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Galatians 3:16

March 18, 2017 2 comments

Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.

Commentators lament that Galatians 3:16 is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in the Bible. Pink says “this passage has occasioned the commentators much trouble, no two of them agreeing in its interpretation. It is commonly regarded as one of the most abstruse passages in all the Pauline Epistles.” Morris notes “At first glance, Gal 3.16 seems to be an example of careful grammatical exegesis; Paul observes and interprets the minutia of the text, stopping to parse a single word in the Biblical text.” I’ve seen the verse used to defend the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture: “Paul rests his argument of Galatians 3:16 upon a doctrine of verbal inspiration. Here the difference between a singular (“seed”) and plural (“seeds”) in Genesis 12:7; 13:15; and 17:7 is the basis of Paul’s argument.” But upon closer inspection one realizes that there is no such minutia in the text. There simply is no “seeds” vs “seed” in the text of Genesis. The word ולזרעך/σπέρμα itself can refer to plural or singular seed. In Genesis 13:15 and 17:8 (the two verses commentators believe Paul is quoting), it is clearly plural (“like the dust of the earth”). Furthermore, Paul uses the word in the plural sense in Romans 4:18; 9:7, and Galatians 3:29. Thus there simply is no appeal to the text to make Paul’s argument.

Typological Interpretation

A common interpretation is that Paul is simply arguing typologically. Yes, Israel were Abraham’s descendants (plural), but Christ is Abraham’s true descendant. He is true Israel. Lightfoot notes “the people of Israel is the type of Christ: and in the New Testament parallels are sought in the career of the one to the life of the other. (See especially the application of Hosea xi. 1 to our Lord in Matt. ii. 15.)” While this may be true and in line with Paul and other NT writing elsewhere, it doesn’t explain his “seeds” vs “seed” comment. Typology involves analogy and does not deny the type when explaining the anti-type. Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 does not deny that God also called the nation of Israel out of Egypt, but Paul here denies the plural was ever intended by the promise and argues only for the singular. Lightfoot says “Doubtless by the seed of Abraham was meant in the first instance the Jewish people, as by the inheritance was meant the land of Canaan; but in accordance with the analogy of Old Testament types and symbols, the term involves two secondary meanings…” But Paul is not arguing for a “secondary meaning” of the seed. He is arguing for the only meaning.

Corporate Solidarity Interpretation

Some try to evade this dilemma by taking the typological interpretation one step further, arguing that Paul is referring to the body of Christ – all believers united to Christ, the head. Therefore Paul does have in mind a plurality and there is no need to get hung up on the singular vs plural. Pink argues “‘to Abraham and his seed’ must mean ‘to Abraham and his spiritual seed were the promises made.'” Summarizing this view, Morris says “then there is no reason for the individual sense to war against the corporate, because the two are so closely tied to one another.” But this simply ignores the fact that Paul’s argument rests precisely upon making the individual sense war against the corporate, plural sense.

Election Interpretation

Another step is taken down this line of interpretation by arguing that although the promises were originally made in the plural, over the course of history the line in which the promise was fulfilled was narrowed. First Isaac, not Ishmael, then Jacob, not Esau, and on down the line until it is narrowed down to one individual, Jesus. Pink “The promises were limited originally, and that limitation was evidenced more clearly by successive revelations, until it was shown that none but Christ (and those united to Him) were included: “And to thy seed, which is Christ” (mystical)!… The promises of God were never made to all the descendants of Abraham, like so many different kinds of “seed,” but were limited to the spiritual line, that is, to “Christ” mystical.” Calvin argues in this manner.

Among Abraham’s own sons a division began, for one of the sons was cut off from the family… Since the ten tribes were carried away, (Hosa 9:17,) how many thousands have so degenerated that they no longer hold a name among the seed of Abraham? Lastly, a trial was made of the tribe of Judah, that the real succession to the blessing might be transmitted among a small people… The uninterrupted succession to this privilege must have been in force until Christ; for, in the person of David, the Lord afterwards brought back by recovery, as we might say, the promise which had been made to Abraham. In proving, therefore, that this prediction applies to a single individual, Paul does not make his argument rest on the use of the singular number. He merely shews that the word seed must denote one who was not only descended from Abraham according to the flesh, but had been likewise appointed for this purpose by the calling of God.

What Calvin says is true. God’s sovereign election determined which of Abraham’s physical seed were recipients of the promise. That is precisely what Paul argues in Romans 9. But that is not the argument Paul makes here. Rather Paul does “make his argument rest on the use of the singular number.” Furthermore, it ignores that Genesis 13:15 and 17:7 promise that a plurality of seed will inherit the land of Canaan – a promise that was fulfilled (Deut 34:4; 2 Chron 20:7; Num 23:10; 1 Kings 3:8) many years prior to Christ.

Sensus Plenior Interpretation

Looking at these interpretive challenges, Morris concludes that Galatians 3:16 demonstrates the validity and necessity of Roman Catholicism’s sensus plenior, which sees multiple meanings in the texts of Scripture, over against Protestantism’s singular meaning – because Paul could not have arrived at his conclusion from the text of Genesis.

Regardless of the text cited, whether Gen 13.15, ff. or 17.5-8, the Old Testament interpreter would almost certainly read these references to the seed (σπέρμα/ זֶרַע ) as a collective singular; plural in meaning with no indication that the original human author intended a truly singular sense. As demonstrated in the preceding examination of Rom 4 and Gal 3, Paul reads them as both plural and singular, without any evidence from the original context to signal singularity other than a form that he himself uses as collective (cf. Gal 3.29)…

Is it possible to see an original/ literal sense and at the same time read a present, ecclesiological sense in a single passage. As Hays so ably argues this seems to be Paul’s use of the Abrahamic seed in Gal 3.39 The two seem to be in parallel portions of a hermeneutical chiasm that converges at Christ and his advent. In this scheme Christ and the Christological meaning in the text would be the most inclusive and fullest sense (a sensus plenior) flanked by the two lesser (temporally bound) meanings, the original and the “ecclesiological.”

Setting aside the problems with the sensus plenior view (see also here), if we admit its validity for argument’s sake, it still does not resolve the problem in Galatians 3:16! As we saw above, Paul does not claim to be merely drawing out the “fullest sense” of the Abrahamic promises in Genesis 13 and 17, while acknowleding a separate original meaning. Paul is aruging that his interpretation is the original and only meaning! His argument against the Judaizers rests upon it.

Alternate Source Interpretation

Most commentators believe Paul is quoting/referencing Genesis 13:15 and/or 17:7. Lightfoot notes ““(1) The words must be spoken to Abraham himself, and not to one of the later patriarchs; (2) That καὶ must be part of the quotation. These considerations restrict the reference to Gen. xiii. 15, xvii. 8, either of which passages satisfies these conditions.” But as we have seen, Paul cannot be appealing to these verses for his argument about the seed. Are there any other verses in Genesis that Paul could be referring to? Some commentators argue that Paul has Genesis 22:18 in mind. Collins argues that “The best criterion for whether this is Paul’s source is whether it allows us to make sense of his argument.”

Collins helpfully starts this inquiry where many commentators do not: Galatians 3:8. He notes that Paul could potentially be quoting Gen 12:3; 18:18; or 22:18 [he also notes 26:4; 28:14; Ps. 72:17 contain the “blessing”], concluding that “Paul’s source in Galatians 3:8 is a composite, mixing terms from… these LXX passages.” Turning to Galatians 3:16, Collins lists the verses in Genesis where σπέρμα (‘seed, offspring’) occur with a bearing on Abraham:

[W]e have 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8, 19; 22:18; 24:7. Of these, most deal with the giving of the land to Abraham’s offspring: 12:7; 13:15; 15:18; 17:8; 24:7… In my judgment, the land promise texts (such as Gn. 13:15; 17:8) are not an encouraging line for investigation, because (1) the local nature of the promised land would not easily serve Paul’s argumentative purpose for the Gentiles; and (2) none of these is in the list of ‘blessing’ texts [that Paul quotes in Gal. 3:8]. The comment of F.F. Bruce is telling: ‘The reference to the land, however, plays no part in the argument of Galatians.’

