What Is Figurative And What Is Literal In The Promise To Abraham In Genesis 17?

Jackson writes to ask, “As it relates to continuity with the Abrahamic covenant, for example, Abraham and his children get circumcised, therfore in the new administration, Jesus and his children (spiritual) get baptized. Do you think that someone can retain their Reformed confession of the WSC and still be Baptist if they use that kind of reasoning?”

The essence of the question is the nature of the continuity of between the new administration of the covenant of grace and the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace. Under Abraham the promise was to believers and to their children and it included the external administration of the sign of the covenant to believers and to their children. Genesis 17:1–14 says:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (ESV).

There are two aspects to the promise as it was articulated in Genesis 17: children and the gentile nations. In connection with this expression of the promise (see also Gen ch. 12 and 15) Yahweh changes Abram’s name to Abraham. He will be the father of a multitude of nations. In v. 9 Yahweh articulates the second aspect of the promise, to be Abraham’s God and a God to his children.

Yahweh gave a sign and seal of the promise: circumcision. It was a bloody, typological sign pointing forward to the death of Christ (Col 2:11–12) and he commanded that the sign be applied both to Abraham the believer (Gen 15:6) and to his sons. The external administration of the covenant of grace under Abraham included both believers and children. This is significant for New Covenant believers because Paul invokes the Abraham promise as the pattern for the New Covenant:

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Rom 4:13–17; ESV).

Abraham is the father of all Christians, both Jew and Gentile. Abraham believed before he was circumcised, when he was a Gentile and thus he is the father of all Gentile Christians, and he believed when he was circumcised and thus is the father of all Jewish Christians.

The question is whether we should, in the covenant, regard allegorize or make figurative whom we include in the external administration of the covenant of grace in the new covenant? Believers and their children were included in the external administration of the covenant of grace under Abraham. Has that changed? Our Baptists friends do two things here: 1) they collapse the external administration of the covenant of grace with the internal reality; 2) they make the “offspring,” “seed,” or “children” of Genesis 17:7 and Acts 2:39 figurative. Paul explicitly applies the promise regarding the nations to the inclusion of Gentiles into the church and thus we may not take that language figuratively when we get to Acts 2:39.

The Reformed churches agree that we do not have warrant to redefine “offspring,” “seed,” or “children” in the New Covenant and we do not see any warrant for collapsing the external administration into the internal reality. There continues to be a distinction in the New Testament between those who have only the external sign and those who have both the external sign and the internal reality.

Paul says, “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” (Rom 2:28–29). He reiterated the same point in 9:6, “not all Israel is Israel.” He explains (vv. 7–9) that it is one thing to be a Jew physically and another to be a Jew, i.e., Abraham’s son, inwardly. Only those who believe are Abraham’s children inwardly. By the way, this means that the Abrahamic covenant was always a spiritual covenant and never truly a carnal or earthly covenant as some say. Certainly it was never a covenant of works. Perish the thought.

We do not have to choose between the internal reality and the external administration. Paul addressed this problem directly:

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

God uses the external administration to call his elect to new life and true faith (Rom 10:14–21). He uses the preaching of the law to teach the elect the greatness of their sin and misery and he uses the preaching of the gospel to bring them to new life and true faith. The Abrahamic pattern is still intact. For 2,000 years, repeatedly (see the resources below) the Lord had promised to be a God to Abraham and to his children. The prophets repeat this promise in various ways.

After Peter preached the law and the gospel to the thousands Jews gathered at Pentecost, those people, whose children had been circumcised, who understood that the Abrahamic promise, “I will be a God to you and to your children,” was for them and for their children (v.37), said, “What shall we do?” Peter replied,

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39)

Notice that, in v. 39, the promise is still to believers and to their children.” The Abrahamic promise and pattern is still intact. The particle “for” (γάρ) is explains what he had just said. What follows the “for” is a re-statement of the Abrahamic promise of Gen 17:7.

