The Next Step

The next step is always the scariest.  The next step could be the one where the earth falls from beneath you.

Genesis 15 records a conversation between Abram and God.  Abram is getting up there in years.  He is somewhere between 75 and 86 years old (Gen. 12.4; 16.16) and he has been on a journey.  He has been given the promise that his descendants would be “a great nation”, but that was many years back.  Is there an expiration date on the promises of God?  That would have been in the back of my mind.  But Abram now gets told that he will have a son, from his own lineage. (Gen. 15.4-5)

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15.6)

Abram “believed” is in the Hebrew Hiphil tense meaning “caused to believe”.  Abram was convinced.  He seems like a man who can think differently about situations.  Later his name would be changed to Abraham (this is how he will be referred to from now on). This is how I reconcile the strange verse in Hebrews 11.17-19:

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice.  He who embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”  Abraham reasoned [gk. logizomai] that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from the dead.

The idea of bodily resurrection, let alone individual resurrection, would have been a revolutionary concept.  Abraham is an outside the box thinker.  He has convinced himself of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  Abraham takes the first step out of Ur on faith.  The next step is into the nursery with his son Isaac.  The next one is the first step to ascend the Mountain to kill the one walking behind him.

So what’s the next step on the journey?

Is it salvation?  It’s graduation Sunday.  All across Kansas, students will be turning their focus to college by 3 p.m. Sunday.  Thirty-two thousand students will walk across a stage towards a diploma this weekend.  A year from now, 60%, or 19,000 of them will walk away from their faith.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Rom. 4.2)

Paul writes in Romans that it was salvation that Abraham stepped into in faith.  It was right-standing with God that Abraham walked into by trusting God.  The question had been posed: “was Abraham justified by works?” (2)  Could he have saved himself?  To that Paul points to the faith of Abraham as he argues in the previous paragraph:

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Rom. 3.28)

Abraham is Paul’s case study for justification by faith.  In a world where love and trust are performance based, the idea of salvation in exchange for faith is a tough sell.  Maybe that is where it should start?

Is it Spirit-led?  Maybe salvation has happened, but “life” isn’t happening.  The Galatian Church was struggling with the same issue that plagued the Roman Church: “What saves a man?”  Was it “faith” or “works”?  Must the faith be followed by action?

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Gal. 3.6)

There is a difference between surviving and living.  That is what living with the Spirit brings.  Paul used Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone in Romans; in Galatians, Abraham is an example of a Spirit-led/fed life.  He precedes the quote of Genesis with this question: 

So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? (Gal. 3.5)

His answer: Abraham believed.  Great things happened because Abraham had faith.  He pairs this with another Genesis quote a sentence later:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you!” (Gal. 3.8 quoting Genesis 12.3)

Being in-step/taking the first step with the Spirit changes lives.  It empowers middle schoolers to raise money to buy freedom for modern day slaves.  It challenges women to serve by making blankets for sex trafficked victims.  It encourages men to step up, step out and lead other men in study.  Is the next step, the same step Abraham took in Galatians; one of believing in a leading Spirit.

Is it disciple-making?  When writing to people scattered all over the Roman world about living as a Christian, one man wrote this in response:

Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. (James 2.23)

It was in the same context as other uses. It was a debate about faith vs. works.  James chimes in from left field.  He brings up Abraham but honors him for his action.  Check out the question he poses in verse 21:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did…?(James 2.21)

And you gasp!  Isn’t this the exact opposite of Pauline theology.  In Romans and Galatians, Abraham was righteous because he believed; however, James understood him as righteous because of what he did.

James is a book of activity.  Your faith must be animated, according to James.

  • “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (1.22)
  • “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (1.27)
  • “What good is it, my brothers and sisters if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them? (2.14)
  • “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” (2.17-18)
  • “Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” (3.13)
  • “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (4.17)

James has an agenda.  While Jesus was on this Earth, he doubted.  Now that Jesus has ascended, he is leading a church and a following of people trying to live like Jesus.  His advice:  live like Abraham.

First things, first:  salvation.  Second things, second:  letting the Spirit sanctify and animate.  Finally, we must discipline (notice the “disciple” in that word) our lives to that of Jesus.  Verse 22 brings the argument together:

You see that his [Abraham] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete [gk. teleioo] by what he did. (James 2.22)

The greek word translated “made complete” and its cognates aren’t rare in the New Testament.  James, however, only uses the idea 8 times in his book (teleios-1.4 [2x]; 1.17; 1.25; 3.2; teleioo-2.22; teleoo-2.8; telos-5.11).  The idea is that “the goal has been reached.”  It is the ending, not the beginning.  James understands that “what he did” (21) was the goal in mind (22) when the “belief” began (23).  Faith comes first, but isn’t finished until follow through.  Belief is where it all starts but it isn’t done until action takes place.  Do I have to be in church every Sunday?  Do I need to pray every day?  Do I need to study my Bible?  Can I drink alcohol?  Do I have to tithe?  All these questions are questions of works.  They are actions that are to done.  We are saved by faith and faith alone; but, a part of faith is “the doing” of something.

