Home > covenants > Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

I’ve been teaching a Wednesday night Bible study through the book of Genesis for about a year now. We’ve finally made it to Genesis 17 and the question has come up: Is the Abrahamic covenant (the covenant of circumcision, Acts 7:8) conditional or unconditional? This is not an easy question to answer, but it’s a very important one to answer. In a very helpful essay, Richard Pratt Jr. notes:

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that contemporary reformed theologians are taking different stances on whether the covenants God made with Abraham and David were conditional or unconditional. This is not to say that we have enjoyed complete unanimity on this and related matters in past centuries. Covenant theology has always been riddled with varying opinions. Yet, in our day, differences on this particular issue have so impacted other theological and practical dimensions of the Christian faith that they should no longer be ignored.

Details notwithstanding, two tendencies have emerged. On the one side, some theologians in our circles have argued that the covenants with Abraham and David were unconditional. That is to say, these covenants guaranteed future blessings unconditionally to Abraham and David.

On the other side, other theologians in our circles have argued that the covenants with Abraham and David were conditional. In this view, the future blessings of these covenants were gracious but in some ways dependent upon the condition of human loyalty.

God of Covenant

The reason it is so difficult to determine if the Abrahamic covenant is conditional or unconditional is because we seem to get two different answers from Scripture. In Genesis 15 God instructs Abram to cut animals in half and spread them out on the ground. This was a typical covenant ceremony wherein the covenanting parties then both pass through the parts of the animals, signifying that if either of them broke the covenant, they would be torn apart like the animals (take a look at Jeremiah 34:18, referring to the Mosaic covenant). However, in Genesis 15, Abram does not walk through the parts. Instead, in a vision, a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot (signifying God) pass through the parts. This would seem to communicate that Abram was not obligated to keep the covenant, that it was unconditional.

However, when we get to chapter 17, God tells Abram “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations (v9).” What does that mean? Well, in context, it is referring to circumcision:

10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

So it would seem that there is something required for Abraham to do. There is a condition. This is made very, very clear in the next verse: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Verse 14 very clearly establishes that this covenant is conditional and that a failure to meet the conditions will result in being “cut off,” which means put to death (cf Exodus 12:15, 19; Leviticus 7:25, 27).

Pratt notes:

These two chapters are the only places where the term “covenant” (berith.) appears in the Abrahamic narratives, but they are very different from each other. On the one hand, Genesis 15:9-21 reports how Abraham killed animals in a ceremony of malediction and how Yahweh passed through the carnage to confirm by divine oath that Abraham’s descendants would certainly inherit the land of Canaan. On the other hand, in Genesis 17:9-14 the maledictory cutting ceremony of circumcision is required of Abraham and his descendants as a sign of their loyalty to Yahweh. These texts report truths about Abraham’s covenant in very different ways.

So what are we to conclude? I believe the analogy of faith provides us with helpful guidance. Chapter 1 paragraph 9 of the London Baptist Confession says:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.

What we have is an apparent discrepancy between Genesis 15 and Genesis 17. One appears to say the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, the other says it is conditional. How should we try to resolve the problem? Well, if we agree with the confession, then we should seek to answer the question using the passage that speaks most clearly. Genesis 17:14 is very clear. It is not possible to get a clearer answer to our question. Furthermore, the relevant part of Genesis 15 is a vision. A clear, explicit passage should guide our interpretation of a less clear vision – not the other way around, as is common.

So if Gen 17 is to guide our understanding of Gen 15, where does that leave us? How can we harmonize these two accounts? Well, it would seem we have two options:

  1. Gen 15 and Gen 17 refer to two different covenants. This is the conclusion reached by Paul R. Williamson, for example: Abraham, Israel and the nations: the patriarchal promise and its covenantal development in Genesis
  2. There is some other way of understanding the vision in Genesis 15 that does not lead us to conclude that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional.

