Thus Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.
Can You Be a Child of Abraham?
The Word of God from this text for us today is that anyone—Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, male or female, white or black or brown, quick-witted or slow, old or young—anyone can be a child of Abraham and inherit the blessings promised to Abraham's children, if you live by faith.
The structure of the text is simple. The main point is stated in two different ways, once in verse 7 and once in verse 9. And each of these is preceded by its Old Testament support. Verse 6 quotes Genesis 15:6, "Abraham 'believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.'" And verse 7 draws out of that verse together with verse 5 a general inference: "So (or: therefore) you see that it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham." The thing that makes a person a "son of Abraham" is faith. Then verse 8 quotes Genesis 12:3 (and 18:18), "In you shall all the nations be blessed." And verse 9 draws out the inference, "So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith." The thing that qualifies a person to inherit Abraham's blessing is faith. So the main point—the Word of God for us today (expressed in verses 7 and 9)—is that anyone of us who lives by faith is a child of Abraham and will inherit Abraham's blessing.
I can think of at least two reasons why most modern people would simply shrug their shoulders at this announcement. One reason is that they have no idea what it means to be a son of Abraham and no sense of the stupendous value of the blessing promised to Abraham's children. And the other reason is that they can't see how a 20th century American who doesn't have a Jewish cell in his body can be called a son of Abraham. In other words, if this promise in Galatians 3:6–9 is going to strengthen our faith and increase our joy, we have to dig in and see what it means and how it is grounded in the Old Testament. And that's my aim: the advancement and joy of your faith (Philippians 1:25), because I know that genuine faith works itself out in love (Galatians 5:6), and when people see the sacrificial love of God's people, many are gripped and give glory to him (Matthew 5:16). So for the sake of our faith, our love, and ultimately, of God's glory, let's see how Paul gets verses 7 and 9 out of the Old Testament, and what they mean for us today.
Not Dependent on Physical Descent
A great deal in this passage hangs on what it means to be a son of Abraham. So let's try to answer that question first. The first thing that needs to be said is that Paul thinks sonship does not depend on physical descent. For example, in 3:28, 29 he says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." So the first thing to be said is that Jews and non-Jews can be offspring or children or sons of Abraham. Sonship does not depend on physical descent. Romans 9:6, 7 confirm this: "Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham just because they are descendants."
But we don't even have to go beyond our text to see this. Aren't verses 7 and 9 referring to the same group of people? Verse 7 says that "those of faith are sons of Abraham." And verse 9 says that "those of faith are blessed with Abraham." Surely, these are the same people: sons of Abraham, who will, therefore, enjoy the blessings promised to Abraham and his children. But it is clear from the connection between verses 8 and 9 that these people include Gentiles. Verse 8 quotes Genesis 12:3, "In you shall all the nations (i.e., Gentiles) be blessed"—not just Jews. And from that Paul infers verse 9: "So then, those of faith are blessed." So the believers of verse 9 must include Gentiles, and since these are the same as the believers in verse 7 who are called sons of Abraham, the sons of Abraham must include Gentiles. That's the first thing about being a son of Abraham: it does not depend on physical descent from Abraham.
I know it sounds strange to us, but it is very close to the heart of the gospel: white, Anglo-Saxon protestants can become sons of Abraham; Hispanics and Laotians and Cambodians can become sons of Abraham; black African Muslims can become sons of Abraham; anti-semitic, redneck Nazi vigilantes can become sons of Abraham; Hitler could have become a son of Abraham.
Was Paul's View Biblical?
Before we ask what that sonship involves and why it is good news, we need to ask whether Paul's view of Abrahamic sonship is the same as the Old Testament's view. It is no good telling our Jewish friends that we are sons of Abraham if they can simply point to the Torah and show us that Paul has distorted what Moses taught. Turn with me to Genesis 12:1–3. Here is the foundational promise of the Jewish people. "Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse, and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.'" When God chose Abram to found a new nation, he made sure that Abram knew that the Jewish people were being created for the world. Their mission is to "be a blessing." Their destiny is to serve all the nations. (Genesis 18:18 says the same thing, and uses "nations," i.e., Gentiles, instead of "families.") This is the text Paul quotes in Galatians 3:8, "In you shall all the nations be blessed."
