Additional Answers to Founders Conference Q&A (Is the Abrahamic Covenant “of works”?)

The 2015 Founders conference was on Baptist Covenant Theology. There was a Q&A Panel with Pascal Denault and Jeffery Johnson. Below are my thoughts on the questions that were asked.

Genesis 15 seems to be an unconditional covenant wherein God takes the obligation upon Himself to fulfill it. How is this only a promise in the Old Covenant, and not a covenant within the Old Covenant? How does this fit into the Old Covenant/New Covenant?

I would say that this was a covenant. The distinction is not between promise/covenant, but between promised/established. So the New Covenant was promised throughout the Old Testament, but it was not established until Christ’s death. But there was clearly a covenant established in Genesis 15. A few things should be considered:

1) God is swearing by an oath that what He promised will be fulfilled. Abraham wanted to know how he could be sure, so God re-assured him in this vision of a covenant oath.

2) In Gen 15, God is not promising to Abraham the blessings of the New Covenant: forgiveness of sins, regeneration, etc. He is swearing to fulfill what was promised to Abraham: that he will have numerous descendants, that they will inhabit the land of Canaan, and that in him all nations of the earth would be blessed. This last promise can be seen as a promise that Christ will come and establish the New Covenant to grant forgiveness of sins, etc. Thus we can say that the Abrahamic Covenant promises the future establishment of the New Covenant. It is not itself the New Covenant. Abraham was justified when he believed this promise, as it was a promise of Christ. But Abraham was not justified by the Abrahamic Covenant. As Owen notes “When God renewed the promise of it [the New Covenant] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins.”

3) God does not say this promise will be received through faith alone apart from works.

4) In fact, God specifically says that work was required to bring about the fulfillment (Gen 17:2, 9-14; 22:16-18; cf Gal 5:3; Acts 15:10). As John Murray states “The obedience of Abraham is represented as the condition upon which the fulfilment of the promise given to him was contingent and the obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished. There is undoubtedly the fulfilment of certain conditions… At the outset we must remember that the idea of conditional fulfilment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.” And the Mosaic is of works (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5).

Meredith Kline notes “How Abraham’s obedience related to the securing of the kingdom blessings in their old covenant form is a special question within the broad topic of the role of human works under redemptive covenant… His faithful performance of his covenantal duty is here clearly declared to sustain a causal relationship to the blessing of Isaac and Israel. It had a meritorious character that procured a reward enjoyed by others… Because of Abraham’s obedience redemptive history would take the shape of an Abrahamite kingdom of God from which salvation’s blessings would rise up and flow out to the nations. God was pleased to constitute Abraham’s exemplary works as the meritorious ground for granting to Israel after the flesh the distinctive role of being formed as the typological kingdom, the matrix from which Christ should come… The obedient Abraham, the faithful covenant servant, was a type of the Servant of the Lord in his obedience, by which he became the surety of the new covenant.”

Coxe says “It is noteworthy that in this transaction of God with Abraham we first meet with an express injunction of obedience to a command (and that of positive right) as the condition of covenant interest. It is all ushered in with this prologue (Genesis 17:1), “I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be perfect.” First in these words, the all-sufficiency of God is revealed for the ensuring of the promises. Then a strict and entire obedience to his precepts is required in order to inherit the good things that were to be given by this covenant. In this mode of transacting it, the Lord was pleased to draw the first lines of that form of covenant relationship in which the natural seed of Abraham was fully stated by the law of Moses, which was a covenant of works with its condition or terms, “Do this and live.”” p. 91

5) And thus Gen 15 is properly part of the Old Covenant, which includes the promise that Christ will come from Abraham (Rom. 9:5).

6) And it relates to the New Covenant in that it promises the future establishment of the New Covenant, and it typologically reveals information about it.

See also Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

How do you respond to dispensationalists who say Israelites occupy the promised land today because of the Abrahamic Covenant?

Johnson and Denault rightly noted that Israel’s tenure in the land of Canaan was conditional. They were exiled to Babylon for their disobedience to the Mosaic Covenant, and then after Christ’s death, they were finally cut off completely from the land with the abrogation of the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8). Augustine said “And it was fulfilled through David, and Solomon his son, whose kingdom was extended over the whole promised space; for they subdued all those nations, and made them tributary. And thus, under those kings, the seed of Abraham was established in the land of promise according to the flesh, that is, in the land of Canaan, so that nothing yet remained to the complete fulfillment of that earthly promise of God, except that, so far as pertains to temporal prosperity, the Hebrew nation should remain in the same land by the succession of posterity in an unshaken state even to the end of this mortal age, if it obeyed the laws of the Lord its God.”

Dispensationalists might object by saying that God promised this land to Israel unconditionally and as an everlasting possession. First, note the answer to the previous question with regards to works and the Abrahamic Covenant. Furthermore, if God gave them the land unconditionally, how could God have set conditions upon Israel in the Mosaic Covenant? How could he have exiled them? How could he have kept them out of the land for 2,000 years if it was promised unconditionally? The answer is that it was not promised unconditionally. Furthermore, as Paul explains in Romans 9, even this conditional promise to Abraham’s offspring regarding the land was never made to all of Abraham’s physical offspring. It was made to Isaac, not Ishamel; to Jacob, not Esau; and on down through history God sovereignly chose who this promise extended to, until it extended only to Christ who fulfilled it typologically, and thus it was made only to Him (Gal 3:16).

