Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 2: Typological Merit

In Part 1 we saw how John Murray and Norman Shepherd interpreted the Abrahamic Covenant (like the Mosaic and New) as the Covenant of Grace requiring obedience in order for its promises to be fulfilled.

Old and New Covenants

How did Kline respond? First, he distinguished between the Old and New Covenants with regards to their principle of inheritance.

The contrast between the old and new covenants repeatedly drawn by the apostle Paul is the same works-grace contrast found in Jeremiah’s familiar prophecy of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). Identifying the old covenant as one that could be and was broken, the prophet declared that the new covenant would not be like the old covenant, a breakable covenant. It does of course happen that individuals prove false to the new covenant, but Jeremiah is referring to the kingdom order as such. The eternal antitypical kingdom of the new covenant, the kingdom of the righteous knowledge of God in the Spirit, is attained on the ground of the meritorious accomplishment of Christ, and its realization is thus made sure as a matter of guaranteed grace to Christ’s people, God forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more. But the prototypical kingdom immediately in view in the old covenant obviously lacked that unbreakable guarantee, for once and again, and at last irrevocably, that kingdom was taken away from the covenant people by their removal into exile. Indeed, the kingdom order as such was ultimately terminated in a devastating divine infliction of the curse of the covenant. The principle operating here was manifestly altogether different from the promise-faith principle of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. Apart from a recognition of the operation of the principle of works in the old covenant it is impossible to account for Jerusalem’s desolation. As Moses had solemnly warned in the constitutional documents of the old covenant, the continuance of the Israelite kingdom in Canaan was conditioned on their covenant-keeping; corporate disloyalty against the Lord of the covenant would result in the catastrophic ending of the whole kingdom order.

(Of Works and Grace)


With the abolishing of the Mosaic order, the second level kingdom of the messianic age was initiated under the Lord’s New Covenant with the church. Jeremiah, speaking of the new covenant to be made in the coming days (Jer 31:31–34), drew a sharp contrast between it and the covenant made at Sinai (i.e., the stratum of it concerned with the typological kingdom). He described the Old Covenant as breakable and in fact as having been broken by Israel, which means that it was informed by the works principle of inheritance. And he asserted that the new covenant would be unlike the Torah covenant. It would be unbreakable; it would be an administration of gospel grace and forgiveness. While then we will want to affirm the New Covenant’s continuity with the foundational gospel stratum of the Mosaic economy and with the Abrahamic Covenant of promise, we must also acknowledge the works-grace discontinuity between the new and the old (at its typological level), the difference that Jeremiah so emphatically asserted.

(GHHM 97)


Abrahamic Covenant of Promise

In this way Kline avoided making Leviticus 18:5 the condition of our salvation in Christ. But how does the Abrahamic Covenant relate to these two covenants and therefore our salvation? He saw the Abrahamic Covenant as a grace-promise covenant.

Divine promise in the context of redemptive covenant connotes the principle of grace, the opposite of works. Thus, when Paul in his analysis of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in Galatians 3 identifies the former as promise (v. 17; cf. Eph 2:12), he sets it over against the principle of works (“law,” v.18) operative in the latter, and says it is received by faith in Jesus Christ (v.22). God’s promise arrangement with Abraham is made synonymous with the gospel of grace… Inheritance of the promise was not through the works principle of the law (v.13), for that is contrary to the promise-grace-faith-forgiveness principle (vv.14,15; cf. vv.4-8)…

By its identification with the gospel of Jesus Christ the Abrahamic Covenant is seen to be a promissory anticipation of the new covenant.

(KP 294-95)


Two-Level Fulfillment

Thus the New, not the Old Covenant, is identified with the Abrahamic. But what then of Abraham’s obedience? As Murray noted, the conditionality of the Mosaic is seen first in the conditionality of the Abrahamic, and the Mosaic appears to be a confirmation or continuation of the Abrahamic. To address this, Kline first explained that there are two different levels of fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant: typological and antitypological.

We have already remarked on the law-gospel contrast between the Old and New Covenants. Another aspect of the discontinuity between them emerges when they are viewed as two stages in the fulfilling of the kingdom promise of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Old Covenant kingdom is only a temporary type, a provisional symbol, while the New Covenant kingdom is the permanent antitypical reality. Emphasizing this difference, the Book of Hebrews declares the discontinuity to be such that with the initiating of the New Covenant, the Old Covenant becomes obsolete and vanishes away (Heb 8:13). (GHHM 97-98)

At the typological level, the Abrahamic Covenant was fulfilled in Israel’s redemption out of Egypt and their inheritance of the land of Canaan. Their retention of the land was governed by the Sinai covenant, which operated upon a works principle (Lev 18:5) in contrast to a faith principle (Gal 3:12). Israel thus lost the land because of their disobedience and the LORD divorced them for their unfaithfulness. At the antitypological level, Jesus Christ, the true and only faithful Israelite obeyed the law perfectly, earning the antitypical eschatological land inheritance for his people, who receive it through faith alone.


