Calling and Faith


Introduction

Many people understand ‘living by faith’ as living without paid employment or other means of financial security. They divide Christians into two classes, those living by faith, and those not—and the latter can easily excuse the earthly character of their lives (at least to themselves) on the plea that they have not been called to the same level of committal as their brethren. Key to their thinking is that word called. Calling is seen purely as something in relation to a distinct line of Christian service (as in ‘I was called to be a missionary’), rather than as being universal for all Christians. To limit calling in this way is not right. All Christians have been called in the Gospel to a life of service now and glory thereafter. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “God has chosen you from [the] beginning to salvation in sanctification of [the] Spirit and belief of [the] truth: whereto he has called you by our glad tidings, to [the] obtaining of [the] glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 2: 13, 14). Now if we have been called by God in the Gospel, then the teaching of Scripture is that we are to live thereafter in faith. The patriarch Abraham is one of the greatest pictures of such faith.

Calling Leading to Faith

The initial step in faith is to answer the call of God. Thus “By faith Abraham, being called, obeyed to go out into the place which he was to receive for an inheritance” (Heb. 11: 8). Faith was seen in his obedience. But faith did not stop there, for the calling was introductory to a life of faith. Thus, “By faith he sojourned as a stranger in the land of promise” (v9). It was now a day-to-day thing with Abraham. He was a living example of Heb. 10: 38: “the just shall live by faith” (my emphasis)—the sense of which is that “the just”, as a class, live their lives in faith in God. The “just” are those who have believed God and have therefore been “constituted righteous” (Rom. 5: 19). Hence Abraham “believed Jehovah; and he reckoned it to him [as] righteousness” (Gen. 15: 6). The “just” is not a class within the “household of faith” (Gal. 6: 10) but includes everyone who believes. Christianity therefore is living by faith—we have been called, and the effect of being called, is that we are to live by faith. We must not slip into thinking of Abraham as a special case but instead look on him as the example (among others) for us to follow: “Let us also therefore, having so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, laying aside every weight, and sin which so easily entangles us, run with endurance the race that lies before us, looking stedfastly on Jesus the leader and completer of faith” (Heb. 12: 1, 2). We are not left here to ‘get on in life’ but to complete the race of faith!

   Now apart from Abraham, the other prominent character in Gen. 12-19 is Lot, and the difference between the two men can be traced back to one simple fact: Abraham had a distinct call from God, while (so far as Scripture tells us) Lot did not. Abraham’s call was what gave impetus to his life of faith. By contrast, what we read of Lot is that while Abraham “departed as Jehovah had said to him”, Lot only “went with him” (Gen. 12: 4). Lot is not said to have been called, and, accordingly, is not said to have exercised faith in God either. Of course, we know from elsewhere that Lot was a believer (see 2 Pet. 2: 7) but the fact remains that the Spirit of God chose to write the historical narrative without any presentation of faith on Lot’s part. As Is. 51: 2 tells us, only Abraham was called, and therefore only he is seen exercising faith (Sarah’s faith is not revealed until the NT). So, what sense do we have of the call of God? The measure of this is seen in how we live. Is it not true that many of us, while eternally secure, are more like Lot than Abraham? Lot walked by sight not faith and acted independently of God (see Gen. 13: 10, 11) and hence his life, as regards spiritual fruit, seems to have been barren. Yes, he achieved status in the world, “sitting in the gate of Sodom” (Gen. 19: 1) but his life towards God was a disaster, and he was literally saved “so as through [the] fire” (1 Cor. 3: 15). For you and I, feebleness in the apprehension of our calling leads to feebleness in living in faith. If faith is only something to fall back on when a crisis arrives, it will be a struggle, even in the hour of deliverance, to rest in complete confidence in the Lord. Thus, while Lot can say to Jehovah after his removal from the judgment of Sodom that “thou hast magnified thy goodness” he is unable to rest in the word from heaven, trusting instead his own assessment: “I cannot escape to the mountain, lest calamity lay hold on me, that I die” (Gen. 19: 19). God is merciful to him, but practically, God is not really known. By contrast, Abraham is described as the friend of God (see Is. 41: 8) and knew what it was to walk dependently on the Almighty—the One who is able for every situation (see Gen. 17: 1).

