Is Abraham “Our Father” Or “A Father”? (1)

Abounding Grace Radio exists to make known the riches of God’s grace to sinners in Christ. We confess the great Protestant doctrines of salvation sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone). With the ancient Christian fathers Barnabas (AD 120), Justin Martyr (AD 150), and Irenaeus (AD 170), and the Reformed theologians and churches of the 16th and 17th centuries, we understand Scripture to teach clearly that God has administered his gracious salvation through one covenant of grace in a variety administrations, which pointed to and was finally fulfilled by Christ and the inauguration of the gracious New Covenant.

Recently, in an online discussion, it was proposed that the covenant that God made with Abraham was “a covenant of grace” but not “the covenant of grace” (emphasis added). This is a distinction that merits further consideration for two reasons. First, it gives us an opportunity to think about how to read the Bible the way the New Testament authors read it and second, it is an opportunity to think about what unites the Old and New Testaments and what distinguishes them.

In, With, And Under Types And Shadows

Scripture calls those older administrations of the covenant of grace “types”and “foreshadows” (or shadows) of the reality to come in Christ and in the New Covenant. In the Reformed understanding of the history of salvation, however, the New Covenant does not arrive for the first time in the New Covenant (the New Testament). It has been there all along, in, with, and under the types and shadows.

Even before the fall, our Lord promised to Adam eternal blessedness and fellowship if Adam fulfilled the “commandment of life” (Belgic Confession art. 14). Of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Lord said “the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). There was, however, another tree in the garden, “The Tree of Life.” That tree symbolized eternal fellowship with God. It was a type, an illustration, and a foreshadowing of future fellowship, should Adam choose to obey the commandment to love God with all his faculties and his neighbor (Eve and us) as himself. Of course, you know how it went.

The story did not end there, however. Our Lord came to us even after we had sinned and earned the death penalty. He promised to send “the seed of the woman” who would do battle with the serpent. The latter would strike the heel of the seed and the seed would strike his head (Gen 3:15). This is the first promise of the gospel but it was revealed under types and shadows.

A type literally is a mark, an indicator of something else. When doubting Thomas wanted proof that it was Jesus before him, the Greek text says that he wanted to see and touch the “type” (τύπον) or “the mark” of the nail in Jesus’ hands (John 20:25). A type is an indicator of something else (e.g., Acts 7:43, 44). Scripture says that circumcision, Passover, the manna and the quail in the desert, the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple worship, the priesthood, the religious laws and the civil laws, were all types and foreshadows of the reality to come. We know that this is how we are to understand the Old Testament (i.e., everything in the Bible before the New Testament, as distinct from the Old Covenant, which Paul and Hebrews apply specifically the Mosaic covenant) because this is just what Paul did in Romans 5:14 when he called Adam “a type (τύπος) of the one to come,” i.e., Christ. We know that this is the right way to understand the sense of type since this is how Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 10:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as types for us, that we might not desire evil as they did (1 Cor 10:1-6; ESV; modified)

Notice how Paul connects the Corinthians Christians, in the New Covenant, directly to the believers under the Old Testament (and the Old Covenant specifically). They are “our fathers.” Specifically, he connects their baptism—under the cloud—to ours and their communion—the manna and the quail—to our communion. They ate the “same spiritual food” and drank “the same spiritual drink” as we. They were feeding on the Rock, who is Christ. He was not completely future. He was present with them. He was in, with, and under the types and shadows. Paul uses the word type to describe OT (and Old Covenant) sacraments. To make that clear I transliterated the Greek word in place of the ESV’s “examples.”

Hebrews 8:5 explicitly describes the Old Covenant (Mosaic) religious ceremonies “types” and “shadows.” Specifically, the priests conducted their ministry at “a copy (ὑποδείγματι) and shadow (σκιᾷ) of the heavenly things.” For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God (Heb 8:5; ESV). In this case, the type and shadow pointed not so much forward (horizontally) to future realities in history as much as they pointed vertically, to present heavenly realities. In other words, present, heavenly realities were being administered in, with, and under Old Covenant types and shadows.

Our brothers and sisters under the types and shadows participated in the realities that we have but the did so in, with, and under those types and shadows. The pastor to the Jewish Christians (who were tempted to go back to Moses, back to types and shadows) wrote of those who lived under the types and shadows:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Heb 11:13-16; ESV).

According to Hebrews, Abraham and all the rest had a spiritual hope. They were not looking for an earthly homeland, an earthly seed, nor an earthly reward. Still they participated in the same covenant as we. They participated in the same Holy Spirit as we. They experienced some of genuine spiritual blessings. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.

…through faith quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life (Heb 11:34–35; ESV).

Their faith was future but through faith they experienced present realities of the covenant of grace in, with, and under types and shadows. Still, they were looking forward to what we have:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40; ESV).

That for which they were looking was Christ. They had him in, with, and under the types and shadows but they did not have the fulfillment. The Apostle Peter tells us that they knew that they did not have the reality yet and that they were serving us:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10-12; ESV).

They had Christ through faith but they did not have him in the incarnation. He was with them by his Holy Spirit. He was with them in the desert even before he was incarnate—”that Rock was Christ—but they did not see him in the flesh, incarnate. They did not see the cross. They did not have the New Covenant Scriptures but they participated in the same covenant of grace in which we participate and in which we have been blessed.

Next time: What Is Abraham To Us?

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

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  1. Thank you for continuing to clarify the relationship of the Grace God established for His Son’s possession. Is it correct to say that God’s preincarnate Son displayed The Gospel from before the foundation of the world in, with, and under the types and shadows?

    Also studying the ‘doctrines’, the gates and guard rails, indentified by the Reformers in the (Creeds) Catechisms, Confessions, and Cannons, benefit my study and understanding of The Bible.

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