Is Abraham “Our Father” Or “A” Father? (3)

The question before us so far has been that of the relationship between Christians and Abraham, between our New Covenant faith, our New Covenant religion, our New Covenant theology, piety, and practice and his. Behind that question lie other fundamental questions. Was Abraham in the same covenant of grace as we or did he represent simply one covenant of grace among many? This raises questions about the nature of redemptive history and how to read Scripture. Are there multiple covenants of grace in Scripture or just one with multiple administrations? One way to try to answer these questions is to ask whether Abraham is just a father to us or whether he is our father. In this series I have tried answer that question in the first installment by looking at the nature of the progress of redemptive revelation. The covenant of grace, the gospel covenant, was revealed gradually through types and shadows. Was there more than mere revelation happening under the types and shadows? In the second part we considered what Paul says in Romans 4 (as we had looked briefly at 1 Corinthians 10:1–4 in part 1) about the object and nature of Abraham’s faith. What we see is that Abraham was not merely the recipient of revelation about a future covenant of grace (i.e., the New Covenant) but that he was an actual participant in the covenant of grace, that the same covenant that was revealed under types and shadows in the Old was actually present in,, with, and under the types and shadows.

A correspondent wrote to ask about my use of that prepositional phrase, “in, with, and under.” These prepositions, used this way, of course, remind us of the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. They argue that Christ’s body is literally in, with, and under the elements of bread and wine. My point in using those prepositions is not to teach a Lutheran view of the sacraments but simply to indicate that the covenant of grace was really, truly present in the types and shadows, with the types and shadows, and under the types and shadows. To say that Christ was bodily present, of course, would be to deny the biblical doctrine of the incarnation. Christ became incarnate in a particular time in history. It would also be to deny Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10. Paul’s point there is to teach the substantial continuity between the sacraments God instituted among Israel and those of the New Covenant. Christ was not incarnate under the types and shadows so the continuity cannot depend upon Christ’s bodily presence in, with, and under the elements in the Old (Mosaic) Covenant or in the New Covenant.

How Paul’s Appeal To Abraham Against The Judaizers In Galatians 3 Helps Us

Abraham is a central figure in Paul’s defense of the gospel against the Judaizers, who were a group of Jewish Christians who professed faith in Jesus but who wanted to make obedience to the Jewish ceremonial laws a condition of salvation (justification and sanctification). In Philippians 3:1 Paul ironically calls the Judaizers “dogs” because they referred the Gentiles as dogs and he calls them “evildoers,” because they thought of themselves as do-gooders, and “mutilators of the flesh” because they thought that they could present themselves to God on the basis of their circumcision.

Here he faces the very same argument. As to the Philippians, Paul reminds the Galatian Christians that anyone who seeks to present himself to God on the basis of law-keeping has obligated himself to keep all the law. To the Roman Christians he wrote, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13; ESV). The covenant of works says “do this and live” (Luke 10:28). If a person performs the law, he shall live by that performance (Lev 18:5). This is the principle of the covenant of works. The Judaizers sought to put the Gentile Christians under the covenant of works for the standing before God but Paul was having none of it. Paul sets out to rescue, as it were, the covenant of grace from the Judaizers, who tried to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

This is why he quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 in Galatians 3:10, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Paul says, “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse.” The law demands perfect obedience but none of us, after the fall, are capable of producing that obedience, of meeting that standard. This is why he says in v. 11 it is “evident that no one is justified before God by the law.” Why is it evident? Because “the righteous shall live by faith” (Has 2:4). There was a time when humans could have obeyed and lived but that time passed when Adam sinned. After the fall, though the standard remains, the potential for mere humans actually to meet the standard has been lost. We need the God-Man to be our substitute and our Mediator.

In v. 12, the principal that Paul opposes to the demands of the law is faith: “But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Paul says that law is one thing (Lev 18:5) and faith is another. Faith looks to the obedience of another. This is the difference between the covenants of works and grace.

Who is Paul’s pre-eminent example of the covenant of grace? Abraham. At the beginning of the chapter, where he indicts the Galatians for being bewitched by the Judaizers, he reminds them that he did not preach salvation through works (not even in some ostensible “second stage” of justification or salvation) but by faith in Jesus Christ who was “publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1; ESV). The Holy Spirit was not poured out because Christians have met the terms of a covenant of works but by out of the free favor of God purchased for us by Christ and given freely to us and received through faith (v. 2–5). Whom did Paul choose to illustrate Christian faith, by which the Holy Spirit is received? Abraham. This tells us a great deal about how Paul understands redemptive history.