Let that sink in. Paul has already told us which promise he is referring to. Why would we then assume he is arguing from a verse (Gen 13:15 or 17:8) that does not refer to that promise? That leaves Gen. 17:19 and 22:18. 17:19 is actually about the offspring of Isaac, so it does not apply. Thus we have 22:18.

Collins notes “Desmond Alexander has offered grammatical reasons for taking the ‘offspring’ in this text as a specific descendant.” Alexander concludes

The blessing of ‘all the nations of the earth’ is thus associated with a particular descendant of Abraham, rather than with all those descended from him. When we look outside of Genesis for allusions to 22:17b-18a, only one appears to exist. This
comes in Psalm 72:17 where we find the expression, (‘and may all nations be blessed through him’). From the content of Psalm 72 it is clear that the individual
mentioned here, through whom all nations shall be blessed, is a royal figure… The similarity between Genesis 22:18a and Psalm 72:17b is striking and supports the idea that the ‘seed’ mentioned in Genesis 22:17b-18a does not refer to all Abraham’s descendants, but rather to a single individual.

Morris summarizes this view:

Most references to Abraham’s seed in Genesis are immediately preceded or followed by plural pronouns or other referents for which the seed serves as antecedent, seeming to make plain the term’s collective sense in the context. Gen 22.18 emerges from the promises in Genesis fitting for a singular referent and works well theologically as looking forward to Christ’s redeeming the Gentiles. In the context of Gen 22, it is much easier to find an individual referent in verse 18. Verses 16 and 17 still deal with the multiplication of Abraham’s seed, but in verse 18, the seed is named as the agent of blessing for the nations, a unique statement among YHWH’s promises concerning Abraham’s seed. It parallels the original promises of Gen 12.2, 3, in which Abraham is said to be a blessing for others and it is in him that all the families of the earth will be blessed…

In the twenty-second chapter of Genesis, YHWH’s promise to Abraham differs from His previous covenantal pronouncements. He has tended to promise Abraham and his unidentified seed blessings and land (cf. Gen 13.15, 17.8) whereas in Gen 22, YHWH emphasizes the blessing that will come through or “in” Abraham’s seed. In other pronouncements of the Abrahamic promises, the “seed” serves as the antecedent for plural pronouns in the following verses, as is noted above. However, in 22.18, even though there have been references to plurality (cf. 17a) there is a sudden shift to the singular in v. 17b. Often translated with a plural gloss to smooth out the reading, the text literally reads, “your seed will possess the gate of his enemies.” This would seem to be a legitimate textual clue within the original context to see a sudden shift in referent, probably signaling some messianic or prophetic significance.

Problems with Genesis 22:18

Thus it appears quite clear that Paul is referring to Genesis 22:18 when he argues that the seed is singular. This would resolve a lot of problems and bring significant clarity to Galatians 3 as a whole. However, some have raised objections. Pink argues

J. N. Darby seeks to cut the knot by changing the apostle’s “promises” to “the promise,” restricting the reference to Genesis 22. Yet not only is the Greek in the plural number, but such an idea is plainly refuted by the “four hundred and thirty years after,” which necessarily carries us back to Genesis 12.

Morris likewise objects “It is striking that “the promises made to Abraham and to his seed” are most definitely plural (αἱ ἐπαγγελίαι), and therefore almost certainly cannot come from Genesis 22.18 alone, if at all, as there is only one promise made to the seed in that passage (cf. 22.17).”

First, even commentators that do not hold to the “22:18 view” recognize that the plural “promises” refers to repetitions of God’s promise, not to multiple promises. Lightfoot notes that promises is in “The plural, for the promise was several times repeated to Abraham.” Burton likewise notes “the basis for which is the repeated occasions on which the promise was made to Abraham, and the various forms in which it was expressed.” This makes complete sense when we recall Collins’ observation that “Paul’s source in Galatians 3:8 is a composite, mixing terms from… these LXX passages.” Thus Paul’s primary appeal to 22:18 is inclusive of the other repitions of the same promise.

Second, Pink objects to the timing, noting that Genesis 12 must be in view. Coxe agrees regarding the timing “From the giving of the first promise to Abraham, which we have recorded in Genesis 12:2, 3, to that very night in which the children of Israel were brought out of their Egyptian bondage, is the computation of these years made. This will be evident to anyone who will diligently compare the chronology of those times with the express testimony of Moses (Exodus 12:41).” But this is no problem at all if we recognize that the promise in 22:18 is inclusive of Genesis 12:3.

Next, Morris raises a grammatical objection.

Isolated from the original Hebrew text this option appears to have great potential as a resolution for Paul’s seemingly deviant contention in Gal 3. Unfortunately, this view encounters more difficulties in the phrasing and syntax of Gal 3.16. As noted above, Paul makes his citation (whether allusion or quotation) using the dative (τῷ σπέρματι). And while the Greek dative allows for some ambiguity (in either the NT or LXX), the Hebrew constructions used are syntactically exclusive. The two semantic functions have the possibility of sharing a form in Greek, but in Hebrew there is a formal difference: either a prefixed בְּ or לְ preposition.

Perhaps Paul was merely alluding to the text, rather than quoting it? Morris objects.

Paul’s attention to the exact forms within the text coupled with his using an exact match forGen 13.15 or 17.8 makes too compelling a case for direct quotation. It does not feel loose or divergent enough for a conceptual allusion. The presence of the otherwise rogue καί is even more compelling. In the context of Gal 3.16, the use of καί is too awkward to be anything other than a portion of the quote…

Paul’s language here is not generic enough to include promises from Gen 12.2, 3; 15.5; or 22.18. His phrasing is an exact match for Gen 13.15 and 17.8… So, Paul has quoted directly, and he has done so in a way that excludes Gen 22.18, the only text that seems to have a singular seed clearly in view.

So we have quite the dilemma. There is a text in Genesis that perfectly fits the logic of Paul’s argument, but Paul is specifically quoting a text that does not fit the logic of his argument at all, and in fact refutes it.

Two Promises Made to Abraham?

What if Paul is specifically quoting Gen. 13:15 and 17:8, but making an argument about 22:18? Paul is addressing Judaizers, which were made up of the physical descendants of Abraham who possessed the land of Canaan – that is, the people referred to in Gen. 13:15 and 17:8. And he is arguing with them about a different promise concerning blessing the nations, found in 22:18. The Judaizers did not distinguish those promises, but conflated them. They argued that all of the promises God made to Abraham were made to them. Paul responds by pointing out the difference between the promises. There was, in fact, a promise made to or about them, as we find in 13:15 and 17:8 “and to your offspring (plural).” But this other promise was different. In Genesis 22:18 “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” In other words, Paul’s point is that the promise in 22:18 is different from the promise in 13:15 and 17:8.

Abraham’s Two Seeds

One chapter later in Galatians 4:21-31, Paul distinguishes between two sons of Abraham. Commenting on this passage, Augustine notes

This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants—the old and the new… In the earthly city, then, we find two things—its own obvious presence, and its symbolic presentation of the heavenly city.  And this was typified in the two sons of Abraham,—Ishmael, the son of Agar the handmaid, being born according to the flesh, while Isaac was born of the free woman Sarah, according to the promise.  Both, indeed, were of Abraham’s seed; but the one was begotten by natural law, the other was given by gracious promise.  In the one birth, human action is revealed; in the other, a divine kindness comes to light.

