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Some Disagreement with Coxe on Galatians 3:17

May 25, 2017 4 comments

Coxe’s “A Discourse on the Covenants that God Made with Men Before the Law” is densely packed with a very helpful analysis of the biblical covenants. I highly recommend that everyone give it a read. I made an interactive outline to help get the most of it. Preparing that outline allowed me to more clearly understand Coxe’s view of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Upon first reading it years ago, I walked away thinking that Coxe believed God made two covenants with Abraham in the span of Gen 12-22. I disagreed and sided with A.W. Pink, who said “There were not two distinct and diverse covenants made with Abraham (as the older Baptists argued), the one having respect to spiritual blessings and the other relating to temporal benefits.” But others insisted I had misread Coxe. Coxe believed there was only one Abrahamic Covenant, but that God also revealed the separate Covenant of Grace (New Covenant) to Abraham throughout Gen 12-22 in the midst of the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision. This outlook fits with the promised/inaugurated concept of the New Covenant, which understands the New Covenant to have been revealed in numerous ways prior to its formal legal establishment in the death of Christ.

Upon reviewing Coxe again, it appears (in my opinion) that his view actually lies somewhere in between. First, Chapter 4 is titled “The Covenant of Grace Revealed to Abraham: God Specially Honors Abraham by this Covenant.” The [new] covenant of grace that was first revealed in Genesis 3:15 was “made with Abraham.” (71, see editorial note) Second, God made more than one covenant with Abraham. Coxe refers to “the covenants made with him” and “the covenants given to him.” (73) Third, “Abraham is to be considered in a double capacity: he is the father of all true believers and the father and root of the Israelite nation. God entered into covenant with him for both of these seeds.” (72) “The covenant of grace [w]as made with Abraham” for his spiritual offspring and “The covenant [of circumcision was] made with him for his natural offspring.” (73)

The covenant of circumcision

The covenant of circumcision promised Abraham numerous carnal offspring that would possess the land of Canaan. This covenant was revealed by degrees in several parts from Gen 12 to Gen 17. (83) The restipulation (required response on man’s part) of this covenant was circumcision, representing the obedience to the law required for one to have a covenant interest to inherit the covenant blessings (“Do this and live.”). (90-91) “[I]n the covenant of circumcision were contained the first rudiments of the one in the wilderness [Mosaic covenant], and the latter was the filling up and completing of the former.” (99) “This covenant of circumcision properly and immediately belongs to the natural seed of Abraham and is ordered as a foundation to that economy which they were to be brought under until the times of reformation.” (91)

The new covenant of grace

“[T]he covenant of circumcision… was not that covenant of grace which God made with Abraham for all his spiritual seed, which was earlier confirmed of God in Christ.” (116) The new covenant of grace is union with Christ and is made with all believers, including Old Testament saints. (133) “The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself… but it pleased God to transact it with him as he had not done with any before him.” (75, 72) “[T]his covenant was made with Abraham as a root of covenant blessings and the common parent to all true believers.” (78) The restipulation of this covenant is believing. (79) “There is but one covenant of spiritual and eternal blessing in Christ Jesus, founded in the eternal decree and counsel of God’s love and grace, which is now revealed to Abraham.” (79) “This covenant of grace… by which Abraham was made the father of the faithful… was confirmed and ratified by a sure promise to Abraham. This was a considerable time (about twenty five years) before the covenant of circumcision was given to him.” (80)

Galatians 3:16-17

Galatians 3 is central to Coxe’s understanding of the covenant of grace revealed to Abraham. “[T]hat the gospel was preached to Abraham and the covenant of grace revealed to him, is asserted in such full terms in this context that no one can rationally doubt it. Furthermore, in verse 17 we have the time of God’s establishing this covenant with him exactly noted. The text says it was 430 years,” which Coxe calculates to refer to Genesis 12:2-3. (74) “[I]n the transaction of God with Abraham recorded in Genesis 12 he solemnly confirmed his covenant with him.” (74) “[T]he sum and substance of all spiritual and eternal blessings was included in the covenant and promise given to Abraham (Genesis 12) in these words: ‘I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.'” (75)