In my limited studies, I don’t think option 1) is an option. Pratt notes:

First, we should note that we are not dealing with two covenants made with Abraham. In Genesis 15:18 we read that “the LORD made a covenant with Abram,” or more literally “cut a covenant” (karath), a common way to speak of the initiation of a covenant. In Genesis 17:2, however, God said, “I will confirm my covenant,” using the Hebrew expression ve’ettenah>, meaning to confirm or establish what was already in existence. So, we find here not two covenants, but two facets or dimensions of God’s one covenant with Abraham, the latter being a confirmation and further explanation of the earlier.

That leaves us with 2). But what other meaning could the vision and ceremony have?

The Meaning of the Genesis 15 Vision

In short, I believe the vision means not that there are no conditions for its fulfillment that depend upon Abraham and his offspring, but that God promises to work in the lives of Abraham and his offspring to meet those conditions and thus bring about the fulfillment of the covenant promises.

For example, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham clearly depend upon him having an offspring. If Abraham does not have an offspring, then the promises cannot be fulfilled. But remember what we read in Genesis 17. If Abraham does not circumcise himself then he will be cut off, killed. And the same goes for his offspring. If Abraham had failed to obey God in chapter 17, then it would have been impossible for God’s promises to be fulfilled. If Abraham and his offspring are killed, then so is the hope of the Messiah.

The fulfillment of God’s promise depends upon the obedience of Abraham. But Abraham did obey. In an act of faith, he circumcised himself at 99 years old. Abraham obeyed because God gave him a new heart that was willing to obey.

If we look at the nation of Israel, we see a similar dilemma. If the nation is destroyed, then so is the hope of the Messiah. And yet God warns in Deuteronomy 28 and elsewhere that if Israel does not obey, they will be destroyed. In Ch. 28 we read a lengthy list of blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience to the Mosaic law. Numerous times we read that “all these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed” (v45), “until he has destroyed you” (v48), “until you are destroyed” (v51), “until they have caused you to perish” (v51), “until you are destroyed” (v61).

So, again, the fulfillment of God’s promise depends upon the obedience of Abraham’s offspring. If they disobey, God will curse them until they are destroyed, and with their destruction comes the destruction of the hope of the Messiah. How is this dilemma handled? The same way it is handled in Abraham’s account in Genesis 17.

Take a look at Deut 30:1-10. Here (and in ch 28 to an extent), Moses is not simply giving warnings, but is instead prophesying of what will happen.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.

So the destruction of Israel will be prevented when Israel turns to the Lord and obeys him. But notice how this will happen. In 30:6 we read: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

This is how God can ensure that His promise will come to pass. He will cause the elect to fulfill the conditions necessary to the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. Note that this is not the same thing as saying the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional because it’s conditions were fulfilled by a mediator (like the New Covenant).

So we see the obedience of Abraham and his offspring as a condition for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and we also see that God will provide the necessary cause of that obedience: a new heart. I believe this is what the vision in Genesis 15 is promising.

Further support for this claim is found in Deut 28:26. In the midst of reciting the curses upon Israel, we read:

25 “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.

A parallel warning is found in Jeremiah 7:33

30″For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. 31And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. 33 And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. 34 And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste.

In both instances, the warning is that when Israel disobeys, there will be no one to frighten away the birds from eating their corpses. What is this referring to? What does it mean for someone to frighten away the birds? Where else do we see this imagery in Scripture? Genesis 15:11 “And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.”

Abraham, or rather, the promise God made to Abraham, is what fightens the birds away. God’s promise to Abraham prevents Israel from being utterly destroyed. But how exactly does it prevent Israel from being destroyed? How does Abraham frighten away the birds? These passages say that if they disobey, there will be no one to frighten the birds away. So again, we see that obedience is a crucial condition for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. And thus, God works obedience in the elect to bring about the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. Obedience frightens the birds away.

Take note of Leviticus 26:

40″But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.

