How Is a Relationship with God Possible?
How is a relationship with God possible? Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God has extended his hand in covenant relationship with us, fulfilling the promise that he made to Abraham of blessing all nations through him. By his grace through our faith, we can have right relationship with God and become a part of Abraham’s family of faith.
The 20s/30s ministry at my church is going through Mark Moore’s Core52 for the next year, in an effort to increase biblical literacy. To assist in my weekly preparation, I’ll be writing articles based on the topic. Here are the links to Weeks 1, 2, and 3. This is Week 4 of 52: Covenant.
What If I Told You
In 2009, ESPN started releasing a series of documentaries called 30 for 30, telling the stories of captivating people or events in sports. The film trailers, at least in the early goings, began with melodramatic music and a voice-over that started with the tagline, “What if I told you?”
On Andres Escobar: What if I told you that sometimes, it is a matter of life and death?
On Marion Jones: What if I told you that no one could outrun the truth?
On Len Bias: What if I told you that the man no one could stop, tragically was?
It was a brilliant marketing campaign, arousing interest with provocative questions that found a way of lodging themselves deep within your hippocampus and rolling around unsatisfied until you inevitably watched the documentary and achieved resolution.
And when I sat down to write this article reflecting on covenants and the story of Abraham, I had difficulty finding a hook—something catchy, or memorable to start the article that would lead into the meat of the reflection.
Instead, nearly 15 years after the release of the first 30 for 30 documentary, I saw in my mind’s eye the trailer for Abraham’s 30 for 30.
What if I told you that a man gave up everything he had, based on a promise that he would gain so much more?
What if I told you that a man, childless at 75, would be given children as numerous as the stars in the sky?
“What if I told you that a man, childless at 75, would be given children as numerous as the stars in the sky?”
What if I told you that a man without a country would become the father of two great nations?
What if I told you that a man could fail his God time and time again, and still be counted righteous?
What if I told you that this man is a map to what it looks like to have faith in God?
What is Faith, Anyway?
A 2022 Gallup poll has 81% of U.S. adults believing in God. This signifies an 11% drop since 2011—the lowest the affirmative to this question has polled since its inception. Still, 81% of U.S. adults would represent an overwhelming majority of faith amongst the nation, if belief in the existence of God were synonymous with faith. Tipping my hand here, I’m convinced that it isn’t.
Let’s define faith. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that faith is synonymous with intellectual assent. Under this paradigm, faith would be measured by precision: how close are you to thinking the right things about God?
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that faith is synonymous with a feeling. Under this paradigm, faith would be measured by your certainty: how sure are you that your belief in God is correct?
Frankly, this spectrum terrifies me. Each preaches a kind of legalism: get it right, or else. And to complicate matters, both the intellectual and the emotional are important. Right belief does indeed matter. Depending on the doctrine, what you believe could make the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. Depending on the doctrine, what you believe could alter your eternal destiny.
“This spectrum terrifies me. Each preaches a kind of legalism: get it right, or else.”
Perfection, however, is a ruthless standard, and if we needed to believe correctly about everything in order to obtain right standing with God, none of us would pass. And we would lose the capacity for grace along the way.
On the other hand, feelings also matter—we want our affection toward God to increase. And again, certainty of belief does matter, for we are betting our entire eternity in some measure on being right or wrong about God, so we need to have enough conviction to plant our flag somewhere.
Yet, as Mark Moore explains in his video reflection on Covenant, faith actually has more to do with the hands and the feet than with the head and the heart (although faith involves those too). What good is correctness or certainty of belief, if that belief doesn’t influence how you live?
Relationship with God: “Faith actually has more to do with the hands and the feet than with the head and the heart.”
In what I am sure is a borrowed illustration, I had a Bible study leader who said that when you think of faith, picture a chair. You might say that you believe, through deduction or feelings, that the chair will hold your weight. But unless you sink your full weight onto the chair, you are not proving your faith in the chair.
Under this paradigm, faith is measured by how much you are willing to bet on the object of your faith. How much of your weight are you willing to entrust to the chair? How much of your life are you willing to entrust to God?
Under this paradigm, faith is more defined by fidelity, or faithfulness, than by intellectual assent or fervency of belief. And it’s with this definition of faith that we can understand covenant.
Covenant Is Our Way Back To God
Conceptually, a covenant is an agreement between certain parties, to abide by certain terms, with certain consequences following the fulfillment (or lack thereof) of these terms, by these parties.