[T]his covenant was made with Abraham in and through Jesus Christ. It is not Abraham but Christ that is its first head… The apostle asserts this most clearly (Galatians 3:17) and argues it from the form of the promises made to Abraham (verse 16)… I conceive the apostle here has a direct and special view to that promise found in Genesis 22:18,* “In your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed.” This runs directly parallel both in terms and sense with the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 which was pleaded by him earlier (Galatians 3:18 [I believe this reference is to Gal 3:8]). *This promise is particularly cited by Peter as a summary of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, Acts 3:25.” (76)

Thus Coxe divides out the promises in Genesis 12:2-3. Some of the promises are promises of the covenant of grace, some are promises of the covenant of circumcision. (83) He maintains this division in all its elaborations and repititions through to Genesis 22.

“[B]y way of preface to it [the covenant of circumcision] in Genesis 17:4, 5, you have a recapitulation of former transactions and a renewed confirmation of one great promise of the covenant of grace given earlier to Abraham, that is, ‘A father of many nations have I made you.’ This is principally to be understood of his believing seed collected indifferently out of all nations as appears from Romans 4:17. That Abraham was constituted the father of the faithful before this covenant of circumcision was made and did not obtain the grant of this privilege by it, has been proven before from Moses’ history.” (91)

(Interesting note: Gill seems to largely follow Coxe in this. See his comments on Gal. 3:16 and 3:17)

Confirmed, Ratified, and Established

Coxe does say that the covenant of grace was “revealed” to Abraham in Genesis 12. But, as we saw above, based on his reading of Galatians 3:15-17, Coxe also says that the covenant of grace was “confirmed,” “ratified,” and “established” in Genesis 12. These are all synonyms for the official, legal institution of a covenant, and that is precisely how Paul uses the term “confirmed” in Galatians 3:15-17. “Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it… [T]he law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before.” How is this consistent with the idea that the new covenant of grace was not established until the death of Christ? Note Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6.

This is the meaning of the word nenomoqe>thtai: “established,” say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance unto the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by nenomoqe>thtai, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration…

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though that were not before in being and efficacy, before the introduction of that which is promised in this place. For it was always the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, do 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 unto the church, from the first entrance of sin. But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect unto any other things, nor was it so under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it 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. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16. The apostle indeed says, that the covenant was confirmed of God in Christ, before the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. And so it was, not absolutely in itself, but in the promise and benefits of it. The nomoqesi>a, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament; for it wanted two things thereunto: —

(1.) It wanted its solemn confirmation and establishment, by the blood of the only sacrifice which belonged unto it. Before this was done in the death of Christ, it had not the formal nature of a covenant or a testament, as our apostle proves, Hebrews 9:15-23. For neither, as he shows in that place, would the law given at Sinai have been a covenant, had it not been confirmed with the blood of sacrifices. Wherefore the promise was not before a formal and solemn covenant.

(2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of all the worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properly so called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of all the worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are to restipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the new covenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is not the promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutely considered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, in its establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all its benefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship and obedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,” we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worship which by it is settled in the church.

3. Whilst the church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant of grace was contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring it under any other covenant, or prescribe unto it what forms of worship he pleased.

p. 78 PDF

If the new covenant of grace was not “legally established,” “ratified,” and “solemnly confirmed” until the death of Christ, then it was not “confirmed,” “ratified,” and “established” in Genesis 12. If that is the case, then what are we to make of Galatians 3:17? Note that Owen wrestles with it as well. His comment is sparse, but he appears to argue that the “promise and benefits” of the new covenant of grace were “confirmed of God in Christ” but the new covenant of grace itself, as a covenant, was not legally established and confirmed until the cross. In my opinion, this distinction does not hold, especially since Paul specifically argues on the basis of a covenant that has been legally established and confirmed.