The condition for God remembering his covenant with Abraham is the circumcision of Israel’s heart – something only He can do. That is the meaning of the vision in Genesis 15. It does not mean there are not conditions to be met by Abraham’s descendants. It means God will cause them to obey and meet those conditions. And I will add that He does that by means of the new covenant. Only the new covenant provides the regeneration necessary for faith and obedience. Witsius notes, regarding the Mosaic covenant:

Nor Formally the Covenant of Grace: “Because that requires not only obedience, but also promises, and bestows strength to obey. For, thus the covenant of grace is made known, Jer. xxxii. 39. ‘and I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever.’ But such a promise appears not in the covenant made at mount Sinai. Nay; God, on this very account, distinguishes the new covenant of grace from the Sinaitic, Jer. xxxi. 31-33. And Moses loudly proclaims, Deut xxix. 4. ‘yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.’ Certainly, the chosen from among Israel had obtained this. Yet not in virtue of this covenant, which stipulated obedience, but gave no power for it: but in virtue of the covenant of grace, which also belonged to them.

http://www.reformationtheology.com/2008/11/the_mosaic_covenant_works_or_g.php

Conclusion

Though the thesis of Pratt’s essay is slightly different from mine, he concludes:

To reinforce what we have seen at this point, we should mention that the language of conditionality is the same in all three covenants God made with Israel. As we have already seen, in Genesis 17:9 God told Abraham and his descendants to “keep my covenant” by observing circumcision. This expression also appears in the Mosaic covenant when God says to Israel in Exodus 19:5 “and you must keep my covenant”. In the same way, in Psalm 132:11 the Davidic line is also required to “keep my covenant.” This shared language makes it clear that the fundamental dynamics of all three covenants are the same…

…In my estimation reformed theologians who argue that the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional are fundamentally misguided. Although we may distinguish the central concerns of Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants from each other and from other biblical covenants, there is little justification for arguing that the difference is conditionality and unconditionality.

However, Pratt makes a very serious error in his essay. He makes a number of helpful observations about the Abrahamic covenant, including observations about Royal Land Grant and Suzzerain-Vassal Treaties, so I encourage you to read it. But after establishing that the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants were conditional, he erroneously applies these conclusions to the New Covenant, because he believes that the New Covenant is only an historical administration of the covenant of grace, of which the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and Noahic are all parts or dispensations. He therefore concludes that our salvation is conditioned upon our obedience:

“a measure of conformity to God’s standards of holiness is a necessary condition for receiving salvation…the New Testament makes sanctification a necessary condition for eternal salvation…faith that justifies has always resulted in meeting the requirements of good works.”

Pratt’s error is that he lumps in the New Covenant with all the others and fails to recognize it’s utter distinctness, it’s utter newness. Furthermore, he fails to recognize that the New Covenant, working throughout the OT, was the means God used to fulfill His promise to Abraham in Genesis 15. The Abrahamic Covenant was not the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace. See how John Owen explained this:

“When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,

-Exposition of Hebrews 8:6″

Abraham’s disobedience would cut him off from the covenant of circumcision. Our disobedience can never cut us off from the New Covenant because our obedience is found in our mediator Jesus Christ.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  1. March 10, 2010 at 7:50 am

    Brandon

    Thanks for a survey of a difficult subject. I would differ a little about the unconditional/conditional distinction. I agree that the Abrahamic involves the obedience of faith and that that obedience is given by God. But in a sense that is why it is unconditional.

    I think we have to allow the NT to shape our understanding. If we do that we will see the covenant with Abraham as one of promise (grace through faith) and in that sense is unconditional. While the Mosaic covenant is of works – this do and you will live. It contains no foundational promise all promise (blessing and cursing) is predicated on obedience thus it is conditional. Gals 3,4 is the prism through which Abrahamic/Mosaic covenants must be understood.

    I agree there is a newness to the new covenant. In the first instance the newness is a contrast with the oldness, not of the Abrahamic covenant, but the mosaic. This is Paul’s (and Hebrews) regular point of contrast. However, the new covenant is linearly connected to the Abrahamic covenant – what the Abrahamic looks forward to (promises) the new covenant realises (fulfils). Both are covenants that are of grace through faith.