Were Abraham in a covenant of grace and not in the covenant of grace or were Abraham a father but not our father, Paul’s argument collapses. The underlying assumption is that Abraham, received the same Holy Spirit as we, that he was in the same covenant of grace as we. That is why is our father in the Christian faith. That is why Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 in reference to Abraham. He is the epitome of the Christian who received the Spirit by faith, who was justified by faith and not by the works of the law (v.6): “just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

From there Paul connects us New Covenant believers directly to Abraham. We who are of faith, in contrast to the Judaizers who are works, are “sons of Abraham” (v. 7) This is the very same argument that our Lord pursued against the Jews in John 8. They boasted that they were Abraham’s children but Jesus said that they were not Abraham’s children because they did not do as Abraham did: believe in Jesus the Messiah. Thus, Paul makes it even more pointed, more clear in v. 8: “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.'” The promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 22:18 Paul calls gospel. Therefore we cannot reduce that promise to a merely earthly land promise as many have tried to do. That is directly contrary to Paul’s teaching. It is contrary to God’s Word. It turns the gospel into law. It turns the spiritual into the earthly. It turns Scripture on its head.

According to Paul, we are participating in the same covenant of grace. We have the same faith, the same Holy Spirit as Abraham. We have same free salvation, the same Savior (v. 9). Abraham was redeemed from the curse of the law by Jesus, who became a curse for us (v. 13). Paul says that in v., 14: “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” From these verses alone we know that Abraham was not a mere witness to a future covenant of grace (to arrive only in the New Covenant) but an actual participant in the administration of the covenant of grace in, with, and under the types and shadows.

Indeed, when Paul wants to illustrate the difference between the covenants of works and grace he appeals to the Abrahamic covenant as the paradigmatic example of the covenant of grace over against the Old, Mosaic covenant, which was an administration of the covenant of grace to be sure but which had a legal character to it (the rabbis counted 613 ceremonial and civil laws). Further. Paul says, the Abrahamic covenant pre-dated the Mosaic by 430 years (Gal 3:15&ndashl18).

Even in human covenants (e.g., your mortgage) no one can add to it once it has been ratified. The covenant of grace was ratified in Genesis 15, when Yahweh (God the Son in his preincarnate state) went between the pieces and swore an oath against himself, which penalty he suffered in his incarnate state on the cross, for us. Some, who want to revise Reformed covenant theology, have said that the covenant of grace was only ratified at the cross. That is not what Paul says. His argument here depends on the reality of a ratification before the incarnation. The Mosaic was only temporary and could not change the terms of the covenant of grace because the covenant God made with Abraham was ratified and immutable. In other words, contra the Judaizers, Moses is the not the central figure in the history of the OT. Abraham is and he represents the covenant of grace. The Judaizers tried to leverage the covenant of grace with Moses but Paul will not let them. Moses came later. Moses was an addendum. Moses was temporary. Moses’ covenant, the national covenant. expired. Paul says this in 2 Corinthians 3:7, 11 and the writer to the Hebrews says this explicitly. The Old, Mosaic covenant was inferior (Heb 7:7). When the priesthood changed, the law changed (Heb 7:11–14).

This also means that Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are distinct. They are both administrations of the one covenant of grace but they are not identical. Moses is not Abraham. The same seed promised to and through Abraham, in whom he put his trust finally came (v.16). That seed was Christ. The inheritance of free salvation in Christ comes not by our law-keeping (contra the Judaizers) but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The Mosaic covenant was given to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery (3:19). It was never given as a parallel track to salvation. The true Mediator of the covenant of grace was never Moses. It was always the Son of God, who became incarnate for us and for our salvation. Abraham looked to him. Moses looked to him. They were Christians but the Judaizers obscured that reality with their errors.

This is why it is so important for Paul to say that in Christ, i.e., by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone there “is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Judaizers sought to re-establish the wall that Christ tore down in his body (Eph 2:11-22). Paul tears it down again. There is no wall between the old administration of the covenant of grace under Abraham and us. We are united in Christ. We have the same Holy Spirit, the same promises, the same faith. Abraham had them under types and shadows and we have them under the reality but it is the same covenant of grace. That is why Paul says, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (v. 29).

