Fear-Fighting Faith

A sermon on Genesis 15 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 6/6/04

What if God is not faithful to His promises?  What if the Bible is all wrong?  What if Jesus is not the Son of God, did not die on the cross for your sins, and never rose from the dead?  What if there is no coming Day when all wrongs will be righted, and no eternity ahead in which those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will praise God?

Do such fears ever come upon you?  Such fears came upon Abraham.  The fact that such fears cross your mind is not sin.  The question is: How do you deal with such fears?

In Genesis chapters 12 to 14 we see Abraham grow in faith, but not without times of doubt and unbelief.  In faith, Abraham obeyed God’s command to journey to the promised land.  But no sooner had he arrived there than he was met with famine.  Without any word from God, Abraham in fear left the promised land for the safety of Egypt.  There, again in fear, he lied to the Egyptians, telling them that Sarai was his sister.  Through all this, however, God patiently teaches Abraham to trust Him.

We see Abraham’s faith in God in his response to the dispute with the herdsmen of Lot over water and grazing land.  Remember that God had promised Abraham ALL of the land in which he sojourned.  Yet Abraham, acting in faith, willingly allowed Lot to choose whatever land he wished.  We also see Abraham’s faith in rescuing Lot after Lot’s capture by the invading kings.  Abraham acknowledged that this astounding victory was entirely from God’s hand by giving a tenth of all the spoils to Melchizedek, and by refusing to keep the plunder that had been taken from Sodom.  These actions clearly demonstrate Abraham’s firm conviction that all he has comes ultimately from God.

So Abraham has grown mightily in faith.  But the fight of faith is far from over.  Today we will see that this man of faith – like us – is tempted to doubt God’s promises.  When God’s past, obvious interventions in our lives fade in our memories we are tempted to doubt that God will fulfill those promises that are yet in the future.

Just so with Abraham. A number of years pass between chapters 14 and 15; we do not know exactly how many, but perhaps seven or eight.  There is no record of God speaking to Abraham during these years, no record of any miraculous interventions in his life.  Time passes, and still there is no son; still Abraham lives in a tent, having no permanent home.

Will he ever have a son?  Is the promise of the land really certain?  Will all the families of the nations really be blessed through his offspring?  Will God really crush the head of the serpent through the seed of the first woman – through his own seed?

What questions do you ask? What promises of God seem long delayed to you? How do you respond when God seems distant, when His promises seem to have failed? Everything rides on your response to such questions.

Before we begin our exposition, let’s briefly consider the structure of today’s passage.  There are two sections joined by a hinge verse.  The two sections are comprised of verses 1-5 and verses 7-21.  Each section begins with God reiterating a promise (see verses 1 and 7).  Each section follows with Abraham asking if what is promised is really going to happen (see verses 2,3,8).  Each section concludes with God’s response, strengthening and elaborating on His promise.  Verse 6 is the hinge upon which both sections turn.

Following this structure, our exposition will consider the following themes:

The Cause of Fear (vv. 2,3,8)

The Cure for Fear:

            God’s Promise (vv.1, 4, 5)

            God’s Oath/Covenant (vv. 7, 9-21)

The Response to Fear: Faith (v. 6)

God’s Credit to the Faithful: Righteousness (v. 6)

The Cause of Fear

But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3 And Abram said, "Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir." Genesis 15:2

But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess [the land]?" Genesis 15:8

Back in chapter 12, God told Abraham to leave his country, his kin and go to the land God would show him.  God promised that he would make Abraham a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.  After Abraham obeyed and went to Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

Abraham surely knows that God’s promise of blessing to all nations is far in the future. But if this promise is to be fulfilled, a necessary first step is for him to father a child.

Yet it doesn’t happen.  And he’s getting older.  And Sarai is getting older.

So he calls out to the Lord, “What can you give me to make up for THIS! No child! And I don’t see any way out!  Without a child I will have no heir, your promise will fail, and a servant will inherit whatever I possess.  And this land?  I’m still just a wanderer here. You’ve promised it to me – but none of it is mine!”

The psalmist asks similar questions in Psalm 77:

7 "Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?  8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased?  Are his promises at an end for all time?  9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Psalm 77:7-9

I suspect many of us have been in similar situations.  Maybe some of us are in such a situation this morning.

What is the problem for Abraham? For the psalmist? For you?

In each case, the problem begins with fear – fear that God is not who He says He is; fear that He can’t or won’t provide, or deal with our enemies, or fulfill His promises.  “Are his promises at an end for all time?”

