God’s Preservation and the Regress of Faith | Genesis 20 and Genesis 21:22-34
Brian Hedges | August 11, 2019
I have in my library two books with similar titles. One of those books is John Bunyan’s famous allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, and then another book is C.S. Lewis’s less famous allegory, somewhat patterned off of Bunyan, called The Pilgrim’s Regress. I thought we’d just start with a little thought experiment here. I wonder, which title do you think is more descriptive of the Christian life: Pilgrim’s progress or Pilgrim’s regress? Progress and regress seem to be opposite, right?
Usually when we think of the Christian life, we think of the Christian life as one of growth, as one of progress, as one of moving forward. We think about maturing in the faith and think about overcoming sin. We think about the right kinds of sanctification and growth that should happen as we are moving closer and closer towards Jesus and towards our destination, the Celestial City, just like Bunyan’s pilgrim.
However, I want to suggest to you this morning that the pilgrim’s regress is also a pretty apt description of the Christian life, because the Christian life is sort of just like life, it’s just life as a Christian, and life has its twists and turns. I was thinking this week that we often say life is like a rollercoaster, right? I’m not a huge rollercoaster fan; I can take the mild ones, but you know, the really big ones that go way, way up--there’s one at Cedar Point called “The Dragster” and it goes way up and then sometimes it comes back down. The ones that go upside-down and twists and turns and all that, I don’t really like that.
But life is like that. Life has its ups and downs, its twists and turns, and it's forward and backward motion. You both make progress and you regress in the Christian life. That’s something that I think becomes very clear for us when we study the Scriptures, and especially when we study the biographies in Scripture of believers, who walked with God, and as we look at their lives we see the twists and the turns and the ups and the downs and the forward and backward motion.
We see that especially in the life of Abraham. Now, we are 11 weeks into the study of the life of Abraham, or 11 sermons, 11 messages so far, and we have about three left, maybe four left, after today. As we’ve been working through the stories of Abraham’s life, we’ve seen the progress and the regress over and again.
For example, in Genesis 11 and the first part of Genesis 12 God calls Abraham to leave his country. “Leave Ur of the Chaldeans, go to the land that I will show you.” God gives him a promise. You know what Abraham does? He obeys, right? He goes. He does what God commands. But then, at the end of Genesis 12, in a moment of fear and unbelief, Abraham goes down to Egypt, and he lies about Sarah, his wife. We see Abraham doing something that’s not admirable.
Then, in Genesis 13, we see him do something admirable again. It seems like he’s making progress, as he trusts the Lord and he tells Lot to take his pick of the land and Abraham just follows the Lord and trusts the Lord rather than manipulating circumstances. Again, in chapter 15, God makes his covenant with Abraham, and Abraham believes God’s word, and it is counted to him as righteousness. But then in Genesis 16 you have Hagar, where Abraham tries to help God out and sleeps with this slave girl and has a child by her, and it’s one of the darkest moments in Abraham’s life.
Then in chapter 17 the covenant is renewed. In chapters 18 and 19 you see Abraham as the intercessor, he’s praying for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and especially for Lot and his family. Then we get to Genesis 20, which is where we are today, and what do you see? You see regress. We’re going to see Abraham back to his old sins.
Now, I’ll be honest with you. I was tempted to skip Genesis 20, because it is so similar to Genesis 13. In fact, it’s so similar that liberal scholars will actually tell you, “Well, these are just several different traditions of the same story, and they’ve kind of been stitched together by the editor of Genesis.”
But I think that is a mistake, because I think the writer of Genesis is actually showing us what the real life of a believer is like, with all of its setbacks. Life sometimes is just three steps forward, two steps back, three steps forward, two steps back. That certainly seems to be the case in Abraham’s life, so there’s something important for us to learn from this passage about how God preserves us, even in the regresses, the relapses, the backsliding of our faith.
So there are three things I want you to see this morning, broadly. I want you to see and think about the sins that believers commit. Even as mature believers, we can commit sin. I want us to think about that. Then I want us to think about the consequences of those sins, because there are consequences in the life of Abraham. Then especially I want you to think about how God preserves and restores us from our sins. I think you’ll see that there’s real grace for us here in this passage.
I. The Sins That Believers Commit
First of all, the sins that believers commit. Let’s just start in verse 1. Let me read verses 1 through 3 as you see Abraham’s sin in this passage.
“From there [that is, from overlooking Sodom] Abraham journeyed towards the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar.” This is what will become Philistine territory, kind of on the edges of the Promised Land. “And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.’”