Commenting on the parallel passage Romans 9:6-8, Augustine said

And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise

Augustine traced this back to the Abrahamic Covenant.

Now it is to be observed that two things are promised to Abraham, the one, that his seed should possess the land of Canaan, which is intimated when it is said, “Go into a land that I will show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation;” but the other far more excellent, not about the carnal but the spiritual seed, through which he is the father, not of the one Israelite nation, but of all nations who follow the footprints of his faith, which was first promised in these words, “And in thee shall all tribes of the earth be blessed.”…

“And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Gen 12:7)  Nothing is promised here about that seed in which he is made the father of all nations, but only about that by which he is the father of the one Israelite nation; for by this seed that land was possessed…

[T]he people were settled in the land of promise, so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.

This is precisely Paul’s point.


See also:

Gal. 3:18 – Generic Law and Promise, or Sinai and Messiah?

September 3, 2016 2 comments

[Note: the following are my own thoughts, not necessarily representative of other (past or present) advocates of 1689 Federalism – so take it with a few grains of salt… as with anything else I say on this blog 🙂 ]

Scripture teaches there are two antithetical ways of receiving something: as a gift or as a debt. “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” (Rom 4:4) “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Rom 11:6) “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal 3:12)

So gift/grace/faith and due/works/law.

From this we develop the distinction between a covenant of grace and a covenant of works. Nehemiah Coxe explained

[R]estipulation [meaning counter-engagement or covenant response] (and consequently, the way and manner of obtaining covenant blessings, as well as the right by which we claim them) necessarily varies according to the different nature and terms of those covenants that God at any time makes with men. If the covenant be of works, the restipulation must be by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to its law. Suitably, the reward is of debt according to the terms of such a covenant. (Do not understand it of debt absolutely but of debt by compact.) But if it be a covenant of free and sovereign grace, the restipulation required is a humble receiving or hearty believing of those gratuitous promises on which the covenant is established. Accordingly, the reward or covenant blessing is immediately and eminently of grace. (36)

A question then arises about how a promise relates to this dichotomy. It would appear that we could add Galatians 3:18 to the above list of ways of receiving something, adding promise as a synonym for gift/grace/faith. “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Gal 3:18 ESV)

On this basis, some men have argued for a distinction between a covenant of promise and a covenant of law. Lee Irons notes “In By Oath Consigned Meredith Kline distinguishes between ‘promise covenants’ and ‘law covenants’ (BOC 16)… Kline makes the same distinction in Kingdom Prologue, although he uses more traditional terminology, substituting “covenants of works/grace” for “law/promise covenants” (KP 5).” Galatians 3:18 was central to Kline’s argument.

Paul found the difference between two of the Old Testament covenants to be so radical that he felt obliged to defend the thesis that the one did not annul the other (Gal. 3:15ff.). The promise of God to Abraham and his seed (cf. Gen. 13:15; 17:8) was not annulled by the law which came later (Gal. 3:17). The chronological details show that Paul was contrasting the promise covenant not to some general law principle but to the particular historical administration of law mediated through Moses at Sinai after Israel’s 430 years in Egypt… The Sinaitic administration, called “covenant” in the Old Testament, Paul interpreted as in itself a dispensation of the kingdom inheritance quite opposite in principle to inheritance by guaranteed promise: “For if the inheritance is by law, it is no longer by promise” and “the law is not of faith; but, He that doeth them shall live in them” (Gal. 3: 18a and 12; cf Lev. 18:5)… we must recognize that, according to Paul, it was this specific covenantal entity, the Sinaitic Covenant as such, that made inheritance to be by law, not by promise—not by faith, but by works. (BOC 22-23)

On this basis, Kline identified the Abrahamic and New Covenants as one, in distinction from the Old Sinaitic Covenant. Kline’s argumentation is much more detailed, but a problem begins to emerge when we look closer at the idea of a covenant promise. Hebrews 8:6, for example, notes that the New Covenant is better than the Old Covenant, not because it is a promise covenant, but because its promises are better than the promises of the Old Covenant. Owen explains that

[E]very covenant between God and man must be founded on and resolved into “promises.”… It is necessary from the nature of a covenant… And herein lies the great difference between the promises of the covenant of works and those of the covenant of grace. The first were only concerning things future; eternal life and blessedness upon the accomplishment of perfect obedience. Promises of present mercy and pardon it stood in need of none, it was not capable of. Nor had it any promises of giving more grace, or supplies of it; but man was wholly left unto what he had at first received. Hence the covenant was broken. But in the covenant of grace all things are founded in promises of present mercy, and continual supplies of grace, as well as of future blessedness…

The promises of the covenant of grace are better than those of any other covenant, as for many other reasons, so especially because the grace of them prevents any condition or qualification on our part. —I do not say the covenant of grace is absolutely without conditions, if by conditions we intend the duties of obedience which God requireth of us in and by virtue of that covenant; but this I say, the principal promises thereof are not in the first place remunerative of our obedience in the covenant, but efficaciously assumptive of us into covenant, and establishing or confirming in the covenant. The covenant of works had its promises, but they were all remunerative, respecting an antecedent obedience in us; (so were all those which were peculiar unto the covenant of Sinai). They were, indeed, also of grace, in that the reward did infinitely exceed the merit of our obedience; but yet they all supposed it, and the subject of them was formally reward only. In the covenant of grace it is not so; for sundry of the promises thereof are the means of our being taken into covenant, of our entering into covenant with God. The first covenant absolutely was established on promises, in that when men were actually taken into it, they were encouraged unto obedience by the promises of a future reward. But those promises, namely, of the pardon of sin and writing of the law in our hearts, which the apostle expressly insisteth upon as the peculiar promises of this covenant, do take place and are effectual antecedently unto our covenant obedience. For although faith be required in order of nature antecedently unto our actual receiving of the pardon of sin, yet is that faith itself wrought in us by the grace of the promise, and so its precedency unto pardon respects only the order that God had appointed in the communication of the benefits of the covenant, and intends not that the pardon of sin is the reward of our faith.

So the fact that an inheritance is given in covenant by promise does not mean that it is given as a gift by grace through faith. An inheritance given in covenant by promise can be given as debt for works of the law. WCF 19.1 “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.” But if that is true, then how are we to understand Paul when he says “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” (Gal 3:18 ESV)?

I believe the answer lies in reading v18 not as a generic statement about law inheritance vs promise inheritance, but rather a specific statement about inheritance through the Sinai law vs inheritance through the promised Messiah. The NET says “For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise, but God graciously gave it to Abraham through the promise.”

Let’s back up all the way to 2:21 “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” This leads into what Paul argues in chapter 3.“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.'” This justifying faith of Abraham is antithetical to justifying works because “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.'” Therefore “the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” Returning to 2:21, righteousness cannot come through the law of Sinai, because if it came through the law of Sinai, then Christ died for no purpose. But God swore (promised) that Christ would come and die for a purpose. Therefore righteousness cannot come through the law of Sinai.

“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.” Paul is referring to the promise mentioned in v8 “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” What does “In you” refer to in that promise? It refers specifically to the Messiah, Abraham’s seed. “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.” This covenant promise was that in Christ all the nations would be justified. But if the nations could be justified through the law of Sinai, then Christ died for no purpose, which would make the promise void.“For if the inheritance [righteousness] is based on the law [of Sinai], it is no longer based on the promise [of Christ], but God graciously gave it [righteousness] to Abraham through the promise [of Christ]” referring to how God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed'” and “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'”

Therefore Galatians 3:18 does not teach that inheritance by promise is synonymous with inheritance by gift/grace/faith in distinction from inheritance by due/works/law. Therefore Galatians 3:18 does not teach a distinction between a covenant of promise and a covenant of law. Therefore Galatians 3 does not establish the unity of the Abrahamic and New Covenants in distinction from the Sinai Covenant. Therefore the Abrahamic Covenant may, in fact, be a covenant of law/works for the typical kingdom of Abraham’s carnal offspring in unison with the Sinai Covenant.

