by T. Austin-Sparks
"By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went… By faith Abraham, being tried, offered up Isaac: yea, he that had gladly received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; even he to whom it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead; from whence he did also in a figure receive him back" (Hebrews 11:8, 17-19).
We have so far spoken in a very general way about these matters related to faith - what God is seeking in enlargement, establishment and life. We will now go a step further, and see these things being worked out in the life and experience of His people, individually and collectively, bringing these truths into practical application and relationship to life. We shall therefore return first of all to the very practical outworking of truth in the life of Abraham. Abraham's life can be gathered up into four things: faith in relation to God's purpose, faith in relation to God's principle, faith in relation to God's patience, and faith in relation to God's passion. That comprehensive statement covers the whole course and meaning of his life.
God's Purpose In Calling Abraham
We know, I think, without any further comment or explanation, what God's purpose was in calling Abraham. That is perfectly clear in the very statements that we have read from the Book of Genesis. The Lord told him that He was going to do with him and through him: to make of him a great nation, and from him a multitude of nations - here was a great purpose, to have a seed according to God's own heart. Into that purpose Abraham was called. But the realization of the Divine purpose and the calling - for you notice that that is the word that is used: "Abraham, when he was called…" - was along the line of many testings of faith.
The Covenant Sign
I want to come particularly, at the present time, to the second of those four things - faith and God's principle. We know that, at a certain point in Abraham's relationship with God and God's dealings with him, a covenant sign was established, in the form of a rite, which was indelibly registered in his flesh and became the covenant sign for all his seed (Gen. 17:10-14, 23-27). That covenant sign or rite became the central meaning of Abraham's life, the very basis of all the thoughts of God where he was concerned. Its significance - for it was, after all, only a sign; Paul makes it perfectly clear that this is not merely a rite, but a principle - the significance of this sign or rite gathered into it everything of God's meaning. The principle of the thing had already been at work in the life of Abraham before it was formulated into the definite act, and it continued to be applied in principle right to the end of his life - that is, from the introduction of Abram on to the platform of Divine activities. It runs, moreover, not only through his life, but through the whole history of Israel, and is then taken up in its spiritual meaning in Christianity. The spiritual significance and principle of that rite is always the basis upon which God works.
It is found here right at the beginning, then, with the introduction of Abraham into our known history: "By faith Abraham, when he was called…" Stephen said: "The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia" (Acts 7:2); and you remember the terms of the call. "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee" (Gen. 12:1). "By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed": he went out. The principle of circumcision began to work right at that point. It was faith's basic renunciation, by which there began to be placed between the old life and relationships and an entirely new one a severance, a cutting, a separation. On the one side was the ground of judgment - Ur of the Chaldees, and all that that meant; on the other side, the ground of righteousness. This is Paul's whole argument about Abraham in his letter to the Romans. So far as God's mind was concerned, it was intended to be a distinct act of severance from the ground of judgment to the ground of righteousness.
Separation From Country And Kindred
We are told in the Book of Joshua that Abraham "served other gods" beyond the Euphrates (Josh. 24:2). Recent excavations in Ur have revealed a good deal about the times of Abraham, and amongst these uncoverings there have come to light the names of no fewer than five thousand gods who were worshipped at that time by the people of Chaldee in Ur. 'Your fathers worshipped other gods beyond the River'. "Get thee out of thy country". The significance, then, is: Come right out from every other object and form of worship, right out from anything and everything that shares the ground with God, right out from all that which disputes the rights of God - that is, from all the ground which lies under judgment.
Idolatry is a principle, not a form. When we speak about idolatry, there is usually conjured up in our minds some form of idols which the heathen worship, to which they bow down, or the ikons and images of a false 'Christian' system - paganism and heathenism of any kind, wherever it is found. But idolatry is a far, far bigger thing than that. If there were five thousand gods in Ur of the Chaldees, there are five hundred thousand in the world. They are everywhere. They are in your heart and in mine - that which challenge's God's ground, that which disputes the rights of God, that which shares between God and something else. That is idolatry. I repeat: it is a principle, not just a form. The principle of circumcision is so much bigger than the rite. That is what the New Testament seeks to make clear. This thing is so much more than a rite in the body: this is something that ranges the whole realm of the flesh, the natural man. "Get thee out of thy country". This is thorough-going, drastic, tremendous; it leaves nothing outside.
