One of the most familiar images used in evangelism when I was in high school was an image of a train developed by Campus Crusade for Christ (today CRU). It was trying to establish the point that the historical fact of what God has done redemptively is like the engine of salvation. It is what pulls the whole thing. The synergy with us comes when we place our faith in what God has done, thus the second coal car. This was often connected to the famous sinner’s prayer. Finally, the image was meant to show that our feelings (meaning our emotions) may or may not be present, and you shouldn’t rely upon them—they are like the caboose. They are often present, but they should not be confused with the engine.
Long before Campus Crusade, these three terms—fact, faith, feeling—were prominent in nineteenth-century evangelistic preaching, and perhaps they are perennial tensions in the gospel. I have seen that image for forty years, and I must confess that it took me about thirty-five of those years before I actually noticed and reflected on the most neglected part of it. In fact, as I recall, it was never even mentioned in Crusade tracts where the drawing appeared, nor can I find references to it in nineteenth-century evangelistic preaching. It is the tracks! Trains cannot run without tracks.
It was on May 10, 1869, that the great Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Railroad finally met, connecting the eastern rail with the western rail and creating the first transcontinental rail passage in America. A decade was spent laying 1,776 miles of track so the railroad could run from east to west. Tracks are essential for trains. If I can press the image, God’s great train of redemption cannot run without tracks. This is the reason why Jesus was not sent into the world in Genesis 3. After all, if the only hope of redemption is the coming of Christ, then why not send him in Genesis 3? Instead, we get a vague prophecy, a little seed of hope in Genesis 3:15: “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” It turns out that this entire devotional book is really about God laying the tracks so the train of redemption can come into the world. Without the big railroad ties of law, sacrifice, priesthood, vicariousness, faith, covenant, and so forth, the gospel train cannot run.
Laying the Tracks for Faith and Redemption
Tracks are laid in multiple ways in the Bible. In the big picture, God works to establish certain truths about humanity and himself, which are essential for our receiving the message. But he also calls us to lay tracks in our own individual lives. These tracks prepare us for God’s redemptive work in our own lives. Many of you have been asked to walk through some very painful experiences. You have had to face suffering, difficulty, and even the silence of God. You have languished before God, trying to understand the facts of it, or the place of your faith in it, not to mention the endless vacillations of feelings, and you may have missed the deeper point that God was laying tracks in your life. You were being prepared to receive something that you otherwise could not receive.
Genesis 22 is the ultimate story of tracks being laid, both in the big picture as Abraham enters into God’s unfolding plan of redemption, and also in the life of Abraham himself. In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to do the most difficult thing anyone could ever be asked: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (v. 2). This is a doubly shocking text. The sheer notion of child sacrifice is an absolute abominable act of evil (which the Law later made explicit). But the second shock is that it seems like such a dramatic reversal of what has been unfolding up to this point in the Genesis narrative. Abraham was promised an heir and great descendants. Finally, in Genesis 21 Isaac was born, when Abraham was one hundred years old. There is no time for a rerun; the redemptive clock is running, and the child of promise has finally come. Isaac is the physical embodiment of and fulfillment of all the divine promises; hope is now kindled, faith is more confident, trust is on the rise! Then, out of the blue, God says to take Isaac and sacrifice him. The whole thing is jarring, to say the least. But this is the climax in a series of faith tests. This is not about pitting Abraham’s love for God against his love for Isaac. This is a test of Abraham’s faith and trust in God precisely because he loves Isaac. In fact, it is Abraham’s love of Isaac upon which the whole text is predicated. But for Abraham to be called the father of faith, he must be tested and found true at the highest level. Genesis 22 would not be possible without the tracks being laid from Genesis 12 onward.