(For more on this, see the “Abrahamic Covenant” section on the Welcome page)

 

A Presbyterian (Finally) Gets Acts 2:39 Right

May 23, 2016 10 comments

In a previous post God’s Covenant Unfaithfulness? I demonstrated the error in the illogical claim that in the Covenant of Grace God promises the salvation of our children, concluding that “Physical heritage is irrelevant to God’s promise to save the elect.”

Advocates of the Federal Vision heresy have tried to take this false premise to its logical conclusion.

Steve Schlissel, pastor of the independent Messiah’s Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, wrote on a whiteboard during a colloquium on Federal Vision theology in August 2003 hosted by Knox Theological Seminary, “The children of believers are saved.”
(Evangelizing Our Children, 3)

Federal Visionist John Barach says

[T]here is an objective covenant made with believers and their children. Every baptized person is in covenant with God and is in union then with Christ and with the Triune God.
(Evangelizing Our Children, 2)

The obvious problem is that our experience and (more importantly) Scripture teaches us that not all of the children of believers are, in fact, saved. Federal Visionist Doug Wilson notes

In faith, we want to say that children of believers are saved. But we are not making a categorical statement of the “All P are Q” kind. We are saying that we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too. Now these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment. How are we to account for this?
(Evangelizing Our Children, 3)

E. Calvin Beisner (OPC, see 4 page bio) does an excellent job of refuting this error in an essay titled Evangelizing Our Children: A Reformed and Covenantal Practice. What sets Beisner apart in all of his writings is his understanding of and adherence to logic (see his Summary of Major Concepts, Principles, and Functions of Logic). In this paper, he demonstrates that Wilson’s attempted solution (“levels of discourse”) is illogical and therefore false. He pinpoints the Federal Vision’s error as their premise that God has promised the salvation of our children.

The Federal Visionists have not provided any promises of God of type (1), “All children of believers–or all baptized persons–are people who are saved.” Consequently it is of no use for Wilson to say, “we believe God’s statements and promises concerning covenant children, and we think others should believe them, too,”… Neither is it of use for Wilson to say, “these promises (in all our theological systems) have apparent instances of non-fulfillment.” That in itself assumes what the Federal Visionists must prove–that God has promised the salvation of all children of believers (or all baptized persons).

Beisner demonstrates that the logically inescapable conclusion is that

He has not promised the salvation of any children of believers or baptized persons simply because they are children of believers or baptized persons… [Thus] it is possible for any or even all children of believers, or baptized persons, to be damned. [emphasis original]

This is exactly what we concluded previously. “Physical heritage is irrelevant to God’s promise to save the elect.”

Acts 2:39

Beisner recognizes this conclusion has serious consequences for various passages that paedobaptists frequently use as proof texts.

What then are we to make of those precious passages with which we began? What of Peter’s statement, “The promise is for you and your children”? What of Paul’s that the child of even just one believing parent is “holy”? What of his promise to the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household”? What of God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you”? Perhaps we need to look at them a little more carefully.

Commenting on Acts 2:39, Calvin says

Whereas he adjoineth their children unto them, it dependeth upon the words of the promise: I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed after thee, (Genesis 17:7,) where God doth reckon the children with the fathers in the grace of adoption. This place, therefore, doth abundantly refute the manifest error of the Anabaptists, which will not have infants, which are the children of the faithful, to be baptized, as if they were not members of the Church.

In his excellent two-part essay on Acts 2:39 in Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, Jamin Hubner notes

the phrase ‘everyone who the Lord our God calls to Himself’ is entirely absent from [Calvin’s] commentary. This is particularly troublesome since he normally does not exclude entire phrases like this… This is what pushes readers away from the fact that Peter is talking of God’s elect (“everyone the Lord God calls to Himself”) – whether they are Jews or Gentiles, children or adults.

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) says in the 15th Topic of his classic work The Institutes of Elenctic Theology:

XIV. The reasons [for seminal faith in infants] are: (1) the promise of the covenant pertains no less to infants than to adults, since God promises that he will be ‘the God of Abraham and of his seed’ (Gen. 17:7) and the promise is said to have been made ‘with the fathers and their children’ (Acts 2:39). Therefore also the blessings of the covenant (such as “remission of sins” and “sanctification”) ought to pertain to them (according to Jer. 31 and 32) and are communicated to them by God according to their state.

The Westminster Confession of Faith references Acts 2:39 in defense of infant baptism in 25.2 and 28.4. Hubner notes “Combined with what appears to be loyalty to Calvin, there is, then, a repetitious pattern of errors in interpreting Acts 2:39 throughout much of history.” Thankfully, because of his commitment to logic, Beisner is willing to abandon that loyalty.

Consider first Peter’s comment in Acts 2:39. Thus far we have quoted only part of it. The whole of it is, “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Are those who insist that here is a promise of the salvation of the children of believers as quick to say that here is a promise of salvation “for all who are far off”? Those are not simply the children of believers; those include all men everywhere in the world. But does God promise salvation to all men everywhere in the world. Certainly not. Neither, then, does He promise salvation to all the children of believers. What does He promise, then, to all the children of believers and to all people everywhere? Look at verse 38–and I’m going to use my own very literal translation here to make clear the grammatical cause-and-effect relationship that is clear in the Greek but ordinarily gets obscured in English translations: “Y’all repent for the remission of y’all’s sins, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and y’all will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”… The promise is conditional: If you repent and believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll be forgiven. That promise does indeed apply to each and every child of each and every believer; and it also applies to each and every other person who ever lived or ever will live.

That is precisely what baptists have been saying for quite a long time. The logically necessary conclusion, as Hubner notes, is that

“Those who received his word and their children were baptized” is not in the text, nor would it fit any concept asserted in Acts 2. Baptism in Acts 2, in Acts in general, and in all the New Testament is consistently associated with repentance and faith… So no matter how one puts it, Peter is not asserting in Acts 2 that one should be baptized apart from repentance. He is asserting quite the opposite! This is a fact of the text (and all of Scripture) that stands in contradiction to infant baptism and simply will not go away: repentance from sin is a precondition to baptism…

Alas, the historical interpretation of Acts 2:39 has been anything but sound in the Reformed faith. Therefore, let us turn the tide by letting the Word of God speak on its own terms, and be willing to test our traditions. Only then are we truly practicing sola Scriptura. Amen and semper reformanda.

God uses false teaching to drive us to His Word. Look at any great creed or confession and you will see that it was formed in the midst of rigorous dispute. Presbyterian critics of the Federal Vision are frequently accused of making baptist arguments. Perhaps the Lord will use the Federal Vision heresy to drive Presbyterians to greater consistency, as it has done to Beisner.

Genesis 17:7

If Acts 2:39 is a conditional promise to everyone in the world and is not unique to the children of believers, how does Beisner interpret Genesis 17:7?

And finally consider God’s promise to Abraham, “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants [seed] after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants [seed] after you.” Does this imply that every physical descendant of Abraham–or even every one of his own direct, first-generation offspring–would be saved, that none of them would go to hell, all would go to heaven? Certainly not. As Paul explained in Romans 9:6-8… Likewise he wrote in Galatians 4:22-31… Notice that: “it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise.”…

Haven’t we heard some similar phrases somewhere else? Yes! In John 1:10-13, John tells us that the incarnate Word, Jesus, “was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world”–those who had no special relationship to Abraham–did not know Him. He came to His own”–that is, to the Jews, the children of Abraham according to the flesh, “and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them”–whether those of the world, or those of Abraham according to the flesh–“as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Beisner is clear that he believes God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:7 was made only to his spiritual offspring, both Jew and Gentile. God’s promise “to be God to you and to your descendants after you” does not refer to Abraham’s physical offspring.

