The Conversion of Abraham | Genesis 12:1-9

This sermon was originally preached in 2015


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 dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward Negeb.

Genesis 12:1-9 ESV

The life of Abraham revolves around the incredible faith of this Old Testament man of God; therefore, our discussions about his story will ultimately be focused upon the subject of faith. It is critical that we frequently talk about the importance of faith in the life of the Christian because we are all saved by grace through faith. This makes faith essential to our belief in Jesus Christ. After all, it is an enormous act of faith to trust the death of one man two thousand years ago to pay the penalty of our sins before God.

In this first text of our study, we learn the story of how Abraham came to know the LORD as God. Though Abraham was likely a pagan and probably considered cursed, God’s grace has no bounds, and it came to Abraham before he ever began to walk in faithful obedience to the LORD. Another grace of God is seen in how Abraham responds to God’s calling; he simply begins to walk, not knowing where the LORD was taking him. Abraham trusted God to take him where he needed to be, which is incredible faith!

The story of Abraham’s conversion is built into a couple of movements. First, we see the LORD calling to him, commanding him to follow and promising blessing. Second, Abraham responds in faith by obedience. Third, Abraham gratefully worships God, through sacrifice and proclaiming the name of the LORD. Finally, Abraham journeyed on. His story did not stop after beginning to follow God. These movements also occur in the life of each Christian. Thus, as we study Abraham’s conversion, let us recall and re-evaluate our walk of faith with the LORD.

ABRAM: THE CURSED PAGAN // VERSE 1

Here are the first words that God spoke to Abraham (presently in the text called Abram). From all we can tell, God’s words come to Abram out of the blue, without any sort of warning. To get an added emphasis, let’s look back briefly at the end of chapter 11 to paint a picture of Abram and his family.

Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.

Within 11:27-32, we learn several things about Abram.

First, Abram was from Ur, a city of the Chaldeans. Ur was located in the southern portion of present-day Iraq. For an ancient city, Ur was likely a gigantic city. It was approximately 150 acres in size and likely had a population of 24,000. Unfortunately, Ur was also a pagan city that worshipped a moon god named Sin. We know from elsewhere in the Bible that Abram’s father worshipped these deities along with his family (Josh. 24:2). Thus, we assume that Abram was a pagan who worshipped false gods.

Second, Abram’s wife Sarai was barren. Having children was massively important in the ancient because children were considered tremendous blessings. Practically, there was no such thing as retirement plans or nursing homes. Your children were your retirement plan and caretakers at the end of your life. But also, spiritually, children were seen as blessings because they were able to receive the inheritance of the father and continue his legacy. Without a child, the branch of the family tree ended. Thus, continually throughout the Bible references to infertility were associated with curses. This means that God calls upon a cursed pagan and promises to bless him.

CALLING: THE GRACE OF GOD // VERSES 2-3

God begins His message to Abram by telling him to leave the land of his family. Within an ancient society, family was everything. Without phones, electricity, and air conditioning, the earth was a hostile place that was better faced in a group. Families would, therefore, stay together for security and protection from both nature and other people. By leaving your family, you were essentially forsaking any sort of comfort or security. You were making yourself very vulnerable to the world around you. This alone makes the prospect of leaving quite frightening, but God’s offer gets even better. God tells Abram to go “to the land that I will show you.” Will, as in future tense. God did not tell Abram where He was taking him! He just told Abram to walk.

What could possibly make Abram abandon the safety of his family in order to travel to an unknown place? The LORD gives to Abram a great promise should he begin this walk of faith. Dr. Constable describes this promise well:

There are seven elements in this promise—seven suggesting fullness and completeness (cf. 2:2-3). (1) God promised to create a great nation through Abram. (2) He promised to bless Abram. (3) Abram’s name would live on after his lifetime. (4) He was (commanded) to be a blessing to others. (5) God would bless those who blessed Abram. (6) And God would curse those who cursed Abram. (7) All the families of the earth would be blessed through Abram and his descendants (128).