We have all been let down by others - not just by friends, but by family – spouses, parents and siblings.  We learned that no human is completely reliable.  But what about God?  Can we trust Him?  Even when the years drag on and we don’t see any fulfillment of His promises?

Thus, the source of fear is fundamentally a lack of faith in God.

The Cure for Fear

 Let’s look at two sections of chapter 15 in turn:

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." Genesis 15:1

And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: "This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir." 5 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." Genesis 15:4 -5

What does God do for Abraham in these verses?  First, He underlines His promise.  In the first of the passages above, this takes the form of a command, three promises, and a reminder.  God begins with a command: Fear not!  This is the first time this command appears in Scripture.  In the ESV, this phrase is used in Scripture 33 times.  In 29 of these it is spoken by God or by Christ.  In the remaining four cases it is used by God’s spokesmen and addressed to God’s people. God tells us again and again: “Fear Not!”

We are tempted to fear, but we must fight fear.  To defeat the temptation to fear, we must use the cure for fear that God has given us ­– His promises.

In the first passage above, the Lord gives Abraham three promises.  The first is that “I am your shield.”  A shield protects us from the attacks of the enemy.  And the temptation to fear is such an attack.  The temptation to doubt God’s promises is such an attack.

In what sense is God a shield?  Some commentators argue that the term is related to the previous chapter, and suggest that Abraham feared military reprisal for his defeat of the invading kings.  But chapter 15 is all about God’s promise, not about kings.  No, in Abraham’s case it is not God’s might that is in view, but God’s CHARACTER.  The Lord is saying to Abraham,  “Remember who I am! I am faithful to My promises. And why did I promise in the first place?”  God made these promises to Abraham as an overflow of His character. As Jesus tells us,

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Luke 12:32 

This passage reminds us of God’s kindly disposition toward His children.  He says to us “I DELIGHT to do you good. My ways will seem mysterious, but KNOW that it is MY PLEASURE to give you the kingdom!”

God’s second promise to Abraham is that “Your reward shall be very great.”  In some translations, this is rendered “I am your very great reward.”  While superficially different, it is fundamentally the same idea: God’s gifts are wonderful, but His greatest gift is Himself.  He Himself is the pearl of great price; He Himself is our peace; He Himself is our husband.  The Lord is saying to Abraham ­– and saying to us ­– “The reward of being MINE may not appear to be great, but it IS.  BELIEVE.  The joy that is yours is beyond imagining.”

So hold on to this incredible truth!  Fight the fight to believe!

God’s third promise to Abraham is that “Your very own son shall be your heir.”  The command and the first two promises hold for all God’s people; this promise, however, is to Abraham in particular.  From a human standpoint, it may look impossible, but God assures Abraham that he WILL father a son, and that this natural-born son will be his heir, not Eliezer of Damascus.

To reinforce this third promise, God gives Abraham a powerful reminder.  He tells Abraham to step outside his tent, into the clear desert night, and says to him, “Number the stars. So shall your offspring be.”  God here restates and reinforces His promise.  But even more than that, He gives Abraham a daily picture to remind him of God’s promise.  Every evening, the stars appear.  Whenever Abraham is tempted to doubt, he has an awesome visual reminder of the certainty of God’s promise.

Remember back in chapter 9, where God gives the rainbow as a sign of His promise never again to flood the earth.  We need such reminders, don’t we?  What do you hold on to in order to remind yourself of God’s faithfulness?

In the second section of our passage God again underlines His promises, but does so in a way that sounds strange to our ears: by reminding Abraham of His oath to give Abraham and his descendants the land of Canaan.

            And he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess." Genesis 15:7

The LORD is saying, in effect, “The very reason I brought you here is to GIVE the land to you and your descendants. Remember that!”

After Abraham’s fearful statement in verse 8, God gives him not a reminder but a picture of His unwavering intention to fulfill His promise:

9He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the LORD said to Abram, "Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete." 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites." Genesis 15:9-21

God uses here a cultural form of an oath.  According to this custom, one or more animals would be cut in half, and both parties to the oath would walk between them.  In doing so, each party was saying, “May this happen to me if I don’t fulfill my promise.”

But God modifies this custom in affirming His promise to Abraham.  Here, there is only ONE party who walks between the carcasses: God Himself.  In this way, God makes clear that the fulfillment of the promise rests entirely with Himself.  Moreover, there is no implied curse in the sacrifice of the animals.  Instead, these sacrifices picture the future sacrifice of Christ, by which means God will ultimately fulfill all His promises.