If that is the case, then the circumcision of Abraham’s physical offspring is entirely unrelated to this promise. But Scripture clearly says circumcision was directly tied to this covenant promise.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:9-11 ESV)

How are we to resolve this dilemma in a logically consistent way? John Owen untied this Gordian Knot by recognizing the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant and his seed.

Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —

First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.

Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”

4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God…

(The Oneness of the Church)

Long before Owen, Augustine made the same observation.

Now it is to be observed that two things are promised to Abraham, the one, that his seed should possess the land of Canaan, which is intimated when it is said, “Go into a land that I will show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation;” but the other far more excellent, not about the carnal but the spiritual seed, through which he is the father, not of the one Israelite nation, but of all nations who follow the footprints of his faith, which was first promised in these words, “And in thee shall all tribes of the earth be blessed.”…

Abraham, then, having departed out of Haran in the seventy-fifth year of his own age, and in the hundred and forty-fifth of his father’s, went with Lot, his brother’s son, and Sarah his wife, into the land of Canaan, and came even to Sichem, where again he received the divine oracle, of which it is thus written:  “And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Gen 12:7)  Nothing is promised here about that seed in which he is made the father of all nations, but only about that by which he is the father of the one Israelite nation; for by this seed that land was possessed…

[T]he people were settled in the land of promise, so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.

(Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist)

And as Jonathan Edwards observed, the covenant promise “to be God to you and your offspring after you” had a dichotomous meaning: typological and anti-typological.

That such appellations as God’s people, God’s Israel, and some other like phrases, are used and applied in Scripture with considerable diversity of intention…
with regard to the people of Israel, it is very manifest, that something diverse is oftentimes intended by that nation being God’s people, from their being visible saints, visibly holy, or having those qualifications which are requisite in order to a due admission to the ecclesiastical privileges of such. That nation, that family of Israel according to the flesh, and with regard to that external and carnal qualification, were in some sense adopted by God to be his peculiar people, and his covenant people…
It is to be noted, that the privileges here mentioned are spoken of as belonging to the Jews, not now as visible saints, not as professors of the true religion, not as members of the visible church of Christ; but only as people of such a nation, such a blood, such an external and carnal relation to the patriarchs their ancestors, Israelites according to the flesh…

To that nation he fixed his blessing by his covenant with the patriarchs. Indeed the main thing, the substance and marrow of that covenant which God made with Abraham and the other patriarchs, was the covenant of grace, which is continued in these days of the gospel, and extends to all his spiritual seed, of the Gentiles as well as Jews: but yet that covenant with the patriarchs contained other things that were appendages to that everlasting covenant of grace; promises of lesser matters, subservient to the grand promise of the future seed, and typical of things appertaining to him… And in this sense it was that the very family of Jacob were God’s people by covenant, and his chosen people; even when they were no visible saints, when they lived in idolatry, and made no profession of the true religion.

On the whole, it is evident that the very nation of Israel, not as visible saints, but as the progeny of Jacob according to the flesh, were in some respect a chosen people, a people of God, a covenant people, an holy nation; even as Jerusalem was a chosen city, the city of God, a holy city, and a city that God had engaged by covenant to dwell in…

That nation was a typical nation. There was then literally a land, which was a type of heaven, the true dwelling-place of God; and an external city, which was a type of the spiritual city of God; an external temple of God, which was a type of his spiritual temple. So there was an external people and family of God, by carnal generation, which was a type of his spiritual progeny…

they are not God’s Covenant people, in the sense that visible Christians are.

(Jonathan Edwards on the Nation of Israel as a Type of the Church) see also (Blood of bulls and goats : blood of Christ :: physical Israel : spiritual Israel)

May we all follow Beisner’s example and strive to be logical consistent with God’s Word. And may Beisner continue to follow the logic and recognize that Genesis 17:7 is no basis for infant baptism.

(To see all of this worked out in a systematic manner, please see http://www.1689federalism.com)

Coxe and Pink on Circumcision

October 22, 2015 5 comments

It is the fatal error of Romanists and other Ritualists that signs and seals actually convey grace of themselves. Not so: only as faith is operative in the use of them are they means of blessing. Romans 4:11 helps us at this point: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” Unto Abraham, circumcision was both a sign and a seal: a sign that he had previously been justified, and a seal (pledge) that God would make good the promises which He had addressed to his faith. The rite, instead of conferring anything, only confirmed what Abraham already had. Unto Abraham, circumcision was the guarantee that the righteousness of faith which he had (before he was circumcised) should come upon or be imputed unto believing Gentiles. Thus as the rainbow was the confirmatory sign and seal of the covenant promises God had made to Noah, as circumcision was the sign and seal of the covenant promises God had made to Abraham, so the tree of life was the sign and seal of the covenant promises He had made to Adam. It was appointed by God as the pledge of His faithfulness, and as an earnest of the blessings which continued fidelity would secure. Let it be expressly pointed out that, in keeping with the distinctive character of this present antitypical dispensation—when the substance has replaced the shadows—though baptism and the Lord’s Supper are divinely appointed ordinances, yet they are not seals unto the Christian. The seal of “the new covenant” is the Holy Spirit Himself (see 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13; 4:30)! The gift of the blessed Spirit is the earnest or guaranty of our future inheritance…

The next thing we would observe is that circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had.” Again we would say, Let us be on our guard against adding to God’s Word, for nowhere does Scripture say that circumcision was a seal to anyone but to Abraham himself; and even in his case, so far was it from communicating any spiritual blessing, it simply confirmed what was already promised to him. As a seal from God, circumcision was a divine pledge or guaranty that from him should issue that seed which would bring blessing to all nations, and that, on the same terms as justifying righteousness had become his—by faith alone. It was not a seal of his faith, but of that righteousness which, in due time, was to be wrought out by the Messiah and Mediator. Circumcision was not a memorial of anything which had already been actualised, but an earnest of that which was yet future—namely, of that justifying righteousness which was to be brought in by Christ.

But did not God enjoin that all the males of Abraham’s household, and in those of his descendants, should also be circumcised? He did, and in that very fact we find definite confirmation of what has just been said above. What did circumcision seal to Abraham’s servants and slaves? Nothing. “Circumcision neither signed nor sealed the blessings of the covenant of Abraham to the individuals to whom it was by Divine appointment administered. It did not imply that they who were circumcised were accounted the heirs of the promises, either temporal or spiritual. It was not applied to mark them individually as heirs of the promises. It did not imply this even to Isaac and Jacob, who are by name designated heirs with Abraham. Their interest in the promises was secured to them by God’s expressly giving them the covenant, but was not represented in their circumcision. Circumcision marked no character, and had an individual application to no man but Abraham himself. It was the token of this covenant; and as a token or sign, no doubt applied to every promise in the covenant, but it did not designate the individual circumcised as having a personal interest in these promises. The covenant promised a numerous seed to Abraham; circumcision, as the token of that covenant, must have been a sign of this; but it did not sign this to any other. Any other circumcised individual, except Isaac and Jacob, to whom the covenant was given by name, might have been childless.