For a man that was considered cursed because his wife was unable to bare him any children, these promises are staggering. The word bless or blessing is mentioned five times. Because this word is mentioned so frequently and is so crucial to the message of Genesis, we should establish its meaning. Biblically, a blessing means to invoke divine favor, while a curse is the opposite, entreating divine judgment. Thus, God’s pronouncement of blessing upon Abram is a pronouncement of divine favor. “When God blesses someone, he puts that person under his care and protection and in his favor” (Walton, 393). Too often, we hear of people today speaking of blessings as being purely material or financial. The problem with such a view of blessings and prosperity is not that it assumes too much of God, but that it becomes lost in things that are infinitesimally small. To only think of God’s blessing in terms of the material or the financial is to get lost in get lost in the leaves on a branch while searching for a forest. It is certainly within the power and ability of God to grant financial blessings, but the true blessing of God is so much more! God offers to Abram His favor, His gracious love. God’s great blessing to us is letting us have a relationship with Him. This is monumental because, since there is no one higher or greater than God, He is the supreme treasure of all existence. By blessing us, God is giving to us Himself! In light of God Himself, material and financial blessings pale in comparison.  

We must also note that God’s offer to Abram is complete grace. He had done nothing to earn or deserve God’s pronouncement of blessing. And again, Abram was likely not even worshipping the LORD as the one true God until this point in time. Without warning and without merit, God called out to Abram. God made the first move. He extended Abram the invitation to follow after Him, to go wherever God would send him, and to be blessed by the LORD.

The same is also true with us. Whether through reading the Bible on our own, hearing a friend’s testimony of God’s grace, or through a sermon, God calls out to all of us with the same command: go wherever I tell you, or as Jesus said it, follow me. God tells each of us to follow after Him, leaving behind all that we once knew. For Abram, he had to leave the security of his family. For some, they have to leave behind their attraction to the same sex. For others, they leave behind their dependence on drugs or alcohol. Some leave behind their stealing, their racism, their gluttony, their gossip, their arrogance. We all must leave behind something in order to walk where God tells us to go. The beauty of this is that God does not tell us to surrender something that we love just because He can. Instead, God commands us to give these up, so that we can truly know Him. He calls us to leave behind all of our false and puny gods, so that we have Him. To use Lewis’ analogy, this is like telling a child to stop playing with mud pies in order to sit down at a royal feast. God is asking us to surrender something of value to us, so that we can gain something infinitely more valuable!

OBEDIENCE: THE EVIDENCE OF FAITH // VERSES 4-7

We must first note that Abram’s response to God’s offer is obedience. God tells Abram to go and that blessings for a cursed man would follow, and Abram obeys God. He begins to journey, trusting God’s guidance. Let me reiterate once more: Abram did not know where God was taking him. The book of Hebrews actually makes this very clear: “he (Abraham) 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.” This is true faith. Abram is placing is assurance in the hope that God would fulfill His promise. Abram had conviction in the reliability of God, even though he could not see Him.

So, notice the movement of actions. God called to Abram out of pure grace (Abram did not deserve to be chosen by God in the slightest). Abram then responds in faith, placing his full trust in the faithfulness of God. This is what Paul means by saying that we are saved by grace through faith. We are only saved by the free gift of God and not by our own works at all. However, faith is the mode of salvation. I heard an analogy that I liked quite a lot. Imagine yourself on a hot, summer day desperately wanting to spray yourself with water from a water hose to cool off. It is the water that comes from the hose that cools you off, but the hose actually brings the water to you. So, it is with grace and faith. Grace is the water that we desperately need, and faith is simply the way through it comes to us. Therefore, the expression of receiving grace is faithful acceptance.

Next, upon arriving at Canaan, God promises Abram that He will give the land to Abram’s offspring. Remember that He is telling this to a man with no children. Abram likely brought his nephew Lot along because Lot was going to be his de facto heir—Lot’s father died and Abram had no children, so the transaction made sense. Yet with this one statement, the great tension of Abram’s life begins. Throughout his life, Abram will struggle to maintain faith that God will provide for him this promised offspring.

