"God doing the Impossible"
Gen. 17:15-18:15
Feb. 9, 1997 

Text Comment

v.15 It appears that Sarai and Sarah are simply versions of the same name ("Princess"), but by this renaming, Sarah was given her own place in the promise as the next verse indicates, the promise the same as that made to Abraham, but now of her as the mother of many nations.

v.18 Abraham's reaction was incredulity, as shown by his effort to steer God into a more reasonable path. Take Ishmael instead! But his were honest doubts and God dealt gently with him as he always does with those who show their readiness to believe with their obedience as Abraham will in vv. 23ff.

v.27 The diversity of those brought into the covenant: a community of various ages, stages of life, and of folk who came into the family in different ways. The same idea as that featured at Pentecost on a still larger, grander scale.

v.2 That is, the men showed up during the mid-day siesta.

v.12 Sarah has the same incredulous reaction as her husband had had and needs to be brought to faith has he was. Abraham had either not yet told her of the promise -- perhaps knowing she wouldn't believe it -- or had failed to convince her.

Now, this wonderful text is applied later in the Bible in two very different ways. In Hebrews 13:2 it is referred to as an example of godly hospitality and the reward that attends it. The lavish arrangements made for a chance visitor, the dropping of everything to welcome the visitors even though it was a most inconvenient time, the sumptuous banquet passed off as a mere "piece of bread" (NIV's "something to eat" in v. 5), the host standing until the guests had eaten -- all of this is still characteristic of bedouin hospitality. How entirely appropriate all of this seems to us readers who know who it is that Abraham is welcoming to his tent and table -- but he did not know it until later. Hence the command in Hebrews 13:2: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it." Take encouragement from Abraham's example, brothers and sisters. God loves to reward the hospitable; loves to come himself to their homes.

But, in a still more important application of this same history, the Apostle Paul in Romans 4, uses it to illustrate the nature of faith and of salvation (vv. 18-22):

"Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, 'So shall your offspring be [i.e. as many as the sands on the seashore and the stars in the sky].' Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead -- since he was about a hundred years old -- and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. That is why 'it was credited to him as righteousness.' The words 'it was credited to him' were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness -- for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead."

In other words, Abraham's faith in God, in the face of what seemed a promise impossible of fulfillment, is a picture of salvation by faith in Christ from sin and death. That is why Isaac was given to Abraham and Sarah so late in their lives. He could have been given them when they were much younger, but he was not. God delayed, through decades he delayed to fulfill his promise, in order that it might be clearly seen that God was doing the impossible, that he was doing what Abraham could never do.

And here is the similarity to the Gospel. As Paul said, it is like God raising Jesus from the dead. The impossible. And it is like our being saved from sin and death. Impossible as well. But God did it and does it for all who trust in him in hope that God can do what he has promised, utterly impossible as that promise may seem. This history, then, of Abraham and Sarah struggling with doubts, but then believing that God would give them a son in their old age is an enacted prophecy of the way of salvation. And it is a reminder of what a great thing faith is!

Now, if this is truly the nature of gospel faith-- to believe that God can and will do what seems to us utterly impossible, then we are better able to see clearly the great problem that now confronts the world, especially the Western world, in connection with the gospel and the Christian faith. In view of this it is easier to see, humanly speaking, why it is that so few in our society are embracing Christ and his gospel for themselves.

The great problem, the great impediment, the great obstacle to the advance of the gospel in our culture is precisely that it doesn't strike anyone as impossible anymore, as a promise so stupendous, so unlikely of fulfillment, as to require real faith and a strong hope to embrace it.

The problem with Christianity, with the Christian faith, in our culture, is not that it demands that a person believe that God the Son became a man and lived and died and rose again for man's salvation. The problem -- certainly for most people -- is not that it requires one to believe that Jesus walked on the water, or turned water to wine, or fed 5,000 with a few fish and loaves of bread. The problem is not that Christ requires of his disciples a life of obedience to many commandments that cut right across the grain of today's permissiveness. These are problems, to be sure, but they are not the gospel's great problem.

The real problem, the first and foremost problem confronting Christianity in our day, in this historical moment, is that, even to get started with Christianity, one must believe that it offers the impossible, one must feel that what it promises is simply too good to be true, that it could never be. One must feel like laughing incredulously about the message of Jesus Christ, as Abraham and Sarah did. This can't be true; would that it were, but it can't be.