"From thy kindred, and from thy father's house". Well, Abram started out from his country, as we know; but instead of fulfilling the whole commandment, he took his kindred and his father's house with him, and so the journey was arrested. The fact is that they moved to Haran, which was still in Chaldea, and so still under the government of these gods. They were even yet in the old territory, on the ground of judgment, still in the place where God's rights were challenged and disputed. And so God said, 'We cannot go any further while there is anything of that left.' And the move never came until Abram's father died.
Now, this may represent many things, but for the present I want to indicate that this means that we are not only called upon in an objective way to leave the world. The world has got to leave us. You can take a certain position in an outward way in relation to Christianity, but you may have carried it all with you in your heart. That is what Israel did in the wilderness. They left Egypt, but Egypt did not leave them: Egypt was still in their hearts, and they were constantly harking back to Egypt. This has got to become no mechanical profession, no association and attachment in an outward way to the things of God. This must be a matter of the heart. The father's house, the kindred - the sentimental associations, the affectional relationships, the deep-down hereditary connections - these have to be severed. It has got to be a fundamental and drastic renunciation. "Out of thy country… from thy kindred… from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee".
Abraham In The Land
So, when his father was dead, he moved. But he still took some of his kindred with him who, until that connection was finally severed, were a constant nuisance to him. There were Lot and his family. However, he did move into the land. Yet here he is moving up and down in the land and not possessing one foot of it, dwelling in tents; he is in the land, but with no possession.
A Deep Work Of The Cross
Why? I think for two reasons. On the one hand, something had still to be done in Abraham; but, on the other hand, the land itself was full of idolatry. So that on the one side there was the idolatry of Chaldea, on the other side the idolatry of Canaan: and in between a wait, a long wait, before his seed could possess the land. You see, God is not realizing His full purpose while there is any idolatry at all on the right hand or on the left. God is establishing and standing by his irrevocable position: 'I am going to be all or nothing. Whether it be Ur of the Chaldees or whether it be the land of Canaan, I am not going to share with anybody. And so, Abraham, I have got to bring you to the place where I am your all, and you have nothing else, before we can realize our full purpose'.
That is the principle of circumcision - of the rite of the covenant. It is the registration of a very, very drastic work of God. Paul says that it is a type of the Cross of the Lord Jesus. He puts the two together, and says quite clearly that the circumcision of the Old Testament was only a symbol of the Cross of the Lord Jesus, by which this very utter separation is made, between all the ground where God's rights are challenged or disputed, and the ground where God is all.
Now you notice that the process and the progress of this application of a principle was from without to within, and ever more deeply within. From without: "thy country". That may be very much outward, and yet it is a very real thing. Unfortunately we still sometimes have to use a phrase which is a contradiction in terms - and a very, very terrible phrase it is, when you think of it in the light of the Cross of the Lord Jesus - 'worldly Christians'. That is a contradiction in terms. From God's standpoint there is no such thing as a 'worldly Christian', or a 'worldly church'. And yet, in some form or other, this idolatry that is in the world may be associated with Christians, and Christians associated with it. Perhaps the best way in which I can speak of it without going into details is this. You notice that when the Holy Spirit is allowed to work in a life on the principle of the Cross of the Lord Jesus - that is, our death and burial with Him and our resurrection with Him to newness of life - when He is allowed to apply the principle of the Cross, you see all sorts of things beginning to happen spontaneously in the lives concerned. As time goes on and they are seeking to follow the Lord, you notice that they are changing certain things, of which at the beginning they seemed to be hardly conscious, or they are dropping them. These people say, 'The Lord has shown me that He is not pleased with this, does not agree with that.' The ground that lies under judgment is coming under the Holy Spirit's conviction.
Now, as we have said, this process starts on the outside. But do not think that you have got a long way on when you begin to do that sort of thing! That is only the beginning; that is only leaving your country. There is a lot more to be done yet: but you will not get any further until that is done. It has got to be done. You may hold the Lord up on some little matter like that; perhaps a matter of dress - perhaps a matter of 'make-believe'. It is not a very advanced point when you begin to deal with things like that; it is quite elementary. But do not do anything just because someone says you should - that is legalism. Ask the Lord that His Spirit may work in your heart on the principle of the Cross of the Lord Jesus. You will find that the Holy Spirit will be quietly singling things out, and there will be changes.