“Circumcision did not import to any individual that any portion of the numerous seed of Abraham should descend through him. The covenant promised that all nations should be blessed in Abraham—that the Messiah should be his descendant. But circumcision was no sign to any other that the Messiah should descend from him,—even to Isaac and Jacob this promise was peculiarly given, and not implied in their circumcision. From some of Abraham’s race, the Messiah, according to the covenant, must descend, and circumcision was a sign of this: but this was not signed by circumcision to any one of all his race. Much less could circumcision ‘sign’ this to the strangers and slaves who were not of Abraham’s posterity. To such, even the temporal promises were not either ‘signed’ or sealed by circumcision. The covenant promised Canaan to Abraham’s descendants, but circumcision could be no sign of this to the strangers and slaves who enjoyed no inheritance in it” (Alexander Carson, 1860). That circumcision did not seal anything to anyone but to Abraham himself is established beyond shadow of doubt by the fact that circumcision was applied to those who had no personal interest in the covenant to which it was attached. Not only was circumcision administered by Abraham to the servants and slaves of his household, but in Genesis 17:23 we read that he circumcised Ishmael, who was expressly excluded from that covenant! There is no evading the force of that, and it is impossible to reconcile it with the views so widely pervading upon the Abrahamic covenant. Furthermore, circumcision was not submitted to voluntarily, nor given with reference to faith, it was compulsory, and that in every instance: “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money must needs be circumcised” (Gen. 17:13)— those refusing, being “cut off from his people” (v. 14). How vastly different was that from Christian baptism!

-Pink, Arthur W. (2010-03-19). The Divine Covenants (Kindle Locations 2167-2186). . Kindle Edition.

The Old Covenant is coextensive with and collectively representative of theocratic Israel, defined by the Abrahamic, conditioned by the Mosaic, and focused by the Davidic Covenants. The Old Covenant, and thus each of these three covenants, differs from the New Covenant not merely in administration, but also in substance.

Nehemiah Coxe helps draw out the implications of this for circumcision:

Yet this restipulation [meaning counter-engagement or covenant response] (and consequently, the way and manner of obtaining covenant blessings, as well as the right by which we claim them) necessarily varies according to the different nature and terms of those covenants that God at any time makes with men. If the covenant be of works, the restipulation must be by doing the things required in it, even by fulfilling its condition in a perfect obedience to its law. Suitably, the reward is of debt according to the terms of such a covenant. (Do not understand it of debt absolutely but of debt by compact [Coxe is referring to covenantal merit here].) But if it be a covenant of free and sovereign grace, the restipulation required is a humble receiving or hearty believing of those gratuitous promises on which the covenant is established. Accordingly, the reward or covenant blessing is immediately and eminently of grace.

-Nehemiah Coxe, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ p. 39

So, when we look at the Abrahamic Covenant, did Abraham only have to believe? Or were works required? Coxe elaborates:

We will now pass on to Genesis 17. What is more largely recorded there, is briefly pointed at by Stephen in his general view of the history of Israel (Acts 7:8), “and he gave him the covenant of circumcision; and so Abraham became the father of Isaac,” etc. By the covenant of circumcision we are to understand that covenant of which a restipulation was required by the observation of this rite or ordinance, as in Genesis 17:9-11.

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

At present it will suffice to remind you that there is no way of avoiding confusion and entanglements in our conception of these things except by keeping before our eyes the distinction between Abraham’s seed as either spiritual or carnal, and of the respective promises belonging to each. For this whole covenant of circumcision given to the carnal seed, can no more convey spiritual and eternal blessings to them as such, than it can now enright a believer (though a child of Abraham) in their temporal and typical blessings in the land of Canaan. Neither can I see any reason for assigning a covenant interest in all typified spiritual blessings (as well as in the temporal blessings that were the types of them) to the carnal seed, and yet not admit the same covenant to convey temporal blessings to the spiritual seed. I say this since some conceive both are directly included in the same covenant and the promise of both was sealed with the same seal.

But the truth is, despite the relationship this covenant has to the covenant of grace, it yet remains distinct from it. It can give no more than external and typical blessings to a typical seed. The proper end and design of this transaction in Genesis 17 is the stating of their rights and privileges in a subordinate and typical relation to the dispensation of grace to the elect in the new covenant…

This covenant of circumcision was the foundation on which the church-state of Israel after the flesh was built. I do not say that their church-state was exactly and completely formed by this ordinance alone. But I mean that in the covenant of circumcision were contained the first rudiments of the one in the wilderness, and the latter was the filling up and completing of the former. It was made with them in pursuance of it and for the full accomplishment of the promises now made to Abraham. And therefore the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham by virtue of the covenant of circumcision can rise no higher than the advantage and privilege of a Jew by virtue of the covenant in the wilderness.

To confirm this I will offer these things. First, circumcision was the entrance into and boundary of communion in the Jewish church. It was made so by the express command of God himself, who strictly enjoined that whoever broke the covenant by the neglect of circumcision should be cut off from his people (Gen 17:14). As it was to them a gate of privilege, so it was no less a bond of duty. It not only obliged them to obey the will of God so far as it was now made known to Abraham, but also, to the observation of all those laws and ordinances that were delivered later to them by Moses. For the circumcised person was a debtor to keep the whole law (Gal 5:3). This obligation resulted from its proper use and end in its primitive institution. For we do not read of its appointment to any new end by Moses, nor of any use it was assigned, de novo, which it did not have (at least virtually) from its first appointment. It was from first to last, a visible character on this people as separated to God from other nations, and as such they made their boast of it. Therefore it may be concluded to belong to that covenant from which all their rights and privileges as a people sprang. And where the sign was not varied, there was no essential variation or change in the covenant itself…

Moreover, it is notable that immediately after, in continuing his discourse in Romans 4, the apostle refers circumcision to the law in contradistinction from the gospel. For when he has told us that the circumcised Jew could not obtain the blessing of a spiritual relationship to Abraham by virtue of his circumcision, unless he walked in the steps 1 of Abraham’s faith which he had while uncircumcised, verse 12, he assigns this as the reason of it in the 13th verse. For the promise that he should be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. And I cannot see how the conclusion which the apostle makes concerning the inefficacy of circumcision is enforced by this reason, if circumcision immediately and in its own nature had not belonged to the law but to the righteousness of faith or covenant of grace, as an ordinary seal of it.

The interpretation made of this text is further strengthened by comparing other places in the New Testament where we find that circumcision is styled an unsupportable yoke (Acts 15:10) and is said to lay men under an obligation to keep the whole law (Galatians 5:3). The complete dispensation of grace in the gospel according to the new covenant is constantly insisted on as that which renders it utterly useless to the gospel church and manifests the inconsistency of retaining its practice with the liberty of their present state. For instance, see the epistle to the Galatians 5:13. There the apostle tells them if he still preached circumcision, then the offence of the cross was ceased and he might have lived free from the persecutions he now suffered from the unbelieving Jews. It was the apostles preaching Christ, in which they asserted the shaking and removing of that old covenant to which circumcision belonged and by which the Jews held the right of their peculiar privileges that was the ground of the controversy between them and of their unreasonable opposition to him. For if the controversy had been about the mode of administering the same covenant, and the change only of an external rite by bringing baptism into the place of circumcision to serve for the same use and end now as that had done before, the heat of their contests might soon have been allayed. This is especially the case when we consider that the latter is far less painful and dangerous than the former. But he will certainly find himself engaged in a very difficult task who will seriously endeavor to reconcile the apostles’ discourses of circumcision with such a notion of it. Circumcision was an ordinance of the old covenant and pertained to the law and therefore directly bound its subjects to a legal obedience. But baptism is an ordinance of the gospel and (besides other excellent and most comfortable uses) directly obliges its subjects to gospel obedience. Therefore it is in this respect opposed to, rather than substituted in the place of, circumcision.

See also the Appendix to the 1689 London Baptist Confession dealing with circumcision.

Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.


Consider this in light of Meredith Kline’s observations

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…

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…

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…

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.

(Kingdom Prologue)

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

September 30, 2015 3 comments

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.

