"By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises offered up his only-begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure."
In this chapter we come to the crowning point of Abraham's history, the highest step and perfection of his faith; beyond which it seems as if man's trust in God could no further go.
You know, most of you, doubtless, that Isaac, Abraham's son, was come to him out of the common course of nature--when he and his wife, Sarah, were of an age which seemed to make all chance of a family utterly hopeless. You remember how God promised Abraham that this boy should be born to him at a certain time, when He appeared to him on the plains of Mamre, in that most solemn and deep-meaning vision of which I spoke to you last Sunday. You remember, too, no doubt, most of you, how God had promised Abraham again and again, that in his seed, his children, all the nations of the earth should be blessed; so that all Abraham's hopes were wrapped up in this boy Isaac; he was his only son, whom he loved; he was the child of his old age, his glory and his joy; he was the child of God's promises. Every time Abraham looked at him he felt that Isaac was a wonderful child: that God had a great work for him to do; that from that single boy a great nation was to spring, as many in multitude as the stars in the sky, or the sand on the sea-shore, for the great Almighty God had said it. And he knew, too, that from that boy, who was growing up by him in his tent, all the nations in the earth should be blessed: so that Isaac, his son, was to Abraham a daily sacrament, as I may say, a sign and a pledge that God was with him, and would be true to him; that as surely as God had wonderfully and beyond all hope given him that son, so wonderfully and beyond all hope He would fulfil all His other promises. Conceive, then, if you can, what Abraham's astonishment, and doubt, and terror, and misery, must have been at such a message as this from the very God who had given Isaac to him: "And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of."
What a storm of doubt it must have raised in Abraham's mind! How unable he must have been to say whether that message came from a good or bad spirit, or commanded him to do a good action or a bad one; that the same God who had said, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed;" who had forbidden murder as the very highest of crimes, should command him to shed the blood of his own son; that the same God who had promised him that in Isaac all the nations of the earth should be blessed, should command him to put to death that very son upon whom all his hopes depended! Fearful, indeed, must have been the struggle in Abraham's mind, but the good and the right thought conquered at last. His feeling was, no doubt, 'This God who has blessed me so long, who has guided me so long, whom I have obeyed so long, shall I not trust Him a little further yet? how can I believe that He will do wrong? how can I believe that He will lead me wrong? If it is really wrong that I should kill my son, He will not let me do it: if it really is His will that I should kill my son, I WILL DO IT. Whatever He says must be right; it is agony and misery to me, but what of that? Do I not owe Him a thousand daily and hourly blessings? Has He not led me hither, preserved me, guided me, taught me the knowledge of Himself,--chosen me to be the father of a great nation? Do I not owe Him everything? and shall I not bear this sharp sorrow for His sake? I know, too, that if Isaac dies, all my hope, all my joy, will die with him; that I shall have nothing left to look for, nothing left to work for in this world. Nothing! shall I not have God left to me? When Isaac is dead will the Lord die? will the Lord change? will He grow weak?-- Never! Years ago did He declare to me that He was the Almighty God; I will believe that He will be always Almighty; I will believe that though I kill my son, my son will be still in God's hands, and I shall be still in God's hands, and that God is able to raise him again, even from the dead. God can give him back to me, and if He will NOT give him back to me, He can fulfil His promises in a thousand other ways. Ay, and He will fulfil His promises, for in Him is neither deceit, nor fickleness, nor weakness, nor unrighteousness of any kind; and, come what will, I will believe His promise and I will obey His will.'
Some such thoughts as these, I suppose, passed through Abraham's mind. He could not have had a man's heart in him indeed, if not only those thoughts, but ten thousand more, sadder, and stranger, and more pitiful than my weak brain can imagine, did not sweep like a storm through his soul at that last and terrible temptation, but the Bible tells us nothing of them: why should the Bible tell us anything of them? the Bible sets forth Abraham as the faithful man, and therefore it simply tells us of his faith, without telling us of his doubts and struggles before he settled down into faith. It tells us, as it were, not how often the wind shifted and twisted about during the tempest, but in what quarter the wind settled when the tempest was over, and it began to blow steadily, and fixedly, and gently, and all was bright, and mild, and still in Abraham's bosom again, just as a man's mind will be bright, and gentle, and calm, even at the moment he is going to certain death or fearful misery, if he does but know that his suffering is his duty, and that his trial is his heavenly Father's will: and so all we read in the Old-Testament account is simply, "And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him. Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you. And Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son: and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father, and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering? and Abraham said, My son, God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt-offering. So they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son."