   Now it says of Abraham that that the “God of glory appeared” (Acts 7: 2) to Him and called Him (see Heb. 11: 8). He was therefore:

Called in Grace

There was nothing in Abraham that merited such a divine visitation, but all was of sovereign grace: “Jehovah Elohim, who didst choose Abram and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees” (Neh. 9: 7, my emphasis). Yes, the Bible tells us later that Abraham’s heart was found “faithful” (v8), but this was after God had appeared to him, for until then he had no divine testimony to be faithful to. Faith is “by a report” and “the report by God’s word” (Rom. 10: 17). The city of Ur was certainly a place of intelligence in the things of man, but as regards the one true God, utterly ignorant. Hence, unless God had spoken, there would have been no word to believe. Furthermore, the world, with its Babel-like cities and towers reaching up to heaven, has nothing that speaks of God, and only that which exalts and displays the glory of man. By contrast, “The God of glory” (Acts 7: 2) speaks of a different scene in which there is nothing of Adam’s race and where everything magnifies God. It was this God, unknown and unsought for, that appeared to Abraham.

   It has been said that ‘Divine calling begins when you ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and you give control of your life to Him’, but this makes God incapable of calling until the believer has acted. Instead, God calls us first in the Gospel, and then we respond to His appeal. What does God say about Abraham? “Your fathers dwelt of old on the other side of the river, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the river, and led him throughout the land of Canaan” (Josh. 24: 2, 3). Unless God had appeared to him, Abraham would have remained on the other side of the river, and, similarly, unless God had called us, we would have remained impervious to the Gospel. We are called “by his grace” (Gal. 1: 15) and with a “holy calling, not according to our works, but according to [his] own purpose and grace, which [was] given to us in Christ Jesus before [the] ages of time” (2 Tim. 1: 9). A “holy calling” (my emphasis) must of course be:

A Call to Separation

Separation is not popular today among Christians, but there can be no true answering to God’s call without separation, and therefore no real living by faith either. God’s call to Abraham was, “Go out of thy land, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, to the land that I will shew thee” (Gen. 12: 1). Abraham is not told to remain in the city of Ur and to improve things there or to correct its evil. He was to leave Ur just as it was and get out. He is to leave the political world—“thy land”—the social world—“thy kindred”—and the family world—“thy father’s house”. The call today is no less definite. It is not that we are to despise government for it is set up by God (see Rom. 13: 1) and nor can we neglect family ties since to do so would be to deny the faith (see 1 Tim. 5: 8). We are also to be courteous and kind, and, as we have opportunity, to “do good towards all” (Gal. 6: 10). However, as believers, we are called apart from the political activities of the world, the social round, and the sphere in which unconverted relatives find their pleasure without God. We are not asked to reform the world or to seek to improve its condition, but to come out from it. We are “called saints” (Rom. 1: 7—literally, those set apart, holy), meaning that we are saints by the call of God, rather than something we ought to aim to be. Our very salvation is “in sanctification” (2 Thess. 2: 13, my emphasis) and since God has called us to Himself, we need to ensure that we are practically in accord with His call. As 1 Pet. 1: 15 says, if “he who has called you is holy, be ye also holy in all [your] conversation” (or manner of life).  Some Christians appear to think that they can have ‘the best of both worlds’ but this a tragic mistake. The mercy of the Lord saved Lot from the doom of Sodom, but, in that false association he lost everything—wife, children, wealth, and name. We are not called to prosper in this world or to be stalwarts of our community but to “come out from the midst of them, and be separated” (2 Cor. 6: 17).

   Yet how often a believer remains in an association which he would admit is not according to the Word of God on the plea that there he will be more useful to others! This is the servant reasoning that He knows better than the Master. Not only does God say to Abraham that “I will … bless thee” (Gen. 12: 2), but that it would be in the separate path away from his land, his kindred and father’s house that he would be a benefit and help to others: “and thou shalt be a blessing … and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (vs. 2, 3). God did not say to Abraham that he would be a blessing if he stopped in Ur of the Chaldees, or in the halfway house at Haran, but only if he obeyed the command to “Go out” (v1).