But that is not what people think about the Christian gospel today! The impossibility of it, the desperate unlikelihood of it, has simply disappeared, and the result is that the gospel is rendered feeble, powerless, and uninteresting to most people. The Gospel does not seem to them to hold out anything much worth their time or attention, much less that they should place their hope and faith in it against all the obstacles in the way of belief. And the reason for that is that people today do not think about their position before God in the way the Gospel, the Christian faith requires them to think of it. In our day, in our culture, the Christian view of man in sin has almost completely disappeared, and the result is that the gospel has lost all its power and effect because it no longer amounts to a message about God doing what is wonderful beyond words. God being gracious to men -- what is impossible, what is even unlikely about that? So the modern man asks.

He has been taught, and he was a most willing pupil, that man is good and that if he is not good his badness is as much the fault of others as his own, and that badness itself is not so much moral as natural. And so human sinfulness is not regarded as a terrible thing, as a terrifying thing, as a thing so heavy that man cannot lift it, so insidious that man cannot evade it, so powerful that man cannot escape it.

As C.S. Lewis and many others have pointed out, the era of democracy has greatly strengthened this way of thinking.

"Proletarianism, in its various forms ranging from strict Marxism to vague 'democracy'... [is] self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy. They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame for every evil." [F25]

Consequently, it does not seem absurd at all to the modern mind to believe that God will deal kindly or look with favor upon him. Of course he shall. What is there for God to dislike? Why should he not receive me? It would be unfair of him not to. And so he does not laugh in unbelief like Abraham; she does not laugh in unbelief like Sarah because the thing is simply too great, to wonderful, to impossible to perceive. Like the French man of letters, modern man believes God will forgive his relatively minor faults, most of which are someone else's fault anyway, for C'est son metier, "it is his job." As Woody Allen describes the condition: "To be an American is to take God and carpet with equal seriousness."

Add to this the indulgence of sin in our society, the hardening of our consciences to the point that, as Paul said we would, we have been given over to a depraved mind and have become thoroughly familiar with the crudest and disgusting evil -- our movie marquees currently celebrate the life and times of Larry Flynt! --. Our culture takes sin for granted, is not offended by it -- even its coarsest forms, and, so, folk are clearly not overly bothered by their own lapses. We are a society that watches a prominent Washington insider fall from grace because of sexual depravity and then hurries the man on to television talk shows to tell his story! As Livy, the Roman historian, said of the culture of his day, "Of late, wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death." [Plantinga on Sin, pp. 50-51] Well, if you are in love with death, you're not likely to be all that interested in someone who promises you eternal life. If you love sin and are comfortable with it, you are not likely to be anxious to find someone who can rid you of your sin and make you pure. If sin has numbed you, you are unlikely to feel the electric sensation of the knowledge of God's grace passing through your soul.

We are not the first culture or society to be so inured to sin, even callous to the most foul sins. Here is Benvenuto Cellini telling of a day, in the early 16th century, when he demonstrated his skill in firing a cannon to Pope Clement VII. Spying a brightly dressed member of the enemy army, he selected just the right ordnance:

"I fired and hit my man exactly in the middle. He had trussed his sword in front, for swagger, after a way those Spaniards have; and my ball, when it struck him, broke upon the blade, and one could see the fellow cut in two halves. The Pope, who was expecting nothing of this kind, derived great pleasure and amazement from the sight.... He sent for me and asked about it. I explained all the devices I had used in firing, but told him that why the man was cut in halves neither he nor I could know. Upon my bended knees I then besought him to give me...pardon..for that homicide; and for all the others I had committed in the...service of the Church. ...the Pope, raising his hand, and making a large open sign of the cross upon my face, told me that he blessed me, and that he gave me pardon for all murders I had ever perpetrated, or should ever perpetrate in the service of the Apostolic Church." [In Plantinga on Sin, pp. 42-43]

Other times and places have been noteworthy for their shamelessness in the face of great evil, for their blase attitude to human sin. And, always, whether Italy in the 16th century or America in the 20th the result is the same: a general indifference to the gospel of free grace. If sin isn't that big a deal, if I'm used to it and everyone else around is used to it, if I think little of it and they do as well, then what care do I have to take of the gospel, why must I invest my life in Jesus Christ? He's a Savior and I don't need much saving, if any at all. If sin is not very great then God is not very great, it is as simple as that! Martin Luther, who was a contemporary of Cellini, complained that in his day man approached God "as if He were a shoe-clerk's [maker's] apprentice." And today men are doing that again. There is no reverence for God because there is no true fear of sin and so no fear of divine wrath! As the Augsburg Confession wisely and beautifully put it: "This whole doctrine must be related to that conflict of terrified conscience, and without that conflict it cannot be understood.

