Moses Was Not Abraham

Moses Parts the WatersIn March I had the privilege of contributing to the 9 Marks blog. The point of my post there (and here) was not to argue the specifics of the paedobaptist (infant baptizing) case but, nevertheless, in response to that contribution a correspondent re-stated a frequent Baptist objection to paedobaptism. I thought it might be helpful to post part of that correspondence and my reply.

Mike writes,

I would only ask, if the children of the believer (Abraham), were in, when the promises were given, and they(the children) were included in the temporal, fleshly, conditional, out working of the old covenant, for blessing or curse.

Mike,

The covenant theology underlying the Reformed view of baptism does not understand Abraham to have been, strictly speaking, an “old testament” character. He was a typological character in the history of redemption (John 8:56; , Matt 3:9; 22:2; Acts 3;13, 22; 13:26; Rom 4; 9:6; Gal 3; Gal 4:21; Heb 2:16; 6:13-15; ch. 7; 11:8; 11:17;  but not an “old covenant” character. He lived in the period of, as Hebrews puts it, “types and shadows” (Heb 8:5;  10:1. see also Col 2:16)

We distinguish Abraham from the old covenant because Paul does so consistently. He does so in 2 Cor 3:14 when he applies the language “old covenant” not to Abraham but to Moses. Of course the pattern for this was established in Jeremiah 31:32, which describes the new covenant as not like that made with the fathers when they were led out of Egypt. In other words, Jeremiah connects the old covenant to Moses and not to Abraham. Paul also makes this identification in Galatians 3 and 4, where he explicitly distinguishes between Abraham and Moses. In Gal 3 Paul argues that the Mosaic covenant did not change the Abrahamic covenant which is fundamental to God’s administration of saving grace in the world. The Mosaic covenant was a codicil added to the Abrahamic covenant 430 years later and it has expired with the coming of Christ. The Abrahamic covenant, however, has not expired.

The NT appeals consistently to Abraham and to the promise given to Abraham, not in earthly terms but in spiritual terms. not with respect to the land promises (which has expired with the expiration of the national covenant with Israel) but it consistently regards Abraham as our spiritual father in the faith. Abraham was looking forward to the heavenly city. This is the explicit teaching of Hebrews 11:

and became an heir of  the righteousness that comes by faith.
Heb. 11:8   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.  9 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.  10 For he was looking forward to  the city that has  foundations,  whose designer and builder is God.  11 By faith  Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered  him faithful who had promised. Heb. 11:14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out,  they would have had opportunity to return.  16 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.

and became an heir of  the righteousness that comes by faith.

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.  10 For he was looking forward to  the city that has  foundations,  whose designer and builder is God…..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.

Mike says that the Abrahamic promise was “earthly” and “temporal,” and to be sure Abraham was given a land promise but please note carefully how Hebrews interprets the life and faith of Abraham. Hebrews interprets Abraham’s life and faith not int terms of the land promise. Hebrews categorically denies the very interpretation that Mike gives because it denies the very interpretation that the Judaizers were giving. Hebrews does not concede that Abraham was looking for an earthly city. Hebrews says, following our Lord’s teaching in John 8, that Abraham trusted in Jesus, just as we do. He was looking forward to the incarnation and we live in light of the fulfillment of the promises but it’s the same Savior, the same faith, and the same covenant of grace with the same promises and commands: I will be your God and a God to your children.

We also know this from Romans 3-4 where Paul makes Abraham the pattern for new covenant faith. In Rom 4 Paul writes;

What then shall we say was gained by  Abraham,  our forefather according to the flesh?   For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but  not before God.  For what does the Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Paul’s argument is that new-covenant believers have the same faith as Abraham. Paul explicitly rejected the notion that the covenant made with Abraham or the promises given to him were merely earthly or temporary. Paul continues:

Is this blessing then only for  the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?  We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was  to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

The chief benefit  of the covenant of grace is righteousness with God and it is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) which looks to the righteousness of Christ alone (solo Christo). This was true for Abraham and it’s true for believers today. Abraham believed as a gentile and he believed as a Jew. Circumcision did not do anything more or less than signify and seal his faith, i.e. it was visible word or proclamation of the coming obedience and death of Jesus (through the shedding of blood) and a seal or a promise to those who believe that what the gospel offers is really true for them.