Can you believe this? It’s almost exactly a repeat of Genesis 12, and the same mistake that Abraham made in Egypt. He is lying about Sarah, saying that she’s not his wife, but rather is his sister.
Why is Abraham doing this? You would think he would have grown beyond this! I mean, he’s now received God’s covenant, he’s now seen God be faithful in many different ways. In fact, they’re probably just within a few months of Sarah having a child, assuming the chronological order here of this passage. God has already said in Genesis 18, “A year from now you’re going to have a son,” and Isaac is born in Genesis 21! He’s right on the heels of receiving the promise! He’s right there. And here he goes to the outskirts of the Promised Land again; we don’t even know why he does that, but he’s kind of on the edges of the territory; and once again he commits the same sin, the sin of deception. Why’s he doing it?
Well, he’s doing it because of his fear. You see this down in verses 9 through 13, where Abimelech actually confronts Abraham because God intervenes and comes to Abimelech in this dream and says, essentially, “You’re dead meat if you don’t reverse this situation. If you take this man’s wife, you’re a goner.” So Abimelech confronts Abraham. Look at what you see in this exchange, verses 9 through 13.
“Then Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.’ And Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘What did you see, that you did this thing?’ Abraham said [here’s where you get the motivation], ‘I did it because I thought, “There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”’”
So, once again, the deception is driven by fear. You know what fear is? Fear is a lack of faith. So once again you see Abraham, the man of faith, here acting as Abraham, the man of fear.
Then he explains in verse 12, “Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife.” Now, this is Abraham’s rationalization, it’s his justification, and as I’ve already said, the Bible isn’t approving of this arrangement. There’s no approval of consanguinity in Scripture; in fact, it’s clearly condemned in the levitical law. But God had called Abraham out of pagan ancient Chaldea, and he was already married to his half-sister, Sarah, and I suppose that Abraham used this as a justification, or a rationalization, for the half-truth that they told.
Then notice in verse 13 something else. This gives us a little more insight and, I think, raises a question that we need to try to wrestle with here in this first part of the message. In verse 13, Abraham says, “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, “He is my brother.”’”
You know what that tells us? That tell us that this was a recurring sin, and it was a deliberate sin. You could almost say it was a habitual sin. He says, “Every time we wander to a new place, you just tell them that I’m your brother.” He’s intentionally doing this, and it raises a question, doesn’t it, about habitual sin in the lives of believers.
This is a difficult pastoral question to deal with. Several months ago I actually got an email from somebody that I’d never met before, still haven’t met him, but we exchanged emails over three or four days. He had read an article that I’d written online about believers struggling with sin and holding on and keep on fighting the battles, know that ultimate victory’s finally going to come.
He wrote me this email, and he was really struggling with a question, because he’d been going to church, he’d been reading material, and in this church they were suggesting that if your “struggle with sin” is more than just struggle with temptation which you eventually overcome, if your struggle with sin means that there are failures and even frequent failures, if you tally up the score and your failures are more than your successes, your wins, your victories; then you’re not a Christian. This particular group was actually going so far as to say that people like John Piper and John MacArthur and lots of great writers that talk about the believer’s ongoing conflict with sin, they were actually condemning people like that and saying, “No, you’re not a true Christian. You haven’t been born again if you’re not winning more than you’re losing, and if the struggle with sin is struggle with actual sin.”
So this guy’s coming a deep pastoral question, like, “Is this right? How should I think? Does it even count if I win a victory over a temptation but then I fail again two weeks later? Does the victory count?”
I wonder, how would you respond to a question like that? I do think we have to be careful, because you have statements that are made in Scripture that we have to reckon with. For example, 1 John 3:9 says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, because he has been born of God.” And in Romans 6, Paul makes it very clear that we cannot use grace as a license for sin. “Shall we continue in sin,” Paul asks, “that grace may abound?” He says, “May it never be! How can we, who have died to sin, keep on living in it?”
So there’s no doubt about this, that sin is always inconsistent in the life of a Christian. It’s always inconsistent. Every time you sin, you are acting against God’s word, you’re acting against your own interests, you’re acting against the very character of the faith that you have. And Paul goes on to say, “Sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under the law but under grace.”
But does that mean that Christians are never going to lose the battle? It doesn’t mean that Christians are never going to commit sin, even commit a recurring sin, a sin over and over again, even though perhaps they’re struggling against it and it brings grief and hardship into their lives.
