In the opening scenes of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, a narrator sets up the plot of the story by giving the viewer a condensed history lesson on the mythological world of Middle Earth. The movie touches on critical events over thousands of years of history, explaining the significance of Sauron’s ring and how it fell into the hands of a hobbit named Bilbo. Once the prologue is complete and the plot is made clear, the speed of the story slows down and the central character is introduced: Frodo, the nephew of Bilbo, who must destroy the ring.
The book of Genesis unfolds in a similar way. Although it is true history and not mythology, the first eleven chapters are an overview of ancient history, a prologue leading up to the central character of the story: Abraham. Once Abraham is introduced, the speed of the story slows down and the narrator focuses on the covenant that God made with him and his offspring, a covenant that is central to the plot of redemptive history and the unity of the Scriptures.
What Is the Abrahamic Covenant?
Although the covenant of grace began with God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, it is more fully revealed in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:1–3; 15; 17). God promised Abraham an offspring and a land. He fulfilled these promises in two stages. The first stage of fulfillment is in the old covenant, with the nation of Israel and the land of Canaan. God fulfilled his promise to give Abraham an offspring numbered like the stars (see Deut. 1:10) and a land flowing with milk and honey (Josh. 21:43–45). These promises, however, were not an end in themselves, for God also promised Abraham that through him God would bless the nations.
As marvelous as these fulfilled promises were, however, they were only the first level of fulfillment. The nation of Israel and the land of Canaan were only pictures and foreshadows of a far greater fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. This fulfillment is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ and the new covenant he mediates. Galatians 3, for example, reveals the second stage of fulfillment concerning God’s promise to give Abraham offspring. In making his argument against the Judaizers that salvation is through faith alone in Christ alone, and not by works of the law, the apostle Paul is careful to show how one becomes a true descendant of Abraham. In Galatians 3:7–9 he says,
Know then that is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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 of the earth be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Justification happens in the same way now to people of every tongue, nation, and tribe, as it did to Abraham: by faith alone.
The promise goes out to all the earth because of what Paul says in verse 16: “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.” Paul uses a play on words to draw an important conclusion: Christ is the offspring of Abraham, through whom all the promises come to us who believe. Even the law that was given through Moses 430 years later could not annul the covenant previously made to Abraham and ratified in blood (see Gal. 3:17). That promise is fulfilled in Christ: “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). The message of the New Testament is clear: the great number of offspring promised to Abraham was only foreshadowed in national Israel. Therefore, not all of national Israel is of true Israel. Those who are truly offspring of Abraham are those who, like Abraham, are justified through faith alone in the Offspring (Christ) alone.
But what about the promise of a land? How is that fulfilled on a greater level? Again, the New Testament reveals to us a reality that is fuller than the type and shadow of the Old Covenant. Notice what Hebrews 11 tells us:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose builder and designer is God . . . 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. (vv. 8–10, 13–16)
The promised land of Canaan was temporary, not permanent. The permanent Promised Land is the heavenly country that still awaits us, a land that is infinitely greater than any plot of real estate in this present age. What awaits us is the new heaven and new earth. While the nation Israel received a good land, ultimately it became corrupt and defiled, and it faded away. The greater Promised Land, however, is an inheritance that Peter says is “incorruptible, undefiled, unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). And like our father Abraham, we look forward to this inheritance with hope. A visual sketch of this two-stage fulfillment is shown in figure 3.
As this diagram shows, the Abrahamic covenant was not interrupted by God’s national covenant with Israel at Sinai (typically called the Mosaic or old covenant) but runs continuously until its fulfillment in the new covenant. Those promises were fulfilled in Christ, who is Abraham’s offspring (Gal. 3:16) and the one who inaugurated the new covenant. God made us heirs, not because of our obedience to the law but because of Christ’s obedience, which is imputed to us freely of his grace. He is the one Mediator of the one covenant of grace as it is administered in both the Abrahamic and new covenants. As Calvin observed, “This covenant [that is, the Abrahamic] is so much like ours [that is, the new] in substance and reality, that the two are actually one and the same.”1 Both are covenants of promise, not law. In both, God promises to give gifts to undeserving sinners on the basis of his grace through Christ alone. Thus, Calvin was correct to say that “the covenant made with Abraham is no less in force today for Christians than it was of old for Jewish people.”2 The substance of the covenant has not changed.
The Mosaic covenant, which came after the Abrahamic covenant, played an important role in the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, yet it was different in administration. While it was still an administration of the one covenant of grace, the Mosaic covenant had a principle of law. Whereas the Abrahamic covenant promised, “I will give to you” (Gen. 15; 17:7–8; 22:16–18; 26:3–4, 24; 28:13– 15), the Mosaic covenant threatened, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them” (Gal. 3:10b; Lev. 18:5; cf. Deut. 27:26). Whereas faith in the promise given in Abraham justified sinners (Gal. 3:6–9), obedience to the law did not (Gal. 3:11– 12). Those who were justified during the time of the Mosaic covenant were so because their faith was in the promise of the Abrahamic covenant. The Mosaic covenant in no way superseded or abrogated the Abrahamic covenant, for “the law,” says Paul, “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 promise” (Gal. 3:17–18).