    Gal 3:7-9 (ESV)
    Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

    • March 30, 2010 at 8:50 am

      I’m curious John, how do you relate the Mosaic covenant to the Abrahamic? Circumcision is continually held up in the NT as directly tied to law keeping “do this and live” in the Mosaic covenant – yet circumcision is clearly the condition introduced in the Abrahamic covenant.

      • March 30, 2010 at 11:51 am

        That’s a good question. Have you any thoughts on it? Here are a few comments.

        Paul is at pains to show in Romans/Galatians that circumcision is not intrinsic to justification by faith and to the covenant. Abraham was justified and the covenant made before he was circumcised (Roms 4). It is to this Abraham, prior to circumcision, both Jew and gentile who live by faith are related.

        Israel as a nation is related to Abraham merely physically, ‘according to the flesh’ (Roms 4:1). In fact, circumcision is the covenant sign of a physical/’flesh’ relationship to Abraham – both Ishmael and Isaac are circumcised. Paul constantly relates circumcision to the natural as opposed to the spiritual, ‘the flesh’ as opposed to the Spirit. The Law was also addressed to Israel in the flesh – it did not assume life but offered life to the doer. In this sense external circumcision stresses what is merely human or fleshly – be it physical life through Abraham (mere flesh) or an attempt to gain life through Law (again mere flesh).

        The Abrahamic covenant, however, as noted above, had a deeper level, not achieved by human effort but by divine promise, not natural but supernatural, not by flesh but by faith; it is those of faith who really are the true children of Abraham, born supernaturally (like Isaac) by the Spirit not born naturally (Ishmael) by flesh. Thus the deeply ironic allegory of Gals 4.

        External circumcision stresses (symbolises) what is merely natural and fleshly whereas circumcision of the heart stresses what is supernatural and spiritual. Thus it chimes with the OC of Law which corresponds to that which is merely external and achieved by flesh, while faith, the circumcision of heart, chimes with the NC and corresponds to what is internal and of the Spirit of God.

        Good to see you are back reflecting on these things.

  2. March 10, 2010 at 9:59 am

    John, how do you interpret Gen 17:14?

  3. March 10, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Question is, how do you interpret Gals 3,4? The NT must lead us in our interpretation of the OT?

    • March 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

      Yes, the NT must be our final interpreter of the OT. However, there are numerous ways to understand Gal 3-4 and it is a notoriously difficult passage. I haven’t come to a conclusion on it yet, though I have wrestled with several different interpretations. Because I am teaching through Genesis, my method has been to seek to understand Genesis on its own terms first, and once I feel I have done that, turn to the NT. So currently we will work through chapter 22 or so and only then will we turn to the NT to see how it interprets everything we just studied. Looking at the NT will shed light upon how to properly understand Genesis, but we can’t hope to do so if we ignore what Genesis itself actually says.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong at this point. I’m simply asking you how you interpret Gen 17:14.

  4. March 10, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I understand it as analogous to apostasy. The only people who are truly in Christ are those who hold faith firmly to the end. (Col 1:21,22). It is similar to trampling underfoot the blood of the covenant with which you are sanctified or like Esau selling his birthright.

  5. March 11, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Brandon

    A couple of texts that further bear on the Abrahamic covenant (like you I don’t think it is two covenants – it is never so referred later in Scripture).

    Rom 4:1-17 (ESV)
    What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 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 counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ​​​​​​​​“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; ​​​​​​​​blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring-not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”-in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

    The promise/grace/faith nature of the covenant is underlined by Paul and sits in contradistinction to the Mosaic. Promise and grace mean as you point out that the covenant depends entirely on God; the implication at a deeper level is that God will give and sustain the faith. That is precisely Paul’s point in Roms 9. Why have some of Israel not believed – because not all Israel is of Israel, not all Israel are children of promise. Children of promise are those suprnaturally conceived, those that God brings miraculuously from death to life (Roms 4:17-24).

