CHILDREN OF FAITH
Fr Dimitri Cozby
As we approach our commemoration of our Lord’s Nativity, we seem naturally to turn for encouragement and instruction to the Old Testament saints. They remind us that Christ’s coming into the world was carefully prepared for. They also highlight elements in our own spiritual life which are vital as we welcome the Savior’s birth in our hearts.
The central figure in the divine preparation for the incarnation is the patriarch Abraham. The two great preachers of faith immediately before and after our Lord’s coming, St John the Baptist and St Paul, both give him a special place in their teaching. Moreover, our Lord Himself holds Abraham up for our veneration and instruction. In part Abraham receives so much attention because of his position in the Jewish religion as the ancestor of their nation, the founder of the Chosen People according to the flesh, the one through whom God made His promise of salvation to the world. Our Lord and His servants and apostles, however, see a new, more spiritual role for Abraham’s; for them he is “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11).
Many Jews of the first century had become complacent in their status as physical descendants of Abraham. Already, however, St John the Baptist undermines this self-satisfaction. “Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Our Lord uses Abraham to symbolize both the reward and the vocation of the righteous. In the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, He sums up the future blessedness of the righteous man by depicting him resting in Abraham’s embrace (Luke 16:22-31). He pictures the Kingdom as a banquet hosted by the great patriarch with his descendants among the Old Testament saints (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28). However, He also identifies those who yearn for virtue in this world as Abraham’s spiritual kin. Thus, when Zacchaeus repents and seals his repentance with righteous alms, our Lord extols him as a true “son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).
St Paul and the Fathers expound upon the Savior’s understanding by exploring the patriarch’s life as recorded in Genesis (chs. 12-25). They look particularly at his response to God’s call to abandon his ancestral home and to journey to a new land, at the prophecy of a son who would be his heir according to God’s promise, at the seemingly contradictory command to sacrifice that son and his willingness to obey, and at his acts of charity and hospitality. The Apostle sums all of this up in the word faith and affirms that Abraham is the spiritual ancestor, the true model, and the progenitor of all who manifest a similar commitment to God in love. St Paul scolds his contemporaries for believing that good works or the fulfilment of the requirements of religion in themselves can procure God’s favor. He appeals to Abraham to prove this point: it was the patriarch’s devotion to God in the beginning and his faithful obedience to the divine will which secured for him the fruits of righteousness. The Apostle cites Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Galatians 3:6; see also Romans 4:3), and he adds, “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” and “ … those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith” (Galatians 3:7, 9). Abraham is not a unique case. Rather, he is the example of how God calls all men to Himself, offering to us the promise of the Kingdom and asking in return our faith, that is, our commitment to Him in repentance, obedience, and love.
Looking back on Abraham’s life, we see that everything revolves around a two-part promise God made to Him. He promised the patriarch a homeland and, secondly, a son through whom his inheritance would pass. Both of these were prophecies of greater things. The Promised Land foreshadows the Kingdom and the age to come (Galatians 4:25-26; Hebrews 11:9-10). The son born as a result of the promise, Isaac, is the living prophecy of the Savior for, as St Paul says, “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring … which is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). In Christ the promise to Abraham becomes reality, and in Christ the promise enters and transforms our own lives. For “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Faith makes us spiritual children of Abraham and this sonship, in turn, makes us children of God. In disputing with our Lord, some of His opponents assert this dual relationship, that they are Abraham’s children and therefore God’s. Christ acknowledges the two sonships, though He denies that His enemies can claim them. He charges, “’If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did ….’ They said to him, ‘We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me …. He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.’” (John 8:39-42, 47). St Paul makes the same identification: “not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants; but ‘Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are reckoned as descendants” (Romans 9:7-8). Thus we see that a faith like Abraham’s makes us not only like him, but also procures for us divine sonship, the realization of “His precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).
Faith stands at the summit of the virtues. Faith manifests itself as living reality through a righteous life and our escape from the corruption that comes through passion. St Zechariah, the father of St John the Baptist, characterizes the significance of divine promises for us as “to grant us that we … might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74-75). St James affirms that faith is “completed by works” (James 2:22). Therefore, since Abraham was a man of deepest faith, so also was he an example of all the virtues, as St John Chrysostom asserts. When the Apostle writes that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, he did not mean that God simply began to think of him as righteous where before He had accounted him a sinner. As St Clement of Rome writes, “For what reason was our father Abraham blessed? Was it not because he worked righteousness and truth through faith?” Faith opens us to divine power and grace. When we are filled with that power and grace, we overflow with words and deeds of righteousness. For God to reckon our faith as righteousness means that He responds to our sacrifice of ourselves to Him in faith by cleansing us and by granting us the gifts of holiness, joy, and peace.
Abraham demonstrates that faith is the foundation of the spiritual life and the source of the righteousness which flows from it. The Fathers extol him for his charity and hospitality, for his patience in afflictions, for his forbearance, and finally for his absolute reliance on God’s power and goodness. The promises made to Abraham are made also to us, but in a clearer, more radiant form. Our Lord promises us forgiveness through repentance and righteousness through love in the this world; He promises eternal life in His Kingdom. As guarantees of His promise He offers the humility and glory of His incarnation, His saving death, and His life-giving Resurrection. He confirms it in the sanctifying presence of the Most Holy Spirit. Abraham had less assurance and yet gave himself up wholly to this hope. Can we, in this season, do less? Let us remember the words of the Apostle: “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness.’ But the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in Him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:20-25).