Gordon Clark on the baptism of great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great–great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren

November 2, 2010 3 comments

In his book Santification, Gordon H Clark takes time to discuss the issue of infant baptism:

“The other subdivision of the question is a more difficult one: Whose children should be baptized? It is not at all difficult to show that a child of two believing parents should be baptized, nor even that a child of only one believing parent should be. 1 Corinthians 7:14 is sufficient. The difficulty arises when one considers the case of a child whose parents were perhaps baptized in infancy, who attend church services with some regularity, and who want their child baptized, even though they themselves have never become communicant members. Today in the United States the very large majority who are in regular attendance are communicant members. But it so happens that regular attendants who are not communicant members want their children baptized. Should the church acquiesce?

In Europe and in early America the children of baptized but non-communicant members were regularly baptized. Robert Ellis Thompson, in ‘A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States’ (1895, p. 14) reports: “The absence of regularly constituted sessions for the administration of church discipline, and the refusal of baptism to the children of baptized person who were not communicants, marked the local congregation as un-Presbyterian.” That is, communicant membership was not essential for the parents of infants to be baptized; and the author notes this was the rule in all the Reformed churches.

The argument was that there is a visible and an invisible Church. The members of the latter are precisely God’s elect; but many members of the former are not. Ishmael and Esau were both circumcised. Furthermore, since the promise of covenant extend to a thousand generations, the visible church today may and ought to baptize infants of unbelieving parents who want them baptized, on the basis of their ancestors’ faith. Surely not every Israelite, at any period of its disappointing history, was regenerate; yet no priest would have hesitated to circumcise the children of such parents…

[At this point, Clark briefly pauses to consider the inference that the Lord’s Supper may be admitted to unregenerates, concludes Presbyterians generally follow the opinion of Edwards and Mather that it should not be so admitted, and then returns to the subject.]

Now, even if it be granted that baptism may properly be administered to children of non-professing parents, the inference to a similar stance on the Lord’s Supper is fallacious…

[Here he distinguishes baptism from the Lord’s Supper, offering some reasons as to why the Lord’s Supper ought not be administered to open unbelievers.]

But now, beyond admission for the sake of argument, what must be said on the substantial question? Does the Bible require or prohibit baptisms to the thousandth generation? If it does, and if a generation is roughly thirty years, a thousand generation from the time of Christ would include just about everybody in the western world. Then the church should have baptized the child of an intensely Talmudic Jew whose ancestor in 50 B.C. was piously looking for the Messiah. Or, George Whitefield should have baptized Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine, as children, because one of their ancestors played a small role in the Reformation. Strange as this may seem to many, it ought to have been done if the Bible so teaches.

[He now notes that “some very eminent theologians have so held,” and devotes a page to historical theology before continuing. One important statement he makes: “The view that only the children of professing parents should be baptized seems to have been the result of colonel revivalism,” and Clark is clearly sympathetic towards those ministers who had to put up with the strictness of these revivalists with respect to the recipients of baptism. He says that these standards were understandable, given that “Their pietism and evangelistic zeal led them to place great emphasis on conversion as a traumatic experience.” After a bit more historical theology, he continues:]

This emotional pietism, as it demanded a particular type of experience for regeneration, tended to view the ideal church as consisting entirely of regenerate persons sharing such an experience. The logical result is the Baptist position; but in Presbyterianism it stopped short at requiring the faith of the parents who wanted their children baptized. But if it did not result in Baptists practices, it involved a change in the theology of baptism.

[And thus he concludes his answer to the question posited at the beginning, proceeding to ask the meaning and accomplishments of baptism.]”

– Sanctification, pgs. 62-65

A similar view can be found in a letter Calvin wrote to Knox about baptizing grandchildren: http://www.baylyblog.com/2006/09/godfathers_calv.html

The Oneness of the Church – John Owen

September 14, 2010 7 comments

Below is an essay from John Owen found in his introduction to his commentary on the book of Hebrews. I’m posting it here for simple reference as I cannot find it anywhere else online as a single, separate article. The text is copied from http://www.godrules.net/library/owen/131-295owen_q3.htm

Note that Owen argues against the idea that the nation of Israel was the church. Instead, he argues that the church in the Old Testament was the elect remnant within the nation of Israel. He says there were two offspring of Abraham: physical and spiritual. And there were two types of promises made to Abraham to correspond to these offspring: physical/temporal and spiritual/eternal. And these two types of promises were both covenantal promises. They were both parts of the Abrahamic Covenant. Thus the Abrahamic Covenant is both carnal and spiritual. It existed in a mixed state until the coming of Christ, but it has now been separated. Owen’s essay on the Oneness of the Church should be read in light of the following comment he makes later in his commentary:

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 the Book of Hebrews 8:6

EXERCITATION 6.

ONENESS OF THE CHURCH.
1. Oneness of the church — Mistake of the Jews about the nature of the promises.
2. Promise of the Messiah the foundation of the church; but as including the covenant.
3. The church confined unto the person and posterity of Abraham — His call and separation for a double end.
4. Who properly the seed of Abraham.
5. Mistake of the Jews about the covenant.
6. Abraham the father of the faithful and heir of the world, on what account.
7. The church still the same.

1. THE Jews at the time of writing this Epistle (and their posterity in all succeeding generations follow their example and tradition) were not a little confirmed in their obstinacy and unbelief by a misapprehension of the true sense and nature of the promises of the Old Testament; for whereas they found many glorious promises made unto the church in the days of the Messiah, especially concerning the great access of the Gentiles unto it, they looked upon themselves, the posterity of Abraham, on the account of their being his children according to the flesh, as the first, proper, and indeed only subject of them; unto whom, in their accomplishment, others were to be proselyted and joined, the substance and foundation of the church remaining still with them. But the event answered not their expectation. Instead of inheriting all the promises merely upon their carnal interest and privilege, — which they looked for, and continue so to do unto this day, — they found that themselves must come in on a new account, to be sharers in them in common with others, or be rejected whilst those others were admitted unto the inheritance. This filled them with wrath and envy; which greatly to the strengthening of their unbelief.

They could not bear with patience an intimation of letting out the vineyard to other husbandmen. With this principle and prejudice of theirs the apostle dealt directly in his Epistle to the Romans, chap. 9-11.

On the same grounds he proceedeth with them in this Epistle; and because his answer to their objection from the promises lies at the foundation of many of his reasonings with them, the nature of it must be here previously explained. Not that I shall here enter into a consideration of the Jews argument to prove the Messiah not yet to be come, because the promises in their sense of them are not yet accomplished, which shall be fully removed in the close of these discourses; but only, as I said, open the nature in general of that answer which our apostle returns unto them, and builds his reasonings with them upon.

2. We shall have occasion afterwards at large to show how, after the entrance of sin, God founded his church in the promise of the Messiah given unto Adam. Now, though that promise was the supportment and encouragement of mankind to seek the Lord, — a promise, absolutely considered, proceeding from mere grace and mercy, — yet, as it was the foundation of the church, it included in it the nature of a covenant, virtually requiring a restipulation unto obedience in them who by faith come to have an interest therein. And this the nature of the thing itself required; for the promise was given unto this end and purpose, that men might have a new bottom and foundation of obedience, that of the first covenant being disannulled. Hence, in the following explications of the promise, this condition of obedience is expressly added. So upon its renewal unto Abraham, God required that he should “walk before him, and be upright.” This promise, then, as it hath the nature of a covenant, including the grace that God would show unto sinners in the Messiah, and the obedience that he required from them, was, from the first giving of it, the foundation of the church, and the whole worship of God therein.

Unto this church, so founded and built on this covenant, and by the means thereof on the redeeming mediatory Seed promised therein, were all the following promises and the privileges exhibited in them given and annexed.