Abraham’s Obedience

Ordo Salutis

Kline acknowledges Murray’s point that covenant fellowship with God demands obedience. The question is how that obedience relates to the covenant promises.

Reflection of the ethical glory of God must always be required of all, men or angels, who dwell in fellowship with him. Such divine demand for godliness is therefore found in covenants of works and grace alike. The precise kind of conditionality carried by the imposed obligations differs, however, in these two types of covenant.

In distinguishing the two varieties of conditionality the key question is that of the function of the response of obedience. If the obedience functions as the meritorious ground of reception or retention of the kingdom blessings, the conditionality is that of the works principle, the opposite of the principle of grace. Obedience functions that way in the eternal covenant of the Father and Son, in the Covenant of the Creator with Adam, and in the Mosaic Covenant at the level of the typological kingdom (see further below). But what about the Abrahamic Covenant – how did the response of obedience function there? (KP 318-19)

Using his distinction between the two different levels of the Abrahamic Covenant, Kline said that the gospel grace of the Abrahamic Covenant required obedience as a fruit of saving faith, but the gospel inheritance was secured not by Abraham’s obedience, but Christ’s.

Under the Abrahamic Covenant human obedience was indispensable… Such indispensability of obedience did not, however, amount to the works principle. For in the Abrahamic Covenant, human obedience, though indispensible, did not function as the meritorious ground of blessing. That ground of the promised blessings was rather the obedience of Christ, in fulfillment of his eternal covenant with the Father. And man’s appropriation of salvation’s blessing was by faith…

Though it involves a kind of conditionality and has a certain kind of necessity, obedience thus originating and thus functioning is agreeable with the principle and guarantee of grace. Functioning as it does as a confirmation of saving faith it is supportive of the grace-promise-faith principle of salvation. And originating as it does from the renewing grace of God it did not nullify the guaranteed fulfillment of the kingdom promises, the grace that produces it being sovereign grace which infallibly accomplishes its purpose… [S]uch obedience is itself one of the promised blessings. (KP 319-20)

Historia Salutis

By distinguishing between the two different levels of the Abrahamic Covenant, Kline was able to correlate Abraham’s obedience as securing one, but not the other. Shepherd argued that Genesis 26:5 referred to Abraham’s obedience in the ordo salutis. In response, Kline argued that it referred only to the typological level of fulfillment – the historia salutis, not the ordo salutis.

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. Several times previously we have had occasion to note that the old (Mosaic) covenant order, though in continuity with the Abrahamic covenant of promise and even an initial fulfillment of its kingdom promises, was nevertheless itself governed by a principle of works…

Paul affirmed that the Mosaic Covenant did not annul the promise arrangement given earlier to Abraham (Gal 3:17). The explanation for this is that the old covenant order was composed of two strata and the works principle enunciated in Leviticus 18:5, and elsewhere in the law, applied only to one of these, a secondary stratum… The works principle in the Mosaic order was confined to the typological sphere of the provisional earthly kingdom which was superimposed as a secondary overlay on the foundational stratum [of gospel grace]…

But if the ground of Israel’s tenure in Canaan was their covenant obedience, their election to receive the typological kingdom in the first place was emphatically not based on any merit of theirs (cf. Deut 9:5,6). Their original reception of this kingdom, as well as their restoration to it after the loss of their national election in Babylonian exile, is repeatedly attributed to God’s remembrance of his promissory commitments of grace to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 2:24; 3:6ff.; 6:2ff.; 32:13; Deut 9:27; 10:15; Lev 26:42), pointing to the coming Messiah and the new covenant.

