Hello again, friends! I seldom drone on for this long about one particular subject, but it seems you have drawn the short straw. Thank you for returning once again and tolerating my continued chatter.
Up to this point, in seeking to determine if the Old and New Covenants have the same substance, I have largely focused on the differences between the covenants made at Sinai and Calvary. This is for two reasons: 1) Most of the contrasts made in the New Testament that mention the “Old Covenant” or “first covenant” clearly refer to things that were part of the Mosaic Law. 2) Many of the confessionally Reformed persons with whom I converse reject the view that the Mosaic Covenant had any kind of different nature from the New Covenant in terms of being works-based or grace-based.
To be perfectly honest, defining the Mosaic Covenant and contrasting it with the New Covenant is a fairly straightforward business. Sure, there are people who raise objections, but I believe the Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews have presented us with ample evidence to suggest that the Mosaic Covenant is inferior to the New Covenant in every way. It offered temporal blessings in exchange for human works, as opposed to eternal blessings in exchange for Christ’s works.
There is, however, a more subtle argument out there that pins its hopes on the Abrahamic Covenant. In making a sharp distinction between the Old Covenant and the Abrahamic Covenant, this view partially concedes the works-based nature of the Old Covenant while maintaining that there were similar grace-based natures in the Abrahamic and New Covenants. This argument has some merit to it, as we have already seen the importance of Abraham in salvation history. The Apostle Paul tells us that those who are united to Christ by faith are truly Abraham’s descendants, while also stating that the promise of a Savior was given as part of the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, there is no question of a link between Abraham and those Gentiles who have faith. The disagreement comes in regard to the precise nature of that link and the covenant made with Abraham. Therefore, we must ask the following question.
Was the Abrahamic Covenant a saving covenant?
To be clear, there are not many people who believe that the Abrahamic Covenant was part of the Covenant of Grace and the Mosaic Covenant was not, particularly within confessionally Reformed denominations. There have been plenty of confessionally Reformed people over the years who argue that the Mosaic Covenant was a partial republication of the Covenant of Works: that is, it had conditions dependent on human working. However, they would typically classify this phenomenon as part of the types and shadows in which the substance of the Mosaic Covenant was wrapped, whereas the substance itself was the same as the rest of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore, while the debate over republication is an interesting one, its importance is perhaps overstated. If you believe that the Mosaic Covenant was part of the Covenant of Grace, then you still believe the Old and New Covenants have the same substance.
The republication viewpoint is meant to acknowledge the kind of Old vs. New distinctions we have seen in the writings of Paul and the Book of Hebrews without abandoning the “one covenant in two administrations” model completely. Those who hold to republication achieve this by emphasizing the connection with Abraham. They argue that the Abrahamic Covenant has the same substance as the New Covenant, and therefore the commands and blessings previously given to Abraham’s physical descendants now apply to his descendants by faith. The covenant made at Sinai may be obsolete, but the one made with Abraham lasts forever.
This is often an effective argument for two reasons. First, the New Testament does stress a certain continuity with Abraham while arguing for the discontinuity of the Old and New Covenants. Second, the New Testament never discusses the particulars of the Abrahamic Covenant in as much detail as it does the Mosaic Covenant. Of course, those who hold to republication still believe that there is continuity between the Old and New Covenants, so they are in a sense avoiding the real issue. Nevertheless, because these brothers and sisters teach that the Abrahamic Covenant is not part of the Old Covenant, it is necessary to engage them on their own terms. We must consider whether or not the covenant of Abraham was a saving covenant apart from any connection to the covenant made at Sinai.
First, let’s review a few key passages in the biblical account of Abraham’s life. The first time God spoke directly to Abram (as he was then known), He made a series of related promises.
Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
The Lord gave Abram one command: he was to leave the area in which he was presently residing and go to the place God would show him. The Lord also gave him several promises: He would make his name great, make him a blessing, and make of him a great nation. God pledged to bless those who blessed Abram and curse those who cursed him. Finally, He told Abram “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”.
This is a very important passage in which we see the beginning of Abram’s special relationship with God. However, it is important to note that no formal covenant was made (i.e. cut) in this passage. The promises God gave to Abram at this time were certainly repeated as part of the covenant, but they also preceded the covenant. Now let’s take a look at the passage in which the Abrahamic Covenant was inaugurated in blood.