There is only gracious salvation, which was promised to our father Abraham, with whom we share one faith and one initiation into the administration of the one covenant of grace.

Resources on Abraham’s Role in Redemptive History

R. Scott Clark, Escondido

5 comments

  1. Since our God is a promise keeping God, who does not change His mind, we can trust His promises. We can stake our hope of eternal life on His Word. That is why I find it so inconceivable that hermeneutical models, such as 1689 Federalism and Dispensationalism would interpret the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as a republication of the covenant of works for an earthly people seeking earthly land promises, as though God promises one thing but does the opposite! This after God had promised a second Adam in the garden, who would restore the hope of eternal, heavenly life, and, further, then God covenanted with Abraham that He, Himself, would make it absolutely certain, because He, who cannot lie, would be that One who would fulfill the promise. That after all God did to certify His promise of eternal life, this idea that He would turn it all on its head and reintroduce the covenant works for an earthly people seeking only earthly rewards, reserving the hope of eternal, heavenly life He promised in the garden and confirmed in His covenant with Abraham for a spiritual people who only, after the death and resurrection of Christ, would enjoy the administration of the covenant of grace. And in spite of their hermeneutic, which is a complete denial of the Reformed model, which sees the covenant of grace, under different administrations, uniting all of redemptive history, yet denying it they want to call themselves Reformed?

    • Hi Angela,

      I would like to distinguish a few things:

      1) I agree that there are formal similarities between the way 1689-type readings of the history of redemption and some Dispensational models.

      2) They do tend to conflate the Mosaic (old) and Abrahamic covenants as if all types and shadows are inherently legal. As I keep saying, Abraham is not Moses.

      3) We agree that land promises to Abraham were essentially gracious and typological of spiritual blessings (Abraham is not Moses).

      4) There is a strong Reformed tradition of speaking of the Mosaic (old) covenant (as distinct from the Abrahamic) as a “republication of the covenant of works” not for salvation but as a re-statement of the law given to Adam, as a re-statement of the principle “do this and live” (e.g., Lev 18:5). It’s a complex discussion so I can’t unwind all the nuances here but here are some resources on doctrine of republication.

      5) I do think that the Mosaic covenant was simultaneously an administration of the covenant of grace and a pedagogical republication of the covenant of works in order to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery and to drive them to look to Christ. No one was saved by works. There have been orthodox Reformed theologians who have argued that Israel’s land tenure under Moses and David was dependent upon their obedience but most of our writers agreed that the civil and ceremonial laws did give the Mosaic covenant a legal character. Again, the Mosaic was an administration of the covenant of grace but, as Paul says in Gal 3, the Mosaic was added later and about it Paul says, “the law was not of faith.” There he was indicating its legal character. This is why John Owen called the Mosaic a “subordinate” covenant, insofar as it was legal and temporary and addition to the Abrahamic.

    • Thanks for explaining the Reformed view of how the Mosaic covenant is a republication of the covenant of works, to show the people their sin and misery in their inability to do all that the moral law requires, so as to drive them back to the Savior promised in the covenant God made with Abraham. I have understood Owen to say that this is an abiding purpose of the moral law as subordinate to the Abrahamic covenant\New covenant. It serves the purpose of the covenant of grace in driving us to seek acceptance with God in perfect obedience found in the Savior. Of course the ceremonial and civic laws, as types and shadows, and as rules for government for God’s people, as limited to Israel, passed away with the reality of the incarnation and the inclusion of people from all nations. That is why it is called the old covenant, it became obsolete and passed away. The point I was trying to make is that there is not an earthly people, only under an administration of the covenant of works, looking for earthly rewards under the old covenant. Even the old covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace. This is what 1689 type hermeneutics denies, insisting that only the New covenant, after the death and resurrection of Christ, is the covenant of grace, and that therefore the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenant were administrations of the covenant of works for earthly rewards and tenure in the land for an earthly people. That divides the Scripture and God’s people, so it is quite unlike the Reformed hermeneutic of the covenant of grace that unites all of Scripture and all of God’s people in looking for eternal acceptance with God in the Savior.

  2. These articles will be helpful as I re-examine Denault’s arguments in his ‘Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology’. I suppose I should be, (doing what I do!), but I have not yet been convinced by 1689 Federalism.

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