Test 1: Lesson of the Bonds of Family and Place
In Genesis 12, we read about God’s original covenant with Abraham. We need to stop and think about what a powerful test this covenant was for Abraham and his family: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (v. 1). This is the test of geography and the familial bonds of family. The original covenant of Genesis 12 is built on the foundation of a test. Leaving your home and your parents and stepping out into the unknown is very difficult. Two of the biggest pulls in our life are geography and family. It is not easy to leave either. Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 10:37. It is faith that brought Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran to Canaan. And it is faith that brought you to where you are today. Abraham obeyed, and thus the first tracks were laid so the train of faith could advance.
Test 2: Lesson of Provisions
The second test is the test of provisions and is found in Genesis 14. After Abraham defeats the four kings, he ends up with considerable spoils of war. In fact, it was enough to make him a very wealthy man. But God had promised to make him a great man. Abraham refused to take even a “thread or the strap of a sandal” (v. 23). Otherwise, he told the king of Sodom, someday you will say that you made Abraham rich. Abraham is learning to trust God for his provision. He passes the test, another section of track is laid, and the train of faith moves even deeper into Abraham’s life. Many of you have had to trust God for your provision. It is one of the biggest tests of faith, which is why Jesus highlights it again in the Sermon on the Mount.
Test 3: Lesson of Collaboration
The first two tests were successful, but the third test is a failure in the life of Abraham (at least the first time around). But this is also a great reminder that even when we fail, God still teaches us through our mistakes as well as our successes.
The third test is the test of collaboration. God’s plan of redemption involves our participation. God always makes the first move, but we are called to respond and join him in his plan. The nature of this cooperation has been a long-standing debate in the life of the church. There are those who shrink at the very idea that we have any role to play whatsoever in our salvation or, for that matter, the redemption of the world. As one well-known author put it, the only thing we bring to the plan of redemption is our sin. This approach collapses all of salvation down to our justification, and renders us passive observers of God’s work and passive recipients of an alien righteousness. This tends to make our justification the whole story of salvation, rather than just the first half of the story of our salvation. But the other error is the impulse that tends to believe God’s promises and then try to make it happen through our own strength. This error is perhaps best summed up in the well-intentioned but erroneous bumper sticker: God is my copilot. God is many things, but he is not our copilot. It can be hard for us to remember that we have no ministry apart from our participation in his ministry in the world. He is the central actor in the grand drama of redemption. We are his co-laborers; his helpers in the vineyard.
Abraham was taken outside by God on a beautiful starry night and told to look up at the stars and see if he could count them. That would be the number of his descendants! This is a powerful moment. This is the passage where we are told that “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). But then in the very next chapter, we see that Abraham saw his barren wife, her advancing years, and he decided to help God out. God became his copilot. He decided to use Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, to achieve his promised descendants. This is what brought Ishmael into the world. God appears to Abraham again in Genesis 17 and reminds him that he will accomplish this covenant as he promised, through Sarah. This is when Abram is renamed Abraham, Sarai is renamed Sarah, and Abraham is reminded that the covenant will come through their descendants. The son’s name will be Isaac.
It is in Genesis 18 that Abraham finally learns the lesson. He is given a strange test. God has decided to bring judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah. It is God’s judgment, but he asks Abraham what his part is going to be in this. Will he be a passive observer, or will he enter into the anguish of the judgment with God? Abraham enters into a kind of Eastern marketplace-type bargaining and haggling with God: “Lord, what if there are fifty righteous, will you destroy the city?” (see Genesis 18). God agrees to spare the city for the sake of fifty righteous. Abraham goes on to bargain for forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and finally, ten. Abraham is learning that the redemption of the world is done collaboratively or synergistically with us as the redeemed. It is God’s work—his act of judgment, and his act of redemption, that he alone unfolds in the world, but he has chosen to include Abraham in that work.
Final Test 4: Test of Absolute Trust
Genesis 22 is the test of absolute trust. It is this test that will accredit Abraham as the father of faith. It is only because the tracks have been laid in the previous three tests that this final test is possible. The text says, quite openly, that God decided to test Abraham. The reader, at least, knows from the outset that this is a test of faith. Throughout the passage we meet one who trusts God. He knows the promise is that through Isaac the blessing will come. This command seems to contradict that, but Abraham has learned to trust. Hebrews 11:17–19 gives us an inspired insight into the inner reasoning of Abraham:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.