    Rom 9:6-24 (ESV)
    But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad-in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls- she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 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 depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

  6. March 11, 2010 at 9:23 am

    Final thought.

    Deut 30 – law not in heavens above or beyond the sea – is in fact a reference to the NC. Moses is looking beyond the exile to a time when God renews the heart – that is to the eschaton. The time when in NC God circumcises the hearts and the Spirit indwells. Thus Paul refers Deut 30 to the gospel word in Roms 10 – a word not impossible (like the Law) but accomplished (Christ has come down and has risen from the dead).

  7. May 1, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Hi John. Sorry it took me so long to write back. This issue takes a bit more brain power for me than others, so I’ve put it off until I had a bit more time.

    Responding to your last comment on March 30 –
    I think I would agree with everything you have said, but I don’t think it really addresses the core of my difficulty. Your original comment said that the Abrahamic covenant was one of promise, while the Mosaic is one of works. Circumcision in the NT epitomizes works. How then can we say that the covenant of circumcision was one of promise and not of works?

    Well, because of Gal 3:16-18, right?

    Ok, then it seems we have a couple options:
    1) Circumcision is not really a work of the law – Paul just re-appropriated it and used it as a device to talk about works of the law (ie to symbolize works of the law)
    2) Gal 3:16-18 is referring to something other than the covenant of circumcision when it speaks of the promise.
    3) Circumcision changed its meaning and became a work of the law when the Mosaic covenant was instituted (430 years later)
    4) Paul is arguing using types and shadows. In this view the covenant of circumcision actually is organically related to the Mosaic and both are “of works.” Yet, the true meaning of the covenant of circumcision is the promise of the coming Messiah (while not denying what the shadow is in itself), just as the true meaning of the paschal lamb is the suffering Savior (while not denying what the shadow is in itself, cf John 19:36 & Ex 12:46 – see Coxe quote below).

    Are there any more options we can add to the list?

    I am leaning towards #4. Though Nehemiah Coxe believed there were two covenants made with Abraham, he has many helpful comments, such as this:

    The scope of the apostle’s discourse (Gal 3) teaches us that the promises referred to are those relating to the justification and salvation of poor sinners. These promises include that grace by which the Gentiles are called to inherit eternal life. Some refer this principally to Gen 17:7. It will be readily granted that some of those promises that ultimately respect the spiritual seed and spiritual blessings are sometimes given to Abraham under the cover of those terms that have an immediate respect to his natural seed and temporal blessings as types of the other. When they are so, the promise still runs to his seed in the singular number.

    The Holy Spirit here teaches us to be on set purpose to gather up our thoughts to Christ alone as the spring and root of Abraham’s blessing when we consider the spiritual import of such promises. But this being allowed, that the apostle has the form of that promise in view, we cannot from there conclude that the promise is made to Abraham’s seed both natural and spiritual in one and the same sense. But only this much will fairly follow from it: that the apostle argues from the carnal seed as typical to the spiritual seed as typified by it. In so arguing he makes special use of the terms in which the promise is made as purposely fitted to its typical respect or spiritual sense. Similarly, the prohibition of breaking a bone of the paschal lamb, which was a type of Christ, is applied by John to Christ himself who was typified by it (John 19:36 with Exodus 12:46).

    A. W. Pink also has helpful comments along these lines:

    “It was through their failing to look upon Abraham as the type of Christ as the Head and Father of God’s elect, which caused the commentators to miss the deeper and spiritual significance of God’s promise and oath to him in Genesis 22. In the closing verses of Hebrews 6 the Holy Spirit has Himself expounded the type for us, and in our next article (D.V.) we shall seek to set before the reader some of the supporting proofs of what we have here little more than barely asserted. The temporal blessings wherewith God blessed Abraham—”God hath blessed Abraham in all things” (Gen. 24:1 and cf. Hebrews 5:35)—were typical of the spiritual blessings wherewith God has blessed Christ. So too the earthly inheritance guaranteed unto Abraham’s seed, was a figure and pledge of the Heavenly inheritance which pertains to Christ’s seed. Let the reader ponder carefully Luke 1:70-75 where we find the type merging into the antitype.”
    http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Hebrews/hebrews_028.htm