Really if one is to consider the whole circumstances of Abraham's trials, they seem to have been infinite, more than mortal man could bear; more than he could have borne, no doubt, if the same God who tried had not rewarded his strength of mind by strengthening him still more, and rewarded his faith by increasing his faith; when we consider the struggle he must have had to keep the dreadful secret from the young man's mother, the tremendous effort of controlling himself, the long and frightful journey, the necessity, and yet the difficulty he seems to have felt of keeping the truth from his son, and yet of telling him the truth, which he did in those wonderful words, "God shall provide Himself a lamb for a burnt-offering" (on which I shall have occasion to speak presently); and, last and worst of all, the perfect obedience and submission of his son; for Isaac was not a child then, he was a young man of nearly thirty years of age; strong and able enough, no doubt, to have resisted his aged father, if he had chosen. But the very excellence of Isaac seems to have been, that he did not resist, that he shewed the same perfect trust and obedience to Abraham that Abraham did towards God; for he was led "as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth," for we read, "Abraham bound Isaac his son and laid him on the wood." Surely that was the bitterest pang of all, to see the excellence of his son shine forth just when it was too late for him to enjoy him--to find out what a perfect child he had, in simple trust and utter obedience, just at the very moment when he was going to lose him: "And Abraham stretched forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son."
At that point Abraham's trial finished. He had shewn the completeness of his faith by the completeness of his works, that is, by the completeness of his obedience. He had utterly given up all for God. He had submitted his will completely to God's will. He had said in heart, as our Blessed Lord said, "Father, if it be possible, let this woe pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt;" and thus I say, he was justified by his works, by his actions; that is, by this faithful action he proved the faithfulness of his heart, as the Angel said to him, "Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me:" for as St. James says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou," says he, "how his faith wrought with his works;" how his works were the tool or instrument which his faith used; and by his works his faith was brought to perfection, as a tree is brought to perfection when it bears fruit. "And so," St. James continues, "the scripture was fulfilled, which says, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God. Ye see then," he says, "how that by works a man is justified," or shewn to be righteous and faithful, "and not by faith only;" that is, not by the mere feeling of faith, for, as he says, "as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." For what is the sign of a being dead? It is its not being able to do anything, not being able to work; because there is no living and moving spirit in it. And what is the sign of a man's faith being dead? his faith not being able to WORK, because there is no living spirit in it, but it is a mere dead, empty shell and form of words,--a mere notion and thought about believing in a man's head, but not a living trust and loyalty to God in his heart. Therefore, says St. James, "shew me thy faith without thy works," if thou canst, "and I will shew thee my faith by my works," as Abraham did by offering up Isaac his son.
Oh! my friends, when people are talking about faith and works, and trying to reconcile St. Paul and St. James, as they call it, because St. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith, and St. James says Abraham was justified by works, if they would but pray for the simple, childlike heart, and the head of common sense, and look at their own children, who, every time they go on a message for them, settle, without knowing it, this mighty difference of man's making between faith and works. You tell a little child daily to do many things the meaning and use of which it cannot understand; and the child has faith in what you tell it; and, therefore, it does what you tell it, and so it shews its faith in you by obedience in working for you.
But to go on with the verses: "And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."
Now, here remark two things; first, that it was Abraham's obedience in giving up all to God, which called forth from God this confirmation of God's promises to him; and next, that God here promised him nothing new; God did not say to him, 'Because thou hast obeyed me in this great matter, I will give thee some great reward over and above what I promised thee.' No; God merely promises him over again, but more solemnly than ever, what He had promised him many years before.
And so it will be with us, my friends, we must not expect to BUY God's favour by obeying Him,--we must not expect that the more we do for God, the more God will be bound to do for us, as the Papists do. No; God has done for us all that He will do. He has promised us all that He will promise. He has provided us, as He provided Abraham, a lamb for the burnt-offering, the Lamb without blemish and without spot, which taketh away the sins of the world. We are His redeemed people--we HAVE a share in His promises--He bids us believe THAT, and shew that we believe it by living as redeemed men, not our own, but bought with a price, and created anew in Christ Jesus to do good works; not that we may buy forgiveness by them, but that we may shew by them that we believe that God HAS forgiven us already, and that when we have done all that is commanded us, we are still unprofitable servants; for though we should give up at God's bidding our children, our wives, and our own limbs and lives, and shew as utter faith in God, and complete obedience to God, as Abraham did, we should only have done just what it was already our duty to do.