Regarding the language of “everlasting” Coxe notes “Now it is evident that they have for many ages been disinherited of it. But the solution to this doubt will be easy to him who consults the use of these terms in other texts, and the necessary restriction of their sense when applied to the state or interests of Abraham’s seed in the land of Canaan. For the priesthood of Levi is called an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13) [even though it was abrogated Heb 7] and the gates of the temple, everlasting doors (Psalm 24:5). This is the same sense that Canaan is said to be an everlasting inheritance. No more is intended than the continuance of these for a long time, that is, throughout the Old Testament economy until the days of the Messiah, commonly spoken of by the Jews under the notion of the world to come. In this a new state of things was to be expected when their old covenant right and privilege was to expire, its proper end and design being fully accomplished.” (87)

Would the part of the Abrahamic seed concerning the fallen seed be considered of works or conditional? If so, how can we say it was of works and grace?

See the two previous answers.

How much of a threat is NCT?

I agree with both Johnson and Denault’s answers. I wouldn’t phrase it as “a threat.” I do believe that the implications of NCT rejection of the moral law of God is unbiblical and has significant ramifications to systematic and biblical theology, as well as in the practical life of the Christian. However, there are also points of agreement we have with NCT over against Westminster Federalism, which need to be acknowledged and emphasized. Here are some of my posts on NCT.

Why is covenant theology important?

Because Scripture organizes itself according to the covenants that God makes with men. Therefore the way we understand them has systematic implications for how we understand all of Scripture. As just one example, current debates in reformed circles over the doctrine of justification and the place of works is directly related to how people view the covenants in Scripture.

Did Jesus tackle the Old Covenant/New Covenant distinctives?

In addition to Denault and Johnson’s good answers I would add that John 15:1-6 is a very good articulation of the distinction between the two. See my post on that here.

Who is the federal head of Israel?

We need to be careful in how we talk about federal headship. It is true that God establishes covenants with representatives, but that does not mean that those representatives always fulfill the exact same function as heads/representatives of other covenants. With regards to Israel, we can say that to a large degree Abraham was their federal head. Note especially Kline’s comments above: Abraham’s obedience secured Israel’s initial entrance into the land of Canaan (and as I explain here, this “drove away the birds” ie it held off Israel’s curse). But under the Mosaic Covenant, Israel’s obedience as a nation became the focus, and this requirement for obedience was then later focused on a representative head as king of Israel in the Davidic Covenant, such that the kingdom rose or fell in accordance with the obedience of the king – which is typological of Christ’s kingship.

In Gal 3:17 it seems the promise and covenant wording is used interchangeably.

I don’t necessarily agree with Coxe on this point (his view is complicated). I believe there may be a better way to understand and articulate Galatians 3:17. I am not convinced that “promise” in this passage is being used as synonymous with the New Covenant. It may appear this way because Paul contrasts inheritance via the law vs inheritance via the promise, which we interpret to mean works vs faith. However, I think Paul’s argument is actually more nuanced than that. I think his argument starts all the way back in 2:21

“[I]f righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (2:21) “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.”” (3:8) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (13-14)

If righteousness were through the law, then Christ would not have to die (establish the New Covenant). But God confirmed to Abraham (via a covenant oath) that Christ would die and bless all the nations. Therefore, God did not later establish a means of obtaining righteousness through the law, because that would nullify his previous confirmation that Christ would eventually come to establish righteousness (inheritance) through His death. If righteousness were through the law, it would be pointless to promise a future Christ. God promised a future Christ, therefore righteousness is not through the law.

This does not mean the Abrahamic Covenant is the New Covenant. It simply means that God promised the New Covenant, so he therefore did not establish an alternative means of salvation.

To elaborate on the distinction above between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant, consider the example (recognizing that all analogies fail at some point) of this wedding covenant/contract. If you click the link, you will see that it is not a marriage covenant, but a contract regarding the performance of the wedding.

This contract defines the terms and conditions under which The Salem Herbfarm and
___________________________ (hereafter referred to as the CLIENT) agree to the CLIENT’s use of The Salem Herbfarm’s facilities on __________________________ (reception/event date). This contract constitutes the entire agreement between the parties and becomes binding upon the signature of both parties. The contract may not be
amended or changed unless executed in writing and signed by The Salem Herbfarm and the CLIENT.

Once signed, this covenant confirms that the wedding will take place. Once confirmed, the contract is binding and cannot be amended or changed. “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.” But the actual wedding still has to be performed, because this wedding covenant is not the marriage covenant, it simply guarantees the marriage covenant will occur. If a couple signs this contract, they will not sign a different contract that says the wedding will take place somewhere else. That would violate this contract.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (3:15-22)

So, in short, I believe Gal 3:17 teaches that God promised, via the Abrahamic Covenant, that the New Covenant would be established to grant sinners eternal life. Therefore God did not establish the Mosaic Covenant to offer sinners eternal life.

4 thoughts on “Additional Answers to Founders Conference Q&A (Is the Abrahamic Covenant “of works”?)

  1. Pingback: 1689’r Link Roundup | The Confessing Baptist

  2. Pingback: Les & Tanner Talk Baptism | Contrast

  3. markmcculley

    from the OPC Report—“Misinterpretive republication: the idea that the covenant of works is not actually republished in a substantial sense in the Mosaic covenant but is present only in the misunderstanding of those who opposed Paul’s teaching of a substantially gracious Mosaic covenant. Hence, the language of contrast between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants rests in the minds of Paul’s opponents, but not in Paul’s actual theology.”


  4. Pingback: Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional? | Contrast

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