Something I heard recently led to me think about the claim that is frequently made about the three great Western religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We are all frequently said to be “people of the book” and just as frequently said to be “Abraham’s children.” It is sometimes said that, on the basis of these two points of commonality, we should accept one another as equally valid religious traditions with common roots and resources.
It is true that, as a civil matter, we must live together peacefully. I don’t think the Jihadists have got the “common source” and “common resources” memo, however. There is another sense in which, as Reformed Christian, I take the claim to connection with Abraham quite seriously. Paul does teach in Rom 3-4 that believers in Jesus are Abraham’s children. Not all evangelicals accept or understand this connection or its importance. Failure to reckon properly with our relation to Abraham leads ultimately to the Marcionite error of an “Old Testament god” and a “New Testament God.” This, of course, is heresy against the catholic faith because it is utterly contrary to the plain teaching of God’s Word about the fundamental unity of salvation in Christ.
Is it true, as the ecumenicists claim, that “we (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) are all Abraham’s children”? Yes and no. It’s true formally that all three religions lay claim to a direct lineage to Abraham. In a formal sense, then, it is true, but in the material sense it is not true.
Here is where Jesus causes trouble once again. He wasn’t having any of this formal unity between the Jewish claim to being Abraham’s children and his own understanding of unity with Abraham. In John 8 there was a great contest between Jesus and the Jews on this very point. In John 8:37–38 he provoked the Jews by saying, “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.”
Of course, his point is that, by seeking to kill him, they are demonstrating that, in fact, they are not Abraham’s children at all but children of the Evil One. This isn’t an anti-semitic remark. Jesus wasn’t saying, and neither am I saying, that anyone is a child of the Evil because they are Jewish. Quite to the contrary, he’s saying that no one is Abraham’s child simply by virtue of a genetic or historic relation.
Of course the Jews present for this discourse reply by asserting that they are Abraham’s children. Jesus continues to preach the law to them. “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing what your father did.”
The Jews continue by claiming God as their father. Jesus replies,
If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
At the end of the confrontation, the question of relative relations to Abraham concludes:
Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”* 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, aI am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple
Their reaction proved Jesus’ point as well as anything Jesus could have said. They had no interest in hearing from God. They knew it and they knew that Jesus knew it and that exposed them (and us!) for what they (and we) are: murderers and children of Cain.
Notice, however, the remarkable claim that Jesus made in v 56: “Abraham saw [my day] and rejoiced.” Jesus was the object of Abraham’s faith. Abraham was a child of God because he looked forward to and trusted in God the Son incarnate. Jesus didn’t answer our question, “How much did he understand?” It wasn’t necessary. Abraham understood enough. It’s not as if Abraham had no contact with God the Son. The Second Person of the Trinity revealed himself repeatedly to Abraham. The question, “How much did Abraham understand?” assumes that Abraham was only looking forward to Jesus. Yes, he was looking forward, but by faith (Heb 11!) Jesus was a present reality to him as well and, when he revealed himself (as the Angel of the LORD) he was a present reality by sight.
Back to the point, however, Jesus here makes it impossible for all three world religions “common root” in Abraham. Jesus is too pointed here to allow such a facile claim. He doesn’t concede any such thing to the Jews. He concedes that they are “offspring” of Abraham (ESV) but he doesn’t care about that. The question is whether we all have the same faith as Abraham and Jesus the Messiah says that only those who trust him, as Abraham trust him, have Abraham’s faith.
Jesus won’t let us get away with the sort of religious universalism of which moderns and liberals are so fond. He said, “I am the light of the world.” He is “the bread.” He is “the living water.” He is the “I AM.” (“Before Abraham was, I am”). He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” No one comes to the Father except through faith (alone) in Christ alone and in his finished work for sinners of all sorts (nations, tongues, and tribes).
Christianity is neither a tribal religion (“we are Abraham’s children by birth”) nor an utterly universal religion without distinction (“all religions are the same”). Jesus rejects both of these polarities.
In their place he offers the universality of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo) to everyone everywhere, to Arab, Jew, Caucasian, Asian, African, or European. He doesn’t care about your genetics. He also requires a very strict particularity. All those nations must come to God through him. There is no other way. He is the narrow gate and through that narrow gate comes the “blessing of Abraham” to all the nations of the world.
This post first appeared on the HB in 2009.