But is this blessing which the nations get the same as sonship? Is there any clue in Genesis that the nations would be blessed in Abraham because they would become his sons? Yes, there is in Genesis 17. Here God spells out the terms of his covenant with Abraham and says in verses 4, 5, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations." Some have tried to refer the "nations" here to the Ishmaelites and Edomites, who can trace their physical descent to Abraham. But surely the word "multitude" in Genesis 17:4, 5 means more than two. Surely God has in view here the same nations that will be blessed in Genesis 12:3 and 18:18, namely, "all the families (nations) of the earth."
In other words, Genesis 17:4 explains how the nations of Genesis 12:3 and 18:18 are going to be blessed. They are going to be blessed because Abraham will become their father. They are going to be blessed by becoming sons of Abraham. So it does not look as though Paul has distorted the Old Testament when he teaches that Gentiles can be sons of Abraham. That's the first thing we need to see about Abraham's children—they include more than Jews. They can include you and me. (See Romans 4:16 and 17 to confirm that Genesis 17:4 lies behind Paul's thinking about Gentile sonship.)
Must Be Like Abraham
The second thing to notice about being a child of Abraham is that it means being like Abraham. In John 8:39 the Jews defend themselves against Jesus' criticisms by saying, "'Abraham is our father.' Jesus said to them, 'If you were Abraham's children, you would do what Abraham did.'" Jesus shows us two things in this response. First, he shows us that they are not Abraham's children, even though they are Jews—and so he confirms our first point, that being a child of Abraham is not the same as Jewishness. And the second thing he shows us is that being a child of Abraham means being like Abraham—doing what he does: "If you were Abraham's children you would do what Abraham did." In Galatians 3:6 what Abraham did was believe God. "Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). Then Paul infers from this in verse 7, "So you see, it is those of faith who are sons of Abraham." Abraham was a man of faith, so if you do what he did, if you have faith, you will be his child.
So the first thing we said about being sons of Abraham is that it's not the same as being a physical descendant. Anyone here can become a child of Abraham. Now the second thing we've said is that being a son of Abraham involves doing what he did—not in every particular, of course, but in the essential thing, namely, believing God's promises. Abraham believed God; therefore, those of faith are sons of Abraham.
Heirs of Blessing of Abraham
The third thing to say about sons of Abraham is that they are heirs of the blessing to Abraham and his descendants. Galatians 3:29 makes this especially clear: "If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." Remember, this comes right after verse 28 which shows that Paul has in mind here male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek. The most astonishing thing asserted here is that Greeks—uncircumcised Gentiles!—are heirs of the promises made to Abraham. You and I can become beneficiaries of God's promises to Abraham if we have the faith of Abraham and belong to Jesus Christ. (Romans 4:16, 17 also shows that Gentiles are made heirs of "the promise" because of faith. See also Galatians 3:14 and 4:30.)
Those are the three things I wanted to say about being children of Abraham: 1) It is not the same thing as being Jewish—Gentiles can be included; 2) it means being like Abraham, especially trusting the promises of God like Abraham did; 3) it means inheriting the blessings promised to Abraham.
So the question that begs to be answered now is: What are those blessings? Is there anything in this inheritance that should interest a 20th century American businessman, housewife, student, professional, laborer, teenager, senior citizen? I think there is. I'll mention two of them—two things that you inherit if you are a child of Abraham. And each of these is promised in order to take away a fear that you have (or ought to have): 1) The fear of meeting an infinitely holy God loaded with all your sin; and 2) the fear of death.
The Promise of Justification
First, if you are a child of Abraham, part of your guaranteed inheritance is the bequest of justification. And only justification can take away your fear of meeting God loaded with your sin. Notice Galatians 3:8, "And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.'" This verse teaches that the reason the Scripture promises blessing to the nations through Abraham is that God intended to justify people from every nation. "Since the Scripture saw God justifying the Gentiles . . . therefore the Scripture promised blessing to the Gentiles through Abraham." So the promised blessing of Abraham must involve justification. And you recall from the connection between Genesis 12:3 and 17:4 that the reason the nations will be blessed is because Abraham becomes their father. They become his sons. Therefore, justification is part of our inheritance as children of Abraham. If you are his child, then, and only then, you are justified.
