Is Abraham Our Father Or A Father?

The Reformed Churches confess the great Protestant doctrines of salvation sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (through faith alone). With the ancient Christian fathers Barnabas (AD 120), Justin Martyr (AD 150), and Irenaeus (AD 170), and the Reformed theologians and churches of the 16th and 17th centuries, we understand Scripture to teach clearly that God has administered his gracious salvation through one covenant of grace in a variety administrations, which pointed to and was finally fulfilled by Christ and the inauguration of the gracious New Covenant.

Recently, in an online discussion, it was proposed that the covenant that God made with Abraham was “a covenant of grace” but not “the covenant of grace” (emphasis added). This is a distinction that merits further consideration for two reasons. First, it gives us an opportunity to think about how to read the Bible the way the New Testament authors read it and second, it is an opportunity to think about what unites the Old and New Testaments and what distinguishes them.

In, With, And Under Types And Shadows

Scripture calls those older administrations of the covenant of grace “types”and “foreshadows” (or shadows) of the reality to come in Christ and in the New Covenant. In the Reformed understanding of the history of salvation, however, the New Covenant does not arrive for the first time in the New Covenant (the New Testament). It has been there all along, in, with, and under the types and shadows.

Even before the fall, our Lord promised to Adam eternal blessedness and fellowship if Adam fulfilled the “commandment of life” (Belgic Confession art. 14). Of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Lord said “the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). There was, however, another tree in the garden, “The Tree of Life.” That tree symbolized eternal fellowship with God. It was a type, an illustration, and a foreshadowing of future fellowship, should Adam choose to obey the commandment to love God with all his faculties and his neighbor (Eve and us) as himself. Of course, you know how it went.

The story did not end there, however. Our Lord came to us even after we had sinned and earned the death penalty. He promised to send “the seed of the woman” who would do battle with the serpent. The latter would strike the heel of the seed and the seed would strike his head (Gen 3:15). This is the first promise of the gospel but it was revealed under types and shadows.

A type literally is a mark, an indicator of something else. When doubting Thomas wanted proof that it was Jesus before him, the Greek text says that he wanted to see and touch the “type” (τύπον) or “the mark” of the nail in Jesus’ hands (John 20:25). A type is an indicator of something else (e.g., Acts 7:43, 44). Scripture says that circumcision, Passover, the manna and the quail in the desert, the sacrifices, the tabernacle, the temple worship, the priesthood, the religious laws and the civil laws, were all types and foreshadows of the reality to come. We know that this is how we are to understand the Old Testament (i.e., everything in the Bible before the New Testament, as distinct from the Old Covenant, which Paul and Hebrews apply specifically the Mosaic covenant) because this is just what Paul did in Romans 5:14 when he called Adam “a type (τύπος) of the one to come,” i.e., Christ. We know that this is the right way to understand the sense of type since this is how Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 10:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as types for us, that we might not desire evil as they did (1 Cor 10:1-6; ESV; modified)

Notice how Paul connects the Corinthians Christians, in the New Covenant, directly to the believers under the Old Testament (and the Old Covenant specifically). They are “our fathers.” Specifically, he connects their baptism—under the cloud—to ours and their communion—the manna and the quail—to our communion. They ate the “same spiritual food” and drank “the same spiritual drink” as we. They were feeding on the Rock, who is Christ. He was not completely future. He was present with them. He was in, with, and under the types and shadows. Paul uses the word type to describe OT (and Old Covenant) sacraments. To make that clear I transliterated the Greek word in place of the ESV’s “examples.”

Hebrews 8:5 explicitly describes the Old Covenant (Mosaic) religious ceremonies “types” and “shadows.” Specifically, the priests conducted their ministry at “a copy (ὑποδείγματι) and shadow (σκιᾷ) of the heavenly things.” For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God (Heb 8:5; ESV). In this case, the type and shadow pointed not so much forward (horizontally) to future realities in history as much as they pointed vertically, to present heavenly realities. In other words, present, heavenly realities were being administered in, with, and under Old Covenant types and shadows.

Our brothers and sisters under the types and shadows participated in the realities that we have but the did so in, with, and under those types and shadows. The pastor to the Jewish Christians (who were tempted to go back to Moses, back to types and shadows) wrote of those who lived under the types and shadows:

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 (Heb 11:13-16; ESV).

According to Hebrews, Abraham and all the rest had a spiritual hope. They were not looking for an earthly homeland, an earthly seed, nor an earthly reward. Still they participated in the same covenant as we. They participated in the same Holy Spirit as we. They experienced some of genuine spiritual blessings. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets.

…through faith quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life (Heb 11:34–35; ESV).

Their faith was future but through faith they experienced present realities of the covenant of grace in, with, and under types and shadows. Still, they were looking forward to what we have:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40; ESV).

That for which they were looking was Christ. They had him in, with, and under the types and shadows but they did not have the fulfillment. The Apostle Peter tells us that they knew that they did not have the reality yet and that they were serving us:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Pet 1:10-12; ESV).

They had Christ through faith but they did not have him in the incarnation. He was with them by his Holy Spirit. He was with them in the desert even before he was incarnate—”that Rock was Christ—but they did not see him in the flesh, incarnate. They did not see the cross. They did not have the New Covenant Scriptures but they participated in the same covenant of grace in which we participate and in which we have been blessed.

Above 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.

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 ourfather, 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.


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One comment

  1. Amen, amen, and amen!!! That is the heart of the Reformed understanding of Scripture. God’s people can trust that God is always the same, always faithful to His promises. He always saves through His promised Redeemer, first promised in the garden and then covenanted with Abraham, and his children in the faith, who is no less than God Himself! The one who does all that the covenant requires, and dies in their place, so they would have eternal life. The new covenant is the covenant God made with Abraham and his children in the faith. They can trust in it completely because the One who cannot lie performs it. It is being fulfilled ever since, until its consummation, when Christ returns for those with whom the covenant was made.

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