Were Peter’s message, “Well, we used to include children in the external administration of the covenant of grace for 2,000 years but this is the New Covenant and we do not do that any more” we should expect him to use different language. We should expect him to make explicit the radical change in the administration of the covenant of grace. Certainly reciting the Abrahamic promise without further explanation would hardly have communicated to thousands of Jews such a massive change in the administration of the covenant of grace. Their children were part of the external administration but now their children have been excluded? How would they infer that from “the promise is to you and to your children”? The only want to think that is to know it a priori before coming to Acts 2:39. Apparently they did not get the message in Philippi since both Lydia’s house and the house of the Philippian jailer were baptized, which followed literally the Abrahamic pattern.

As it is, Peter re-stated two of the recipients of the promise, children and the Gentiles. The land does not get repeated because that was typological and temporary. We know this from Hebrews 4:1–13 says that the land symbolized rest. We have that rest in Christ. Circumcision was bloody, temporary, and typological. Christ was “cut off,” for his elect, on the cross, outside the city (Col 2:11–12; Isa 53:8; Heb 13:1-–14).

The land promise and circumcision were intentionally temporary and typological of Christ’s death. The inclusion of children in the external administration of the covenant of grace is not temporary and it was never typological. That the inclusion of gentiles and children in the external administration of the covenant of grace, which began already in small ways during the types and shadows, e.g., Namaan (2 Kings 5), occurred during the typology does not make them inherently typological.

We may be sure that the inclusion of believers and their children is not typological. The Lord is literally fulfilling his promise to Abraham to make him the father of a multitude of nations. I write this from Southern California, which is teeming with people from all over the world. I just had a lovely ninety-minute conversation with a faithful Reformed pastor from Budapest, Hungary. God’s promise to Abraham is being fulfilled before our eyes. Just as the promise about the nations is not figurative neither is the promise to believers and their children figurative. Covenant children are weekly outwardly included into the covenant people by baptism. Daily, mysteriously, the Holy Spirit uses the ministry of the Word and the prayers of believing parents to bring baptized covenant children to new life and true faith. More than a few covenant children never remember coming to faith because they have always believed. In that we we see a literal fulfillment of an aspect of the promise of the New Covenant (which already was in effect under Abraham).

…I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jer 31:33; NASB).

Those covenant children who grow up believing, who never remember a time when they did not believe are literal fulfillments of this promise and what a marvelous thing it is.

There is no need to make figurative the promise to believers and their children just as there is no need to make figurative to promise regarding the nations. Both are being fulfilled literally in the New Covenant.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. What is your interpretation of Galatians 3:16: “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.”
    ‭‭Galatians‬ ‭3:16‬??
    I’m not making the promise figurative, Paul is revealing that the promise was made with Christ who is a literal physical person, but the question is if Christ had literal physical children. Verse 26-27 answers: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” My understanding is that baptism is to be administered to Jesus and his “sons” and daughters who are spiritually baptized. The bible does not require strict synonymous administration of the sign, but it is revealed in passages like Gal. 3 to whom it is given. This does not mean that the New Covenant is the first proclamation of the Cov. Of Grace, but that it is a new revelation of the covenant of grace with a different administration.

    • Jackson,

      Here’s an account of Gal 3:16.

      Paul says two things,

      1. Christ is the seed
      2. Those who are in Christ are the seeds, as it were.

      Yes, the Baptists conflate the external administration of the covenant of grace with the internal reality. The biblical, historic Christian, and Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace is that there are two aspects: internal and external. Baptists tend to ignore this fact.

      Because there are two aspects, we continue to follow the Abrahamic pattern and practice of administering the sign to believers and to their children. It’s the same covenant of grace. The pattern persists.

      Yes, the new covenant is a new administration of the covenant of grace, sans types & shadows but infant imitation isn’t a type or shadow, for the reasons I gave in the article above.

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