I think the answer is that clearly, when you look at Scripture, Christians do still sin. They shouldn’t, there’s no justification for it, there’s no excuse for it, there’s no license for it; but the reality is that Christians do sin. You see it right here in the life of Abraham.
In fact, when you read John and Paul carefully you see that they acknowledge this as well. The same Paul who wrote Romans 6 also wrote Romans 7, and he said, “The good that I want to do I find myself not doing, and I find myself doing the evil that I don’t want to do. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And John, who wrote 1 John 3, also wrote, in the first chapter, 1 John 1, that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Certainly, when you look at the examples of characters in Scripture, in both Old Testament and in New Testament, you see them winning some battles and losing some battles. So Abraham, the man of faith, is also the man of fear. David, the man after God’s own heart, a man of great passion for God, also commits adultery, and even tries to cover the sin and commits murder and lives for some period of time outside of the fellowship of God. Noah was the most righteous man in his day, yet in Genesis 9 Noah plants a vineyard and he gets drunk, right, so he’s guilty of the sin of drunkenness.
You have Peter, that great rock, Peter. Peter’s so bold and so courageous in his witness for Jesus Christ, his stand for the Lord, and yet he denies Jesus three times on the night of his betrayal. Even after Pentecost--you can’t just say, “Well, that’s the pre-Pentecost Peter and after Pentecost, after Peter gets the Spirit, he doesn’t do this anymore.” Even after Pentecost, Peter’s pretty thick, you know? In the book of Acts it takes him awhile to kind of pick up on how God is moving out towards the Gentiles, and then we find in the book of Galatians that Peter, again, because of fear, compromises the truth, and Paul has to rebuke him and tell him, “You are not walking in step with the gospel.”
Christians still sin, and the reality is that you still sin and that I still sin. We have to think about our sin. We don’t justify it, but we have to acknowledge that we have these sinful tendencies, and it highlights for us the desperate need we have for God’s preserving grace.
Listen to what John Newton, the famous author of “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me,” listen to what Newton said. You may not know this, but Newton was a great letter-writer. He wrote some of the best pastoral letters that have ever been written in the history of the church. If you want some good devotional reading, get the letters of John Newton. This is what John Newton said in one of his letters.
He says, “Alas, my dear friend, you know not what a poor, unprofitable, unfaithful creature I am! If you knew the evils which I feel within and the snares and difficulties which beset me from without, you would pity me indeed. Indwelling sin presses me downwards. When I would do good, evil is present with me. There is much darkness in my understanding, much perverseness in my will, much disorder in my affections, much folly and madness in my imagination. In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistency.”
Do you ever feel like that? “I’m a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistency.” Sometimes I just look in the mirror and I’m just thinking, “Man, you’re such an idiot!” I keep doing the same thing again and again and again! “I’m a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistency.” And then I’ll use more biblical language and I’ll say, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Then I’m looking again to God’s grace and God’s mercy. Maybe that’s your experience as well. Believers still commit sins.
II. The Consequences of Sin
Now, that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences. In fact, there are consequences to sin. We need to see that. Again, the narratives of Scripture, I think, are so honest. They are so honest in showing us not only the faults of believers, but showing us the cost of sin. These narratives then stand as warnings for us and as great encouragements to us.
I want you to see here in the story of Abraham the consequences of sin. I think we can identify five consequences pretty quickly, right here in the story, five consequences of sin.
(1) First of all, sin threatens God’s plan for our lives. Derek Kidner in his commentary says, “On the brink of Isaac’s birth story, here is the very promise put in jeopardy, traded away for personal safety.” That’s part of the tension, the narrative tension here in the story. In fact, this is the tension throughout all of the Abrahamic narratives; it’s, over and over again, the threats to the promise that God has made, and how God in his grace is overcoming those threats, in spite of the sin of Abraham. But don’t miss this, that the sin that Abraham commits is a threat. It’s a threat that God has to overcome.
Now, God in his grace does overcome our sins. Warren Wiersbe quotes Spurgeon, and I haven’t been able to find this in Spurgeon himself, but Wiersbe quotes Spurgeon as saying, “God does not allow his children to sin successfully.” It does sound like something Spurgeon would say. That is, God does not allow us to continue in sin to a point of no return. He’s always intervening, he’s always restoring. He will not allow us to get to a point where we completely derail his plan.