The Covenant Concerning Christ

Coxe interprets Galatians 3:17 (“the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ”) as referring to the new covenant of grace. “[T]his covenant was made with Abraham in and through Jesus Christ. It is not Abraham but Christ that is its first head… The apostle asserts this most clearly (Galatians 3:17).” This is a common reformed interpretation. Owen seems to follow it. However, I do not think that is best way to understand the verse.

[in Christ] … should be rendered, “unto (i.e. with a view to) Christ”.
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

In Christ – With respect to the Messiah; a covenant relating to him, and which promised that he should descend from Abraham. The word “in,” in the phrase “in Christ,” does not quite express the meaning of the Greek εἰς Χριστὸν eis Christon. That means rather “unto Christ;” or unto the Messiah; that is, the covenant had respect to him. This is a common signification of the preposition εἰς his
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible

 

And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God {m} in Christ

(m) Which pertained to Christ.
Geneva Study Bible

 

The only difficulty lies in the words “in Christ.” Inasmuch as “the covenant” here mentioned was confirmed only four hundred and thirty years before the law (at Sinai), the reference cannot be to the everlasting covenant—which was “confirmed” by God in Christ ere the world began (Titus 1:2, etc.). Hence we are obliged to adopt the rendering given by spiritual and able scholars: “the covenant that was confirmed before of God concerning Christ”—just as eis Christon is translated “concerning Christ” in Ephesians 5:32 and eis auton is rendered “concerning him” in Acts 2:25. Here, then, is a further word from God that His covenant with Abraham concerned Christ
Pink

There was a covenant that God made with Abraham about Christ. In his comments on 3:17, Chrysostom helpfully states what should be obvious, but is sometimes overlooked.

Thus God made a covenant with Abraham, promising that in his seed the blessing should be bestowed on the heathen; and this blessing the Law cannot turn aside… It was promised Abraham that by his seed the heathen should be blessed; and his seed according to the flesh is Christ.

This actually fits very well with what Owen says about the Abrahamic Covenant.

When God renewed the promise of it [the covenant of grace] 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.

Scottish Presbyterian turned baptist James Haldane explains

It is indeed said, that “the scripture foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed,” Gal. iii. 8. But this was merely a declaration of all nations being blessed in Jesus, who was Abraham’s seed. The covenant is said to have been confirmed of God in (rather concerning, eis Christon*) Christ; for there is no doubt that Christ, springing from the loins of Abraham, was the great promise made to him. Hence, it is opposed to the law, and called the promise, Gal. iii. 18… This was a promise that the Savior, revealed immediately after the fall, Gen. iii. 15. should spring from him. To this promise the apostle alludes, when he says “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ,” Gal. iii. 16.

To call this the covenant of grace, is only calculated to mislead; for surely it was peculiar to Abraham that Christ should spring from him… [A]lthough an oath was made to Abraham, securing the blessing to all families of the earth through him, this does not prove that the covenant made with him was the new covenant

*See Whitby, Macknight, &c. The covenant of God concerning Christ was the promise, that in Abraham all families of the earth should be blessed, Gen. xii. 3. This was afterwards confirmed by an oath, Heb vi. 17.

Thus 3:17 is not referring to the New Covenant of Grace. It is referring to the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision wherein God promised that Abraham would be the father of the Messiah, who would bless all nations. (For more on this see, my post on Galatians 3:16 and my post on 3:18). This covenant was “confirmed,” “ratified,” and “established” by God 430 years before the Mosaic Covenant (Gill argues this refers back to Gen 15, not Gen 12, which does make more sense). The Abrahamic Covenant revealed the Covenant of Grace insofar as it repeated the Genesis 3:15 promise that there would be a seed of the woman who would bless all nations. But, as Owen explained, it was uniquely an Abrahamic promise, and thus particularly the Abrahamic Covenant, that Abraham would be the father of this seed.