    There were not two distinct and diverse covenants made with Abraham (as the older Baptists argued), the one having respect to spiritual blessings and the other relating to temporal benefits. The covenant was one, having a special spiritual object, to which the temporal arrangements and inferior privileges enjoyed by the nation of Israel were strictly subordinated, and necessary only as a means of securing the higher results contemplated.
    It is true that the contents of the covenant were of a mixed kind, involving both the natural descendants and the spiritual seed of Abraham, its promises receiving a minor and major fulfillment. There was to be a temporary accomplishment of those promises to his natural offspring here on earth, and there was to be an eternal realization of them to his spiritual children in heaven. Unless this twofoldness of the contents of the covenant be steadily borne in mind, it is impossible to obtain a right and clear view of them…
    …The question may be asked, But are not Christians under the Abrahamic covenant? In the entire absence of any word in Scripture affirming that they are, we answer No. The blessing of Abraham has indeed “come on the [believing] Gentiles through Jesus Christ” (Gal. 3:14), and what this blessing is, the very same verse tells us—namely, “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. “That blessing consists not in creating spiritual relations between believers and their infant offspring, but is for themselves, in response to the exercise of their faith. Plainer still is Galatians 3:9 in defining for us what the “blessing of Abraham” is which has come upon the Gentiles: “So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” And again, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (v. 7). The only spiritual children of Abraham are such as have faith…
    …To sum up. The grand design of God’s covenant with Abraham was to make known that through him should come the One who would bring blessing to all the families of the earth. The promises made to him were to receive a lower and a higher fulfillment, according as he was to have both natural and spiritual children—for “kings shall come out of thee” (Gen. 17:6) compare Revelation 1:6; for “thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17) compare Colossians 2:15; Romans 8:37; I John 5:4. Abraham is called a “father” neither in a federal nor in a spiritual sense, but because he is the head of the faith clan the prototype to which all believers are conformed. Christians are not under the Abrahamic covenant, though they are “blessed with him” by having their faith counted unto righteousness. Though New Testament believers are not under the Abrahamic covenant, they are, because of their union with Christ, heirs of its spiritual inheritance.
    It only remains for us now to point out wherein the Abrahamic covenant adumbrated the everlasting covenant. First, it proclaimed the international scope of the divine mercy: some out of all nations were included in the election of grace. Second, it made known the ordained stock from which the Messiah and Mediator was to issue. Third, it announced that faith alone secured an interest in all the good God had promised. Fourth, in Abraham’s being the father of all believers was shadowed forth the truth that Christ is the Father of His own spiritual seed (Isa. 53:10, 11). Fifth, in Abraham’s call from God to leave his own country and become a sojourner in a strange land, was typed out Christ’s leaving heaven and tabernacling upon earth. Sixth, as the “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13), Abraham foreshadowed Christ as “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1 :2). Seventh, in the promise of Canaan to his seed we have a figure of the heavenly inheritance which Christ has procured for His people.
    http://www.pbministries.org/books/pink/Divine_Covenants/divine_covenants_04.htm

    Thanks for your feedback John. I will continue to reflect on these things until I sort it out or I die, whichever comes first ;)

  8. May 2, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Keep reflecting and give us the benefit of your thoughts. Don’t despair if you don’t get it fully sorted out. I doubt if any do. We see through a glass darkly. And Paul writes things, Peter reminds us, difficult at times to understand. God works at keeping us humble.

  9. September 23, 2010 at 2:42 am

    Amen. Indeed, “The fulfillment of God’s promise depends upon the obedience of Abraham.” And also I say, The obedience of Abraham depends upon God’s promise, upon which vindication of His very name depends. God will not fail to vindicate His holy name, and that by the means He has spoken.

    Thank you for your article.

