A correspondent to the HB writes to ask, “According to Paul, who are Abraham’s children?” In one way or another, I get this question frequently. Most American evangelicals have been taught some version of Dispensational theology or are otherwise influenced by it so that they use a similar way of reading Scripture without realizing how they have been influenced by Dispensationalism. As a consequence, most American evangelicals seem unaware of the ways the Abrahamic covenant unifies redemptive history. Here’s one attempt to sketch this significance of the Abrahamic covenant for understanding the redemptive history. Heidelberg Catechism 74 speaks to this directly. Reformed Christians initiate their children into the visible covenant community (the visible church) on the basis of the divine command and promises given to Abraham, who has a distinct and more fundamental role in the history of redemption than Moses did. Abraham was not Moses and may not be treated as if he were just an earlier version of Moses. As Hebrews 3:1–6 says, the latter was a servant in God’s house, but Jesus is the Son and the heir. Believers are described as “offspring of Abraham” (Heb 2:16). Paul contrasts the Mosaic and Abrahamic covenants in Galatians chapters 3 and 4. In Galatians 3:15–18 Paul observes that the Abrahamic covenant is permanent but the Mosaic covenant, which Jeremiah 31:31–34 contrasted with the “new covenant,” which Paul called the “old” and “fading” covenant in 2 Corinthians 3, and which Hebrews calls the inferior and “obsolete” covenant (7:22; 8:13), was intentionally temporary. There are two cities, the earthly city and the heavenly (Gal 4). The new covenant is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant.
Second, before we answer the question directly, it is also important to understand that there are three ways of relating to the covenant of grace: outside, internally, and externally. These are categories that Scripture itself gives us for addressing this question.
So, in light of all this, who are Abraham’s children? Those who are most truly Abraham’s children are the elect, who, in time, have been or shall be brought to new life and true faith whereby they receive the promised benefits of the Abrahamic covenant. This is the teaching of our Lord in John 8:
They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did (John 8:39–40; ESV).
According to Paul, believers are “Jews inwardly” (Rom 2:28–29; 9:6) but outwardly, all those who participate in the external administration of the covenant of grace are reckoned as Abraham’s children. Romans 2:28–29 say:
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God (ESV).
In Romans 9:6–8 Paul added:
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring (ESV).
From this some have inferred that all that matters is election and that the outward or external, visible administration of the covenant of grace is unimportant but Paul begs to differ.
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,
“That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged” (Romans 3:1–4; ESV)
Paul’s question, “what advantage has the Jew?” comes immediately on the heels of his distinction between those who are Jews inwardly and those who are Jews outwardly. He knew that the moment he made that distinction that he faced the same sort of problem he would address in Romans 9: if it is all down to election, then what value is the visible church? His answer: “much in every way.” He says so because it is through the visible assembly that God the Spirit operates to call his elect to new life and to true faith in the Jesus the Messiah.
It is true that many in the visible covenant community, who had received the visible sign of initiation into the visible covenant community, who were physically related to Abraham, had not received the promises by faith. That reality does not nullify God’s promises. He is the arbiter. We are not the judge. It is God who elects. It is God who saves. Circumcision (and by implication) baptism is valuable. The preaching of the gospel, whether under types and shadows or in light of the reality, is valuable. God has willed to operate sovereignly through them to call his elect to new life and true faith. If we must choose, then, as Paul says, “let God be true and every man a liar.” He quotes the second part of Psalm 51:4. God is justified and God prevails in judgment. We might just as well put this passage right next to Romans 9 since it is essentially the same argument: “how can the clay say to the potter, why did you make me thus?”
Those who have been initiated into the visible covenant community, who have made profession of faith, are Abraham’s children outwardly and are to be regarded as Abraham’s children until we know otherwise. This is why the Reformed churches talk about a “credible profession of faith” and the “judgment of charity.” You and I are not God. We have not elected, in Christ, from all eternity. We are members of the visible covenant community and some of us are ministers of the means of grace. We regard those who have received the outward sign (whether as covenant children or as adult converts) and have made profession of faith as believers but we do so with the knowledge that there are always an Ishmael and Esau in the visible covenant community, even in ostensibly “pure” visible churches. Only Isaac and Jacob actually received the benefits promised in the outward administration and in the preaching of the gospel but the Lord still ordained that the sign be applied and the gospel preached to Ishmael and Esau. So it has always been and so it will always be until our Lord returns.
We should value the external administration of the covenant of grace as much as Paul did. What value baptism and preaching? “Much in every way.” To the visible church God had entrusted the administration of baptism and the preaching of the gospel. It is through them that God is calling his elect to new life and true faith. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 10. Paul desired the Jews to be saved. Being outwardly Jewish was never enough. The righteousness of the law has never been sufficient. Christ has died. Christ has been raised.
…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:9–13; ESV).
The old, Mosaic covenant is defunct but the Abrahamic promises continue. God is grafting Gentiles into the people of God. God is using the external means, the visible covenant community, to bring his elect to faith: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:16; ESV).
Indeed, much of the rest of Romans is an elaboration of these themes. God has not rejected his people. He is still calling his elect, both Jews and Gentiles, to faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paul himself is a prime example (Rom 11:1). Indeed, Paul notes that Abraham was a Gentile when he believed, who became a Jew by circumcision and so he is the father of both Gentile and Jewish Christians (Romans 4:9–12).
There are and always have been two ways of being in the visible covenant community and the difference between them is down to election but the same sovereign God who elects has always ordained the external means and community in and through which he calls his elect to faith.
What advantage is there is the external administration of the covenant of grace? “Much in every way.”