When we look at Abraham’s personal salvation, we see that it was the same as ours. He heard the gospel (that a Messiah would come, in fulfillment of Gen 3:15 to bless all nations) and believed that gospel, and was thus counted righteous. Thus Abraham looked forward and we look back. But that salvation was not strictly a promise of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant did not promise “I will put a new heart within you and remember your sins no more.” The Abrahamic Covenant promised “you will be the father of the Messiah” who will bless all nations by establishing the New Covenant, by which “I will put a new heart within you and remember your sins no more.” Thus Abraham was saved just like us, but just like us, it was through the New Covenant (which is union with Christ).

Two Abrahamic Promises

As I explained in my post on Galatians 3:16, Paul is making an argument about two different promises given in the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision. I think that Augustine captured this well.

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… After these leaders there were judges, when the 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.

When the second promise is fulfilled in Christ, it richochets back through the first promise, showing how the carnal offspring (Israel) as numerous as the stars and their inheritance of the land of Canaan were types of those redeemed in Christ (true Israel) and given an inheritance in the new heavens and earth. It does not mean God did not make any promises to Abraham’s carnal offspring about Canaan. It simply means that the first promise is eclipsed by the fulfillment of the second promise. (See They Are Not All Israel Who Are of Israel).

Conclusion

Coxe is correct when he says “The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself,” but Coxe is incorrect to say that “You will be the father of the Messiah” is also a New Covenant promise. It is a promise of the Covenant of Circumcision. I see this as an important, but minor disagreement with Coxe, and one that I think actually further strengthens the rest of his observations and arguments.

 

Galatians 3:16

March 18, 2017 8 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 4 comments

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.'”

19th century Scottish Presbyterian turned baptist James Haldane said

It is indeed said, that “the scripture foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed,” Gal. iii. 8. But this was merely a declaration of all nations being blessed in Jesus, who was Abraham’s seed. The covenant is said to have been confirmed of God in (rather concerning, eis Christon*) Christ; for there is no doubt that Christ, springing from the loins of Abraham, was the great promise made to him. Hence, it is opposed to the law, and called the promise, Gal. iii. 18… This was a promise that the Savior, revealed immediately after the fall, Gen. iii. 15. should spring from him. To this promise the apostle alludes, when he says “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ,” Gal. iii. 16.

To call this the covenant of grace, is only calculated to mislead; for surely it was peculiar to Abraham that Christ should spring from him… [A]lthough an oath was made to Abraham, securing the blessing to all families of the earth through him, this does not prove that the covenant made with him was the new covenant

*See Whitby, Macknight, &c. The covenant of God concerning Christ was the promise, that in Abraham all families of the earth should be blessed, Gen. xii. 3. This was afterwards confirmed by an oath, Heb vi. 17.

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

 

A Presbyterian (Finally) Gets Acts 2:39 Right

May 23, 2016 19 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)

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

September 30, 2015 4 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.

Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

March 6, 2010 50 comments

[Please note the date of this post. It does not necessarily reflect my most current views. See posts linked at the end for more consideration.]

I’ve been teaching a Wednesday night Bible study through the book of Genesis for about a year now. We’ve finally made it to Genesis 17 and the question has come up: Is the Abrahamic covenant (the covenant of circumcision, Acts 7:8) conditional or unconditional? This is not an easy question to answer, but it’s a very important one to answer. In a very helpful essay, Richard Pratt Jr. notes:

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that contemporary reformed theologians are taking different stances on whether the covenants God made with Abraham and David were conditional or unconditional. This is not to say that we have enjoyed complete unanimity on this and related matters in past centuries. Covenant theology has always been riddled with varying opinions. Yet, in our day, differences on this particular issue have so impacted other theological and practical dimensions of the Christian faith that they should no longer be ignored.

Details notwithstanding, two tendencies have emerged. On the one side, some theologians in our circles have argued that the covenants with Abraham and David were unconditional. That is to say, these covenants guaranteed future blessings unconditionally to Abraham and David.