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying,
“Do not fear, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great.”
Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness. And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.” He said, “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. The birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away. Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying,
“To your descendants I have given this land,
From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:
the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite.”
The Lord came to Abram and repeated His promises to give him both offspring and a land. Importantly, we are told that Abram “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness”. However, Abram still sought some sort of proof that he would indeed possess the land. It was at this point that the Lord entered into a covenant with Abram. The ceremony described here, with the animal carcasses being cut in half and placed opposite one another, was typical of covenants made in the Ancient Near East. The two parties entering into a covenant with one another would walk between the pieces together, and the implication was that if either of them broke the covenant, they would suffer a similar fate to those dismembered animals. Recent historical research and other scripture passages (e.g. Jeremiah 34:18-20) confirm this trend, and it helps to illuminate our understanding of the biblical text.
When Abram fell asleep, the Lord granted him a vision in which He revealed that Abram’s descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years. They would then come out of that land with many possessions, and the nation that enslaved them would suffer God’s wrath. When God said that “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete”, He was implying that the time had not yet come for Abram and his descendants to receive full possession of the land, but it would certainly be given to them in the future. The Lord also revealed that Abram himself would die in peace and at an old age.
Finally, and most critically, we are told that a “smoking oven” and “flaming torch” passed through the animal pieces. This was clearly a supernatural occurrence. Biblical scholars almost universally agree that it was the presence of the Lord that passed through the pieces, albeit in a manner of condescension. This makes sense. The two parties in the covenant were God and Abram. (Note that the text says “the Lord made a covenant with Abram”.) Although there were blessings for Abram’s descendants included in this covenant, they were not actually parties to the covenant. Moreover, Abram did not pass through the pieces—only the Lord did. I think we can reasonably conclude from this that the Lord was taking upon Himself the penalty for any covenant breaking.
The language in this passage is very important. We see the word karath used to describe God’s action of making the covenant. We also see that from which the word karath originated: the cutting of animal pieces and initiating of a covenant in blood. I note this because two chapters later, we see another passage that looks very much like a covenant initiation. However, there are some differences between the two accounts that we must not ignore.
Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him,
“I am God Almighty;
Walk before Me, and be blameless.
I will establish My covenant between Me and you,
And I will multiply you exceedingly.”
Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying,
“As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you,
And you will be the father of a multitude of nations.
No longer shall your name be called Abram,
But your name shall be Abraham;
For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.
I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
What we see here in Genesis 17 is different from what we saw in Genesis 15. The character of chapter 15 was unconditional. God did not place any new commands on Abram apart from telling him to prepare the covenant initiation ceremony. Abram was not threatened with being cut off for breaking the covenant: the Lord walked through the pieces alone. Furthermore, the covenant was only made with Abram, although blessings were certainly extended to his descendants.
Chapter 17 contains new commands. “Walk before me, and be blameless.” “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” The Lord demands obedience to the covenant laws. There is also a greater inclusion of Abram’s descendants. The Lord says, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you…” The language is corporate as well as individual. The command to be circumcised is placed upon “every male among you who is eight days old” as well as any other males in the household. It is to continue “throughout your generations”. Most crucially, there are curses associated with this covenant. “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
Are God’s words in chapter 15 and chapter 17 contradictory? No, but only if we understand the nature of what is taking place. That will require us to move forward to the New Testament, where the Apostle Paul provides a commentary on these passages. Were it not for the words of Paul, we would have a much more difficult time decoding the Abrahamic Covenant. Let us begin by examining what Paul wrote to the church in Rome.
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,
And whose sins have been covered.
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
Paul’s overall goal in this portion of the book is to explain how both Jews and Gentiles are justified before God. He explains that no one can be justified by following the Law: that is, by works righteousness. Because we are all born in sin and are bound to those fleshly desires, we are not capable of being justified by our deeds. When Adam failed to practice the perfect obedience that was required by the Covenant of Works, he ensured that none of his descendants could be justified by God in that manner. (Jesus Christ was the only human being who practiced perfect obedience, and He was born of a virgin so as not to inherit Adam’s sinful nature.) Paul points back to Abraham and says that he was justified by faith, not works. This means that Abraham actually received the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. That is the reason for the word “credited”. There was nothing in Abraham himself that made him worthy before God. Rather, He was chosen to receive the gift of faith, even as the elect are today. That faith was the instrument through which he was credited with the righteousness of God.
