Old Covenant vs. New Covenant: What about Abraham? (Part 2)

“Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan” by József Molnár, circa 1850

In the previous article, I began my consideration of the Abrahamic Covenant on its own, without specifically tying it to the Old Covenant. I made my case, based on the writings of the Apostle Paul, that Abraham had two progenies: a physical progeny and a spiritual progeny. Each had its own way of being connected to Abraham, received a different set of promises, and was brought into its own covenant. There was some overlap between these two progenies, as some of Abraham’s physical descendants became part of his spiritual progeny through faith. However, there is a general distinction made between the two, and Gentiles can only be connected to Abraham through faith. Having made these points, I would like to move on and consider some other aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant that are necessary for determining its overall nature.

Was the Abrahamic Covenant a Saving Covenant?

As I discussed earlier, some of the confessionally Reformed argue that the Abrahamic Covenant was not part of the Old Covenant. Therefore, when Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and it became obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), the covenant with Abraham remained in force. The stronger connection is not between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, but between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. Now, as I have explained, this is a distinction without much of a difference, for such Christians usually still believe that the Old (Mosaic) Covenant was part of the Covenant of Grace and had the same substance as the New Covenant. However, the goal of their argument is to prove that certain aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant are maintained in the present Church.

For example, such a person would argue that the New Covenant community is comparable to national Israel of the Old Testament, because we are all under the Abrahamic Covenant. The Church is therefore a mixed community of both regenerate believers and the unregenerate. You are initiated into the covenant by birth, even as Abraham’s physical descendants were. You receive the covenant sign, which is now baptism instead of circumcision. As physical circumcision required all covenant members to be circumcised in their hearts through faith, so baptism now places a demand on New Covenant members to be united to Christ by faith or be cut off from the covenant promises.

Those who put forward these arguments are well meaning, and I do not question their motivations or their desire to be faithful to the scriptures. Certainly, many great Christians since the 16th century have held this view. Nevertheless and with all due respect, I believe that it confuses Abraham’s physical and spiritual progeny and the diverse promises made to each. God did say that He would take Abraham’s physical descendants to be His people, which pointed to the fact that He would enter into the Old (Mosaic) Covenant with them. However, the promises given to this group of people did not include forgiveness of sins and eternal life. They were temporal and earthly. In contrast, the Apostle Paul described Abraham’s spiritual descendants receiving eternal and heavenly promises, as I mentioned in the previous article.

When the Lord gave Abraham and His physical progeny the sign of circumcision, it was certainly part of the Abrahamic Covenant. However, it was also connected with the Law, which is the Old Covenant. (See for example the words of Christ, who acknowledged that circumcision pre-dated the Law of Moses but nevertheless made a connection between the two in John 7:22-23.) It was attached to Abraham’s physical progeny and not his spiritual progeny. Consider what Paul has to say on this topic, himself having been an extremely zealous follower of the Law. “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” (Romans 2:25) Again, he writes, “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.” (Galatians 5:2) Circumcision pointed forward to the Old Covenant that would be made with Abraham’s physical progeny. As the Lord told Abraham,

“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.”

Genesis 17:6-8

There is a sense in which Abraham had already received the covenant, but a sense in which God indicated that He would establish it with Abraham’s descendants. I believe that this is pointing forward to the fact that the Lord would enter into the Mosaic Covenant with Abraham’s physical progeny. He had already given Abraham a preview of what was to come: his descendants would be servants in a strange land (Genesis 15:13), they would be delivered from that nation (v. 14), they would return to the land (v. 16) and possess it (vs. 18-20). In chapter 17, God came to Abraham a further time to give him another sign of the promises to his physical progeny: circumcision. In this passage, the Lord speaks much more of Abraham’s descendants, places conditional requirements on them, and talks about establishing the covenant in the future tense.

The Lord had previously moved through the pieces of animal flesh alone, indicating that He would take upon Himself the penalty for any covenant breaking. Now, He says, “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.” (17:14) I gave much thought to how this could be, but when you consider that Paul links circumcision with the Law, it begins to make more sense. What occurs in Genesis chapter 17 is not in my opinion the full initiation of the Old Covenant, but it is a kind of preview of things to come. The Lord finishes by saying, “But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.” (v. 21) He is assuring Abraham that the promises to His physical progeny will be fulfilled, even though he might not see them in his lifetime.

Perhaps you will disagree with me on this point, and that is understandable, for the Abrahamic Covenant is a rather confusing one. Even so, we can learn something from the fact that that apostles did not require new believers to be circumcised. If that was an integral part of the Abrahamic Covenant by which the physical and spiritual descendants are equally bound, then you would expect them to say, “Gentiles should receive the covenant sign.” That is not what they said at all. As we have seen, Paul suggested that circumcision was only of value if you wanted to pursue righteousness through the Law. He recognized that there was a difference between Abraham’s physical and spiritual progeny. Now, you could argue that circumcision was part of the Old Covenant and that is why it is no longer required, but then you would have to explain why it was established within the Abrahamic Covenant, which is supposedly still in force.