   Of course, the greatest encumbrance to Abraham (like with so many of us) were his family ties. Initially, he allowed his faith in God to be subservient to his father, and thus although God appeared to Abraham we read that it was Terah that “took Abram his son … and they went forth together out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to go into the land of Canaan, and came as far as Haran, and dwelt there” (Gen. 11: 31). While Terah proposed to go into the land of Canaan he only got as far as Haran and then settled down. Later, when Abraham’s faith is in free operation (see Gen. 12: 1, 4) we read that “Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son … and they went out to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came” (v5, my emphasis). What a difference! Abraham proposed to go into the land of Canaan and into the land of Canan he came. Why? Because he was acting in faith in accord with divine purpose. This thought of divine purpose leads us on to the consideration of how the believer is: 

Called to an Inheritance

Now the remarkable thing about Abraham’s call was that he “obeyed to go out into the place which he was to receive for an inheritance, and went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11: 8, my emphasis). At the time of the call, Abraham did not know his destination, and God did not tell him about it. God said, “Go out … to the land that I will shew thee … come into the land that I will shew thee … which he was to receive for an inheritance” (Gen. 12: 1; Acts 7: 3; Heb. 11: 8, my emphasis). Obviously, if he had left one world, and had not reached the other, he had nothing for natural sight. Abraham was to abandon a sophisticated civilisation and everything with which he was familiar and step out into the unknown. There can only be one explanation for this: “The God of glory” (Acts 7: 2, my emphasis) had appeared to him. This wonderful revelation transcended everything he knew up until that point, and rendered irrelevant the wisdom, the culture and the power of all that surrounded him. Is this not so with Christ and the Christian? Or, perhaps we should say, ought it not to be so with Christ and the Christian? We have been called “by glory and virtue” (2 Pet. 1: 3) by “the God who spoke that out of darkness light should shine who has shone in our hearts for the shining forth of the knowledge of the glory of God in [the] face of [Jesus] Christ” (2 Cor. 4: 6). The martyr Stephen knew something of the true Christian position: he began his final address by referring to “the God of glory” (Acts 7: 2), and his life ended with a view of “[the] glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (v55). It is the hope of such a calling (see Eph. 1: 18) that sustains the life of faith, even in the prospect of death.

   What does Abraham’s promised inheritance picture (in measure) for you and I? The Bible speaks about “an incorruptible and undefiled and unfading inheritance, reserved in [the] heavens for you” (1 Pet. 1: 4), which is clearly the antitype of the earthly land that Abraham and his seed were repeatedly promised (see Gen. 12: 7; 13: 14-17; 15: 7, 18-21; 17: 8; 24: 7). The same contrast is apparent in Hebrews 9: 15, where “the called” have received a promise of an “eternal inheritance”. As such, they are “heirs of God, and Christ’s joint heirs” (Rom. 8: 17; see also Gal. 4: 7) and have been made “fit for sharing the portion of the saints in light” (Col. 1: 12).

   The heavenly inheritance is bound up with the mystery of God’s will “which he purposed in himself for [the] administration of the fulness of times; to head up all things in the Christ” (Eph. 1: 9, 10), the One whom He has set down “at his right hand in the heavenlies, above every principality, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name named, not only in this age, but also in that to come; and has put all things under his feet” (vs. 20-22). Christ has been given the title deeds to everything in heaven and earth (see Heb. 1: 2; 2: 7-9 etc.) and in wonderful grace as in Him, “we have also obtained an inheritance” (Eph. 1: 11). Indeed, His inheritance is “in the saints” (v18)—the sense of which is that just as Jehovah could say of Canaan in Lev. 25: 23 that “the land is mine” even though it was Israel that was put in possession, so it is the saints that He will put in possession of what is His when He takes up his rights in the world to come. Indeed, while we “see not yet all things subjected to him” (Heb. 2: 8), “to the assembly” Christ is already acknowledged as “head over all things” (Eph. 1: 22, my emphasis).

   So, what do we really know of these things? Paul’s prayer was that Christians should be given “[the] spirit of wisdom and revelation in the full knowledge of him, being enlightened in the eyes of your heart, so that ye should know what is the hope of his calling, [and] what the riches of the glory of his inheritance” (vs. 17, 18). That is not in the future, but now. And in case we might be tempted to plead that these things are too high for us, Paul adds “and what the surpassing greatness of his power towards us who believe, according to the working of the might of his strength, [in] which he wrought in the Christ [in] raising him from among [the] dead” (vs. 19, 20).