When, however, we trace the matter back to the record of God’s covenant revelation to the patriarchs we encounter statements that connect the promissory grant of the kingdom to the faithful service rendered to the Lord by Abraham…

[T]he Lord’s word to Abraham (Gen 15:1) has the character of a royal grant to an officer of the king for faithful military service. God identifies himself by the military figure of a shield (cf. Deut 33:29; Ps 18:2), otherwise read as suzerain, and promises: “Your reward will be very great” (also read: “who will reward you very greatly”). The term sakar, “reward,” is used for the compensation due to those who have conducted a military campaign. In Ezekiel 29:19 it refers to the spoil of Egypt which the Lord gives Nebuchadnezzar as wages for his army (cf. Isa 40:10; 62:11). The imagery of Genesis 15:1 is that of the Great King honoring Abraham’s notable exhibition of compliance with covenant duty by the reward of a special grant that would more than make up for whatever enrichment he had foregone at the hands of the king of Sodom for the sake of faithfulness to Yahweh, his Lord. The broader record of the Lord’s dealings with Abraham includes numerous key expressions paralleled in the ancient royal grants to loyal servants: such a servant is one who obeys, keeps the charge, serves perfectly, walks before his lord.

Another display of outstanding covenantal obedience by Abraham, the most remarkable of all, was the occasion for a second divine disclosure presenting the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant as a divine grant for the servant’s work of obedience. At the conclusion of the sacrificial episode on Moriah, the Angel of the Lord, the very one who was at last to be the only Son and substitutionary ram of sacrifice, called out of heaven to Abraham: “By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, because thou hast done this thing and hast not withheld thine only son that in blessing I will bless thee … because thou hast obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:16-18). Viewing this episode from the perspective of justification by faith in Christ, James expounded Abraham’s act of obedience as the work that demonstrated the vital reality of his faith (Jas 2:21ff.). But this event is to be seen from the redemptive-historical perspective as well as that of the personal, subjective experience of salvation. It had a special, decisive significance for the subsequent course of covenant history. This is suggested by the double affirmation, at the beginning and close of the oracle, that the promised program of the Abrahamic Covenant would proceed to unfold because Abraham had done this.

That Abraham’s obedience had special historic significance as the basis for God’s future favorable action towards his descendants is confirmed by the Lord’s later repetition of the substance of this oracle, now to Isaac (Gen 26:2ff.). Having restated his commitment to fulfill the covenant promises to Isaac and his line, the Lord concluded: “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Gen 26:5, cf. v. 24). Here the significance of Abraham’s works cannot be limited to their role in validation of his own faith. 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.

The term `eqeb, “because,” used in Genesis 26:5 (and already in the original revelation to Abraham in Gen 22:18) signifies recompense, reward (cf. Ps 19:11; Prov 22:4; Isa. 5:23). This strengthens the case for understanding this as a matter of meritorious works. Moreover, Genesis 26:5 describes Abraham’s obedience in language surprising in the Genesis context, the divine demand being denoted by a series of legislative categories such as are later applied to the laws of Moses. A particularly interesting combination of such terms together with `eqeb, “in recompense for,” is found in Deuteronomy 7:12 (cf. 8:20). Quite possibly then, Genesis 26:5 employs the terminology of covenant stipulations from the Sinaitic Covenant, where it describes an arrangement governed by the meritorious works principle, to reenforce the point that Abraham’s obedience was also to be understood as having such a meritorious character and that, as such, it was the ground of the reward enjoyed by his descendants.

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. Within this typological structure Abraham emerges as an appointed sign of his promised messianic seed, the Servant of the Lord, whose fulfillment of his covenantal mission was the meritorious ground of the inheritance of the antitypical, eschatological kingdom by the true, elect Israel of all nations. Certainly, Abraham’s works did not have that status. They were, however, accorded by God an analogous kind of value with respect to the typological stage represented by the old covenant. Though not the ground of the inheritance of heaven, Abraham’s obedience was the ground for Israel’s inheritance of Canaan. Salvation would not come because of Abraham’s obedience, but because of Abraham’s obedience salvation would come of the Abrahamites, the Jews (John 4:22)

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. Like the messianic Servant, the one whose meritorious service secured God’s blessings for the many who were his “seed” (Isa 52:15; 53:10-12), so Abraham was one, and the reward of his obedience was the blessings of the typal kingdom for the many who were his seed (cf. Isa 51:2).

Kingdom Prologue, 320-26


Eternal salvation would come because of Christ’s obedience, but because of Abraham’s obedience Christ would come as to the flesh from Israel (Rom 9:5) and thus salvation would come from the Abrahamites, the Jews (John 4:22)

God, Heaven, and Har Magedon, 103

In sum Abraham’s works merited the reward of numerous natural offspring who would inherit the land of Canaan, as well as the reward that Abraham would be the father of the Messiah.

5 thoughts on “Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 2: Typological Merit

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