Paul then notes that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised. This is an important statement which demonstrates that 1) neither circumcision nor individual adherence to the Law is necessary in order for a person to be declared righteous, 2) ethnicity plays no role in one’s ultimate standing before God, and 3) it was not the Old Covenant that made Abraham righteous. Perhaps you have followed me with those first two points, but not to the final one. Go back and look. Abraham had righteousness credited to him before the animals were cut in half and God moved through the pieces. He was declared righteous before God mentioned anything about circumcision. The thing that the New Testament writers refer to as the Old Covenant played no role in whether or not Abraham received the righteousness of God.
Paul tells us that the covenant sign of circumcision served as “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised”. This phrase is sometimes misunderstood. A seal is a pledge that God gives to someone to indicate that they possess something. The Greek word is either sphragizō (verb form) or sphragis (noun form). Jesus Christ described Himself as a seal of the fact that believers would inherit eternal life. (John 6:27) Paul called the Holy Spirit a seal on three occasions—2 Corinthians 1:22, Ephesians 1:13, and Ephesians 4:30—to assure people of their salvation and the fact that they would be redeemed at the last day. The Book of Revelation refers to believers having a seal on their foreheads, probably referring to this same principle symbolically.
So what was the Lord sealing to Abraham? I believe it was three different things. First, that He had received the righteousness of God by faith. This is what Paul specifically mentions. Note that it was not a promise that any of his descendants had faith or would have it in the future. It was a seal of Abraham’s faith in particular. It would be stretching Paul’s words to imply that circumcision indicated that all of Abraham’s descendants would receive the imputed righteousness of Christ. In fact, we know that many of Abraham’s physical descendants never had saving faith despite receiving circumcision. A seal isn’t a mere hope: it is a very certain pledge. Therefore, it was on account of the righteousness which Abraham already possessed by faith that he was given this sign.
Second, I believe that the sign of circumcision was also given to Abraham as a demonstration that God would keep His promises to his physical descendants. What were those promises? Namely, that they would be numerous (Genesis 15:5), they would possess the land of Canaan (v. 18-21), God would act toward them in a special manner (v. 13-14), and some of them would be kings (17:6). These were all temporal or earthly promises. No promise was ever made that Abraham’s physical descendants would be forgiven of their sins or receive eternal life. Nevertheless, I believe that in the sign of circumcision God sought to demonstrate to Abraham that He would indeed keep His promises to Abraham’s physical descendants, whom He had chosen to be His covenant people. (17:7) Not all of Abraham’s descendants were among the elect. That is what it means to be among God’s people in the fullest sense, but what is described here is temporal and earthly.
Third, as I discussed earlier in the article on types and shadows, circumcision pointed forward to the fact that the Messiah would be cut off for His people, even as covenant breakers were cut off from God’s blessings and promises contained within those covenants. In this way, I would argue that the sign of circumcision was a seal of the fact that a future male among Abraham’s physical progeny would be the promised Redeemer. I will come back to that point later.
There is something else in this passage from Romans that we must not miss. Paul tells us that there are two ways that one can be descended from Abraham. There are those who are descendants “according to the flesh” or “through the Law”. These are Abraham’s physical progeny. There are also those “who believe” and follow in the “steps of faith” of Abraham. These people may be either circumcised or uncircumcised—that is, either Jewish or Gentile. They are not heirs through the Law, but according to the righteousness that is by faith. This group of people is Abraham’s spiritual progeny. This distinction of Law vs. faith and physical vs. spiritual is essential to understanding the covenant made with Abraham. Let’s look at another passage where Paul discusses this concept.
Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
Once again, Paul brings up Abraham while discussing justification and true righteousness. He states that justification could not be achieved through the Law. No human being born with a sinful nature is capable of works righteousness. Rather, we must have the righteousness of God credited to us by faith. Paul says that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. Obviously, he did not mean that Abraham’s physical descendants don’t share his DNA. He meant that there were blessings and promises given to Abraham that were only for his spiritual progeny: those who have faith.