Look again at some of the things that the Apostle Paul had to say about circumcision. Whereas Abraham’s physical progeny was required to be circumcised in their flesh as part of the Old Covenant, his spiritual progeny are circumcised in their heart as part of the New Covenant.

  • “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)
  • “Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” (1 Corinthians 7:18-19)
  • “And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:3-6)
  • “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” (Galatians 6:15)
  • “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:2-4a)
  • “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:9-14)

Within the Abrahamic Covenant was contained both Law and promise. The Law was given to his physical descendants along with lesser or physical promises. The greater promise was given to the spiritual descendants. This is why the Abrahamic Covenant seems so confusing: because portions of it point to the Old Covenant (like circumcision) and portions of it point to the New Covenant (such as the promise of a seed that would be a blessing). I am not saying that the Abrahamic Covenant was the Old Covenant or that it was the New Covenant. Each of those covenants was separately initiated in blood. Neither am I arguing that the command to circumcise one’s heart was not contained in the Old Covenant. (Deuteronomy 10:16) However, the Lord Himself indicated that He would actually have to circumcise the people’s hearts. (30:6)

The fact that He said this does not imply that this vital circumcision of the heart, through which a person is truly made regenerate and united to the heavenly promises, actually occurred as part of the Old Covenant. Even when everything was falling apart and the people were about to be sent into exile, the Lord was still commanding them, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord / And remove the foreskins of your heart, / Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, / Or else My wrath will go forth like fire / And burn with none to quench it, / Because of the evil of your deeds.” (Jeremiah 4:4) This was an impossible task for a sinful person, even as it was impossible for them to keep the commands of the Mosaic Law.

Likewise, when scripture tells us that Abraham “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), it is not actually suggesting that he had Christ’s righteousness imputed to him through the Abrahamic Covenant. There are two reasons that I say this. First, any saving covenant must have Christ as its mediator. Second, any saving covenant must be initiated in Christ’s blood. The Bible never claims that either of those things was the case with the Abrahamic Covenant. You could make an argument from silence regarding the former—that is, that Christ must have been the mediator, for no other is mentioned. However, scripture is very clear that the Abrahamic Covenant was not initiated in Christ’s blood. It was certainly initiated over dead bodies, but it was the blood of animals, and as the author of Hebrews tells us, “…it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4)

When Jesus said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood,” (Luke 22:20) He was making a very specific and important statement. It is only His blood that can sanctify us, and that blood is only shed in the New Covenant. “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12) The author of Hebrews tells us that the earthly things were cleansed with animal blood, but “the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these”, (v. 23) by which He means Christ’s blood.

Now, those who state that the Abrahamic and/or Mosaic Covenants were part of the Covenant of Grace would presumably argue that the blood of Christ was there in a spiritual sense even though it had not yet been offered on Calvary. However, the author of Hebrews specifically says that the Old Covenant was inaugurated using the blood of animals.

Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood.

Hebrews 9:18-21

There is no reference to the blood of Christ being there when it wasn’t really there, or something of that sort. The blood with which the Old Covenant was inaugurated was in fact the blood of that covenant. Thus, Christ’s blood is the blood of the New Covenant, for in that blood it was inaugurated. The blood of the Abrahamic Covenant was that of the animals Abraham cut in two. “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.” (Genesis 15:9-10) Could that blood save? No, it could not.

It is important for us to realize that there is a difference between a covenant and a promise. Promises can be contained within a covenant, but they can also be made independent of a formal covenant. The promise that was given to Abraham’s spiritual progeny was bigger than the Abrahamic Covenant, even though it was contained in the Abrahamic Covenant. Although Jesus Christ was the seed promised to Abraham (Galatians 3:16), He was greater than Abraham, and His priesthood descends from a more ancient line.

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, to whom also Abraham apportioned a tenth part of all the spoils, was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace. Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, he remains a priest perpetually. Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils. And those indeed of the sons of Levi who receive the priest’s office have commandment in the Law to collect a tenth from the people, that is, from their brethren, although these are descended from Abraham. But the one whose genealogy is not traced from them collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed the one who had the promises. But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater. In this case mortal men receive tithes, but in that case one receives them, of whom it is witnessed that he lives on. And, so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes, for he was still in the loins of his father when Melchizedek met him. Now if perfection was through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the people received the Law), what further need was there for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not be designated according to the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also. For the one concerning whom these things are spoken belongs to another tribe, from which no one has officiated at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah, a tribe with reference to which Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And this is clearer still, if another priest arises according to the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become such not on the basis of a law of physical requirement, but according to the power of an indestructible life. For it is attested of Him,

“You are a priest forever

According to the order of Melchizedek.”

For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God. And inasmuch as it was not without an oath (for they indeed became priests without an oath, but He with an oath through the One who said to Him,

“The Lord has sworn

And will not change His mind,

‘You are a priest forever’”);

so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.

