Home > abrahamic covenant > John Brown on Galatians 3:16-17

John Brown on Galatians 3:16-17

In previous posts (see here, here, here, and here) I have argued that in Galatians 3-4, Paul does not identify the Abrahamic Covenant with the New Covenant and then distinguish them both from the Mosaic Covenant. His argument is much more nuanced. In short, Paul distinguishes between two different promises made to two different seed of Abraham. One promise concerned Abraham’s numerous offspring (who were circumcised and received the law to regulate their reception and retention of the promised land), the other promise concerned Abraham’s single offspring who would bless all nations.

Someone on twitter recently pointed me to John Brown’s commentary on Galatians where I found some encouraging agreement on key points (though not every point). Specifically, Brown agrees that Galatians 3:16 refers to a distinction between two different promises made to two different seed of Abraham; and he agrees that 3:17 should be translated as “concerning Christ” not “in Christ.” Furthermore, he rightly understands that circumcision was a seal of the historia salutis: a guarantee of the coming of Christ to bless all nations.

John Brown was a 19th century Scottish minister (grandson of John Brown of Haddington). Spurgeon said in his Commenting and Commentaries, ‘Brown is a modern Puritan of the utmost value.’

“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.”

The language is somewhat peculiar, but the meanhig is not obscure. That is ascribed to the Scripture which properly refers to God in that transaction which the passage of Scripture quoted describes. Similar modes of expression are to be found in other parts of the New Testament (Mark 15:28; John 7:38, 42; Rom. 4:3; 9:17). The meaning plainly is, ‘God, who foresaw that in a future period many of the Gentiles were to be received into his favour and treated like his children on their believing the revelation of mercy through his Son, gave an intimation of his design to Abraham in the promise which He made to him.’ The Syriac version reads, — “And God knowing before hand.” The phrase, “preached the gospel beforehand,” in consequence of the very definite idea we generally attach to the word “gospel” and the technical sense in which we use the word “preach” does not, I am persuaded, convey distinctly the apostle’s idea to most English readers. It is just equivalent to, ‘made known these good tidings to Abraham long before the period when they were to be realised.’ Tyndale’s version here, as in many other passages, is better than the authorised translation, — “showed beforehand glad tidings to Abraham.” And this intimation was given in these words, — “In thee shall all nations be blessed.”*1 The word translated “nations,” is the same as that rendered “the heathen [Gentiles]” in the beginning of the verse. The same word should have been retained to mark more clearly the point of the apostle’s argument.

*1 Gen. xii. 3; xviii. 18; xxii. 18. See also Gen. xxvi. 4; zxviii. 14. The words are not an exact quotation of any one of these passages, — eye vX. cV aoiy Gen. xii. 3, n. r. c.^ ori is not a part of the quotation; it marks the words quoted, as 1 John iv. 20; Rom. viii. 36 ; Matth. ii. 23 ; v. 31 ; yii. 23, etc. — See Buttmann, § 149. The Hebrew “o is used in the same way, Gen. xxix. 33 ; Josh. ii. 24.

But it may be said, What intimation is there in these words of God’s purpose to “justify the Gentiles by faith”? This will appear if we consider that the particle translated “in,” signifies, in connection with, along with, in the same manner as.*2 The declaration of the oracle, in this way of viewing it, is that, ‘all the nations,’ i.e. that multitudes of all Gentile nations, ‘shall be blessed along with Abraham.’

*2 This is a common signification of the Hebrew part [], of which [] is here the translations – Numb. 20:20; 1 Kings 10:2; Jer 11:9; Psal 99:6

“By ‘the nations’ in this promise we cannot understand all and every one in the nations; nor can we consider them as such, political bodies of men in the earth; but according to the New Testament explication, “it is a great multitude of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.” (Rev. 7:9) This will be evident if we consider that the blessedness spoken of in this promise, is spiritual and eternal, and must be acknowledged so to be by those who take the New Testament account of it (Gal. 3:8,9,14). It is manifest no nation of this world can, in a national capacity, be the subject of justification by faith, and of the promise of the Spirit, which we receive through faith ; and it is as certain that every person in the nations of the world is not to partake of this blessedness. What remains, therefore, but that it should be those who are redeemed by Christ out of every nation? And thus we find out the intent of the writings of the prophets about the nations. For these are enlargements upon, this promise to Abraham.”
-Glas’s “Testimony of the King of Martyrs,” chap. ii. sect. i. pp. 74-76, 12mo ed. 1777

The promise is fulfilled in God’s “visiting the Gentiles to take out of them a people for his name.” (Acts 15:14) Thus, all nations shall be blessed along with Abraham, in connection with Abraham, members of the same body, possessed of the same privileges, made happy in the same way as he was made happy.