Neither hath, or ever had, any individual person any spiritual right unto, or interest in, any of those promises or privileges, whatever his outward condition were, but only by virtue of his membership in the church built on the covenant, whereunto, as we said, they do all appertain. On this account the church before the days of Abraham, though scattered up and down in the world, and subject unto many changes in its worship by the addition of new revelations, was still but one and the same, because founded in the same covenant, and interested thereby in all the benefits or privileges that God had given or granted, or would do so at any time, unto his church.

3. In process of time, God was pleased to confine this church, as unto the ordinary visible dispensation of his grace, unto the person and posterity of Abraham. Upon this restriction of the church covenant and promise, the Jews of old managed a plea in their own justification against the doctrine of the Lord Christ and his apostles. “We are the children, the seed of Abraham,” was their continual cry; on the account whereof they presumed that all the promises belonged unto them, and upon the matter unto them alone. And this their persuasion hath cast them, as we shall see, upon a woful and fatal mistake. Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant: —

First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant, the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it. That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease. In pursuit hereof were his posterity separated from the rest of the world, and preserved a peculiar people, that through them the promised Seed might be brought forth in the fullness of time, and be of them according unto the flesh, Romans 9:5.

Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise, to be brought forth from him into the world. On the account of this privilege, he became the father of all them that do believe: for “they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham,” Galatians 3:7, Romans 4:11: as also “heir of the world,” Romans 4:13, in that all that should believe throughout the world, being thereby implanted into the covenant made with him, should become his “spiritual children.”

4. Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God. Not that these two seeds were always subjectively diverse, so that the seed separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah in the flesh should neither in whole nor in part be also the seed according to the promise; or, on the contrary, that the seed according to the promise should none of it be his seed after the flesh. Our apostle the contrary in the instances of Isaac and Jacob, with the “remnant” of Israel that shall be saved, Romans 9,10,11. But sometimes the same seed came under diverse considerations, being the seed of Abraham both according to the flesh and according to the promise; and sometimes the seed itself was diverse, those according to the flesh being not of the promise, and so on the contrary. Thus Isaac and Jacob were the seed of Abraham according unto the flesh, separated unto the brining forth of the Messiah after the flesh, because they were his carnal posterity; and they were also of the seed of the promise, because, by their own personal faith, they were interested in the covenant of Abraham their father.

Multitudes afterwards were of the carnal seed of Abraham, and of the number of the people separated to bring forth the Messiah in the flesh, and yet were not of the seed according to the promise, nor interested in the spiritual blessings of the covenant; because they did not personally believe, as our apostle declares, chap. 4 of this epistle. And many, afterwards, who were not of the carnal seed of Abraham, nor interested in the privilege of bringing forth the Messiah in the flesh, were yet designed to be made his spiritual seed by faith; that in them he might become “heir of the world,” and all nations of the earth be blessed in him. Now, it is evident that it is the second privilege, or spiritual seed, wherein the church, to whom the promises are made, is founded, and whereof it doth consist, — namely, in them who by faith are interested in the covenant of Abraham, whether they be of the carnal seed or no.

5. And herein lay the great mistake of the Jews of old, wherein they are followed by their posterity unto this day. They thought no more was needful to interest them in the covenant of Abraham but that they were his seed according to the flesh; and they constantly pleaded the latter privilege as the ground and reason of the former. It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.

That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed? But they would extend this privilege, and mix it with the other, contending that, because they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh, the whole blessing and covenant of Abraham belonged unto them. But as our Savior proved that in the latter sense they were the children of Abraham, because they did not the works of Abraham; so our apostle plainly demonstrates, Romans 4:9. 10. 11. Galatians 3:4., that those of them who had not the faith of Abraham had no interest in his blessing and covenant. Seeing, therefore, that their other privilege was come to an end, with all the carnal ordinances that attended it, by the actual coming of the Messiah, whereunto they were subservient, if they did not, by faith in the promised seed, attain an interest in this of the spiritual blessing, it is evident that they could on no account be considered as actual sharers in the covenant of God.

6. We have seen that Abraham, on the account of his faith, and not of his separation according to the flesh, was the father of all that believe, and heir of the world. And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages.

Wheresoever this covenant is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church; unto whom all the promises and privileges of the church do belong. Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one church taken away, and another set up in the room thereof; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith. The Christian church is not another church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same covenant.

It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also. And this cast the Jews into great perplexities, and proved the last trial that God made of them; for whereas both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only, those who had only the carnal privilege, of being children of Abraham according to the flesh, contended for a share on that single account in the other also, — that is, in all the promises annexed unto the covenant. But the foundation of their plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only.

7. It remains, then, that the church founded in the covenant, and unto which all the promises did and do belong, abode at the coming of Christ, and doth abide ever since, in and among those who are the children of Abraham by faith. The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises. Great alterations, indeed, were then made in the outward state and condition of the church; as, —
(1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.
(2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.
(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.
(4.) The Gentiles came in to the faith of Abraham together with the Jews, to be fellow-heirs with them in his blessing. But none of these, nor all of them together, made any such alteration in the church but that it was still one and the same. The olive-tree was the same, only some branches were broken off, and others planted in; the Jews fell, and the Gentiles came in their room.

And this doth and must determine the difference between the Jews and Christians about the promises of the Old Testament. They are all made unto the church. No individual person hath any interest in them but by virtue of his membership therewith. This church is, and always was, one and the same. With whomsoever it remains, the promises are theirs; and that not by implication or analogy, but directly and properly. They belong as immediately, at this day, either to the Jews or Christians, as they did of old to any. The question is, With whom is this church, founded on the promised Seed in the covenant? This is Zion, Jerusalem, Israel, Jacob, the temple of God. The Jews plead that it is with them, because they are the children of Abraham according to the flesh. Christians tell them that their privilege on this account was of another nature, and ended with the coming of the Messiah; that the church unto whom all the promises belong are only those who are heirs of Abraham’s faith, believing as he did, and thereby interested in his covenant. Not as though the promise made to Abraham were of none effect; for as it was made good unto his carnal seed in the exhibition of the Messiah, so the spiritual privileges of it belonged only unto those of the Jews and Gentiles in whom God had graciously purposed to effect the faith of Abraham. Thus was and is the church, whereunto all the promises belong, still one and the same, namely, Abraham’s children according to the faith: and among those promises this is one, that God will be a God unto them and their seed for ever.

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P.S. The following quote should also be taken into consideration

Obs. II. It is of great concernment unto us what covenant we do belong unto, as being esteemed to do therein what is done by our representative in our name. — There were never absolutely any more than two covenants; wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned.

The first was the covenant of works, made with Adam, and with all in him. And what he did as the head of that covenant, as our representative therein, is imputed unto us, as if we had done it, Romans 5:12. The other is that of grace, made originally with Christ, and through him with all the elect. And here lie the life and hope of our souls, — that what Christ did as the head of that covenant, as ourrepresentative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation. And certainly there is nothing of more importance unto us, than to know whether of these covenants we belong unto. We are also some way concerned in them by whom the one or the other of these covenant-states is conveyed unto us; for before we make our own personal, voluntary choice, we are by the law of our nature, and of the covenant itself, enclosed in the same condition with our progenitors as to their covenant-state. And thence it is, that in the severest temporal judgments, children not guilty of the actual transgression of their parents, not having sinned after the similitude of them, by imitation, do yet ofttimes partake of the punishment they have deserved; being esteemed in some manner to have done what they did, so far as they were included in the same covenant with them. And many blessings, on the other hand, are they partakers of who are included in the covenant of those parents who are interested in the covenant of grace; for such parents succeed in the room of Abraham, every one of them.

And what Abraham did, as to the administration of the covenant intrusted with him, his posterity, whose representative he was therein, are said to have done in him, as Levi is in this place; and therefore they had the seal of the covenant given unto them in their infancy. And an alteration in this dispensation of grace hath not yet been proved by any, or scarce attempted so to be.

Owen, Hebrews 7:10