Furthermore, we must note the significance of the word offspring. The first time offspring is used in the Bible is during God’s pronouncement of judgment upon the serpent in chapter 3 of Genesis. Therein, God says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). This is the first proclamation of the gospel. Adam and Eve had just sinned, and they were awaiting their judgment from God. Yet in the midst of judgment, God gave to them hope. He promised that the offspring of woman would defeat the serpent. God promised that the curse of sin would one day be reversed by the offspring of the woman. We know that this is how Eve interpreted God’s words because she joyfully exclaimed that she received a man-child when Cain was born (Gen. 4:1). Though she likely hoped that Cain would be the promised offspring, he took a fairly bad turn. Eve then hopefully rejoiced at Seth’s birth as “another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Gen. 4:25). Several generations later, Lamech named his son Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29). The name Noah means rest, and Lamech hoped that Noah would be the promised offspring that would undo the curse of sin and bring rest back to the earth. As Christians, we know that Christ is this promised offspring, so while Noah was a forerunner for Christ, Noah’s drunken spell showed that he was not fit to save anyone from sin. Now with Abram, we see God mentioning the offspring again. Thus, God’s promise has a duel meaning. First, he is promising Abram specifically that He will bless him with a son, but the LORD is also stating that the promised offspring will come from Abram.

WORSHIP: GLORIFYING GOD // VERSE 8

Both here and in verse seven, we find Abram building an altar to the LORD. Altars were highly important for ancient worship. Most peoples throughout history have, by default, assumed that their gods were angry with them. Upon analyzing their own guilty and sinful hearts, they firmly believed that they fell short of whatever standard of morality that the gods had. Altars were used to make sacrifices to appease the gods. They hoped that their deities would accept the blood of animals in payment for their sins instead of punishing them. Abram’s worship certainly reflects the ancient style, yet there is something altogether different about it. First, no sacrifice is mentioned in either verse. Of course, it is still entirely possible that Abram did sacrifice some sort of animal to the LORD upon these altars, but even so, the animal is not mentioned because it is not the focus. Abram’s desire to worship the LORD is the significance of these two altars. If Abram did offer an animal to God, it was not to earn favor. By promising blessings to Abram, God already showed Abram favor. Therefore, Abram’s worship was built not on obligation but gratitude. God appeared to him without warning or necessity and promised to make Abram into a great nation and blessing. For the formerly cursed pagan, he is joyous that the LORD would graciously choose him to be the conduit for this blessing. This sort of action is true of all followers of Christ. After receiving a call to follow Christ and obeying in faith, we must always respond to God’s grace in worship. Our worship should likewise be built upon gratitude, not obligation.

Another aspect of Abram’s worship is that he “called upon the name of the LORD.” Though most translations read the same way, many commentators have suggested other ways of phrasing this clause. Since the word “call” in Hebrew can mean many things, some have suggested the verse read: “proclaimed the name of the LORD.” Martin Luther even translated this verse as “preached” (Ross, 267). If this is accurate, Abram did not content himself with merely worshipping the LORD in solitude; instead, he proclaimed the greatness of God to anyone that would listen.

This interpretation certainly fits with the biblical pattern of conversion. After experiencing the goodness and glory of God, we cannot help testifying of His greatness to others. In fact, this thought perfectly encapsulates the Great Commission. As Christians, we are each called to make the name of the LORD. Such is part of our daily worship. There is a very significant work occurring within Abram’s heart. Recall that God promised to make Abram’s name great, and by calling upon the name of the LORD, Abram is recognizing the greatness of God’s name. “The LORD promised to make Abram’s name great, to make him famous, and Abram responded by proclaiming the name of the LORD—making the LORD famous in Canaan, as it were” (Ross, 267).

THE NEED TO PRESS ONWARD // VERSE 9:  

As we end this first passage of Abram’s life, we read that Abram continued his journey. In these nine verses alone, we have followed the calling, obedience, and gratitude of Abram; however, we must remember that Abram’s journey only began with these nine verses. In the very next section of Scripture, we will read about the first moral failure of Abram, but then we will also see great accomplishments in the life of this man of God. All of this is to say that conversion is only the beginning of one’s journey with God. Failures and successes are sure to follow, but the LORD always calls us onward in our faith, continuously taking another step in our walk with Him.

Paul writes in Galatians that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal. 3:9).” We, who have faith in Jesus Christ, the offspring of Abraham and the One who reversed the curse of sin, are equally as blessed as Abraham. This does not mean that God promises to give us the sort of financial blessings that Abraham received; instead, it means that we have the full favor of God, like Abraham. Because of the righteousness of Christ that is given to us, God is no longer wrathful against us; rather, God is pleased with us. In Christ, we have become beloved children of God. That is greatest blessing that we possible hope for!

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