On the other side, other theologians in our circles have argued that the covenants with Abraham and David were conditional. In this view, the future blessings of these covenants were gracious but in some ways dependent upon the condition of human loyalty.

God of Covenant

The reason it is so difficult to determine if the Abrahamic covenant is conditional or unconditional is because we seem to get two different answers from Scripture. In Genesis 15 God instructs Abram to cut animals in half and spread them out on the ground. This was a typical covenant ceremony wherein the covenanting parties then both pass through the parts of the animals, signifying that if either of them broke the covenant, they would be torn apart like the animals (take a look at Jeremiah 34:18, referring to the Mosaic covenant). However, in Genesis 15, Abram does not walk through the parts. Instead, in a vision, a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot (signifying God) pass through the parts. This would seem to communicate that Abram was not obligated to keep the covenant, that it was unconditional.

However, when we get to chapter 17, God tells Abram “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations (v9).” What does that mean? Well, in context, it is referring to circumcision:

10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

So it would seem that there is something required for Abraham to do. There is a condition. This is made very, very clear in the next verse: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Verse 14 very clearly establishes that this covenant is conditional and that a failure to meet the conditions will result in being “cut off,” which means put to death (cf Exodus 12:15, 19; Leviticus 7:25, 27).

Pratt notes:

These two chapters are the only places where the term “covenant” (berith.) appears in the Abrahamic narratives, but they are very different from each other. On the one hand, Genesis 15:9-21 reports how Abraham killed animals in a ceremony of malediction and how Yahweh passed through the carnage to confirm by divine oath that Abraham’s descendants would certainly inherit the land of Canaan. On the other hand, in Genesis 17:9-14 the maledictory cutting ceremony of circumcision is required of Abraham and his descendants as a sign of their loyalty to Yahweh. These texts report truths about Abraham’s covenant in very different ways.

So what are we to conclude? I believe the analogy of faith provides us with helpful guidance. Chapter 1 paragraph 9 of the London Baptist Confession says:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.

What we have is an apparent discrepancy between Genesis 15 and Genesis 17. One appears to say the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, the other says it is conditional. How should we try to resolve the problem? Well, if we agree with the confession, then we should seek to answer the question using the passage that speaks most clearly. Genesis 17:14 is very clear. It is not possible to get a clearer answer to our question. Furthermore, the relevant part of Genesis 15 is a vision. A clear, explicit passage should guide our interpretation of a less clear vision – not the other way around, as is common.

So if Gen 17 is to guide our understanding of Gen 15, where does that leave us? How can we harmonize these two accounts? Well, it would seem we have two options:

  1. Gen 15 and Gen 17 refer to two different covenants. This is the conclusion reached by Paul R. Williamson, for example: Abraham, Israel and the nations: the patriarchal promise and its covenantal development in Genesis
  2. There is some other way of understanding the vision in Genesis 15 that does not lead us to conclude that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional.

In my limited studies, I don’t think option 1) is an option. Pratt notes:

First, we should note that we are not dealing with two covenants made with Abraham. In Genesis 15:18 we read that “the LORD made a covenant with Abram,” or more literally “cut a covenant” (karath), a common way to speak of the initiation of a covenant. In Genesis 17:2, however, God said, “I will confirm my covenant,” using the Hebrew expression ve’ettenah>, meaning to confirm or establish what was already in existence. So, we find here not two covenants, but two facets or dimensions of God’s one covenant with Abraham, the latter being a confirmation and further explanation of the earlier.

That leaves us with 2). But what other meaning could the vision and ceremony have?

The Meaning of the Genesis 15 Vision

In short, I believe the vision means not that there are no conditions for its fulfillment that depend upon Abraham and his offspring, but that God promises to work in the lives of Abraham and his offspring to meet those conditions and thus bring about the fulfillment of the covenant promises.

