Scripture establishes that Christians should follow the example of the biblical saints. The author of Hebrews, for example, explained Christian faith by pointing to the example of Abraham among others. Urging believers to imitate such faith, the author explained that “the world was not worthy” of them.
James also appealed to the example of Abraham: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar… ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteous-ness’—and he was called a friend of God” (James 2:21-23).
In the same manner, Paul asserted that Christians are justified by faith alone by appealing to the example of Abraham: “for if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:1-3).
Paul went on to explain who the children of Abraham are: “know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham,” and again, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is father of us all.”
Preachers should admonish their congregations to take the positive examples not only of Abraham, but other Old Testament saints as well: “As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” These texts show clearly the Scriptural mandate to preach the examples of the biblical saints.
Abuses abound, however, in how the lives of the saints are exemplified. As a representative of the popular postmodern, uncertain worldview, Soren Kierkegaard struggled to understand how Christians were to take Abraham’s example. Kierkegaard wrote “in a certain crazy sense I admire (Abraham) more than all men… though he at the same time appalls me.”
What Kierkegaard found admirable in Abraham came from his apparent success in facing God’s difficult test of obedience. Yet Kierkegaard was also completely appalled at Abraham’s apparent willingness to commit such an atrocious deed as child sacrifice. Baffled at the wickedness and righteousness surrounding the same deed, Kierkegaard asked, “is it possible that this could be anything less than a temptation?
After a thorough philosophical, psychological, and historical sweep through literature in attempt to unlock Abraham’s decision-making process, Kierkegaard concluded that Abraham’s example for us could only be understood as paradox. “Here again it appears that one may have an appearance of understanding Abraham, but only in the same way as one understands a paradox… there was no one who could understand him.” The only other suggestion Kierkegaard could give was that because revelation and tradition responded positively to Abraham, doing the same made sense. Abraham apparently pleased God with his actions, but the principles behind those actions were so mysterious that Kierkegaard claimed such principles could never be discovered.
The Roman Catholic theologian Angel Gonzalez believed Kierkegaard did not leave every stone unturned. Writing partly in response to Kierkegaard, Gonzalez presented a different approach to unlocking Abraham’s example. While Kierkegaard tried to learn about Abraham’s mind in the immediate moment of trial, binding himself to know only that which he believed Abraham to know, Gonzalez preferred assuming the whole context of Abraham’s actions. In doing so, Gonzalez lost sight of Kierkegaard’s goal to dive deeply into Abraham’s isolated thought processes. Gonzalez instead approached from a systematic theology from which he was able to interpret all the saints’ examples. In this system, Abraham’s test not only neatly fit, but supremely reigned; “Abraham’s action is an ideal and model.”
Gonzalez’s method claimed that the normal system by which Scripture functions is by trial of faith. For Gonzalez, in “the pages of holy Scripture we often come upon testings.” He explained the purpose of Genesis 22 “is found in the ‘testing’ of Abraham’s fidelity.” These “testings” are trials that all men experience but only the saints, the true sons of Abraham, pass. “Abraham was primordial among believers, and the risk he took requires an equal willingness in his heirs.” For Gonzalez, the trial Abraham passed is the archetype by which all others will be judged.
In stark contrast with Kierkegaard’s mixed view of Abraham, Gonzalez boldly claimed Abraham as super-example. This father of the faithful faced the trial with a “super-rational order of values,” approached the test exercising the “extreme limits of rationality.” From Gonzalez’s perspective, Abraham was nearly deified by his example, “Abraham was greater than a real man.” “Psychological (explanation) is audacious,” Gonzalez said as Abraham’s faith is “far beyond that of the rational world.” This allows him to “perform the superhuman act” of this test of faith. Since all the children of faith must walk in his example, “Abraham’s action is an ideal and a model” for believers, “binding and obliging… in which the sons of Abraham must walk.”
This is not only how people are made sons of Abraham, but Gonzalez also concluded that men are justified by obedience through trial. “Every positive response forever defines a ‘just’ man.” In high praise of Abraham, Gonzalez claimed “Abraham had ceased to be… Abraham was faith.” In saying this, Gonzalez demonstrated the heart of Rome’s views on justification.
For Gonzalez, Abraham is a clear and necessary example for Christians to follow, one of pure moralism; with man essentially becoming God with no apparent need for Jesus’ propitiation, and even no mention of Christ is made at all.