Covenant is defined by faithfulness. A covenant is an agreement; are the parties faithful to this agreement, or not? By entering into a covenant, the parties are promising that they will hold to the terms of the agreement.
Relationship with God: “By entering into a covenant, the parties are promising that they will hold to the terms of the agreement.”
As we covered in the Rebellion post, in sinning against God, humanity went from living in union with God, to living in union with death. These were the terms of the first covenant between God and humanity: we were to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and if we ate of it, we would die. We ate from the tree—we chose life apart from God—and our consequence was death.
So then, how do we get back to life? How do we get back to union with God?
The answer lies in covenant. Throughout history, God’s plan of redemption for humanity has revolved around a series of promises, or covenants, that he made with people. These promises grew increasingly more encompassing, starting with a covenant God made with a man, and culminating in a covenant God made with all of mankind. This covenant we enter into, according to the authors of the New Testament, by faith.
Relationship with God: “These promises grew increasingly more encompassing, starting with a covenant God made with a man, and culminating in a covenant God made with all of mankind.”
For our purposes in this article, let’s explore the covenant God made with the Father of Faith: Abraham.
Why Did God Pick Abraham?
God is in the business of redeeming things, and he tends to redeem the whole, through the part. Throughout history, God singles out individuals and groups to bless all of humanity through. In the Old Testament, examples of this include Noah, the people of Israel, and the line of David. In the New Testament, redemption and blessing come through the person and work of Jesus.
What makes Abraham unique amongst the people God made covenants with, is that there was no precondition for his call. Sure, God is omniscient and knows not only everything that will happen, but also every possible permeation of what could happen, and in this sense, knew what he was getting into when he made his call of Abraham. But on Abraham’s side of the story, we’re not given anything remarkable about him that would have earned this call.
“On Abraham’s side of the story, we’re not given anything remarkable about him that would have earned this call.”
Noah walked with God. David had a heart like God. Israel could fall back on the promise that God had already made with their father, Abraham. The story of Abraham essentially begins with God’s call, and extends into Abraham’s response.
And that, I think, is the whole point.
In Genesis 11, we’re given a genealogy from Noah’s son Shem, to Abram. We’re told that Abram was married to Sarai, that they were childless, and that they left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan, but that instead, they settled in Haran.
Then without any explanation or character development of Abram, Genesis 12 opens with God’s call of Abram:
“Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:1-3, CSB)
“Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Without qualification or condition, God extends his promise of blessing to Abram, and reveals that eventually, all peoples on earth will be blessed through him. What happens next is our first glimpse into the character of Abram:
“So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…” (Gen. 12:4, CSB)
Here, we get a sense that Abram trusts God, and is willing to do what God asks of him. Which gives us a clue into why God might have selected Abram to extend his promise of blessing to.
What Did God Promise to Abraham?
Three times, in Genesis 12, 15, and 17, God details his promises to Abraham. In chapter 12, God promises to give Abraham:
- Land (specifically, the land of Canaan, to Abraham’s offspring)
- Offspring (to be made into a great nation)
- Blessing (and blessing all nations through him)
In chapter 15, time has passed and God reminds Abram of his promises. He tells Abram that his reward (blessing) will be very great, that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and that someday he would possess the land he was living in. As a sign of this promise, God has Abram make a sacrifice to him, and then puts Abram to sleep as a sign that the fulfillment of this promise rested on God alone.
In the most infamous moment of Abram’s story, he and Sarai take things into their own hands, and Abram produces a child named Ishmael through Sarai’s slave, Hagar. In chapter 17, God seals his covenant with Abram with circumcision, which seems to be an act of judgment upon his treatment of Hagar, but also a sign of God’s promise of blessing to Abram and his family.
Once more, God confirms that he will give the land of Canaan as a permanent possession to Abram’s offspring. He also tells Abram that he will make him the father of many nations. He would also bless Ishmael and make him into a great nation, but the child of the covenant would be Isaac, and Abram would have Isaac through Sarai.
“Once more, God confirms that he will give the land of Canaan as a permanent possession to Abram’s offspring.”
God does one more thing for Abram in this encounter: he gives him a name. In Genesis 12, God promises to make his name great, but it would not be Abram’s name—it would be the name God gave him:
“Your name will no longer be Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I will make you the father of many nations.” (Gen. 17:5, CSB)
By bestowing Abraham with a name, God bestows an identity to call him into. And fittingly, the name God gives him is indicative of the promise God made to him.
What was Abraham’s end of the bargain? He had to live in expectation of this promise.
Or, in the words of the author of Hebrews, Abraham’s response to God was to live by faith.