For example, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham clearly depend upon him having an offspring. If Abraham does not have an offspring, then the promises cannot be fulfilled. But remember what we read in Genesis 17. If Abraham does not circumcise himself then he will be cut off, killed. And the same goes for his offspring. If Abraham had failed to obey God in chapter 17, then it would have been impossible for God’s promises to be fulfilled. If Abraham and his offspring are killed, then so is the hope of the Messiah.

The fulfillment of God’s promise depends upon the obedience of Abraham. But Abraham did obey. In an act of faith, he circumcised himself at 99 years old. Abraham obeyed because God gave him a new heart that was willing to obey.

If we look at the nation of Israel, we see a similar dilemma. If the nation is destroyed, then so is the hope of the Messiah. And yet God warns in Deuteronomy 28 and elsewhere that if Israel does not obey, they will be destroyed. In Ch. 28 we read a lengthy list of blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience to the Mosaic law. Numerous times we read that “all these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed” (v45), “until he has destroyed you” (v48), “until you are destroyed” (v51), “until they have caused you to perish” (v51), “until you are destroyed” (v61).

So, again, the fulfillment of God’s promise depends upon the obedience of Abraham’s offspring. If they disobey, God will curse them until they are destroyed, and with their destruction comes the destruction of the hope of the Messiah. How is this dilemma handled? The same way it is handled in Abraham’s account in Genesis 17.

Take a look at Deut 30:1-10. Here (and in ch 28 to an extent), Moses is not simply giving warnings, but is instead prophesying of what will happen.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5And the LORD your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.

So the destruction of Israel will be prevented when Israel turns to the Lord and obeys him. But notice how this will happen. In 30:6 we read: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

This is how God can ensure that His promise will come to pass. He will cause the elect to fulfill the conditions necessary to the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. Note that this is not the same thing as saying the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional because it’s conditions were fulfilled by a mediator (like the New Covenant).

So we see the obedience of Abraham and his offspring as a condition for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and we also see that God will provide the necessary cause of that obedience: a new heart. I believe this is what the vision in Genesis 15 is promising.

Further support for this claim is found in Deut 28:26. In the midst of reciting the curses upon Israel, we read:

25 “The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. 26 And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth, and there shall be no one to frighten them away.

A parallel warning is found in Jeremiah 7:33

30″For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. 31And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. 33 And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. 34 And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste.

In both instances, the warning is that when Israel disobeys, there will be no one to frighten away the birds from eating their corpses. What is this referring to? What does it mean for someone to frighten away the birds? Where else do we see this imagery in Scripture? Genesis 15:11 “And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.”

Abraham, or rather, the promise God made to Abraham, is what fightens the birds away. God’s promise to Abraham prevents Israel from being utterly destroyed. But how exactly does it prevent Israel from being destroyed? How does Abraham frighten away the birds? These passages say that if they disobey, there will be no one to frighten the birds away. So again, we see that obedience is a crucial condition for the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. And thus, God works obedience in the elect to bring about the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. Obedience frightens the birds away.

Take note of Leviticus 26:

40″But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.

The condition for God remembering his covenant with Abraham is the circumcision of Israel’s heart – something only He can do. That is the meaning of the vision in Genesis 15. It does not mean there are not conditions to be met by Abraham’s descendants. It means God will cause them to obey and meet those conditions. And I will add that He does that by means of the new covenant. Only the new covenant provides the regeneration necessary for faith and obedience. Witsius notes, regarding the Mosaic covenant:

Nor Formally the Covenant of Grace: “Because that requires not only obedience, but also promises, and bestows strength to obey. For, thus the covenant of grace is made known, Jer. xxxii. 39. ‘and I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever.’ But such a promise appears not in the covenant made at mount Sinai. Nay; God, on this very account, distinguishes the new covenant of grace from the Sinaitic, Jer. xxxi. 31-33. And Moses loudly proclaims, Deut xxix. 4. ‘yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.’ Certainly, the chosen from among Israel had obtained this. Yet not in virtue of this covenant, which stipulated obedience, but gave no power for it: but in virtue of the covenant of grace, which also belonged to them.

