October 2, 2023
“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.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
A few summers ago, my wife and I packed up a dinner on the back of the motorcycle and cruised up the winding Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Every year, when conditions are right, the Perseid meteor shower puts on a dazzling show of wild ephemeral beauty, perfectly showcased against the backdrop of the Northwest Montana sky. Absent the interference caused by streetlights and habitations, conditions are primed for stargazing, with each twinkling light adding its own part to the grand mural of the Milky Way.
In some ways, I felt as though I’d never fully seen the stars until that night. Each meteor we watched blazed its way across the sky with visible flames, leaving a smoky trail of vaporized particulate and hot ionized gas in its wake. The sky itself appeared impossibly deep and vast, with stars beyond number stretching as it seemed into infinity. The magnitude and the glory of God’s powerful hand were on obvious display!
The heavens in the ancient world would have appeared far grander before the advent of modern city lights, and it was this ancient sky which God presented before Abraham to illustrate the magnitude of his promises. To Abraham and his barren wife Sarah, both well past the age of childbearing, God’s words must have seemed an impossible promise.
Abraham was already 75 years old when God first pledged that he would make a great nation from his line, and some years had passed since that time. At the beginning of Genesis 15, Abraham verbalized his logical fear that his heir would surely be Eliezer, a faithful servant, but nonetheless, a hired hand. God assures him that no, this great nation would indeed be flesh of Abraham’s flesh, his very own offspring.
And Abraham believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Honest grappling with this statement lies at the foundation of reformed theology. All who take God’s word seriously are forced to reckon with the chasm like separation between their own fallen and sinful hearts and the holiness of God. Martin Luther famously stated that he once hated the righteousness of God because he had been taught to understand it only as “the formal or active righteousness according to which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unjust.” As such, it loomed in condemnation over him, no matter how fervently he prayed, fasted, and mortified his flesh.
In Romans 4:3, Paul explicitly points back to Genesis as proof that both Abraham and we alike are justified by faith alone. It was a recognition of this truth which led Luther to rightly understand the righteousness of God as a beautiful, rather than a fearful doctrine. In a wavering world that increasingly questions and wrestles with themes of justice, judgment, and absolute truth, we have an opportunity to embrace a whole gospel, a gospel that does not shortcut through judgement or mercy. The joint reality that we are justified by faith alone, and that our faith itself is a merciful gift from God (Eph. 2:8), leads us to love righteousness in grateful humility, rather than self-righteous pride.
Sola fide, by faith alone. Treasure the magnitude of that impossible promise. Generations after the promise to Abraham had been fulfilled, another promised child would be heralded by a star in the east. The way of hope lies in reliance on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which we receive as a gift from the God of the impossible.