And if, while this deed remains unrevoked, some other arrangement or disposition should take place which might seem inconsistent with it, if we have a perfect confidence in the wisdom and integrity of the author of the two arrangements, the conclusion to be come to is, the second arrangement does not really interfere with the first, and their apparent discordance must arise from our misconception of them. The application of this principle to the apostle’s object is natural and easy. God had, in the case of Abraham, showed that justification is by believing ; He had, in the revelation made to Abraham, declared materially that justification by faith was to come upon the Gentiles. This arrangement was confirmed or ratified, both by circumcision, which the apostle tells us was “the seal of justification by faith,” and by the solemn promise made to Abraham that, “in him,” along with him, in the same way as he was, “all nations should be blessed.” It follows, of course, that no succeeding arrangement of God could contradict this arrangement; and that if any succeeding Divine arrangement seemed to do so, the cause of this was to be sought in our misapprehension of its true nature and design, which, when clearly perceived, would distinctly show the perfect harmony of the two apparently inconsistent arrangements. This is the line of argument which the apostle pursuea in the following verses.

“Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises *3 made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one. And to thy seed, which is Christ.”

*3 “Plurale. Promissio saepe repetita : at lex semel data.” — BENGEL

These words admit of two renderings: either ‘Now to Abraham and his seed,’ or ‘now in, through, or in reference to Abraham and his seed.’ In either case they are expressive of a fact. “To Abraham and his seed promises were made;” or, in other words, blessings were promised. The following are examples of such promises, — Gen. xii. 3; xvii. 4-8; xxii. 16, 17. This has been generally understood to be the meaning of the apostle; and it has been supposed that his argument is, — ‘Certain blessings were by God freely promised to Abraham and his spiritual seed long before the law was given, and therefore their communication cannot be suspended on obedience to the requisitions of that law.’ The great objection to this mode of interpretation is, that it obliges us to understand the word “Christ,” not of the Messiah personally, but of the collective body of those who are saved by him.

We are rather disposed to consider the apostle as stating, ‘Now the promises were made through or in reference to Abraham and his Seed.’ Not only were blessings promised to Abraham and his seed; but blessings were promised through Abraham and his Seed to the nations (Gen 12:3; 22:18). It is to one of these promises that the apostle refers in the preceding context, verse 8. The blessing promised through Abraham and his Seed was, he informs us, the justification of the Gentiles by faith. We consider the apostle then as saying in the first clause of the verse, ‘Now the promises of justification by faith were made to the Gentiles through Abraham and through his Seed.’

The word “seed” is a word of ambiguous meaning. It may rather signify descendants generally, or one class of descendants, or a single descendant. The apostle in the concluding part of the verse tells us how it is to be understood in the passage he alludes to. “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy Seed, which is Christ.'”

These words have very generally been understood as if they embodied an argument, — as if the apostle reasoned from the word “seed” being in the singular, inferring from that circumstance either that the word referred to one class of descendants, and not to descendants of all classes, or to one individual descendant, and not to descendants generally. That this is not the apostle’s reasoning we apprehend is certain; for it is obviously inconclusive reasoning. The use of the plural term might have laid a foundation for the inference that he spake of more than one; but seed being a collective word, its use in the singular lays no foundation for an opposite inference. Even supposing that his Jewish readers might have been imposed on by such a sophism, which is not at all probable, it would not only have been unworthy of his dignity as an apostle, but of his integrity as an honest man, to have used it.

The truth is, there is no ground to suppose that it is the statement of an argument at all. It is just as Riccaltoun observes, “a critical, explicatory remark.” It is just as if he had said, ‘In the passage I refer to, the word seed is used of an individual, just as when it is employed of Seth, Gen. iv. 25, where he is called “another seed,” and said to be given in the room of Abel, whom Cain slew. In looking carefully at the promise recorded, Gen. xxii. 16-18, the phrase “seed” seems used with a different reference in the two parts of the promise — the first part of the 17th verse plainly referring to a class of descendants; the last clause and the 18th verse to an individual, and that individual is Christ.’ There is no doubt that this is the fact — that in the promise, “In thy Seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” the reference is not to the descendants of Abraham generally, nor to his descendants by Isaac, nor to his spiritual descendants, but to bis great descendant, the Messiah.

The words will, indeed, admit of another meaning, q. d, — ‘The sacred oracle does not refer to all the descendants of Abraham, but to one particular class of them; not to his descendants by Ishmael, nor to his descendants by the sons of Keturah, nor even to all his descendants by Isaac, nor to his natural descendants, but to his spiritual descendants.’ But this obliges us to understand the word “Christ” in a very unusual, if not altogether unwarranted, sense. Besides, if the apostle alludes, as is natural, to the promise he had already quoted, there is no doubt that the reference there is to the Messiah personally considered,* We therefore prefer the former mode of interpretation. The promise of justification by faith to the Gentiles was made through Abraham and his seed, meaning by his seed, the Messiah. The reason why this is so particularly noticed will appear in the course of the discussion.

