is so deeply entrenched (Vol. 1, pages 20-21 of Calvin on the Ropes), have never quite grasped this truth; and its neglect underlies, at least in part, the inability of so many of them to overcome the power of sin in their lives. They resist being built up together into any kind of an organic whole that jeopardizes either their personal identity or their independence.