Finally, the book of Hebrews, chapters 7-10, explicitly describe the Mosaic covenant as the “old covenant.” The “better promises” of the new covenant are not contrasted with Abraham but with Moses and the Mosaic priesthood. Hebrews 8:5 makes this contrast explicitly. From 8:6 Hebrews interprets Jeremiah 31:

But as it is, Christ  has obtained a ministry that is  as much more excellent than the old as  the covenant  he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.  For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

When v. 7 says “first covenant” it means the Mosaic, not Abrahamic covenant. This is confirmed by what follows:

For he finds fault with them when he says:  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and  write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall  all know me from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,  and I will remember their sins no more.”

The writer to/pastor of the Hebrew Christian congregation gives us a divinely inspired interpretation (Heb 10:15 claims this explicitly) of the prophecy of Jeremiah. It speaks to the contrast and comparison between the old, Mosaic covenant and the new, better, covenant. The comparison and contrast is not between Abraham and the new covenant but between Moses and the new covenant. The covenant that God made with Abraham was a covenant of grace, the covenant he confirmed with the “blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb 13:20).

The Mosaic covenant, the old covenant, is, in the language of 2 Cor, fading. According to Hebrews 8:13 it is “obsolete.” These things are not said about Abraham’s faith or the promise of salvation given to and through Abraham.

Thus, the Reformed covenant theology sees the promises and commands given to Abraham as still in force. The typological elements (bloodshed in circumcision) have been fulfilled in Christ but the promises and commands (to initiate children of believers into the visible covenant community) remain. This is why God said through the Apostle Peter, “the promise is to you and to your children….” The promise is the very promise he gave to Abraham: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” Just because Abraham is a typological character in the history of redemption does not mean that he was an “old covenant” character. The NT consistently describes Abraham and his covenant as spiritual and perpetual and not as earthly and temporal.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2009.

5 comments

  1. Who is Peter referring to when Acts 2:39 continues and includes in the promise “and to all that are afar off”.

    • Gentiles, formerly strangers from the covenants of promise who have now been “brought near” by the blood of Christ,” Eph.12-13.

  2. Thanks Bruce.
    So the promise that is said to be “for you and your children” is for who exactly if “for all who are afar off” is limited to the Gentiles. Jews and their children, or believing Jews and their children or believers in general and their children?

    • The predominant class of Peter’s original audience were Jews, whether ethnic or by conversion, “devout men from every nation under heaven,” Act.2:5.

      A proper judgment of charity would recognize these men as believers under the former (Old Covenant/Moses) administration.

      All of them had doubtless heard and internalized the ancient promise of God to father Abraham, Gen.17:7; and repeated to Isaac, 26:3; and Jacob, 28:4,13. Israel the nation had the same, Dt.30:2; 4:9-10. Hezekiah calls even to the remnant of the northern rebels on this basis, 2Chr.30:6-9. Is.59:20-21 projects the promise into an explicitly Messianic future-context.

      But I’m wondering a bit about your term, “exactly.” Does it imply that you aren’t sure whether or not Peter’s “you” statements are confined (ultimately) to his local and immediate target audience?

      If Peter is self-consciously applying the Abrahamic promise in a later context–the way Moses did, and later prophets also did–then the key to both interpretation and application of Peter’s language is the whole OT background, with special reference to the grounding promises to Abraham, initially in 12:2-3, and repeated in various forms in the following chs.

      In that promise are three basic referents: 1) Abraham, the immediate believer; 2) his children, believers after him; and 3) believers from all the families of the earth, which are fundamentally Gentile/non-Abrahamic in nature (even, or perhaps especially when of “mixed” paternity).

      So, once again in the immediate context the promise is directed to those present (mainly Jewish men) in the gracious word relayed through the mouths of the apostles; and to their children, the vast majority of which would not have been present on this pilgrimage (from the ends of the earth, for some); and unto myriads not present, but for whom the promise also is issued. The promise is received–as it ever was–by the believers in the promise.

      There is a natural progression (seen no less in the OT than the NT) from being further away, to being those who receive and believe the promise as a personal recipient. The promise continues to be refreshed and renewed to everyone who believes, in every generation; and will continue to call those from furthest away until all the elect have been summoned from every kindred, tribe, tongue, people, and nation.

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