We may miss on God’s best. We may miss out on what God in his moral and his revealed will has laid out for us and has said, “This is the way; walk in it.” We may miss out on that, but in God’s sovereign goodness he always works things out together for our eventual good if we are believers. Sin threatens God’s plan for our lives.
(2) Number two: sin distorts the shape of our character. Do you remember that old saying (I think this was Ralph Waldo Emerson), “Sow a thought, [reap an action, sow an action,] reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny”? Well, you see that in the life of Abraham. He had sown some things earlier in his life, and he’s now reaping them in his character.
Now, sin had distorted the shape of his character. Abraham, evidently, had a thread of cowardice and fear running through his life, and it manifests itself in this deception. The Bible is just so ruthlessly honest with the sins of the saints.
Incidentally, I think this is one evidence for the authenticity of Scripture. I don’t really think that the people who wrote Scripture would have written this if it wasn’t really true. It certainly doesn’t make them look good, right? It makes them look pretty bad, but it highlights God’s grace and God’s mercy.
You and I just need to recognize that when we commit sin, when we persist in sin, that sin is always shaping us. It’s always shaping our future decisions, our future choices, our future character. We need to recognize that even in our lives right now the character we have is in part shaped by the choices we have made in the past. Now, it’s never so hardened in the life of a believer that we can’t change, that we can’t go back. We’re going to see that by the end of the message this morning. But sin does have an effect on our characters.
(3) Number three: sin hurts our witness to unbelievers. Look again at verse 9, when Abimelech calls Abraham and essentially rebukes him. “Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.’”
It’s another case of the world rebuking the church. I tell you, the sins of believers hurt our witness to unbelievers.
Just Wednesday night this week, I was working late that day, and it was actually late Wednesday afternoon. I was getting hungry, so decided to take a little break, and I just ran quickly to Taco Bell. While I was standing there in line a lady came up behind me. She was an older woman, and she was pretty talkative. She started chatting in line, and it was like the Lord was putting this witnessing opportunity right there in front of me.
So we were talking, and she said something about being raised Seventh-Day Adventist and something about church, so I asked her a question, “Are you involved in a church now?”
She said, “Oh, no. I’m not going to go there, with all those hypocrites.”
I said, “Well, I agree, there are hypocrites in church, but not everybody in church is a hypocrite.” We went on to have kind of an interesting conversation.
But that is the way a lot of unbelievers--assuming she was an unbeliever--that’s the way a lot of unbelievers think about church. They think the church is full of hypocrites. Do you know why they think that? They think that because we have been hypocritical too many times. It’s because of our sin. Our sin always hurts our testimony, and that was true in Abraham’s life.
(4) Then notice this, number four: sin taints the legacy we leave to our families. This is so important. We’re going to see this directly in this sermon series, because I’m going to stop with Abraham, I’m not going to continue on with Isaac, but we’ll come back to it in 18 months or so when we do the last segment of Genesis. But you know what happens in Genesis 26? Isaac commits the same sin as Abraham! He does the same thing. He lies about his wife, Rebekah, and he does it presumably for the same reasons.
Someone once said that “what parents excuse in moderation, their children will indulge in excess.” Parents, this is an exhortation, I think, that we need to take to heart, that the sins we excuse in our own lives will reap bitter fruit in the lives of our children. It will affect the legacy that we leave to them.
I wonder this morning, what legacy are you leaving to your children and to your grandchildren? What small compromises are going to affect their lives in negative ways? What do our words and our attitudes teach them? What do our relationship patterns teach them? What are we doing in our lives in compromise and disobedience and in sin that’s going to affect their lives even more negatively?
(5) Then number five. This is really the worst of all. Sin breaks our fellowship with God.
It’s interesting that once again, as in Genesis 12, we don’t see Abraham praying before he goes down to Gerar. In fact, we don’t see Abraham praying until the very end of Genesis 20, when he has to pray for the sake of Abimelech and his household. That’s what gets him to praying again, and we won’t really see him building an altar and calling on the name of the Lord again until Genesis 21. Sin always breaks fellowship with God. It always disrupts the harmony between us and God, and the restoration will always involve return.
III. How God Preserves and Restores Us
That leads us to the third and final aspect of this message, how God preserves us and restores us. I titled this message “God’s Preservation and the Regress of Faith,” and most of this sermon so far has been about the regress of faith, the ways we sin and the consequences of those sins.