Paul explains that Jesus Christ took on the curse of the Law for us so that “in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles”. Now, it is not Abraham who is the true source of the blessing, but rather Jesus Christ. The blessing of Abraham in this case was the promise made to Abraham that, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” Gentiles receive that blessing of Abraham through Jesus Christ when they are united to Him by faith. Therefore, this blessing spoken to Abraham was nothing less than “the promise of the Spirit through faith”. It was union with Christ and all the benefits that flow from that: the imputation of His righteousness, the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, perseverance in sanctification, etc.
What did Paul mean when he said that God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham”? He was not suggesting that the Law was the gospel or even that the Abrahamic Covenant was the gospel. Look at what else Paul writes: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” Paul states that the promise, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…” (Genesis 22:18), was not speaking of all Abraham’s physical descendants, but one particular physical descendant: Jesus Christ. God was actually saying to Abraham that the Messiah—the one who would save both Jews and Gentiles from their sins—would be his physical descendant. This individual from Abraham’s physical progeny was the only one who kept all the covenant commands perfectly, and in Him Abraham’s spiritual progeny are united to the promise by faith.
It is also important to note that this promise regarding the seed was bigger than the Old Covenant and bigger than Abraham himself. Returning to Galatians chapter 3, Paul says that “the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” Therefore, the promise that was given to Abraham’s spiritual progeny was not connected to the Law—that is, the Old Covenant. It was separate from the commands given to Abraham’s physical progeny. The promise is also bigger than the Abrahamic Covenant, for it was not given to him first. It was actually given to Eve.
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.”
That is the protoevangelion—the first preaching of the gospel. God was prophesying that the covenant curse brought about by Adam’s lawbreaking and the victory the serpent experienced over Eve would both be overturned when a seed of the woman would deal a head wound to the serpent: that is, crush and defeat it. Not much was known about this seed at that time. The promise was very minimal, but nevertheless, it was made. When God spoke to Abraham, He provided more details. We know this thanks to the interpretation given by the Apostle Paul. God was saying that a seed of Abraham would be the one promised to Eve. This Savior who would defeat the serpent and reverse the curse of the Covenant of Works, even as He also reversed the curse of the Mosaic Law.
Who are the heirs to that promise? Who will receive salvation through the promised seed? Not Abraham’s physical progeny, but his spiritual progeny. As Paul says later in Galatians chapter 3,
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
Yes, Gentiles can be Abraham’s spiritual descendants, but there is only one way for that to be the case: they must “belong to Christ”. Paul tells us that such people “are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus”. Again, we see that it is faith that unites one to the promise of Abraham, which is to be united to Christ. His physical progeny were not subject to this promise. Paul clearly teaches that it is the spiritual progeny who are united to Christ and receive the greater promise, for the Law brought temporal and earthly blessings, but faith brings us an eternal blessing. It brings actual forgiveness of sins.
I am not attempting to impose a false dichotomy upon the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul is the one who states that there are two ways to be connected to Abraham—either according to the flesh (that is, physically), or through the promise (that is, spiritually by faith). Moreover, these two progenies were granted two different covenants. Here are the words of Paul.
For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear;
Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor;
For more numerous are the children of the desolate
Than of the one who has a husband.”
And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say?
“Cast out the bondwoman and her son,
For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”
So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman.
As I pointed out in an earlier article, the two covenants that Paul is discussing here are the Old Covenant (i.e. the Mosaic Covenant) and the New Covenant. The first is explicitly identified, and the entire covenant is described as a kind of slavery. The children born within it are said to be “children who are to be slaves”. They were slaves to the Mosaic Law, which Paul describes as “a curse”. (Galatians 3:10) They were in a covenant that could never make them righteous before God, for it did not provide the imputed righteousness of Christ. That is why they are described as “slaves”. In contrast, the second covenant is said to be connected with “the Jerusalem above”. It is focused on heavenly things rather than earthly things. We may therefore conclude that Paul is speaking of the New Covenant, which the author of Hebrews describes in much the same manner. (see Hebrews 3:1, 6:4, 8:5, 9:23, 11:16)
What is interesting about this passage is how Paul turns around the notion of “promise”. He mentions that Isaac was the child of the promise. Originally, this referred to the portion of Abraham’s physical descendants that would be granted the Promised Land and give birth to the promised seed. However, Paul uses Isaac’s special status as a metaphor. While God chose a physical people for Himself, He also chose a spiritual people for Himself. These people may or may not be descended from Abraham physically, but they are the recipients of the greatest promise that was given to him: union with Christ in the New Covenant.