This naturally leads one to ask, “Well, why then did God give the Mosaic covenant in the first place?” This, of course, is precisely the rhetorical question that Paul asks in Galatians 3:19: “Why then the law?” Paul says it was added to the covenant already in place (that is, the Abrahamic covenant) because of sin, until the coming of Christ. The Mosaic covenant was like a tutor for children until those children had grown (see Gal. 3:23–26). To put it another way, it was like training wheels on a bicycle. Training wheels serve the temporary purpose of helping a child learn how to ride a bike. Once a child has enough balance to keep the bike from tipping over, the training wheels come off. As long as those training wheels remain on the bike, its intended purpose cannot be fulfilled. The fulfillment of their intended purpose comes only when they are removed and the child moves on to better things. Similarly, the Mosaic covenant was necessary only for a time. As long as it remained in place, God’s promise to Abraham was limited to the people of Israel and the land of Canaan. The greater fulfillment of these promises could not come until Christ fulfilled the Mosaic covenant and inaugurated the new.
What does all of this promise and fulfillment show us? It shows us that there is continuity in the one plan of salvation for the one people of God, whom the Bible describes as the seed or offspring of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). There is no other way to be a child of God than to be included into Abraham’s covenant. Thus, when Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3:15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or ever will be saved—in any period of human history—is a member of this one covenant of grace. Salvation is always the same: by grace alone, through faith alone, because of the one Mediator of the covenant alone, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Because Reformed theology has understood that the Abrahamic and new covenants are both covenants of promise and that they share a tight continuity with one another, it has also understood the children of believers to be members of the covenant of grace and rightful recipients of the covenant sign of baptism. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, after its five questions dealing with the sacrament of baptism in general, asks in Question 74:
Q: Are infants also to be baptized?
A: Yes. For since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents; they are also by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Covenant by circumcision, in place of which in the New Covenant baptism is appointed.
Just as God appointed a covenant sign of inclusion in the Abrahamic covenant (circumcision), so also he appointed a covenant sign of inclusion in the new covenant (baptism). If God included the children of believers into the Abrahamic covenant, there is no reason to assume that he has not done the same in the new covenant. The Reformed theologian B. B. Warfield (1851– 1921) stated this point quite plainly: “The argument [of infant baptism] in a nutshell is simply this: God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances.”3
Clearly, the New Testament has no such command to remove the children of believers from his covenant. On the contrary, we find Jesus saying, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).
How should we then define the Abrahamic covenant? We can define it as the covenant of grace established with Abraham and his offspring, wherein God promised the entire future of his covenantal kingdom, in both its old covenant and new covenant stages.
Why Is This Doctrine Important for the Christian Life?
The doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant is important for several reasons. First, it shows us that God is a God of promise. It reveals to us what he is like in his nature by showing us how he has acted toward his people in history. This is vital for our faith as we travel through this wilderness age like pilgrims, looking to the promised land of the new heavens and new earth. Often, we are like Israel in the desert, tempted to disbelieve the Lord’s promises and doubt his goodness. We are tempted to grumble and complain against the Lord for not satisfying our shopping list of felt needs. The doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant, however, calls us out of our self-centeredness and disbelief by displaying before our eyes the God who keeps his promises and has taken us to be his covenant people. It directs our faith to Christ, in whom all of God’s promises are “yes” and “amen” (2 Cor. 1:17), and tells us that even though we live in a world filled with letdowns and broken promises, God will never go back on his word. Even though we will experience hardship and suffering in this life, his promises do not change. He will remember our sins no more. He will cause us to persevere in the faith, finish in us the good work he began, and resurrect our bodies from the dead. He will bring us to that heavenly country to which all of God’s saints and spiritual descendants of Abraham have looked, that country in which only righteousness dwells, where there is no crying or sadness or pain, and nothing evil or corrupt will ever enter its gates. We can look with great hope to the future and rest in the promises of God, for they always come to pass.
Second, the doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant assures our faith by highlighting the work of Christ, the Offspring of Abraham. Because Christ was made a curse for us and suffered the realities of the blood-oath of Genesis 15, we have confidence that we are no longer under a curse and have been redeemed from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). Knowing this is essential to our joy as Christians as well as for living a life of grateful obedience. If we think we are still under God’s curse because of our sin, we will inevitably be driven to serve God out of servile fear rather than grateful and joyful obedience. We will constantly relate to God by the law and attempt to earn his favor. But the doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant shows us that, in Christ, we have been made Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to God’s promise (Gal. 3:29). It announces good news to us by telling us that we have been given eternal life and access into the holy presence of God. As Hebrews 10:19– 20 says, we now “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.”
Third, the doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant declares God’s grace to the nations. It tells us that the gospel is for people of every race, tribe, and nationality. God promised Abraham that he would be a light to the nations, and indeed that has come to pass. It is because of God’s promise to Abraham that the apostles were sent as Christ’s witnesses not only in Jerusalem and in all Judea but also in Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). It is because of God’s promise to Abraham that Christians are black, white, Asian, Hispanic, and more. The Christian faith is not a northern European faith, nor a Semitic faith, but an international, global faith in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave
nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In a world that is typically segregated by our cultural identities, consumer preferences, and political affiliations, the doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant shows us that the church, as it is gathered throughout the world, is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9a). Nothing but the gospel can create a community like this one.
Fourth, the doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant tells us that God claims the children of believers as part of his covenant community and should be regarded as heirs of his promises. Baptism, of course, does not save them (or anyone), for faith, not baptism, is the instrument whereby the righteousness of Christ is received and imputed to a sinner. Yet baptism is God’s sacrament of inclusion into his covenant of grace, and by it God promises salvation to those who believe. The doctrine of the Abrahamic covenant helps Christian parents view their children as rightful recipients of this covenant sign and thus God’s heirs of his covenant. It helps parents understand more clearly their role as stewards of these children who must be brought up in the training and admonition of the Lord.
1. Calvin, Institutes, 2.10.2.
2. Ibid., 4.16.6.
3. B. B. Warfield, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism,” in Studies in Theology (1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 9.408.
Rev. Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.