But the wonderful thing about this story (in fact, the really beautiful thing about this story) is how God preserves Abraham and his family and the promised line in spite of his sin, and it highlights for us the great doctrine in Scripture of the preservation of the saints. It corresponds with the great doctrine the perseverance of the saints. I believe in the perseverance of the saints. I believe that saints have a responsibility to endure and to persevere and to continue in faith and in holiness. But listen: our perseverance is only possible because of God’s preservation! It’s because God preserves us. We see God preserving and restoring Abraham in this passage.
Let’s go back to the text. I want you to look at verses 4 through 6. We see, first of all, the preservation. “Now Abimelech had not approached her [Sarah]. So he said, ‘Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”? And she herself said, “He is my brother.” In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’”
Notice this, verse 6. “Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.’”
That is an amazing verse. “It is I who kept you from sinning against me.” Did you know that God can keep you from sinning, that God can preserve you from further sin? He doesn’t always do this. Romans 1 tells us that sometimes he gives people up to the desire of their hearts, he gives them up to a reprobate mind. Sometimes God just abandons someone and says, “Listen, if you’re going to go down that path, go down that path. I’ll let you.” God does not do that with believers; he preserves them, and he prevents them from falling into further sin. In this case, he did it by preventing Abimelech from adultery with Sarah. It just stresses for us the doctrine of God’s sovereignty even over human choices.
Back in 1990 there was a Subaru commercial, and the commercial actually began by showing a Volvo. It’s going really fast, and then it breaks into slow motion, slows down to slow motion, and it shows the Volvo crash into this wall, but in the slow motion you see that no one’s actually injured in the crash.
Then you see a Subaru, and the Subaru is also going really fast, and it looks like it’s about to crash, and then the driver hits the brakes and right at the last minute it comes short of hitting the wall. Then the narrator says, “Would you prefer to live through wrecks or not have a wreck in the first place?”
Well, did you know that a lot of times God just prevents us from having a wreck in the first place? He does! He preserves us from further sin by preventing sin in our lives. One of the early English Reformers, John Bradford, once saw a group of criminals who were being escorted to the scaffold, where they were to be executed by hanging, and Bradford said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” You and I also should say often, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Let me ask you this: have you thanked God not only for forgiving the sins that you have committed but for preventing you from committing sins that you would have committed apart from his grace and mercy? God preserves us by preventing a lot of sin, and then, when we have sinned, he restores us.
Look at verse 7. I want to show you three things in the rest of chapter 20 and then just a little bit in chapter 21 as we end, three things that belong to this restoration, how God restores us. First of all, in verse 7. God is speaking.
“Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not retunr her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.”
You know what this is? This is showing us the necessity of repentance and of righting the wrongs. God has intervened, he has warned Abimelech that “you’re a dead man if you don’t return Sarah to Abraham,” but there has to be a setting of things right, there has to be repentance. That repentance had to ultimately take place in all the relationships that were involved.
Drop down to verses 14 through 18 to see the resolution of this part of the story. “Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, ‘Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.’ To Sarah he said, ‘Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.’” Restoration always involves this restitution, this repentance, this righting of wrongs.
C.S. Lewis, one of his great books that I love the most is The Great Divorce, and in the preface to The Great Divorce, Lewis said something I thought of. I was thinking here about the necessity of repentance. This is what Lewis says.
He says, “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish.” That’s good to know. Not everybody who chooses a wrong road perishes. “But,” Lewis says, “their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right, but only be going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot develop into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound bit by bit. It is still either/or. If we insist on keeping hell or even earth, we shall not see heaven. If we accept heaven, we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of hell.”
There is a necessity of repentance. For the restoration to take place, we have to turn from our sins.
Then in verses 17 and 18 you see Abraham praying once again, but he’s praying for Abimelech. It says, “ Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.”
Another interesting verse, especially in the context of the Abrahamic narrative, where Sarah’s womb has been closed all of these years, and now God opens the wombs of Abimelech’s household. It shows God’s sovereignty, again, his providence, in giving life, in giving birth. Abraham prays for Abimelech for this restoration.
Now, here’s what’s interesting. Abimelech shows up again at the end of chapter 21, and this is after the birth of Isaac. We’re looking at the birth of Isaac next week, but let me just jump to the end of chapter 21, because there are two more things that take place here that’s part of the overall restoration.
There is, first of all, a restored testimony. Look at verses 22 through 24. “At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, ‘God is with you in all that you do. Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.’ And Abraham said, ‘I will swear.’”