The apostle proceeds with his argument. “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none efiect.”

The only phrase which is obscure in this verse is the clause rendered “in Christ.” Some would render it to Christ; others till Christ, i.e. till Christ came, which is undoubtedly its meaning at chapter v. 24. I apprehend the true rendering of the particle is concerning or in reference to — a meaning which the term by no means uncommonly bears in the New Testament. I shall give a few examples, — Eph. v. 32 ; Acts ii. 25 ; Heb. vii. 14 ; Luke xii. 21 ; Bom. iv. 20 ; xvi. 19 ; 2 Cor. ii. 9. The covenant in reference to Christ is just the arrangement or settlement as to justification by faith to be extended to the Gentiles through the Messiah, which was made known in the Divine declaration to Abraham. This Divine arrangement was “confirmed of God,” ratified by God in the ordinance of circumcision which was given to Abraham as a person justified in uncircumcision, and made known as a fixed appointment in the Divine declaration so often referred to. It was “confirmed before.” That is, it was a finished, ratified deed, long previously to the law.

‘Now’ says the apostle, ‘this completed and ratified covenant or arrangement about Christ, as to the justification of the Gentiles by believing, could not be disannulled by the giving of the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, so that the promise should be of none effect.’

There is some uncertainty as to the period of four hundred and thirty years mentioned, some chronologers insisting that it is the exact period from the time the promise was given till the law was given,’ others that it refers only to a part of that period, namely, to the time of the Israelites sojourning in Egypt. In either case it is true that the law was at least four hundred and thirty years after the promise in which the covenant about Christ was exhibited as confirmed. The law being a subsequent covenant or arrangement, could not make of none effect the promise, which was a previously ratified and unrepealed covenant. The person who thinks the promise thus made void, must labour under some misapprehension with regard to the nature and design of the law.

But it might be said. How does the making the observance of the law the condition of justification disannul the covenant or make the promise of none effect? The answer to that question is to be found in the next verse. “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise : but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”

“The inheritance” here is, I apprehend, the same thing as the blessing of Abraham, which, we have seen, is justification — the being treated by God as righteous ; or, what is necessarily connected with, indeed implied in, it — the heavenly and spiritual blessings of which the possession of Canaan is the type. The “covenant,” “the promise,” and “the inheritance,” all refer to substantially the same thing ; but it would be absurd to say these three words have the same meaning. The “covenant” refers to the Divine arrangement as to conferring on men the blessings of the Divine favour, ” the promise ” is the revelation of this in the form of a promise, and ” the inheritance ” is this as enjoyed by men. It is termed ” the inheritance,” because it is as the spiritual descendants of Abraham, ” the father of the faithful,” that we come to enjoy it. Now, if the enjoyment of this inheritance be suspended on our obedience to the law of Moses, ” it is no more of promise,” i. e. it is no more a free donation in fulfilment of a free promise. But this is the character which belongs to the blessing as originally promised to Abraham. “God gave it to Abraham by promise,” i. e, ‘God freely promised it to Abraham;’ or, ‘God in promising it, acted from free favour.’ He meant to give a favour, a free favour ; not to make a bargain, however favourable. Abraham’s justification was not suspended on his circumcision ; and the justification of the Gentiles was to be like Abraham’s.

This, then, is the sum of the apostle’s argument, A ratified, unrepealed constitution cannot be set aside by a subsequent constitution. The plan of justification by believing was a ratified and unrepealed constitution. The law was a constitution posterior to this by a long term of years. If the observance of the law were constituted the procuring cause or necessary means of justification, such a constitution would necessarily annul the covenant before ratified, and render the promise of none effect. It follows, of course, that the law was appointed for no such purpose. Whatever end it might serve, it could not serve this end ; it could never be appointed to serve this end.

  1. markmcculley
    December 7, 2018 at 10:37 am

    James Haldane –“although an oath was made to Abraham, securing the blessing to all families of the earth through him, this does not prove that the covenant made with him was the new covenant… This was a promise that the Saviour, revealed immediately after the fall, Gen. iii. 15. should spring from him… To call this the covenant of grace, is only calculated to mislead; for surely it was peculiar to Abraham that Christ should spring from him.

    Lee Irons goes on to interpret the use in the case of Isaac, as a “nonliteral” extension. Isaac is not “literally” an “only child”. This is not really a stumbling block– anyone can call someone an only child, even if they aren’t, and by doing so they suggest a raft of implicatures. In the case of Isaac, he is the only child that counts, the child of the promise, or in Irons’ terms, the legitimate heir.



  1. December 4, 2018 at 4:46 pm
  2. December 4, 2018 at 4:48 pm

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