Rather than allowing the methods of Kierkegaard and Gonzalez to dominate the preaching of saints, a proper method exists. This method takes exhaustive analysis of the text at hand, the context, related passages; conclusions synthesized together and put under the submission of a biblically construed systematic theology. Graeme Goldsworthy gives a similar idea when he writes that “we need both because we must accurately describe the details and at the same time allow the big picture to contextualize the details.”
This “big picture” centers around the idea of justification by the propitiation of Christ received through faith alone; the main theme developed in the Bible. The propitiation of Christ for justification stands in direct opposition to justification by moralism.
Longing better to understand Abraham’s decision-making process, Kierkegaard quickly moved to examine philosophical, psychological, non-Christian religious and even fictional literary sources. Assuming the search for answers within Scripture alone to be insufficient, Kierkegaard displayed a close similarity to modern, mainstream liberal preaching by pursuing an outward-focused expansion from the text. In this manner, the liberal preacher can extrapolate from the unclear, mysterious text any kind of moral lesson, social concern, or philosophy he desires. Making sure the interpretation of the text synthesizes with a biblically construed systematic theology, where propitiation stays central, safeguards against inappropriate extrapolations.
Conservative preachers, looking for relief from the sometimes confusing examples of the saints, have also resorted to an outward-looking trend in the form of illustrations. Sometimes, preaching illustrations are more helpful to the puzzled minister than to the congregation, who would like the text explained—if possible. It is far easier for the minister to preach that Genesis 22 contains “the same lesson that the minister learned after cleaning fish with Aunt Sophie” than for the preacher to study carefully the text, context, related texts and synthesize the results with a biblically construed systematic theology.
Not far removed from these mistakes is the “allegorical” approach, where spiritualized projections meaning anything are not found in but thrust upon a text. Chapell wrote that modern resurrections of the allegorical method regularly occur when preachers assume that the Holy Spirit will enable them to discern something more or different in the text than what was meant by the biblical writer, or what we can demonstrate that the divine Author makes evident within the canon of Scripture.
Moralistic sermons can make their recipients susceptible to cults who very intentionally preach justification by works and challenge their hearers that they are guilty for failing the examples that Scripture has commanded. One such cult is the International Church of Christ, who especially targets the college campus and the typical Christian student. Typical evangelical students prove easy prey when their attempts to be a Daniel or an Abraham meet with honest, accurate, harsh, and seductive evaluation for the first time.
Such moralistic accountability could easily derived from Genesis 22 as a proof-text: If one is not as immediately willing as Abraham was to give to God whatever God (or the church) asks; then one will not receive the promises of God because one has not proved oneself nearly perfect. Christ as Savior through His moral teachings replaces the propitiation of Christ as the center of such systematic theologies, and the results are frightening.
Calvin, on the other hand, made thorough exploration of the current text, context, and related texts; and realized that Christ’s propitiation is the central thrust of Scripture. Calvin instinctively noted the tone through the type of language with which God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
Through Calvin’s careful study of the context, he observed that “Abraham reasons from the nature of God; that it is impossible for Him to do anything unjust… yet (Abraham) retains this principle, that it was impossible for God, who is the Judge of the world, and by nature loves equity, yea, whose will is the law of justice and rectitude, should in the least degree swerve from righteousness.”
No objection was verbalized by Abraham when he was commanded to sacrifice his son. The context shows that God promised progeny through Isaac, that Abraham knew the character of God to be good, and a related text shows that God had formed an intimate friendship with Abraham. Calvin carefully observed from the context, (Abraham) had come to the conclusion, that (God) could not be his adversary… reconciled the command with the promise; because, being indubitably persuaded that God was faithful, he left the unknown issue to Divine Providence… with him the promise always flourished; because he both firmly retained the love with which God had once embraced him.
Abraham’s intimate history with God gave him hope. God had personally told Abraham to leave Ur so that God could bless him, God graciously spared Sarah twice while protecting Abraham from Pharaoh and Abimelech, God listened to Abraham’s humble request to spare Lot, and God promised Abraham four times that Isaac would have offspring prior to Genesis 22. From these promises, Calvin was able to note that Abraham was unwilling to measure, by his own understanding, the method of fulfilling the promise, which he knew depended on the incomprehensible power of God.”