“Now faith is the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. For by this our ancestors were approved.” (Heb. 11:1-2, CSB)
According to the author of Hebrews, faith is living in expectation of the things that God has promised us, without seeing the fruit of the promise. Abraham is mentioned twice in Hebrews 11’s “Hall of Faith”—once with respect to the promise of land, once with respect to the promise of descendants.
Relationship with God: “Faith is living in expectation of the things that God has promised us.”
Regarding the promise of land, the writer remarks on how Abraham lived in tents and stayed as a foreigner in the land he was promised, because he believed that God would fulfill this promise someday. Regarding the promise of descendants, the writer remarks on how Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice when he was asked to do so, believing that God would raise Isaac from the dead if it came to that.
In spite of his failures and treacheries, Abraham is revered for his faith. Romans 4:9 says that “Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness” (CSB). Abraham believed that what God told him was true, and his faith was the proof of his belief.
We’ve already discussed how faith is sinking your full weight onto the chair, making the bet that it will hold you. Another aspect of faith has to do with covenant—being faithful to the terms of your agreement.
Or, in other words, right relationship.
In Genesis 17, immediately before God confirms his covenant with Abraham for the third time, he appears before Abraham and says,
“I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless.” (Gen. 17:1, CSB)
“I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless.”
Here, God is not caveating his covenant with Abraham, but rather giving Abraham grounds for what right relationship with him looks like. To be in right relationship with the God of Abraham requires living in his presence, and being blameless.
This makes abundant sense on a human level. To be in right relationship with people, there are certain requirements to observe. As a child, being in right relationship with my parents looked like obedience and honor. As a husband, being in right relationship with my wife looks like love and faithfulness.
The God of Abraham wants our presence and our purity. He doesn’t just want our belief—he wants to know us, to be in union with us, and he wants us to be holy, because he is holy.
How Was The Covenant With Abraham Fulfilled?
Perhaps the most poignant line in Hebrews 11 is in verse 13:
“These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised.” (CSB)
This is the clearest picture of what it looks like to have faith: to live and die believing that God will keep his promises, even if you don’t receive the fullness of the promise.
Abraham did not live to see the fullness of God’s promise given to him. God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, but when Abraham died, he was still living as a foreigner in the land. God promised to make Abraham into a great nation, but when Abraham died, his line was still in its infancy. God promised to bless all of the nations through Abraham, but when Abraham died, he had no proof of this, but God’s word.
“God promised to make Abraham into a great nation, but when Abraham died, his line was still in its infancy.”
For Abraham however, God’s word was enough.
And sure enough, God made Abraham into a great nation. Through Isaac, the child of the covenant, came the people of Israel, whom God called specially to be a people unto himself. To the people of Israel, after many years of trials and wanderings, God gave the land of Canaan.
Through the people of Israel, God gave the world Jesus, who fulfills the final tenet of the covenant of Abraham: blessing all nations.
See, as we discussed in the Rebellion post, after eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we went from living in union with God, to living in union with death. God requires blamelessness of us—which is something that we cannot offer.
But through the person of Jesus, blamelessness has been offered for us. Through the work of Jesus, his blamelessness has been imputed to us.
Romans 4:22 says that Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness, but that this wasn’t written only about Abraham. This crediting of faith as righteousness extends to us as well.
“It will be credited to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 4:24-5:2, CSB).
Relationship with God: “We have also obtained access through him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we boast in the hope of the glory of God.”
We become grafted into the covenant God made with Abraham when we place our faith in the same God that he served. We regain union with God when we place our faith in Jesus, whose person and work grants us peace with God and access to him.
And through the person and work of Jesus, God blesses all nations.
How Can I Have A Relationship With God?
Expelled from the Garden of Eden, we found ourselves cut off from union with God. But in the story of Abraham, God reveals to us his plan for redemption.
God extended a promise to Abraham not only to make a nation out of him, but to redeem and bless this world through his family. To uphold his end of the bargain, Abraham had to live in expectation that God would fulfill what he had promised.
And so it is with us.
Relationship with God: “Our way back to union with God is not earned by our work, but granted to us by our faith.”
Our way back to union with God is not earned by our work, but granted to us by our faith. Working our way back to God would be an impossible feat, but in the person and work of Jesus, God has extended himself in covenant with us and embraces us in relationship. We respond to this astounding faithfulness to us by entering this covenant and pledging faithfulness to him. We respond to his grace by trusting in him as Savior and following him as Lord and King.