Home: The Family of Abraham
By Stephen Chester
Nov 13, 2023
It is often emphasized how radical the apostle Paul was in proclaiming that, through faith in Christ, Gentiles can enter into the people of God without first becoming Jewish and taking on obedience to the Mosaic Law: “those who believe are the children of Abraham” (Gal 3:7). What is less often noticed is that Paul is here simultaneously at his most traditional. It simply never occurs to him to say that descent from Abraham is unnecessary. It is only those who are part of Abraham’s family who can receive salvation. God has elected Israel, and since “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29), becoming children of Abraham remains essential. The new thing that God has done through Christ is to make it possible for Gentiles to become part of this family of Abraham: “if you belong to Christ then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:29). God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled through the gift of a worldwide family of descendants composed of both Jews and Gentiles.
For Paul this emphasis on the family of Abraham is intrinsically connected to his teaching about justification by faith. In Romans 4 and Galatians 3 Paul insists that Abraham was not justified by works of the law and neither are his Gentile readers. They are justified by believing in Jesus, just as Abraham was justified by his trust in God’s promises. Their sins are forgiven, and Christ’s righteousness is received, because they share Abraham’s faith. Yet, the need to share Abraham’s faith does not simply make him an imitable example of the right way to be justified. It is not a matter of being like Abraham because he got things right – as if faith itself could merit God’s blessing – but of being like Abraham because both he and Paul’s readers are being blessed in the same divine event of justification. In justifying Paul’s Gentile readers by faith, following the pattern of Abraham, God is acting on the basis of grace – just as God has always done. Furthermore, it is by way of this divine event of justification that Abraham has now become the father of a multinational family – “he is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16). As men and women grasp hold of Christ by faith and receive his righteousness, not only are they justified from sin, but the church, the family of Abraham in the world, is created.
It can be tempting to be cynical about the church as a family. We are rightly conscious of all the dimensions of human sinfulness that can, and often do get in the way of the church truly being a family. But Paul’s teaching about Abraham reminds us that the church’s vocation to be a family remains an integral part of the gospel. This call is not something we can opt out of, nor regard as a chore. Instead, it is a privilege. I was pointedly reminded of this in the summer of 2023. I have lived and worked in North America for a number of years, but I am originally from the UK. While there on a visit to family, I attended worship at a church where I had worked for twelve months back in the 1990s. At the service were many of those who had been young adults during the year I served with the congregation – unaccountably 30 years older, but still journeying faithfully and witnessing to Christ in their life together. Despite not having seen them for so long, I was made to feel as if I was still part of the family, as if I was returning home.
But there was more to come, because later during the same trip I found myself at an event hosted by the church of my early childhood: a local gospel choir was performing and there was a tea to go along with it. I had not been part of the congregation since 1975 and had not even set foot in the building since the mid-1980s. But there was my aunt and my cousin: helping to organize the event. And singing in the choir was the hairdresser, now retired, who had cut my hair when I was a child. And after the event was over, one of the older ladies spoke to me and said she knew that there was no way I could remember it, but that, when I was a toddler, she had been in charge of the church crèche every Sunday. For me, this was an amazing thing. After nearly 50 years away, it still felt like I belonged with this particular people, in this particular place. The joy of being part of God’s family was brought home to me forcibly.
Now of course, this experience matters not only because it made me feel blessed. The family of Abraham is the family of those who have come home to God their Maker, and this family exists so that others may find their way home to God. But this spiritual reality does not remain only an abstract or an inward truth. It is also made real for us, and embodied for us, and experienced by us through the community of faith. This past summer I was privileged to know something of that reality of the family of God. The promises made by God to Abraham are not some distant episode in history, for they continue day by day to be fulfilled through Christ in the church. Who God was for Abraham is who God continues to be for us. The prophet Isaiah puts it like this: “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many” (Is 51:1–2).
Dr. Stephen Chester is Lord and Lady Coggan Professor of New Testament at Wycliffe College.