Calvin noted that Abraham’s act of faith should be imitated, but realized the sinfulness inherent in all men. Denying Abraham’s example superstar status, Calvin preached “let us think that Abraham was no more made either of Iron or Steel than we are.” Abraham had been faithless prior to this trial. Even if it meant losing his wife, Abraham demonstrated selfishness and faithlessness by of fering Sarah for adultery twice to the rulers of the land, rather than putting himself in jeopardy. Abraham further presumed upon the Lord to sleep with Hagar to fulfill God’s promise. Abraham would have already voided his hopes of pleasing God. Calvin preached, “That which is here set down of him is written for our instruction, to the end we might know, that although Abraham was even as weak a man as we are, yet he still strove and overcame whatsoever was contrary unto his faith, through the assistance of God.”
Scripture presents a situation where the need for the righteousness of Christ is precisely because all mankind have failed their trials in Adam and in themselves, for Abraham “was even as weak a man as we are.” Thus propitiation is desperately needed before a holy God.
Synthesizing all his biblical research with his biblical, faithful systematic theology, Calvin considered the purpose of Abraham’s trial. “Let us, therefore, learn from his example, by no means, to pursue what our carnal sense may declare to be, probably, our right course; but let God, by His sole will, prescribe to us our manner of acting and of ceasing to act. And truly Abraham does not charge God with inconsistency, because he considers that there had been just cause for the exercising of his faith.”
Abraham slowly learned that despite the fears, uncertainties, and dangers in this world, God’s actions have “just cause for the exercising of his faith.” At times Christians, like Abraham, must temporarily suffer because God has inscrutable and glorious designs in mind. Faithful submission to God in trial ultimately will result in eventual blessing, already promised. Therefore, like Abraham, Christians come to know God’s character as just, faithful, gracious, trustworthy, good and salvific. These assuring attributes of God further motivate Christian faithfulness and obedience.
All these examples consummate in the central example Abraham delivers in Genesis 22. Abraham believed in such a way that he was credited with the righteousness of Christ. Calvin recognized God’s provision and propitiation inherent within these events: “Here we see the right conflict of Abraham’s faith, which is, death is set before his eyes—which was enough to confound him; but he extolled the power of God far beyond all this and said, ‘yet will God overcome and be a mighty Conqueror herein.’ …God will so bring this matter to pass, as that I shall be astonished to see it. But it is not for me to ask how and which way he will do it: for I must keep me within compass, until such time as God show me that, which I before knew not.”
Calvin centered his conclusion on Abraham’s example which—far from Gonzalez and Kierkegaardian moralism—shows great faith in the hope that God would provide. Despite the looming presence of death, Calvin preached that Abraham hoped for grace, hoped for God’s provision of another kind of sacrificial propitiation made manifest in the ram, and therefore hoped for God’s propitiation for his sin. This is the heart of a biblically construed systematic theology. This faith is the ultimate example that all the saints display, with all their works, good and bad, secondary to it. Calvin reached the heart of the example of Abraham only after following the proposed method.
A proper method to preach the example of the saints exists. Prayerful, exhaustive exploration of the content of the Biblical text, the surrounding context, and directly related passages is hard work, yet absolutely necessary in order to properly preach the example of the saints—without which no preaching is complete. When the Word of God is assumed to be incomplete to preach from, it becomes an easy habit for anyone to look for answers elsewhere, as Kierkegaard and many modern preachers do. The result of extra-biblical research will never produce more revelation, only frustration. Preaching morality without the propitiation of Christ as central to the Scriptures will ever obstruct the Spirit from changing hearts in the churches. The Holy Spirit has given difficult texts and the example of the saints purposefully, for the rich edifying and building of His Church.
Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries, Genesis, Vol. 1. Translated by Rev. John King. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1948.
----Calvin’s Commentaries, on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. XIX. Translated by Rev. John Owen. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.
—-Sermon of Maister John Calvin, on the historie of Melchisedech: wherein is also handled ... Abrahams faith, in believing. Translated by Thomas Stocker. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1984. Text-fiche.
Chapell, Bryan. Christ Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994.
Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000.
Gonzalez, Angel. Abraham: Father of Believers. Translated by Robert
J. Olsen. New York: Herder and Herder, 1967.
Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling. Translated by Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941.
Mr. Bryan Miller is entering his third year as a seminarian at Westminister Seminary in Escondido, California.