When we are unfaithful, God is faithful to his covenant promises. Rev. Elbert McGowan preaches a sermon entitled “Lessons Learned by a New Christian” on Genesis 12-13 in chapel at RTS Jackson.
Genesis 12:10 through Genesis 13:4. This is the Word of the Lord.
Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. We’ll say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians indeed saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake, Pharaoh dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.
But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go. And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.
And so Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb.
Now Abram had become very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord.
This is the Word of the Lord.
I was tempted to entitle our message today, “The Forgotten Verses in Genesis 12.” So often when we think of Genesis 12, what instantly comes to our mind are the grand promises that God made to Abram. He says, “Leave your house, leave your father’s house, leave your kindred, and follow me to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). And the text says that Abram left. The Lord made some profound promises to him. He says, “I will bless you. I will make you a mighty nation. Those who bless you, I will bless. Those who curse you, I will curse. You will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2–3). And Abram responded in faith: he left.
The author of Hebrews tells us he left not knowing where he was going. He left looking for the city whose builder and maker was God. He is put before us in Hebrews 11 as a pillar of faith. “Imitate his faith,” the author of Hebrews would tell us. That’s a grand statement. These are grand and beautiful promises that God is making to Abram. This is a grand faith that exists in his heart, so much so that he would leave everything. He would leave the city, he would leave family, he would leave security, and he would dwell in a tent. He’ll be a pilgrim, a sojourner. He would not have a home. This is grand faith in a great God, and this is in Genesis 12.
But there’s more to that chapter because right after he leaves, it appears that his faith is tested. As soon as he leaves, the text says that there was a famine in the land. Now the reason I’ve entitled this “Lessons from a New Christian” is because this is exactly what Abram is right here. Jesus says that Abram looked for his day and he was glad, that he rejoiced in the coming of Messiah (John 8:56). So in one real sense, Abram is a believer right here, that he has been transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, that he has been bought and purchased with a price, that he is believing that God exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him. He is a believer right here, and yet he’s tested. As soon as he follows the Lord, a famine comes. What we see right here: how does a new Christian respond when he follows God?
When I was converted, there was joy, there was excitement, but there was sorrow because I realized that my sin did not die instantly.I don’t know about you, but I can remember when I was converted, there was joy, there was excitement, but there was sorrow because I realized that my sin did not die instantly. I was confused. I had people around me teaching me the gospel, that you are saved by grace upon the merits of Jesus, that your salvation is secure because no one can snatch you out of the Father’s hand. And all of a sudden the Lord used my sin to make me marvel more and more and more in the cross and more and more in the atoning work of Jesus. All of a sudden, my worship was deeper because I’m not just going to church just to worship anymore. I’m going to church because of what Jesus has done. He has freed me. He has paid the penalty for my debt. He is my righteousness. He is my hope. He is my shield. He is my great reward. That in one real sense, my worship was transformed because of my savior.
I think you see all of that in this passage. So we can look at it one of two ways. What does Abram learn about being a new Christian? We can spin that around: what do we learn when we look at this text and put ourselves in this text and think about who we are in Jesus Christ? We can stretch that a little further: as we pastor people who are being converted by the gospel, this passage gives us a window into the human heart. It’s for us. It’s for me, it’s for you. It’s for our wives, our children. It’s for the people we will pastor. We need to know what Abram learned in this text.
As a New Christian, Abram Learns That Sin Does Not Die Easily
I submit to you the first thing that he learned is that his sin does not die easily or that he is not instantly changed or made perfect, so much so that sin is no longer an issue. The same sin tendencies I think exist. The text tells us that a famine comes, and I know what’s going through his heart and mind, “Lord, you have made great promises to me. You’ve promised me a child. You’ve promised to use me to be a nation. You’ve promised to give me land. You’ve made all of these promises. But as soon as I leave to follow you, there is a famine. OK, let me get this right, God, you pulled me out of there to follow you here, and now there is no more food. I cannot support my family or the people with me. We’ll starve. We’ll die.”
So the text says that he goes into Egypt. And when he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai, his wife, “I know that you are a beautiful woman in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife,’ and then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” Think about this. The very first words to come out of Abram’s mouth in the Bible is a lie. The very first thing he says is a lie. “Say you’re my sister, not my wife.”
In his day, that was a real threat. If a king wanted your wife and she was beautiful, you could do nothing. It’s what David did to Uriah. He had him killed to get his wife. This was a very real threat. And it happened exactly as Abram said. The text says, “The Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken.”