   This is not to say that there are no problems. When Abraham arrived in Canaan, he was immediately confronted by the fact that “the Canaanite was then in the land” (Gen. 12: 6). Of Abraham, God declared, “I will .. bless thee” (v2) but the word for Canaan was “Cursed be Canaan” (Gen. 9: 25). God brought Abraham—the man of blessing—into the land of promise, but Abraham discovered that the Devil had already brought there a man of the curse in order to thwart the inheritance being possessed. It is the same with the Christian: he is called out of the present world, made a partaker “of [the] heavenly calling” (Heb. 3: 1), blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ” (Eph. 1: 3) and has the Holy Spirit, the “earnest of our inheritance” (v14)—the One who makes these things real even in this world. But in answering to the call, the believer finds that there is a force seeking to prevent him taking heavenly ground while here below. Thus, the Canaanite is a picture of what is set out in Ephesians 6: 12: “our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against … spiritual [power] of wickedness in the heavenlies”. The discouraging news that “the Canaanite was then in the land” (Gen. 12: 6) is, however, immediately followed by the record of how “Jehovah appeared” to Abraham a second time, assuring him that “Unto thy seed will I give this land” (v7). Here was scope for faith. Abraham placed his trust in the Word of God and his thoughts were occupied with the presence of Jehovah instead of the presence of the Canaanite.

Called to Sojourn

In Gen. 15: 13-21, God revealed to Abraham how his seed would eventually possess the land long after he had died, and in Deut. 11: 24 the children of Israel were told that “every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours”. However, for Abraham personally, God “did not give him an inheritance in” Canaan, “not even what his foot could stand on” (Acts 7: 5). In fact, all Abraham possessed there was the sepulchre he bought (see Gen. 23: 9). So did he lose out? According to the promise, his seed were called out of Egypt to inherit Canaan (see Hos. 11: 1) and their hopes never rose above what was earthly. By contrast, as an 'elder' Abraham “obtained testimony” (Heb. 11: 2) from God and looked for a more glorious fulfilment of the promised inheritance in connection with Christ, for he “exulted in that he should see my day, and he saw and rejoiced” (John 8: 56). “My day” is the day of Christ’s manifestation, that is, the Kingdom, or “Jesus Christ’s day” (Phil. 1: 6) (the OT saints saw no distinction between a first and a second coming). That is why Abraham “waited for the city which has foundations, of which God is [the] artificer and constructor” (Heb. 11: 10). There were plenty of cities in Caanan, but Abraham ignored them all for he (and others) sought “a better, that is, a heavenly; wherefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God; for he has prepared for them a city” (v16). Why the emphasis on a city? A city is a place of administration, and the object of that administration is the world to come, in which heaven will rule the earth. Thus, we read that “many shall come from [the] rising and setting [sun], and shall lie down at table with Abraham … in the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 8: 11). Abraham understood what many modern believers appear not to, namely that “we have not here an abiding city, but we seek the coming one” (Heb. 13: 14). ‘Going to heaven’ when I die is an extremely inadequate representation of Christian calling and hope!

   Lot, of course, already had a city “for he dwelt in Sodom” (Gen. 14: 12), but it had nothing to do with the will and purpose of God. By contrast, Abraham was content to dwell “in tents” (Heb. 11: 9) because he was looking for the heavenly city. As regards the earthly calling, Canaan was the “land of promise”, but Abraham lived there as in “a foreign country” and “sojourned as a stranger” (v9) and, like so many other saints, he would die “in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them from afar off and embraced [them], and confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth” (v13). Being a stranger means I do not belong here, and being a sojourner means that I am not stopping here. As a stranger Abraham had but a tent in this scene; as a pilgrim he was passing through to another world. That, really, is the essence of living by faith.

Conclusion

One last thing: if Abraham “pitched his tent” he also “built an altar to Jehovah, and called on the name of Jehovah” (Gen. 12: 8). These things are all connected. Abraham was not only a stranger and sojourner in this world, but he was also a worshipper (he built altars) and he lived in dependence on God (he called on the name of Jehovah). Lot’s heart was in man’s city, and so he never built an altar, and he is never recorded as exercising any faith. Have we grasped the lesson his life teaches? A worldly Christian can never really know anything of true worship and is never really found living by faith. He cannot, because practically, he has denied his calling. Let us then, in the light of these things, “walk worthy of the calling wherewith ye have been called” (Eph. 4: 1).

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