http://www.reformationtheology.com/2008/11/the_mosaic_covenant_works_or_g.php

Conclusion

Though the thesis of Pratt’s essay is slightly different from mine, he concludes:

To reinforce what we have seen at this point, we should mention that the language of conditionality is the same in all three covenants God made with Israel. As we have already seen, in Genesis 17:9 God told Abraham and his descendants to “keep my covenant” by observing circumcision. This expression also appears in the Mosaic covenant when God says to Israel in Exodus 19:5 “and you must keep my covenant”. In the same way, in Psalm 132:11 the Davidic line is also required to “keep my covenant.” This shared language makes it clear that the fundamental dynamics of all three covenants are the same…

…In my estimation reformed theologians who argue that the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional are fundamentally misguided. Although we may distinguish the central concerns of Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants from each other and from other biblical covenants, there is little justification for arguing that the difference is conditionality and unconditionality.

However, Pratt makes a very serious error in his essay. He makes a number of helpful observations about the Abrahamic covenant, including observations about Royal Land Grant and Suzzerain-Vassal Treaties, so I encourage you to read it. But after establishing that the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants were conditional, he erroneously applies these conclusions to the New Covenant, because he believes that the New Covenant is only an historical administration of the covenant of grace, of which the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and Noahic are all parts or dispensations. He therefore concludes that our salvation is conditioned upon our obedience:

“a measure of conformity to God’s standards of holiness is a necessary condition for receiving salvation…the New Testament makes sanctification a necessary condition for eternal salvation…faith that justifies has always resulted in meeting the requirements of good works.”

Pratt’s error is that he lumps in the New Covenant with all the others and fails to recognize it’s utter distinctness, it’s utter newness. Furthermore, he fails to recognize that the New Covenant, working throughout the OT, was the means God used to fulfill His promise to Abraham in Genesis 15. The Abrahamic Covenant was not the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace. See how John Owen explained this:

“When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,

-Exposition of Hebrews 8:6″

Abraham’s disobedience would cut him off from the covenant of circumcision. Our disobedience can never cut us off from the New Covenant because our obedience is found in our mediator Jesus Christ.

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

See also

Pink on Circumcision

January 25, 2010 2 comments

In my attempt to better understand and work through covenant theology, I have been reading A. W. Pink’s “The Divine Covenants.” I highly recommend giving it a read. I especially recommend that paedobaptists read his section on the Abrahamic Covenant if for no other reason than to simply be educated and informed as to why one of the top Calvinist thinkers of the 20th century rejected paedobaptism as unbiblical (a belief that denied him numerous pastoral positions and eventually left him without a church to minister to).

In short, read Pink’s thoughts below. I would appreciate someone demonstrating where they believe Pink is in error:

A. W. Pink  :  Circumcision

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 actualized, but an earnest of that which was yet future—namely, of that justifying righteousness which was to be brought in by Christ (note: Pink is here referring to historia salutis, not ordo).

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! (note: Ishmael was expressly excluded from that covenant before he was circumcised). 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!

It maybe asked, If, then, circumcision sealed nothing to those who received it, except in the one case of Abraham himself, then why did God ordain it to be administered to all his male descendants? First, because it was the mark He selected to distinguish from all other nations that people from whom the Messiah was to issue. Second, because it served as a continual reminder that from the Abrahamic stock the promised Seed would spring—hence, soon after He appeared, circumcision was set aside by God. Third, because of what it typically foreshadowed. To be born naturally of the Abrahamic stock gave a title to circumcision and the earthly inheritance, which was a figure of their title to the heavenly inheritance of those born of the Spirit. The servants and slaves in Abraham’s household “bought with money” beautifully adumbrated the truth that those who enter the kingdom of Christ are “bought” by His blood.