Abraham placed the wood on Isaac’s back and they made their way to Mount Moriah, the very spot that would someday be the site of the temple and the holy of holies. Notice how silent and obedient Isaac is through the whole event. The only words are those of faith when Isaac says to his father, “Father, I see the wood and the fire. But, where is the lamb?” Abraham simply responds with “Jehovah Jireh”—God will provide. Isaac is bound. He is placed on the wood. Abraham raises the knife, and then come those beautiful words: Abraham, Abraham. Do not lay a hand on the boy. Now I know that you fear God.
It is because of this act of obedience that Abraham is known as the father of faith.
The Faithfulness of God
Genesis 22 is the culmination of God’s work in the life of Abraham, but there is another narrative unfolding. The chapter is not just about the faith of Abraham; it also about the faithfulness of God. We have seen that God himself is laying tracks for us all. Big tracks are being laid so that Christ can someday come into the world in the fullness of time. Without the great timbers of faith, law, priesthood, substitutionary sacrifice, judgment, covenant, and so forth, the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross would not have made sense. Genesis 22, from the perspective of the grand story of redemption, is like a great dress rehearsal for the actual drama of redemption. We should never forget that Abraham was not asked to do anything that God did not ask of himself, because this story foreshadows the great passion of our Lord Jesus. God the Father sent his Son into the world. He allowed us to place wood on his back, a piece of wood known as a cross, and make his way to the place of sacrifice, where God offered up his Son, his only Son, whom he loved, for the sins of the world. It was the only way to break the power of darkness and to offer a way out of this self-destructive rebellion in which we are all trapped. This is why when Jesus came into the world, John 1:29 records John the Baptist saying those powerful words, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” This great drama is about more than the faith of Abraham; it is about the faithfulness of God. It is about more than Abraham’s love of God; it is about God’s tremendous love for you and me.
Abraham’s sacrifice is the great foreshadowing of God’s great sacrifice in Jesus Christ. Substitutionary atonement is first seen here, later enshrined in the sacrificial system, but finally, in the mystery of faith and in the fullness of time, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Abraham is known redemptively as the father of faith, but even that exalted title is only pointing to the real central figure of redemption—Jesus Christ—who stands as the author and perfecter of all faith, including the faith of Abraham.
This is an excerpt from Timothy Tennent’s book, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Resource for Catechesis and Disciple-Making. The journey of Christian discipleship can only be embarked upon with a sure foundation under foot. For ages the church has provided a tool set of basic doctrines, ethics, and ordinances through which a child or convert could be initiated into ever increasing Christlikeness. This process is called “catechesis” (to sound down, or echo) and it has traditionally been a teaching exchange between a seasoned Christian and a new believer.
Working its way through doctrinal affirmations like the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and other foundational content on the means of grace, this collection of writings by Timothy Tennent forms core material that may be used by leaders and laypeople alike. Scripture references, notes, and suitable hymns highlight key concepts and provide additional value that can be engaged at varying degrees.
As Christianity in the Western world experiences a diminishing influence upon its surrounding culture, and as Christian families struggle to effectively pass their faith onto children, the rediscovery of catechesis will serve God’s people as they and future generations reinherit the treasures of biblical faith, or, the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). This work will prove to be an indispensable reference for those charged with teaching and modeling Christian faith to others. Get it from our store here.
- Christian students
- New converts or catechumens
- Discipleship directors
- Confirmation leaders
- Pastors’ reference desk
In these pages you’ll:
- Learn the key doctrinal affirmations of the historic Christian faith
- Engage our moral inheritance defined by Jesus, Scriptures, and the early church
- Discover spiritual rhythms and means of grace that grow Christians into the image of God