Hebrews 7:1-22

The fact that Jesus’ priesthood descends from Melchizedek proves that He is greater than Abraham, even as the New Covenant is greater than the covenant given to Abraham. See what the author says? “But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater.” Even though those who have saving faith are heirs to Abraham’s promise, that promise is bigger and better than Abraham. For even as Christ’s priesthood is better, “…so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” That is why the promise to Abraham was spoken before God ever entered into covenant with him. (Genesis 12:1-3) It is why the promise of a victorious seed was first made to Eve. (Genesis 3:15) We receive Abraham’s promise, but we are not under his covenant. Those who believe today are under the New Covenant. Scripture never says that we are under the Abrahamic Covenant any more than we are under the Old Covenant. However, we are subject to promises made to Abraham.

The Abrahamic Covenant was not a saving covenant because it did not offer the blood of Jesus Christ. It contained promises that were fulfilled in the Old and New Covenants, but Abraham himself was not saved through the Abrahamic Covenant. He was saved through the New Covenant, even as we are now. That is the only way that anyone has ever received forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It is the only covenant of which Christ is the federal head. That is why it is the only covenant that can be properly titled the “Covenant of Grace”.

The covenants that came between Adam’s fall into sin and Christ’s atoning death did point toward Christ. They taught the necessity of righteousness by faith. The ancient Israelites were not on a different track to salvation than the rest of us. There were promises made of a seed who would reverse the curse of the Covenant of Works. As time went on, God revealed more of His plan, but the full revelation only came with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: the Word made flesh.

Therefore, in light of everything I have examined, I conclude that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant do not have the same substance. The Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant do not have the same substance. The Covenant of Grace properly consists of the New Covenant only. Moreover, you cannot be under both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, so you cannot be merely in an administration of the Covenant of Grace. Either Adam is your federal head or Jesus Christ is, and you are only united to the latter by faith. A covenant that does not have Christ as its substance cannot save, and a covenant that cannot save does not have Christ as its substance.

And now, because you have been so good in persevering to this point, I present to you a chart in nice Christmas colors.

This chart illustrates the connections between the biblical covenants I have discussed. At the top is the Covenant of Works, of which Adam was the federal head. His sin brought condemnation to all his descendants—hence the black for death. This condemnation continued for all Gentiles, but with Abraham God began something new. Although He had previously made the Noahic Covenant with all postdiluvian humanity, this was the first time that God showed favor to a specific group of people, namely the descendants of Abraham. Here we see the division between Abraham’s two progenies: his physical descendants and his spiritual descendants. The physical progeny were connected to Abraham through genetics and received earthly promises. The spiritual progeny are connected to him through faith and receive heavenly promises. The physical progeny were brought into the Old Covenant, which had Moses as mediator and was based on human works. The spiritual progeny are brought into the New Covenant, which has Christ as mediator and is based on His works.

The Old Covenant included the circumcision of the flesh, but the circumcision of the heart properly occurs under the New Covenant. It is the New Covenant that includes the promise of union with Christ and the gift of the Spirit, and that is what is required to have your heart circumcised and fulfill the Law. Those who were under the Old Covenant formed a type of the Church. They were chosen by God to enter a covenant with Him, but they were not all elected unto eternal life. Only the elect were predestined to salvation before Creation. National Israel, the typological church, was given various rituals that were types and shadows of what was to come. However, these rituals did not have the substance of the things to come, and they were not directly akin to our current sacraments. Those who failed to keep the commands of the Old Covenant were cut off from the promises and fell under the covenant curse.

The true Church is made up of the elect of God. They are united to Christ and join His Body. Their hearts are circumcised, putting to death the flesh and regenerating them to life. When we speak of the sacraments (or ordinances) as contributing to sanctification, what are we saying? Sanctification necessarily follows justification. The sacraments do not provide you with sanctifying grace unless you are already justified. You receive nothing of Christ in the sacraments unless you are already united to Him. That is why baptism and the Lord’s Supper were given to the true Church: the elect. While there have certainly been people in history who took part in these sacraments and were not actually united to Christ, they did not receive sanctifying grace. Finally, because the true Church is united to Christ, it cannot fail. Everyone who is in Christ will persevere to the end. The New Covenant, unlike its predecessor, cannot be broken.

How do you become part of Abraham’s spiritual progeny? You must have faith like Abraham had. Those who have the faith of Abraham are his spiritual children and heirs to the better promises. Whether you are Jewish or Gentile, you must receive the righteousness of God by faith. You do not actually receive it through Abraham, but even as he had that righteousness imputed to him, so you must.

I hope that this examination of the covenants has been somewhat helpful to you. I know it has been very beneficial for my own understanding of scripture. Should you decide that I have failed in my analysis, feel free to let me know. If the issue you raise is something I have not already addressed in one of these articles, then I will attempt to consider it thoughtfully and provide an answer. I might not be able to get you those answers until 2018, but I will certainly give it my all. Until then, merry Christmas, happy New Year, and God bless!

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.