It is a mistake to suppose that baptism has come in the place of circumcision. As that which supplanted the Old Testament sacrifices was the one offering of the Savior, as that which superseded the Aaronic priesthood was the high priesthood of Christ, so that which has succeeded circumcision is the spiritual circumcision which believers have in and by Christ: “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in, putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11)—how simple! how satisfying! “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him” (v. 12) is something additional: it is only wresting Scripture to say these two verses mean “Being buried with him in baptism, ye are circumcised.” No, no; verse 11 declares the Christian circumcision is “made without hands,” and baptism is administered by hands! The circumcision “made without hands in putting off [judicially, before God] the body of the sins of the flesh” has taken the place of the circumcision made with hands. The circumcision of Christ has come in the place of the circumcision of the law. Never once in the New Testament is baptism spoken of as the seal of the new covenant; rather is the Holy Spirit the seal: see Ephesians 1:13; 4:30.

To sum up. The grand design of God’s covenant with Abraham was to make known that through him should come the One who would bring blessing to all the families of the earth. The promises made to him were to receive a lower and a higher fulfillment, according as he was to have both natural and spiritual children—for “kings shall come out of thee” (Gen. 17:6) compare Revelation 1:6; for “thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies” (Gen. 22:17) compare Colossians 2:15; Romans 8:37; I John 5:4. Abraham is called a “father” neither in a federal nor in a spiritual sense, but because he is the head of the faith clan the prototype to which all believers are conformed. Christians are not under the Abrahamic covenant, though they are “blessed with him” by having their faith counted unto righteousness. Though New Testament believers are not under the Abrahamic covenant, they are, because of their union with Christ, heirs of its spiritual inheritance.

It only remains for us now to point out wherein the Abrahamic covenant adumbrated (foreshadowed)a the everlasting covenant. First, it proclaimed the international scope of the divine mercy: some out of all nations were included in the election of grace. Second, it made known the ordained stock from which the Messiah and Mediator was to issue. Third, it announced that faith alone secured an interest in all the good God had promised. Fourth, in Abraham’s being the father of all believers was shadowed forth the truth that Christ is the Father of His own spiritual seed (Isa. 53:10, 11). Fifth, in Abraham’s call from God to leave his own country and become a sojourner in a strange land, was typed out Christ’s leaving heaven and tabernacling upon earth. Sixth, as the “heir of the world” (Rom. 4:13), Abraham foreshadowed Christ as “the heir of all things” (Heb. 1 :2). Seventh, in the promise of Canaan to his seed we have a figure of the heavenly inheritance which Christ has procured for His people.

(It seems a sad tragedy that the people of God are so divided on the subject of baptism. Though we have strong convictions on the subject we have refrained from pressing—or even presenting—them in this study. But it seemed impossible to deal faithfully with the Abrahamic covenant without making some slight reference thereto. We have sought to write temperately in the above chapter, avoiding harsh expressions and needless reflections. We trust the reader will kindly receive it in the spirit in which it is written).

-A. W. Pink  :  The Abrahamic Covenant

Always Reforming

I would also highly recommend that everyone read Henri Blocher’s chapter in “Always Reforming.” He interacts with some of these arguments as they are addressed in David Kingdon’s “The Children of Abraham” and he suggests “a revised doctrine of the covenants and their economies.” One of the crucial tensions he seeks to resolve is the conditionality or unconditionality of the covenant of grace.

Closely related is the issue of the two sides of the covenant. It has been a thorn in the flesh of many covenant theologians. Leaving aside the monopleuric/diplueric polarity (although it is not foreign to that debate), the delicate question has been, Who, exactly, belongs to the covenant?

I found his interaction with the attempts in Reformed covenant theology to answer this and several other important questions to be very helpful. It addresses some very important points that I have not been able to get answers to.

http://www.amazon.com/Always-Reforming-Explorations-Systematic-Theology/dp/083082829X