  10. andi
    December 27, 2011 at 10:33 am

    i believe it is unconditional in the sense that God by his own Divine prerogative and sovereignty chose to honour and accept Abraham’s faith. Its not faith in itself. This is why romans says it is of faith that it might be by grace(unmerited favour)

  11. June 21, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Brandon,

    This article is so helpful to me. I’ve gone back and read it several times, and I must say that you are very convincing in your arguments. I think I agree with you, although I’m still working through all the covenants and their implications. I certainly agree with you about the issue of two covenants or just two administrations of the same covenant. I find it very hard to argue that there are two administrations, esp since Scripture itself uses the word ‘covenant’.

    Keep up the good work. I check in here often.

    Pastor Hardy Smith
    New Covenant Church
    Auburn Hills, MI

    • June 22, 2012 at 12:20 am

      Thank you for your encouragement Hardy. I must admit that I too am still working through all the covenants and their implications ;)

      BTW, I recently saw that a new book is coming out by Wellum and Gentry titled “Kingdom through Covenant” that may be worth reading http://www.credomag.com/2012/05/17/kingdom-through-covenant-interview-with-stephen-wellum-part-1/

      • David Rosser
        December 30, 2012 at 1:08 pm

        Brandon,
        Just found this thread through the grapevines. I want to encourage you to follow your instinct to understand the OT well before understanding it through the NT (which I think you mentioned above). I think this is crucial in understanding righteousness, justification and works. Those on the receiving end of the NT in the original were mostly Jews, and so the writers were writing with this in mind. This is huge! If then we do not become intimate with the OT (and arguably 2nd temple literature) we will not fully understand Paul, but only come to a gloss understanding described with catch-words. Not that I’m very far down this road but I’m trucking along in my own studies- currently trying to understand ‘righteousness of God’ and ‘righteousness” in a Jewish sense. I would welcome any authors or advice.

        • December 30, 2012 at 7:55 pm

          Hi David,

          My apologies, but I fear I may have miscommunicated. I don’t intend to imply the direction you are suggesting and would be very opposed to NPP
          http://bible.org/node/17773

  12. Brad Cardwell
    November 15, 2012 at 3:48 am

    My word! My pastor may have been right all along when he startled me with this pronouncement: One of the most dangerous things a Christian can do is to open the Bible to study. The very same Scripture that is used to argue for grace by faith is also employed to define grace by man’s obedience.. So many denominations and yet ostensibly the same Bible. It does seem dangerous for the believer to try to interpret the Bible without the benefit of the Holy Spirit’s illumination which comes by simple trust in God to provide it. It’s fascinating that if somebody wants to find salvation and spirituality based on a quid pro quo relationship with God, there are verses that can be wrenched out of Scripture to support this notion. On the other hand, for those who understand God on the basis of His unfailing love, Sovereignty, Justice and grace will find ample Scripture to confirm that God will do it, He will do it all and He will do it alone!

    And yet we still want to have it our own way: “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the LORD will be my God.”

    Pratt is not to be faulted here. His conclusions concerning the NC are a logical extension of his argument concerning the Abrahamic Covenant which seemed to impress you. But I still think there’s some truth to what they say, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too.’

    Quote: “Yes, the NT must be our final interpreter of the OT…Because I am teaching through Genesis, my method has been to seek to understand Genesis on its own terms first.” END QUOTE

    Quote: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.”
    End Quote.

    “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Galatians 3:1-3

    Thanks for a thoroughly fascinating discussion. Very helpful! Thanks and God bless.

    • November 15, 2012 at 8:11 am

      Hi Brad, I’m not sure I follow or understand your comments, but I’m glad you found the post thought provoking

      • Brad Cardwell
        November 15, 2012 at 8:48 am

        give it some time, perhaps. Thanks though.

  13. March 4, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    I too am grappling with these same questions and would like to add a couple more observations.

