- “How were people saved before Jesus was born?”
- “She has faith. He has faith.”
That is a very important question and the answer is as equally important. Before we continue, we must agree on definitions. Otherwise, we will miss God’s point and reach some very different, very strange conclusions. So, let’s ask: What is ‘faith?’ What does it mean? How do you define it? Let’s use this simple definition: ‘faith’ means ‘trust.’ When you hear [the word] ‘faith’ today, think ‘trust.’ Yet, that brings up another question: Trust in what?’
Let’s look at Old Testament believer, Abram. (This is before his name change to ‘Abraham.’) Abram has faith; he has trust— but trust in what? That the sand is dry? That his camel is actually a camel (and not a lion)? That the food he eats will taste good? Yes, of course, he knows those facts to be true, but that mere information cannot protect his body and soul. Those facts do not change his standing before God! So, you realize, faith must have an object— and not just any object, but an object that can save. Now, as Christians living after Jesus, we know that saving object is Jesus. For Abram, Jesus has not arrived. Nor has he died on the cross for sin. If Jesus has not come, then what does Abram have faith in?
You find the answer in Genesis 12:1-3. There, God delivers a bundle of blessings:
1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God makes a large request. Abram will leave the familiar landscape of a familiar community. He will leave the protection and reputation of his family. He will set out to a land he has never seen, a land never surveyed, a land loaded with an entirely different culture— all without family support. God promises not just a new land, but also a new reputation, and most importantly a new family.
The final words in verse 3 highlight a special blessing. [I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. All people— from the time of Abram to present day— all will benefit through Abram. How? Abram will have a son and that son a son, and that son a son— and that family tree will stretch on for generations until it blossoms this precious flower: Jesus, Savior of the world.
Those are marvelous blessings, tremendous promises— but we still confront the same problem: Jesus did not die on the cross before Abram died. So, “How was Abram saved before Jesus was born?” Three words: The Lord said. That’s it! The Lord said.
That is what Abram puts faith in. That is what Abram trusts. The Lord’s promises! Seven times the Lord repeats the same word. Did you catch it? [The little word]: ‘Will.’ God does not reveal a wish, he reveals an intention. When the time fully comes, God will put Jesus on earth (Galatians 4:4). That is not a possibility, that is a reality. That is something God will do. Abram takes hold of that promise and considers it as good as done. That is ‘faith.’ That is ‘trust.’
So, “How were people saved before Jesus was born?” Here’s the answer: Faith in the Savior who is coming. Realize, though, Abram does not blindly leap into the unknown. He remains entirely certain that what God promised will happen. How? Not because Abram sat down, studied the possibilities of promises happening, and then reached the conclusion that God is likely to keep his Word. Not because Abram, in all his power and might, chose to rely on God. Instead, what creates faith? What strengthens faith? What moves Abram to act? Three words: The Lord said.
God speaks and his words create faith. God speaks and his words instill trust. God speaks good news to Abram: His great Descendant will stand on earth. Abram listens. His great Descendant will be stretched on a cross and Abram’s sins will be taken out of storage and placed on Jesus. Abram is comforted. His great Descendant will settle all debts and make Abram right with God. Abram rejoices. Not because he did the action, but because God worked the action. Faith Must Have an Object. The object of Abram’s faith is Jesus— and the fact that Jesus’ work is as good as done.
That’s why the second statement begs a question. “She has faith. He has faith.” Ok… but in what? That the sky is blue? That the Lions will finally win a SuperBowl? (Alright, maybe not that.) That heaven is real? That God exists? Faith does not grab any object, but a specific promise.
Many realize that. They ask: “How were people saved before Jesus was born?” because they realize that only Jesus forgives sin. Still, those same voices torment themselves with the question: ‘Can I be sure I’m saved?’ Oh the horrors! Heart-racing despair and fearful fretting and sleepless nights and ceaseless worries. How do I know I am saved?! Maybe a better question is: Why has the object of faith changed?
The object of trust appears two times. ‘Can (1) I be sure (2) I’m saved?’ The focus is on ‘I’! The reliance is on your abilities, your efforts, your choices, your works. What a flimsy object you (and I) are! We cannot march up to God, lay down our life, and expect God to delight in what he finds! All he sees is single-minded devoted love for ‘self.’ That’s why I do not feel good. That’s why I battle shame and regret and guilt. Because I am not a reliable object to win God’s favor! Faith Must Have an Object--and not just any object, but an object able to save!
Abram looks ahead to Jesus, we look back at Jesus. As we see Jesus, those three words appear again: The Lord said. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). God speaks. Faith grabs. Faith acts. That’s why you worship today. God spoke pardoning love to you. That love set your heart in the work of Jesus. God pummels Jesus to death, punishing him for our faith-less-ness. Then, he raises him to life, holds him for us to see and says, ‘Look! Jesus lives as proof that the punishment of death is removed! Your death removed! Your life eternal!’ God speaks. Faith grabs that promise. Faith acts.
That’s why we want to remain in the Word. The Word creates faith. The Word strengthens faith. Sometimes when frightened, we may think faith is gone. That God has left us. That God is distant. That God does not care. That this struggle is ours to carry alone. That simply is not true. The Word guarantees: For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:11-12). Faith grabs that promise— not because you at it, but because God spoke! Faith automatically feasts on those words and makes them your own.
God speaks. Faith grabs. Faith acts. Wherever Abram went you see him do two things (1) He built an altar and (2) He called on the name of the Lord. Abram worships God, thanking him for keeping his promises of land, family, and Jesus. This worship also exists to point others to God.
Remember that statement? ‘She has faith. He has faith.’ The next door neighbor who never goes to church says, ‘I have faith.’ Great— but in what? That this church building is real? That you can give God $100,000 to get into heaven? In what does he have faith? That high school friend battles cancer. Even on her worst days she says, ‘I have faith.’ Great— but in what? That she has the strength to make it to the bank? That something exists after death? In what does she have faith? The brother who has not stepped foot into church since his confirmation day, says, ‘I have faith.’ Great— but in what? That God exists? Even the devil believes that! (James 2:19) In what does he have faith? Faith Must Have an Object. The only object that saves is Jesus. Faith trusts in Jesus as Savior.
Abram travels by the promises of God. Soon he reaches Canaan (which is present-day Israel.) The first promise kept! Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” Abram does not even have a child, but he remains confident the LORD would keep his Word. Even though foreigners lived in the land, even though all Abram could see was settlement after settlement of people. So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. He worships God. He tells Sarai (his wife) about the Savior. He tells the household about the Savior. He tells the neighbors about the Savior. He is not content that people should say: ‘Eh, she has faith. He has faith.’ Abram repeats the word of the Lord. As that Word hit ears, it created faith in many hearts. For generations to come, Abram’s family tree kept looking ahead to Jesus, the saving object of faith.
Two statements that appear multiple times each year. Two statements that highlight the same issue, but reach very different conclusions. Two statements that you yourself might hear. Two statements that may come out of your mouth. Two statements that demand a response:
- “How were people saved before Jesus was born?”
- “She has faith. He has faith.”