Christians hear a saintly man such as John Duncan say, "I have never done a sinless action during the seventy years [of my life]. I don't say but by God's grace there may have been some holy action done, but never a sinless action during the seventy years. What an awful thing is human life! And what a solemn consideration it should be to us, that we have never done a sinless action all our life, that we have never done one act that did not need to be pardoned." But our society hears that and scratches its head. It doesn't really believe it anyway -- for it has such a superficial view and puerile view of human sin -- but, even if it were true, so what?

I have seen this false peace; you have, many of you, seen it as well. The calmness of a brutish ignorance of God, of God's holiness, of his wrath, of his justice; the calmness of a complete ignorance of sin, of the comprehensiveness of its corruption of our lives, of the enormity of its guilt, of its offense to God. I have seen this false peace even on the brink of eternity. It is a terrible thing. And terrible chiefly for this: that, even at the edge of hell, it makes men totally indifferent to Jesus Christ who alone can save them.

And the contemporary church is contributing to such a terrible false peace, because, afraid of offending the public by telling them how sinful they are, how utterly impossible it is that they should be saved or should ever find peace with God unless God should do the seemingly impossible for them -- not only raise his Son from the dead, but break the grip that sin has on their corrupt hearts, I say, afraid of saying this, they are trying to get them to embrace Christianity for other reasons and in other ways. In other words, they are asking them to believe only in what is not very difficult to believe -- and that is not Christian faith.

Years ago, the great Presbyterian scholar and churchman, J. Gresham Machen saw this clearly -- this effort to take the impossible out of Christianity. "The fundamental fault of the modern church," he wrote, "is that it is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to being men into the church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin... But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than he." [Christianity and Liberalism.]

God does not ask you to believe in something that anyone and everyone accepts as true, that everyone finds easy to believe. He asks you to believe that he can do the impossible. That he can lift that mountain of guilt that is now flattening your soul against the ground and that he can take out of you that love of sinning which absolutely rules your heart.

The kingdom of God, Abraham and Sarah illustrate, the rest of the Bible teaches, and all human history confirms, is not for the well-meaning, it is for the desperate! It is the knowledge of the guilt and pollution of our sin that makes us desperate, and until we have that knowledge and face the fact of the true measure of our sinfulness, men and women will not be desperate and will have little interest in Christ or faith in him.

That is why the godly, the wise, and the good, have through the ages always sought this knowledge, painful, shameful, embarrassing, as it is. Horrible as it is to have to admit the truth about one's own badness, it is the door through which one must pass to peace and life and forgiveness and the knowledge of God himself. It is not until you feel how immovable is the weight of your sin that you are ready to turn to Jesus as the only one able to lift that weight off you conscience. It is only when you think it impossible that sins as great as yours could ever be forgiven, that a holy God should ever accept a sinner such as yourself. It is when you know yourself utterly lost and without hope that you are closest to salvation. It is when you are laughing the laugh of the hopeless that you are nearest to true faith.

And so Christians have prayed that they might know their sin and the weight and gravity and evil of it in God's sight.

Because if our proud and self-satisfied and self-excusing hearts should be broken, then we will be able not only to see what Christ is for us, how he performed the impossible feat for us, but will be in a much better position to help others see him as their Savior too.

Spurgeon once said that "Perhaps the most difficult thing in soul winning is to get ourselves into a fit state...the careless will be unmoved by any man who is unmoved himself." [F16]

What does the unbeliever hear in our speech. Is it the wonder of an Abraham or Sarah who struggle to believe that God could have done something so great, so wonderful, so impossible for him or for her? Or is it the same pedestrian indifference that takes salvation as a matter of course. If we Christians don't find it surprising and glorious that a holy God is gracious to sinners, if we don't communicate the fact the forgiveness of sins is an absolutely stupendous thing -- sin being what it is and God being who he is, it is unlikely that an unbeliever is going to think much of our message about the forgiveness of sins and still less that he is going to care to place his faith in Christ in defiance of all the obstacles in the way of that faith.

We must know what Abraham felt and what Sarah felt -- about how impossible it was that God should do what he had promised, give them a son in their old age and after so many years of barrenness. We must know what it is to laugh dismissively, almost despairingly, as they did, the laugh of incredulity, of unbelief. Then, when the promise is made good by a God who can do the impossible, then, I say, then we will know what good news is, and how grand and glorious Jesus Christ is and the salvation that he gives those who trust in him.

And so we pray for laughter, just the kind of laughter -- heavy hearted, despairing, incredulous laughter of Abraham and Sarah.

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath thy cross,
To number drop by drop thy blood's slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women, loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the sun and moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky.
A horror of great darkness at broad noon --
I, only I.

Yet give not o'er
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.