But that is only leaving your country. The Lord is working from the outward to the inward, getting closer and closer to the heart. He is going to press this thing more and more inwardly. From "thy country" to "thy kindred" - that is getting closer, is it not? Those affectional relationships to which we cling. I am not going to dwell on this, but many a life has been held up by clinging to, and many another life has found its complete release by dealing with, some affectional relationship. Oh, the tragedies of unequal marriages of Christians - all because of an unwillingness, at a certain point, before the covenant was entered into, to face this whole matter of common ground in the Lord. On the other hand, when the knife of circumcision is applied to something in that realm, to some relationship which is not on the common ground of Christ, yet very near to the heart, how wonderful has been the release that has come, even in the midst of great suffering. But everything is held up until it is done. That was the point with Abraham's hold-up: the whole purpose of God was held up too. This is applying principles in a practical way.
So the Lord goes on with His servant; and in the next phase he is in the land. He is in the land - but with no possession, and this represents a still more inward movement of the knife. Was there some mixture in the heart of Abraham? It is not for us to say that there was, to judge him; but, from certain things that arise, to which I shall refer in a moment, I wonder - was there, after all, in his heart some mixture of ambition in relation to the Divine call? "…Unto the land that I will show thee: and I will make of thee a great nation… and make thy name great". Did the thought enter his heart: 'I would like to be a great nation, I would like to be something great'? I am not charging Abraham with anything, but in a moment, in the next step, you will see that there may be some justification for raising a question like this. In any case, there could have been just some personal interest, some thought of self-realization, associated with his act of obedience.
Now, whether it was true in Abraham's case or not, you know there does come into our relationship with the things of God a good deal of personal interest. What pathetic stories can be told of the tragedy of ambition in the realm of the things of God. I have recently had very close and painful association with such a case: one who went into what is called 'the ministry', married a wife who was tremendously ambitious for her husband and did everything to push him forward, and he became actuated and obsessed by this idea of getting on. Now, that man started with a real sense of Divine things. He was closely associated with Oswald Chambers in the heyday of his ministry, and we together had much fellowship in the things of the Lord. And then, by this ambition of his wife and himself, he got on and got on. He got to the very top in one of the biggest of the denominations, and was granted a very high honour in a degree from a well-known university for his work. Today, now that he has got it all, that man has no assurance of salvation. He is a complete wreck - mentally, physically and spiritually. I have spent long and terrible hours trying to help him, trying to get his faith on to its feet, to believe God at all.
That is ambition in the realm of the things of God. You may say that I have given an extreme case: but you see it started in quite a simple way at a certain point - some opportunity of an advantage in the realm of God's things - and that led to the next step. Now, God is going to have none of that in relation to His full purpose. Let us be before God about ambition: it can be a terrible, terrible snare. In the end, it can mean the frustration of all that God ever intended in our lives. Let us remember that Christ "made Himself of no reputation" (Phil. 2:7; A.V.).
Was Abraham's long waiting, between the two worlds, so to speak - the world of the past and the world of the promise - this marching up and down, this living in tents - was it God's way of pressing the principle of circumcision deeper still, in regard to this matter of dividedness of heart, really to sever the last remaining tires, to shatter the last fragments of personal interest? If that is true, it goes very deep, does it not? Take the matter of patience. If there is one thing that will slay anything like ambition more thoroughly than anything else, it is being kept waiting. There is nothing that disciplines our motives more than to be kept in suspense, to be made to know how impatient we are, and how much patience we need. Abraham had to be brought into oneness with God's patience. The sword was thereby entering his soul and searching out all this personal interest.
Now, in order that you may see that I am not altogether imputing something wrong to Abraham, we come to his supreme crisis - that of Isaac. Isaac became the point at which the sword entered most deeply. "Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac… and offer him…" (Gen. 22:2). Can anything be more inward than that? No; God has driven the thing right to its innermost point now. But why? What is the explanation? We know that in principle and in figure God is bringing this man into fellowship with Himself in His own passion, the offering of His own well-beloved and only Son. Yes, but there is another factor. Do you remember, when the Lord one day was speaking to Abraham, what Abraham said to the Lord? In effect he said, 'Yes, that is all very well - but what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless, and that which is born in my house is not my child?' (Gen. 15:2-3). 'What wilt Thou give me?' God gave him Isaac, but even so this element of 'give me' had got to be destroyed - God had to root out the 'me'. And so Abraham was called upon to give back to God, to have the last fragment of 'me' eliminated; and then he got Isaac back, and there was no 'me' in it at all.