Isn’t that interesting, that Abimelech--which is probably a title, something like Pharaoh, we’re not positive it’s the same Abimelech, but assuming it is, and the experience they just had in chapter 20, Abimelech says, “Listen, promise you’re not going to lie to me again, that you’re not going to deal falsely with me!” So they enact a covenant, and it’s part of the restoration of Abraham’s testimony, a commitment to ongoing honesty.
Verse 32, “So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines.”
Then notice this, in verses 33 through 34; you see Abraham’s renewed faith. “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.”
Abraham once again is praying. He plants this tree, probably a grove there, where he is worshipping the Lord, similar to the altars that he has built in other places, and he calls on the name of the Lord once again. It always seems to be the case that when Abraham returns, when he comes back to God once again, worship is reestablished, the relationship with God is renewed, and Abraham continues on his sojourn, on his pilgrimage, doing so with trust in God.
God preserves his people. He restores his people. He restores our relationship with himself, and he does that by bringing us to repentance.
Let me end like this. There’s a great scene in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan’s book, where Christian goes into the house of a man named the Interpreter. When he’s in Interpreter’s house he sees all kinds of interesting images that are essentially a series of object lessons to teach Christian about the life of faith.
One of the things he sees is a fire in a fireplace in a wall, and the fire is burning hotter and higher. It seems like this fire is just blazing, it’s getting bigger and bigger, hotter and higher; but there’s a man there who keeps throwing water on the fire! Somebody’s throwing water on the fire. Christian kind of scratches his head, and he goes to Interpreter and he says, “What means this? What does this mean?”
This is what the Interpreter says (essentially; I’m paraphrasing). The Interpreter says, “The fire represents the work of grace in a man’s heart that continues to go on, it’s sustained and it’s renewed. It continues to go on, in spite of the fact that the devil is continually throwing water on the fire,” which is what the man represents.
Christian then asks, “Well, how can this be? If he’s throwing water on the fire, how does it keep growing higher and hotter?”
Interpreter takes him around the corner to the other side of the room, two different rooms. He takes him to the other side, and on the other side there’s another man who is throwing oil onto the fire. The interpreter says, “This is Christ, who continues to throw the oil of his grace onto our hearts and keeps that grace alive in our hearts.” So the fire never dies.
That’s a beautiful picture of how God preserves our faith. He preserves us! How does he do that? By continually throwing the oil of grace onto the fire of our hearts.
Brothers and sisters, here’s a project for you. Go home and read Romans 8. Go read Romans 8. You want to know what your security as a believer is? It’s all there in Romans 8. It is the fact that God has given you his Spirit, the Spirit of God indwelling your heart; it’s that Christ is interceding for you at the right hand of God; it’s that God, having given you Jesus Christ, promises to give you everything else you need; it’s that God promises to work all things together for your good if you love him and are called according to his purpose. It’s the promise that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ--nothing!
God preserves his people, in spite of their sins, in spite of their failures, in spite of the many setbacks, in spite of the three steps forward, two steps back character of the Christian life. In spite of it all, God preserves us and restores us. He continues the work of grace in our hearts, so that we continue to believe.
If you’re a believer this morning, the reason you’re a believer this morning is because of God’s grace working in your heart. Listen, if you’re not a believer this morning, I want to tell you that there is a God of grace and mercy who will forgive all your sins, he will cancel your debt, he will send his Spirit into your heart, he will give you a new life in Jesus Christ, and he will preserve that grace; and I hope you will look to him in faith this morning. Let’s pray.
Merciful God, we thank you for your grace and mercy given to us in Jesus Christ. Thank you that when our sins increased, your grace increased all the more. We don’t view that grace as in any way an excuse for justification for our sins, but we are grateful that your grace is greater than our sin.
We pray this morning that you would search our hearts, that you would show us where in our lives we are making compromises, where we have been disobedient, where we have been guilty of recurring or even habitual sins, and we pray that you would give us the grace of repentance. Help us see that these sins are costly, that they hurt our character, they hurt our witness, they hurt our testimony to others, they hurt our legacy to our family, and they hurt our relationship with you. Then, Lord, restore us to yourself. Draw us to yourself. Convict us where we need repentance, and then give us repentant hearts.
As we come to the table this morning, may this be a time of both self-examination, where we look at our hearts, but also a time of renewed faith and trust, where we look to Christ as our Savior, as our high priest, as our intercessor, as the one who has given himself for our sins and continues mercifully to work in us. May these be moments where we really come to Christ in our own hearts and lives. We pray that you would glorified in it and glorified in our worship today. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.