Which means that in spite of all your sins, God reckons you to be righteous. If you are a child of Abraham, all the things you have done wrong or ever will do wrong are forgiven because of Christ, and God does not hold your sins against you. I don't know of any cultural, intellectual, or technological changes over the past two thousand years that makes this inheritance any less needed or less desirable today than it was for the Galatians. This and this alone can take away the fear of meeting an infinitely holy God loaded with our sin. So the first thing we inherit from God as children of Abraham is justification, acquittal of all our sin. (And this is the basis for all the other blessings!)
The Promise of the Spirit
Second, if you are a child of Abraham, part of your guaranteed inheritance is the Spirit of God who seals you for eternal life. Only the Spirit can take away the fear of death and hell and replace it with the hope of eternal life. Notice two key texts from Galatians which make this plain. Galatians 3:14 says that Christ became a curse for us "that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, in order that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." This verse teaches that part of Abraham's blessing which we Gentiles can inherit is the gift of the Spirit. One of the marks of the children of Abraham is that they are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ (2:20; 4:6, 29).
The connection between this and eternal life is then brought out in Galatians 6:8, "He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." The only ground out of which eternal life can be harvested is the ground of the Spirit. If you plant your life in the flesh, if you count on what you can achieve and enjoy in this world, then the harvest you will get is corruption, death, and hell, for that is an immeasurable insult to God who offers himself to you in the Spirit. But if you plant your life in the Spirit and count on what he can do through you and for you, the harvest you will get is eternal life. So when Galatians 3:14 says that the Spirit is a part of our inheritance as children of Abraham, it implies that only the children of Abraham will enjoy eternal life. And that takes away the fear of death and hell, which is just as real and terrible in the 20th century as it was in the first. (Note: the Spirit is not explicitly promised to Abraham in Genesis. It is promised to God's people in Joel 2 and Ezekiel 36. Paul's assumption is that whatever goes into making the children of Abraham what they ought to be is a fulfillment of God's intention in the promise to Abraham. See Genesis 17:7.)
In summary, we have seen five things about what it means to be children of Abraham. 1) It is not the same as physical descent from Abraham. Even 20th century Gentiles can be Abraham's sons. 2) It implies being like Abraham, a chip off the old block, as it were, especially in his life of faith. 3) If you are a child of Abraham, you inherit the blessing of Abraham. You become the beneficiary of the promises God made to his children. That means 4) you are justified, acquitted by God of all your sins on the basis of Christ's death in your place. And finally, 5) if you are Abraham's child, you have the Spirit who will lead you into eternal life.
Faith and Sonship
Therefore, it is surely no overstatement this morning to say that the most important concern of your life is to make sure that you are a child of Abraham. So I close with an observation from our text and an illustration. The text makes plain that the only way to be a child of Abraham is to live by faith. Literally, Galatians 3:7 says, "Know therefore that those of faith, these are the sons of Abraham." The test of whether you are of faith is not whether you once made a decision somewhere in the past, but whether your life is a life of faith. The child of Abraham can say without insincerity, "I am crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." We are children of Abraham if we live by faith in the promises of God summed up in Christ.
I end with an illustration. Picture heaven as Orchestra Hall and the music of the symphony as the glory of God. Everybody here knows that faith is the precondition for entering that hall and enjoying that music. But some of you, I fear, have gotten the notion that trusting in Christ is like buying a ticket to Orchestra Hall once for all, and that you can put this ticket away in your pocket as the guarantee of your admission someday, even though the affections of your life are captured by the music of this world. That is not a biblical view of saving faith. It's a delusion.
Faith is a precondition for enjoying the symphony of God's glory not in the sense of getting a ticket, but in the sense of getting an ear for heaven's music. The real precondition of enjoying the music of heaven throughout eternity is a new heart which delights in the things of God, not a decision card which you carry in your pocket to ease your conscience while your mind is captivated by the delights of this world.