Note also an important lesson from this passage regarding God’s promises.  We have seen that Abraham is fearful because of the delay in God’s promise to him being fulfilled.  Does God say to Abraham, “In the future, there will be no more waiting – I’ll fulfill My promises right away”?  Just the opposite! “They will be afflicted for 400 years”!  It is as if God were saying “ You need to learn this lesson so that those behind you can learn it too.”

Nevertheless, whatever delays there may be, the final outcome is certain. “To your offspring I give this land.”  In the Hebrew, this statement is in the perfect tense, so we can translate it (as the NAU and NKJ do) “To your offspring I have given this land.” The promise is so certain of fulfillment that it can be stated as if it is already accomplished.

This passage has much to teach us about holding fast to God’s promises.  In particular, as Abraham is called to remember God’s faithfulness in the past in bringing him out of Ur, God calls us to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, as pictured in these sacrifices.  Also, we must remember that God ALWAYS works through trials and delays.

The Response to Fear: Faith

As we noted, verse 6 is a hinge, looking back and looking forward.  Both in the passage which precedes and in that which follows v6, Abraham, though initially fearful, believes God.

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6

Abraham exercises faith in the midst of fear, in the midst of trials, in the midst of delays.

Abraham fights the fight of faith – the fight to believe that God is true to His promises.  He remembered God’s faithfulness in the past, he remembered God’s character,        he saw how God could use this trial in his life for the good of others, so he put the fear behind him and believed God.

But WHAT did He believe? Surely that God was his shield, that God would reward him, that God would give his offspring the land of Canaan, and that through his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed.

But do you see – ALL THESE PROMISES ARE WRAPPED UP IN THE REDEEMER, JESUS CHRIST.  The promise back in the Garden of Eden to Eve that her seed would crush the head of the serpent, and the promise of blessing upon all the nations through the offspring of Abraham, both are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

So Abraham’s faith ultimately is in the coming Redeemer. 

Will you be like Abraham?  Remind yourself of God’s faithfulness in the past—in your own life, in the lives of Bible characters, in church history.  Remind yourself of God’s character in His Word.  Consider how God has used the trials of others to help you and how He might use your trials to help others.  Believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord!

God’s Credit to the Faithful: Righteousness

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6

As with the phrase “fear not”, here we have the first instance in the Bible of a key concept: Justification by grace through faith.

God “credits” or “counts” Abraham’s faith as righteousness.  We know already that Abraham is not perfectly righteous, and we will encounter more examples of this in the chapters ahead.  But God credits Abraham with righteousness.

Note the verb that’s used here.  The scripture does not say “Abraham believed the Lord, and he imagined him to be righteous.”  Nor does it say “Abraham believed the Lord and he hoped he would become righteous”.  No, it says “Abraham believed the Lord and it was CREDITED to him as righteousness.”

Isn’t there is a huge difference between someone saying “I’m feeling kindly to you, so I’m going to imagine you have $1,000,000” and someone saying “I’m feeling kindly to you, so I’m going to credit your bank account with $1,000,000.”  When God imputes righteousness to us in Christ, it is an ACTUAL CREDITING, NOT MERE IMAGINING.

Note also that this is not an equal transaction; it is all of grace.  Thus we read in Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God …”

This truth is conveyed in Romans 4:

In the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be." 19  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. 20  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22  That is why his faith was "counted to him as righteousness.” Romans 4:17b-22


Does God seem slow in keeping His promises?  Have you prayed and prayed  - yet see no answer?  Do you feel like God used to act in your life – but now you see little evidence of His presence?

Know that Abraham – the man of faith! – felt just like you.  So learn from the way God deals with the man of faith!

God tells him:

Furthermore, God tells us “All the promises of God find their YES in Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

Jesus is indeed the Son of God.  He is indeed risen from the dead.  He is indeed coming again, and will see to it that all sins are punished.  He will indeed invite into His eternal presence all who trust in Him.

So believe in Him! Trust Him! Wait for Him! Hold onto His promises!  Step out in faith – the faith of Abraham – and receive the righteousness that comes by faith.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 6/6/04. Commentaries by Bruce Waltke (Genesis: A Commentary, Zondervan, 2001), and James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary: Volume 2, Genesis 12-36, Baker, 1985, 1998) were especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon.

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