In Hebrews 11, what some have called the Hall of Fame of faith, Abraham is admonished for three things.  Each is preceded with these words: “By faith…” (Hebrews 11.8, 9, 17)  He left Ur and followed.  He stayed and made a home in the Promised land.  He was willing to sacrifice Isaac.  He was commended for all these things.  Rounding out the section on Abraham, the author of Hebrews writes:

Abraham reasoned [gk logizomai]  that God could even raise the dead…(19)

Logizomai is the same word translated “credited” in every one of the passages above.  It was “credited to him as righteousness”.  God counts righteousness to Abraham all because Abraham counted all on God.

Easier said than done right?


Looking Where You Land: Bronc Bustin’ and Water Walkin’

Dougie Aldridge on a Bronc
photo by Kara Hackney

My saddle bronc career was short-lived and plagued by lack of talent.  Others were made for it.  This month’s Western Horseman Magazine contained a picture of a young man being lifted into the blue sky by a powerful and picturesque paint horse.  His spurs were up in the neck of the horse and his hand held the split reins out in front of his tucked chin and eyes fixed on the neck of the horse.  He was in the middle of the corral so I assumed this was an unplanned bronc ride, which is partially what amazed me at the pose which he such on such a quick notice.  This picture will forever go down as one of my favorites and also the exact opposite of what my bronc ride looked like.  I will spare you the complete story (partially for fear that I may someday need a story to tell here) but it was my first time on a saddle bronc horse.  After a few hours of training (it seemed shorter than that as I was lowering myself into the saddle), my horse was in the chute and a friends Association Saddle rested on its withers.  I measured out the correct amount of rein and fished it through my quivering hand and fingers.  When I lowered myself into the saddle, I couldn’t get my feet into the stirrups on account of two reasons: 1) I was holding my hack rein with my right hand, my left hand is virtually worthless in all endavors and 2) my legs were shaking so bad it was like trying to get a drink of soda through a straw while jumping terraces in a Ford Fairmont…too much movement and to small a target.

I finally got situated and nodded my head.  Even at half speed on the video the ride only lasted a second.  We barely made the end of the chute gate as partners, when the horse and I made for our separate ways.  I came off to the right, landed on all fours, and crawled around the edge of the chute gate.  My first words were, “Did I make the whistle?”  What can I say, I was ambitious.  After talking with the instructor, he wasn’t surprised I hit the ground so quickly.  He said, “You landed where you were looking!”

I get the opportunity to fight bulls at a lot of camps and schools and one thing I have seen for certain…”You always land where you look!”  In Matthew 14, without tying himself ot a large herbivore, Peter gets this same lesson.

Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him on the sea while he dismisses the crowd (Matt 14.22).  The disciples hop in the boat and head across the sea while Jesus goes away by himself to pray (14.23).  When he finishes his devotional time, he catches a glimpse of the boat, out a ways from the shore, struggling against the wind (14.24).  Jesus wraps up his prayer time and heads out at 3 a.m. to catch them on the lake (14.25).  His disciples freak (as anyone would probably do), but Jesus gives them a pep-talk to calm them down (14.26-27) and here’s where the story gets really good.

Peter, doing the thing that Peter always does, speaks up and says to Jesus: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” (14.28)  The disciples in the boat have to be getting their phones out to put this on vine or the cultural equivalent.  You can almost imagine them elbowing one another: “Would you get a load of Peter?”“; This guy…smh!”; “He’s joking, right?”  They have seen him speak up at the wrong times before but this is all kinds of stupid.

Then Jesus tells him “Come!”  and Peter’s world suddenly gets a lot bigger because his trust got a lot bigger.  How often is it that the box we live in is that size because our faith has never been challenged enough to move them.  So Peter toes the water, then steps, then walks (14.29).  Things are going well UNTIL…

“Peter saw the wind, and he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out “Lord, save me!”  He looked where he landed.  His eyes moved from the task at hand, to a place to land.  I don’t really know what Peter was looking at, the insurmountable waves and wind, back to the boat, down at his feet.  Some have said it was the sheer fact that he took his eyes of Jesus that caused him to sink.  I can’t really say that from the text, but I do know from personal experience that when your eyes come off of the task at hand, things start to go wrong.  Jesus catches his hand as he is pulling a “Jack Dawson” and sinking in the lake, and says “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

The greek word that Jesus uses for doubt, distazo, is only used on other time in scripture.  Matthew uses it at the very end of his book, when he tells of the resurrected Jesus visiting the disciples on the mountain.  Standing there before them was Jesus, still some doubted.  Both times, people are standing in front of the Son of God who is actively proving who he is and that he can be trusted, yet doubt comes into the picture.

How has Jesus shown you that he can be trusted?  What words or experiences has he given to show you that he is capable?  When is the last time you stood before him, saw what he was capable of, and trusted him?

I learned my lesson the hard way of looking off a bronc, but have been more hard headed when it comes to Jesus.  It took Peter a couple review lessons to get it as well.  Make today the day when you tuck your chin, set your spurs, and keep your eyes focused on him and him alone.