Christians have long enjoyed an absurd love affair with white-washing biblical saints. Since the earliest days of the Church, saints have been held up as role models for great faith and godly behavior. From the Old Testament, for example, Abraham is often held up by Sunday School teachers and adult bible study leaders as a role-model. Abraham is a man of remarkable faith and obedience. He “obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise” (Hebrews 11:8-9).
Instead of reading the Old Testament as an account of God’s faithfulness to his promise, that he will redeem his creation from the power of sin, we subject it to a “role-model” interpretation. We go into the Bible to find a more heroic version of ourselves. It's uncommon that a Christian goes into it to learn more about a gracious God who’s faithful, loving and kind to unforgivable, unlovable sinners like ourselves. In fact, it's impossible unless God's Spirit opens our eyes to understand that's the subject of the whole Bible.
But, since we see Abraham treated so well in Hebrews 11, we use both Hebrews and Genesis to re-cast Abraham as an example of our favorite prototypical saint: faithful, obedient, self-sacrificing. But, to get there, we’ve got to ignore uncertain Abraham, fearful Abraham, Abraham who pimps out his wife to a Pharaoh… twice. Abraham, who allows Sarah to brow-beat him into rebelling against God’s promise with her slave, Hagar. Abraham, who sends his son, Ishmael, and the boy’s mother into the desert to die because Sarah didn’t like to be reminded, she’d tried to cut God’s promise off at the knees. Abraham, who wasn’t with Sarah when she died.
Abraham isn’t a role model for Christians to emulate. He’s a former pagan who offered sacrifices to the goddess “Nana." He “worshipped” with temple prostitutes before God came to him. Even after he’s called to leave his family and country, Abraham continues to doubt and question the Lord’s promises. Abraham isn’t virtuous. He’s an example of failed morality. In short, he’s just another sinful man.
Abraham's life magnifies God’s faithfulness to his promises. Abraham’s faith, in spite of his sinfulness, doesn’t amplify Abraham's strength of conviction. It points to the great faithfulness of the Lord and God who follows through on his one-way covenant with Abraham, especially when Abraham’s unfaithful.
When we over-simplify saints like Abraham, we’re doing it so we can find our better selves in their actions. More to the point, we want to put ourselves in the center of the biblical story. But just one, critical reading of Abraham’s account shows the wrong-headedness of this approach. The point of Abraham’s inclusion in Genesis isn’t so we can teach children, “be more like father Abraham.” How shocked will they be when they’re finally old enough to read Genesis 11-19 for themselves!
The Bible is primarily about God. It’s about a faithful Savior's pursuit of failed sinners. According to Jesus himself, all Scripture is about him (John 5:39). Therefore, the purpose of reading about Abraham, Moses, David, the disciples, and so on is to learn about God’s grace that pursues even the worst sinners until they’re brought to rest in God’s love in Jesus. Every word of Scripture preaches Israel's Messiah. Any other reading misses the point. It misses, as a friend noted, God’s “relentless and loving pursuit of His enemies, who are unthankful, unworthy, and unlovable.”
God rescued Abraham from idolatry in Ur, not because of what Abraham could do for God, but because of who God is. Abraham’s qualifications and faith are irrelevant. Abraham is an example of sinful humanity. We discover in Abraham a prototypical sinner. One of many of God’s failed saints who are strengthened in faith and obedience by a faithful Savior.
When we white-wash biblical saints we’re setting up Christians to misread the Bible. We direct them to put their hope in living up to the examples of deeply flawed people instead of putting all their hope for salvation in Jesus Christ alone. The whole Bible points to Jesus. He is true Israel, who on the cross became Abraham the doubter, Moses the murderer, David the adulterer, Peter the denier, Paul the persecutor, and on and on. Jesus, the Lamb of God, became the embodiment of all the world’s sins at Golgotha.
Abraham’s story is about God’s faithfulness to his promise to Adam and Eve, and Abraham’s part in that despite his numerous attempts to mess it up. It’s about God’s faithful, loving, kindness to Abraham, and Abraham’s rebellion. It's about the God who creates faith in Abraham and leads him into obedience in spite of Abraham's failings. It’s about the goodness of God’s promise - Jesus the Christ - who pursues and rewards sinners like Abraham with what they don’t deserve. He makes us heirs of his promise to our first parents. He makes all Christians inheritors of forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.