Those who are still relying on their physical connection to Abraham and the Law to justify them are slaves, as Paul teaches. They are attempting to be justified by works righteousness rather than receiving the righteousness that is by faith, even as Abraham himself did. Therefore, they are not the subjects of the better promise. This was the promise that Abraham sought first and foremost: not earthly things, but heavenly things.
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
If Abraham had received everything that God had promised before his very eyes, then there would have been no need for faith. You see, the faith of Abraham was not based on what had already been accomplished, but what would be accomplished in the future. It was based on things invisible and heavenly, not visible and earthly. The author of Hebrews tells us that Abraham and Sarah sought the heavenly things because they believed that the God who promised was faithful. They died “without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance…”
This is true with regard to both Abraham’s physical descendants and his spiritual descendants. He did not see his physical progeny possess all of the Promised Land, nor did he see the kings who would come forth from that line. Furthermore, he did not see the redemption that would bring about salvation. When the boy Jesus was presented at the Temple, a man named Simeon recognized through the power of the Spirit that this was the seed promised to Abraham. He proclaimed,
“Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A Light of revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
Abraham did not live to see that. He did not know exactly how God would bring about redemption. I doubt he imagined that it would require the Redeemer to be put to death on a cross. Nevertheless, Abraham believed in the promises of God. He looked forward to something that had not yet taken place: the establishment of the New Covenant in Christ’s death. Therefore, Abraham had faith regarding both his physical progeny, who were heirs to the earthly promises, and his spiritual progeny, who were heirs to the heavenly promises.
Again, I am not inventing two ways for a person to be connected to Abraham. Paul was the one who taught that. “‘For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.” (Romans 9:6b-8) Though the children of the flesh did receive some promises, they are not “the children of the promise”. They are not the heirs to what the author of Hebrews calls the “better promises”. (Hebrews 8:6) Remember Paul’s olive tree metaphor?
If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also; and if the root is holy, the branches are too. But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?
Have another look at the “saving covenant” article if you want to see a discussion of the context of this passage. Paul is contrasting Jews and Gentiles: those who were put under the Law of Moses and those who were not. The root of this tree is Abraham and the various promises that were made to him, both temporal and eternal. His physical progeny were subject to the temporal promises, yet many were cut off, for they never had faith. With the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, the connection to Abraham through those promises expired. Only one connection to Abraham remained: you had to be part of his spiritual progeny. You had to be united to Christ by faith, which also united you to the better promises of Abraham. Therefore, those physical descendants who did not have faith were cut off and discarded, metaphorically speaking.
Paul speaks of Gentile believers being grafted in to the tree. Now, Gentiles were never subject to the physical promises: the land, the birth of the seed, the kingly line, etc. However, they can be heirs to the better promise. They can become part of Abraham’s spiritual progeny by faith. Remember, Paul never describes Gentiles being connected to Abraham by anything but faith. Again, Paul never describes Gentiles being connected to Abraham by anything but faith. The only way that remains to be joined to the olive tree is to be part of the spiritual progeny, to be in the New Covenant, and to have faith that is credited as righteousness. Those things all go together. The Jews who are described as being “grafted in” are those who come to faith later on and thus are rejoined to the tree. Paul’s warning to Gentiles that they must “continue in His kindness” or be “cut off” is hypothetical, as I discussed earlier. It is hypothetical because the only way for Gentiles to be on the tree in the first place is to have saving faith, and saving faith does not fail. What Paul is trying to get them to do is be humble in their position, for they are in truth no more worthy than the Jews. All are chosen based on the grace of God and not merit.
What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
My purpose in this article was to provide an overview of the Abrahamic Covenant and establish that he was given two progenies that were subject to different promises. In the next article, I will continue my consideration of whether the Abrahamic Covenant is a saving covenant, spending a bit more time on the issue of circumcision and how the covenant given to Abraham compares to the New Covenant. I will then attempt to wrap this all up with a big, shiny bow. Thank you again for taking the time to read!
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.