Now, I think we see what God wants, what God is after. Where are we? It may be that there is one reading this word who has not yet made the first response to the call to leave that which corresponds to their country. You are still on the ground where God has not got His place in your life, where other lords have dominion, where the principle of idolatry is in some way at work, keeping you from responding to the Divine call. Let me say this to you, that that to which God calls you is nothing less than the great, vast purpose of God in Christ. You are not called just to be a Christian. You are not called just to say 'I accept Christ as my Saviour', and to do what other people called Christians do. You are called with a great, an immense calling, which is only commenced in time and reaches to and spreads over all the ages to the ages to come. That is the calling with which you are called.
Abraham, while he emerged at last, in his life here on earth, into that of which I am speaking, is but a figure of that. When God said to Abraham, 'Thy seed shall be as the stars of heaven and as the sand on the sea-shore for multitude', and spoke to him of 'the land which I will give thee', it had its literal fulfilment; but it is only a figure. It is a type, as the New Testament shows, of something very much more than that. Its full realization is in Christ - so the Apostle Paul makes clear. We are called in Christ to the realization of a great, eternal purpose; but nothing is possible until we have made that first response to the call: "Get thee out of thy country".
It may be that you who read have made that response. You are no longer in the world, in that sense. You have made a gesture, a movement, and gone so far with the Lord, and then stopped - perhaps because there is still something from which you are not prepared to separate. So we could take it, stage by stage, right up to the final application.
But, taking it altogether, my point is this. Have any of us stopped short? Have we really made this fundamental and complete renunciation? You see, there is more in this than appears. The Lord Jesus said a drastic thing: "Whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:33). 'Renounceth all that he hath' - why? You see, dear friends, if there is anything less than that, it is giving Satan a foothold in our lives. It is dividing things with God. It is in effect saying, 'The Lord is not all'. Until it is 'No one else and nothing else but the Lord', it is a hazardous Christian life - our Christian life is in jeopardy. The Lord says, 'For your own safety, for your own eternal future, and for the realization of My purpose, I must just be all. You must have no gods besides Me; you must have nothing that divides the ground with Me at all'. Listen to Paul, whom we have already quoted: "…as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ…" (Phil. 1:20-21). The principle of circumcision is just this - that God has all the ground, and there is nothing else there to dispute it with Him.
An Act Of Faith
To give God that ground calls for an act of faith. "By faith Abraham…" God is not going to give you anything that will undercut faith. He will say, 'Look here, I am telling you nothing about it.' It will be 'into a land which I will show you'. Abraham "went out, not knowing whither he went" (Heb. 11:8). God had not given him a rosy painting. Up to that time, God had not defined or described the inheritance. He simply said, 'I will show you: you go on - I will show you. When you have taken the step, I will show you'. In the meantime, it was not knowing, not knowing, not knowing - that principle of faith. His attitude was: 'I believe that, God having called me, God knows that it is worth-while to call me to make such a renunciation, and that is all I want to know.'
God does not do this sort of thing to get us into a trap, to deceive us, to rob us of anything, to take anything away, to lessen our lives. God does this sort of thing because He is the God of Purpose that He is, whose aim and end is fulness. That is all I want to know. This is faith in God - faith that believes that, whatever the step means, God means more. "By faith Abraham… obeyed… went out, not knowing…"; but faith was this - 'God has called me, and I believe that God never calls without some real justifying purpose.' If it costs, the compensation must be far greater; it must be, because God is what He is.
I ask you: Have all your gods of Chaldea been gods like that? Have they really 'filled your bill'? Have they really satisfied you? In holding on to that someone, or to those some things, do you find real contentment? If you are honest, you will have to say 'No'.
Let us, then, hasten to the point where we say, 'The Lord only! By God's grace, it is going to be the Lord only. It is not going to be a move just so far, and another move just so far, and then stop. It is going to be, by the grace of God, all the way - right to God's end, with no reserve; the Lord all.' Let Him make that real. As I have said, if God ever says a thing, you can believe that there is a great deal more behind it than appears in what He says. We should look at the Bible like this. If we find in the Bible a statement or a requirement, a command or an exhortation, where on the face of it it just says that a certain thing is to be done, or something else not done, we should never stop there. We should say Why? Or, Why not? What has God got in His mind when He says that? God is not just giving out platitudes, little rules and regulations for our life. Behind everything He says, God has got His full knowledge of the immensity of it all. There is such an immense reason behind the least thing that God says. It is as big as God Himself. So we need to enquire - What is behind this? We need to ask, in a spirit, not of questioning, but of seeking to understand: Why should I do this? Why should I not do that? There is a big answer to that 'Why?' You may take it that, if God calls, the reason for it is as big as Himself - something that you will never compass.