    Even the covenant with Abraham is clearly conditional in a limited sense. God said “Go … and I will …” in Gen 12:1-3, and v4 tells us that Abraham went. Until he went it was conditional, after v4 unconditional. Abraham has met the terms and conditions by simply going, and God now is bound to keep his side of the bargain.

    Similarly with circumcision. Abraham had to circumcise himself and all males in his household on day 1. And after that first day, he was in the covenant. So I see Gen 15 as God’s side of the bargain, and Gen 17 as Abraham’s side. And his side of the bargain is so trivial that we don’t call it terms and conditions of the covenant, but just a sign.

    But interestingly, for all future male offspring, circumcision was something done to you at 8 days of age, even against your will. Hence in that sense it is fully unconditional for Abraham’s descendants.

    In both cases there is conditionality, but it is what i have could call “light conditionality” – or maybe “conditionality-lite”! Abraham could and did perform the required deed (go, or be circumcised) and that was that. And also note that for his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, God simply repeats the promises to Abraham with no conditions whatsoever. As far as God is concerned, Isaac and Jacob are circumcised, so the promises are made to them. (But then, what about Ishmael and Esau? – there i go ruining my own argument!)

    Contrast that with the sign of the Mosaic covenant, which was weekly Sabbath observance – which required ongoing performance, rather than initial. And very clearly from almost the whole book of Deut, the covenant is heavily conditional on Israel’s performance.

    So i tentatively consider the Abrahamic covenant (and the Davidic) as “lightly conditional” ie performance of upfront and relatively trivial conditions only with no ongoing requirement, and the Adamic and Mosaic covenants as heavily conditional and indeed doomed to fail because of human depravity (although technically I guess the Adamic isn’t really a proper covenant).

    I do see the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15 as God alone (remarkably!) binding himself on pain of death to fulfil his oath, and i think the narrative emphasis on how comatose Abraham was is to show that he contributes nothing to this process.

    I have been grappling with these ideas for ages and still feel a bit puzzled by it all, so any new insights from anyone here would be much appreciated! By the way, the book called Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton I found helpful.

    • March 4, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Hi Mike, I would highly recommend a new book from Pascal Denault called “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology” as it discusses this issue. See also Jeffrey Johnson’s “The Fatal Flaw” for some very worthwhile considerations.

    • March 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      See also this forthcoming volume (don’t be scared by the baptist emphasis – this line of thinking has been tremendously helpful to me in sorting through this issue): http://grbcav.org/2013/02/recovering-a-covenantal-heritage-essays-in-credobaptist-covenant-theology/

      • mikeforward
        March 4, 2013 at 1:52 pm

        Hi Brandon

        Thanks for replying so quickly. Are those books about covenant theology in general or are they mainly about baptism? And are they accessible to a non-theologian like myself? Thanks

        • March 4, 2013 at 1:58 pm

          Those books are about covenant theology (though they mention implications for baptism, they are first and foremost about understanding the covenants in the Bible). If you enjoyed Horton’s book, then I think you would probably be fine tackling “The Fatal Flaw”, as well as “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology”. The other book isn’t out yet, but I’m guessing it’s going to be a little more in depth. If you get a chance to read any of those, I would be very eager to hear your thoughts. Also, stay tuned to the blog as I will have more on this in the future.

        • July 17, 2013 at 11:31 am

          Hi Brandon. I’ve started my own blog at mikeforward.wordpress.com. I’ve put my article about the Abrahamic covenant up there, and am currently writing a whole series on Sinai – done 2 so far. Mike

  14. June 15, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    I have recently been confronted by the belief of young Christian relatives of mine you I have found out believe that Christians are under the Abrahamic Covenant and use this belief to validate infant baptism. I shall be interested in your thoughts/beliefs as I have never considered that Christians are under the Abrahamic Covenant, having always believed that Christians are only under the Covenant with Christ.

  15. Alexis
    September 23, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Would you extend the conditionality of the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants to the Noahic covenant?

    • September 24, 2013 at 10:04 am

      Hi Alexis,
      No, I don’t believe so.

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  1. January 5, 2012 at 1:10 pm

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