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.
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).
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:
- 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
- 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.”
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.