The Gospel and Abraham
We already considered last week how it was that the Abrahamic covenant, the promises that God made to Abraham in Gen. 12, 13, 15, 17, and 22, were all just an early version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul quotes Gen. 15, the passage that we will focus on this morning, in Romans and in Galatians and treats Moses’ words as the Gospel. This morning we will focus just on Gen. 15 and see how it is that this passage can teach us more about our faith.
In this passage God had already promised blessing to Abraham through a land given to his seed, but Abraham can’t figure out how that could happen, given that he has no children (15:2-3). God tells Abraham, “Trust me. It is going to happen” (15:4-5). And Abraham trusts him (15:6). But then Abraham asks for something else, he asks “How shall I know?” (15:8). He has already believed God. But he asks for a follow up. “Make me confident in this promise.” Given that the promise to Abraham was a promise of the Gospel, perhaps you can sense a parallel with your own faith. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark. 9:24). It is sometimes easy to see something as true in the abstract, but difficult to have confidence that it is true for you.
The Weapon of Uncertainty
From a human perspective, religious confidence is a dangerous thing. In Islam, there can be no such thing as assurance of salvation, because it would make you recklessly sinful. And many people accuse Christians in general, and Reformed theology in particular, of this very thing. We are tempted to act this way as parents sometimes. But God wants us to be certain, to know, to have assured confidence.
In this passage, God answers Abraham with a bizarre ceremony (15:7-11, 17). God is enacting a self- maledictory oath with Abraham. A malediction is a curse. And a self-maledictory oath is where you invite a curse upon yourself in order to make an oath sure. Walking between the animal halves signified that what had been done to the animals would be done to you if you broke the covenant. There are many examples of this sort of covenant in the ancient near east literature. And the prophet Jeremiah draws on this in Jer. 34:18- 20. Jesus is probably referring to a covenant like this when he describes the curse on disobedient Israel (Mat. 24:51). In fact, this ceremony is so integral to forming a covenant that the Hebrew verb used for making a covenant is actually the verb “to cut.”
But what is exceptional about the ceremony in our passage is that Abraham does not walk between the animal halves. Instead, a smoking oven and a burning torch pass through. This image of smoke and fire is a representation of the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. When God came to Israel on Mt. Sinai, his Spirit came in smoke and fire (Ex. 19:18). And when he led the Israelites through the desert, his Spirit did so with a cloud by day and fire by night (Ex. 13:22, 40:38). This is God’s Spirit, taking the oath, taking the curse upon himself. This is how God makes Abraham sure.
The Promise of the Spirit
In making this oath, God invited a curse upon his own Spirit if he failed to fulfil his promise to Abraham. And with that Abraham could be confident. But notice that this is how God regularly deploys his Spirit – to make us confident. Consider Eph. 1:13-14. What is the point of a down payment or a guarantee? What happens if the one giving the guarantee then backs out of the deal? The deposit is forfeited. This is what God has done with the Holy Spirit on our behalf. If God fails to save those onto whom he has poured out his Spirit, then the Trinity would be ripped asunder. Can that happen? No. Then God’s saints can’t be lost. “Now he who established us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:21-22).
God has given his Spirit as a guarantee of his promise. He has done so corporately to Israel in the Abrahamic covenant and in the Exodus, and to the church at Pentecost, guaranteeing the fulfilment of his promises to Abraham, now being fulfilled in the Great Commission. And he has given his Spirit to each individual believer as a promise of his coming inheritance of eternal life (Rom. 8:9-11).
If God just wanted us saved, he didn’t have to do this. And, calculating according to the flesh, he shouldn’t have done this. It was reckless. But the Spirit is a member of the Trinity. And the attributes of the Spirit, the personality of the Spirit, are a part of God’s character. God is a confident God, as his Spirit reveals. And as a confident God, he wants confident people. “Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:12).
God does not delight in seeing you squirm with doubts. But this is often what we think. Satan is the accuser. Satan is the one that wants to see God’s people wonder if his promises are really true, really certain.
But God wants his people confident.