Now what’s the significance of those three verbs, of seeing something that is beautiful or good and taking? Every time we see this prior to this chapter in Genesis, it is always evil. Eve saw that the fruit on the tree was good, and she took it. The sons of God saw that the daughters of man were beautiful or good, and they took it. It’s the idea that whenever you see these three verbs together that we can almost anticipate sin. They saw something that was forbidden, and they saw that it was beautiful, and they took it by force. She was not Pharaoh’s wife. She belonged to another man. She was off-limits. And yet, they took her.
In the back of our minds, we already know this is bad. God’s going to intervene. He never leaves this unchecked. Abram was compensated for his wife. Verse 16: “And for her sake, Pharaoh dealt well with him. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.” Not only Abram lie, but he sold his wife. He received wealth for her.
Some people say, “Well, she is his half-sister,” because it says that in Genesis 20. But no Reformed commentator lets Abram off the hook that easily. Listen to what someone says, “A great fault which Abram was guilty of in denying his wife and pretending that she was his sister. His fault was hiding his relation to his wife, being vauge concerning it, and teaching his wife and all of his attendants to behave in like manner.”
Here is the patriarch of the family teaching his wife and the people with him to be deceitful, to not trust in the sovereign protection of the Lord. The Lord had just told him, “If someone curses you, I will curse them.” Abram needs to believe that right now, but he doesn’t. What kind of man is this that lies? And if you know Genesis 20, he does it again. He sleeps with Hagar because he’s impatient. He’s probably afraid for his life right here. Whenever something is repeated in the Bible, it is for emphasis. God wants you and I to know that this man was a liar, an adulterer, a cheat, a coward. He does not die for his wife.
The Bible is honest. It provides real personality issues, real tendencies to sin. It gives us a window into his heart. Could it be that before he was a Christian, he was a coward? Before he was a believer, he struggled with lying? Before he was a believer, these sin tendencies existed?
In the words of John Bradford, the English Reformer–he was in prison, looking and seeing a man about to be executed. And he exclaimed those famous words, “Outside of the grace of God, there goes John Bradford.” What is he saying? Outside of the grace of God operating in his heart, outside of the grace of God changing him and conforming him and giving him boldness in the face of adversity, outside of the grace of God changing his heart and changing his disposition and changing his behavior and changing his thinking, he said, “There goes I.” What we have here is Abram’s lack of faith and with his lack of faith comes the old man. I think it’s coming out. I think it’s coming out.
The people we pastor will not change instantly.Now when you and I examine our own hearts, we see this. I think of my own sin and things I’ve been battling for years. It doesn’t die easy, and I’m not saying that we do not make war against sin. I am not saying that we do not crucify the flesh and its desires. I am not saying that we don’t fight, that we don’t kill the flesh by the spirit. I’m not saying that, but what I am saying is that a new Christian, you and I, as pastors, as fathers, one thing we need to be settled on: the people we pastor will not change instantly.
I can’t wait till you get into ministry, and you see this. You will meet with the same people week after week after week, and you will cry with him and you will wonder why they are not changed. You will think that your preaching and your teaching and good books you give them will change them. You are in for a rude awakening. The sins that we bring into our walks with the Lord Jesus, they’re hard. What kind of pastor will you be? What kind of mother will you be? What kind of father will you be? Will you be patient and will you be prayerful and will you be kind and will you be gracious in your philosophy of ministry and family? Do you have a category for indwelling sin? Do you have a category that it takes a lot of time and work and prayer and labors to see change? It doesn’t happen instantly.
Abram Learns That Even When He Fails, God’s Promises Stand
Which moves us to the next point: how does God respond to Abram’s sin? God’s promises still stand even when he is unfaithful. That’s huge. We need to get that, that God’s promises stand.
Just when we think it’s over, God intervenes. God makes good on his promise.Things look dismal. Abram has sold his wife, his life is in danger, but now she’s in the possession of another man. There goes God’s promise to give her a son. Yet the text says, “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram and said, ‘What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,” so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.’ And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with all that he had.”
Just when we think it’s over, God intervenes. God makes good on his promise: “He has cursed you? I will get him.” When you read Genesis 20, it’s even worse. Abimelech takes Sarah and his family is barren. Then God says, “You have taken her; I will afflict you and your household.” So much so that Abraham has to intervene on Abimelech’s behalf in order for them to be fruitful. What you see here is that when Abram is unfaithful, God is faithful to his covenant promises. This is exactly what’s going on. Think about this: Abram does not only get his wife back, but in verse 16, “And for her sake, Pharaoh dealt well with Abram. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants.” Get this. He lies. God afflicts Pharaoh. Pharaoh gives Abram the goods.
When Abram is unfaithful, God is faithful to his covenant promises.And it happens again in Genesis 20. It says, “Abimelech took sheep and oxen, male servants and female servants, and he gave them to Abragam, and returned Sarah, his wife. And then Abimelech says, ‘Behold, my land is before you; dwell wherever you want.’” And he gave Abraham a thousand pieces of silver. He does this for Joseph. He goes to Egypt, and before you know it, he’s second in command. He does it for Israel. They are in bondage, and the Lord says, “Go and ask them for everything, and they will give it to you, and I will bring you out.”
