Almost every day, I walk to the UCLA campus with a crowd of students. Outwardly I walk in the steps of hundreds of people of every kind, but at the same time I have an inward walk. There is something directing the way that I take. Whose steps do you walk in? Whom do you follow? Romans 4:12 contains the phrase “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham.” To see how we can walk in the steps of Abraham’s faith, we need to look further into his experience recorded in Genesis.
Even after receiving God’s promise concerning his seed, believing this promise, and having it confirmed by God in Genesis 15, Abraham failed. He fathered Ishmael by his wife’s servant in an attempt to fulfill God’s promise by his own effort. After this failure, thirteen years passed with no record of God’s speaking. It wasn’t until Abraham was ninety-nine years old that God spoke to Abraham, confirmed His promise yet again, and gave Abraham the commandment of circumcision (Gen. 17:1-22). Isaac was born soon after – a laughably impossible seed fulfilling God’s promise.
In Romans 4 Paul reads this passage as the rejection by God of our attempts to be right before Him by our works, our own effort. He asks in verses 10-11:
How then was it accounted? While he was in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while in uncircumcision, that he might be the father of all those in uncircumcision who believe, that righteousness might be accounted to them also.
Paul was writing to a people whose existence had been linked to the law of Moses for their entire lives. It was their identity, their boast, and their hope. For many, it was literally bound on their foreheads and on their door frames. With such a background, how could God have a way of righteousness apart from keeping the law?
Paul points out that God’s accounting of Abraham as righteous took place not in the context of the law, but of God’s promise. In fact, it took place even before the covenant of circumcision, the physical sign of which was borne by every Jewish male. When did Abraham believe? When he was not yet marked out by any outward sign or legal commandment, just like every Gentile. Just like you and me! Then why was Abraham circumcised? The note on sign of circumcision reads:
Circumcision was not the reason that Abraham was justified; rather, it was the outward sign and confirmation that God had already justified him. It denoted the cutting off of the natural strength by which he had produced Ishmael in his effort to please God. Abraham was already justified before he was circumcised, and God had already confirmed His covenant with him in Gen. 15. Circumcision was to confirm the covenant from Abraham’s side, to serve as a constant reminder to him that he should no longer use his natural strength and energy to please God.
In his own experience, Paul knew that God’s salvation was not based on law-keeping. Although it went against every aspect of his upbringing, his encounter with the resurrected and ascended Christ had shown him that the simple faith he had fought against meant more in the eyes of God than all his years of advancing in religious observance. Through the story of Abraham, he saw the deep work of God in justification through faith, a justification that continues in a living and real way by continually trusting in God and rejecting man’s effort.
As we walk in these steps of faith today, our trust is not in our own righteousness for our salvation. Similarly, our trust cannot be in our own effort for the continuation of our Christian life. If we are focused on self-improvement or doing a better job as Christians, Paul’s question in Galatians 3:3 should be asked of us:
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
This is a practical key: as we walk in Abraham’s steps, we should be those breathing, enjoying, and being led by the wonderful Spirit. Every day, every step, we should be constantly reminded how useless our own effort is, and how wonderful and complete is the Christ who lives in us.
This is a good reminder that we are vessels of mercy.