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“The promise that he would inherit the world
did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law
but through the righteousness of faith.”
Romans 4.13

St Paul had a ‘thing’ about Abraham’s faith – it’s his most quoted theme from the Old Testament – it’s central to his understanding of the Christian faith and the basis for his fundamental doctrine of ‘justification by faith’.  You know it: Abraham had faith in God, and we share in all the promises that God made to him by sharing Abraham’s faith.

If we read the New Testament in its various English translations, a slight confusion often arises.  Sometimes we read that ‘Abraham put his FAITH in God’, sometimes that he ‘put his TRUST’ in God, and sometimes that he ‘BELIEVED’ in God; all three of those capitalised words being translations of the same Greek word.

The problem is that as languages develop they seem to ‘unravel’.  What Abraham, Paul and the other biblical writers had as only ONE word (in their respective languages), has now ‘unravelled’ as THREE words in English: BELIEF,  FAITH  and  TRUST!

All three words are right, in a way,  but none of them tells the whole story on its own.  BELIEF and FAITH and TRUST are all bundled up together in one biblical idea, a biblical idea so important that it might be helpful to try to unravel the meanings of those three words, because each gives its own shade/colour to the overall meaning.  So here goes.

Abraham BELIEVED God

So often these days BELIEF is contrasted with DOUBT: ‘believers’ verses ‘doubters’.  In this sceptical age people are not prepared to believe anything
that can’t be proved or demonstrated, so that ‘belief’ almost equates with ‘certainty’.  But, in fact, it is ‘certainty’ that is the opposite to ‘belief’, not ‘doubt’!  And doubt and belief are part of the one thing.

The English word ‘belief’ comes from an old word that means ‘willingly’ or ‘gladly’; and that reveals the true characteristic of belief: something that we hold willingly and gladly.  And so we cannot be persuaded to believe anything – or forced, or cajoled, or bribed.  But belief IS something that can be encouraged and supported, provided that it is accepted willingly and gladly (along with all the doubts and uncertainties that are part and parcel of belief).

Abraham accepted gladly and willingly the hope that God offered to him.

Abraham also TRUSTED God

Trust is another thing that is going out of style these days.  We live in a world of guarantees and safeguards and assurances and risk assessments – most people don’t like to take risks these days.  And yet ‘trust’ is all about taking risks.  It’s about putting our lives into someone else’s hands.  To live without trust, without taking risks, is to live timid, limited, stilted, fearful lives.

The English word ‘trust’ comes from an old word that means ‘strength’ (think ‘truss’, a beam that hold a roof up!).  To live with trust adds strength to our lives, and allows us to stride out freely and confidently.

That is not to say that our trust may not be betrayed now and then, especially if we put our trust in other frail human beings like ourselves.  But to live trusting lives is to live in the belief in the ultimate strength and providence of God.

Abraham gladly and willingly put his life into the strong hands of his God.

Abraham had FAITH in God

Faith brings with it a personal element.  We can put our ‘trust’ in a well-built roof (solid trusses!), but we usually talk of putting our ‘faith’ in another person.

The faith of Abraham, as also the Christian faith, is not about ideas and theories.  It’s not about philosophy or metaphysics.  It’s not like Marxism, or Socialism, or Capitalism.  In fact, it’s not an ‘-ism’ at all, it’s a ‘-ship’: it’s about friendship, fellowship, relationship, partnership.

Faith is a two-way thing, linking two people, or even two peoples, together, gladly, willingly, strongly.

The God of Abraham is a Covenanting God, and covenants are also two-sided things.  We can only discover what that really means from the inside.  ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’ – and the proof of faith is found only when we reach out in faith to the one who has faith in us.

Abraham was old and weak, well past his sell-by date, when God reached out to him in faith.  And yet by responding in faith, to faith, Abraham found God’s promises fulfilled in him.

Abraham believed the Lord, put his trust in the Lord, had faith in the Lord, and it ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’   (Romans 4.22)

Questions for reflection this Lent…

  •  what do we really believe in…?
  •  where do we really out our trust…?
  •  and who do we really put our faith in…?
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