What kind of God is this that when his people are unfaithful, that when his people are in a bind, that what his people have been unfaithful to his covenant, when they have lied, they have murdered, they have cheated, they have stolen, he is still faithful. It’s our God. It’s your God and my God. We have to see this. God goes to great lengths to keep his promises to his children despite our sin. What kind of God is this that works all things for the good of those who love him and who are called according to his purpose? What kind of God is this?
I bet you Abram is thinking that when he walks out of Egypt with everything, with his wife, with the covenant promises intact, I guarantee you he’s thinking, “This is not like any of the gods of my fathers. This is different.” Can you imagine what Pharaoh was thinking? “What just happened?” Can you imagine what Abimelech is thinking? We don’t have to wonder, he tells us. He says in Genesis 21:22, “Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, ‘I see that God is with you in everything you do. Make a covenant with me, that you will deal with me as I’ve dealt with you.’” In other words, what he is saying is, “I see that you are in sin and he blesses. I see that you have been unfaithful, and he is faithful. You know what? I want the benefits of that covenant. I may not want your God, but I want the benefits of that covenant.” He says, “Enter into a covenant with me. I want that.”
Do you guys believe that? Do you understand that if you get this right in your marriage and your family, if you get this right, that God is faithful in your ministry, if you build your foundation on this, on the reality that only because God counts us righteous in Christ, only because Christ, our covenant head, has been faithful, there is no condemnation for those in Jesus, that you can stand across a girl who is sleeping with four guys and you can preach the gospel to her. You can drive this point home right here. This changes lives.
Because some of you are probably tempted to think that he’s just saying, “Go live in sin so that grace may abound.” No, it’s exactly the opposite. Listen to what James Montgomery Boice says about this,
I’m especially impressed by the way God showed his grace to Abraham. God did so when he spoke to Abimelech on his behalf. Moreover in all the references of Abram that we have in the remainder of the Bible never once does God bring up his sin, not in Romans, not in Galatians, and not in Hebrews. Abram is praised for the faith which he showed in four situations: in leaving Ur for an unknown promised land, staying in the land in spite of great deprivation and danger, believing that God would give him a son even when Sarah was past the age of childbearing, and being willing to offer up Isaac. Not once in all that great survey of Abram’s progress in the life of faith does God refer to his past sin, as though to shame him by even the remembrance of it. It was forgiven. It was nailed to the cross, and it was gone. It was forgotten.
This is what he says, “It is very good to serve a God like that, a God who remains sovereign even when we doubt his ability to provide. A God who remains gracious, even when we sin. To serve a God like that is the greatest joy and opportunity. To know that he is like that is in itself the greatest incentive that you will ever have to not sin.”
So when we understand that sin remains and sin is difficult and sin is hard, and when we marry that with the truth that in Jesus Christ God has taken away guilt, he has taken away sin, and he deals with us according to his own Son, when we get that, Boice is saying, “That is the incentive not to sin.”
So for me, it makes perfect sense when you read Genesis 13. God says, “What land do you want?” You notice that Abram says, “Lot, you choose first.” What kind of man is that? A man who has learned that if he has God, he has everything.
Abram Learns That Worship Is a Delight and a Joy
The last thing I think Abram learns is that worship is not duty. It’s delight. It’s joyous. It’s in light of what God has done. I can stand corrected on this point, but if we believe that Abram was a pagan idolater before his conversion, could it be that in Genesis 12, the first time he builds an altar, it’s out of duty? This is what we’ve done. This is what I know. If you don’t buy into that, that’s fine, because I do think his worship was enhanced at least after he comes out of Egypt. Notice what he does. As soon as he leaves Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot went with him, into the Negeb. Now he was rich, which I think in part comes from his time in Egypt. And he journeyed on from Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai to the place where he had made an altar at the first.
Worship is not duty. It’s delight. It’s joyous. It’s in light of what God has done.And there, right there, he calls upon the name of the Lord. He does not forget God. I think that worship experience, that prayer, that falling before the Lord in worship right there, it’s rooted in what God had done. “Lord, you’ve been faithful. I was guilty. The promises were threatened. I’m alive with my wife and with more than I had to begin with.” He responds in worship. He pledged his obedience, and I’m sure there’s some repentance there.
Now where do we go, when we’re in that place, where our sin has overtaken us and we’ve seen God be faithful? Not to Bethel, but to the cross. Because that is the place where we stand in amazement and awe. That’s the place where we point our people on the Lord’s Day. That’s the place that we delight in. We go to that place, that place. Let’s pray.