Is Abraham “Our Father” Or “A” Father? (2)

In part 1 we looked at what the New Testament says about the Old Testament (a part of which is the Mosaic Old Covenant) as a collection of types and shadows in, with, and under which the covenant of grace was administered. The New Testament wants us to think that the covenant of grace was promised and foreshadowed by the Old Testaments types but it also wants us to understand that the same covenant of grace that came with Christ was already present under the types and shadows. The covenant of grace was both revealed and present in, with, and under the types and shadows.

Last time we began to consider this question by considering how Paul portrayed the continuity between New Testament Christians with Old Testament Christians—does this expression trouble you? You have not yet grasped the New Testament doctrine—in the case of the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea. In this installment we will consider what Paul says explicitly and implicitly about Abraham.

It is essential that we consider Abraham very carefully because, in the NT, no merely human, OT figure is more important for understanding the nature of the covenant of grace than Abraham. Four times the Lord expressed his covenant promise or the covenant of grace (they are synonyms) to Abraham in Genesis chapters 12, 15, 17, and 22. The NT appeals to these as examples to explain to NT Christians the nature of the covenant of grace. Such use of Abraham only makes sense on the assumption that Abraham and we are members of the same covenant of grace, that Abraham was united by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), to Christ by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit.

The book of Romans is in three parts: Guilt (1:18–3:20), Grace (3:21–11:36), and Gratitude (12:1–16:27). Almost as soon as Paul, after preaching the law to teach us the greatness of our sin and misery in Adam and our need for a Second, Obedient, Righteous Adam, announces the gospel he turns to Abraham. Why Abraham and not Noah, after all, the covenant of grace was first announced to and through him (Genesis 6:18). Indeed, that is the first time we see the noun covenant explicitly used in Scripture. The New Testament focuses on Abraham, however, for three reasons: First, because, though shadowy and typological (see part 1), the revelation to, through and about Abraham in Genesis was relatively clearer about the nature of the covenant of grace than the revelation to, through, and about Noah. Second, because, in the history of redemption after Abraham, the Holy Spirit uses the promises given through and to him as the pattern (the paradigm) to explain God’s grace during the period of the temporary national covenant with Israel. Third, Paul appeals to Abraham because of the particular challenge he faced, namely helping Jewish and Gentile Christians to understand that they were both heirs of and participants in the same covenant of grace. Were Abraham merely a father of NT Christians or were the Abrahamic merely a covenant of grace and not the covenant of grace, then Paul’s entire case is changed considerably.

Abraham’s Special Place In The History Of The Covenant Of Grace

In Romans 4:1 Paul turns his attention to Abraham, whom he characterizes as “our forefather (προπάτορα) “according to the flesh.” As some people (typically influenced by some form of Dispensationalism) think of Abraham, this is where they seem to stop reading. This is the only connection they seem to think that one might have to Abraham, a biological connection. I remember thinking this way about Abraham early in my Christian life. I knew little about the Bible or the faith but within a couple of years I had somehow absorbed the idea that Abraham was the father of the Jews but that we Christians had little to do with him (except perhaps as an example of faith and faithfulness). I was quite shocked when a friend remarked to me that he was beginning to think that we NT Christians have a spiritual relationship to Abraham. My friend was entirely right and I was, of course, was wrong. There is no way to read Romans 4 and come away thinking that Abraham is merely an example of faith and faithfulness. Remember, our Lord himself said, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56). According to our Lord, Abraham was a believer in Jesus. This truth is the lynchpin in his argument with the Jews about who are the true heirs of Abraham.

As we work through Romans 4 we see, in vv. 11–12, that, according to Paul, Abraham is not just biological “forefather” of Jews. He is the spiritual father of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Abraham believed in Jesus before he was circumcised, which made him the first Gentile Christian. He believed in Jesus after he was circumcised, making him the first Jewish Christian. Against the Judizers, Paul was careful to observe that circumcision was a “sign” (σημεῖον) i.e., a pointer to a greater reality. It was not the reality itself. Circumcision never created the reality (new life) that it signified. He also calls it a “seal” (σφραγῖδα) of righteousness. It pointed to the righteousness that he had sola gratia, sola fide, but it did not create it. It sealed, i.e., it declared God’s promises to believers to be true and reliable, but it did not create the reality that it sealed. Christ’s righteousness, Paul says, was “imputed” to Abraham.

Twice, in vv. 11 and 12, Paul calls Abraham our “father.” He is the “father” (πατέρα) of Gentile Christians, i.e., those who believe in Jesus and who have not been circumcised, and he is the “father” of those who have been circumcised and who believe in Jesus. Paul did not call him a father, as though he were but one among many, but “the father” of believers. Even to suggesting such a marginalization of Abraham, as one among many, militates against Paul’s whole case here.

In recent weeks it has been suggested by opponents of this understanding of Abraham, which is the understanding held by the early Christians and that held by the Reformed churches, is incorrect. In response to the quotation of Genesis 17:7, “I will be your God and your children’s God” some wag posted, “You are not Abraham.” That is simply contrary to the Word of God in Romans 4. Paul’s great point is that you, New Testament Christian, are Abraham. If you are a Jewish Christian, you are Abraham who believed after he was circumcised. If you are a Gentile Christian, you are Abraham who believed before he was circumcised. In any event, believer, you are Abraham. Just as his sins were forgiven by God’s grace alone and just as he was justified through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness credit to him alone, so are you.

The gracious promise God made to Abraham and the covenant of grace that God made with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, 17, and 22, in, with, and under types and shadows of land, sands on the sea-shore, stars in the sky, and even circumcision, have all come true. Scripture knows nothing about Abraham being just a covenant of grace—as if the Abrahamic covenant was merely a witness to the future covenant of grace to arrive for the first time in the New Covenant—but it is quite clear that the covenant God made with Abraham was an administration of the one covenant of grace.

Next time: How Paul’s Appeal to Abraham Against the Judaizers in Galatians 3 Helps Us To Understand Our Relationship to Abraham

Resources on Abraham’s Role in Redemptive History

Here are broadcasts in which Chris and I are working through Romans.

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    The use of prepositions is confusing. There is an example in this quote:

    ‘Remember, our Lord himself said, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced” (John 8:56). According to our Lord, Abraham was a believer in Jesus.

    When I read Genesis 12, 15, 17 and 22, I read, ‘Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’

    What is the difference between ‘believing in’ and ‘believing’.

    If I believe God, and this is through faith by Grace, then ‘belief’ is something God causes in me and I believe Him in response to His Grace. It seems that ‘believing in’ is something I could claim.

    • Catherine,

      Really there isn’t any difference but the preposition matters because there are those who deny that Abraham believed specifically in Jesus, that Abraham was a Christian under the types and shadows. They make a substantial distinction between the faith of Abraham and our faith. It is against this error that I am writing. So I’m trying to be as clear as possible that the object of Abraham’s faith was Jesus. He knew, through types and shadows, about the bodily resurrection. He knew threw the types and shadows that there would be substitute, that God would, as it were, pass through the pieces. As our Lord said, “Abraham saw my day and rejoiced.” His argument to the Jews was that Abraham believed in him not that Abraham had a generic theistic faith but rather a specific faith in Jesus the Messiah, God the Son incarnate.

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