I’ve read about and researched this topic before, but I wanted to see what people here thought about whether the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional or conditional. What do you think?
Hey Tsweaver, could you provide more context as to what you mean? Perhaps I’m not understanding your question fully, sorry!
Hi @tsweaver! Great question, It took me a while to think about this one as well.
@Gnichols — in Genesis 15, we see God make a covenant with Abraham promising him four things: 1. land
3. blessing (on Abraham and through him to the entire world
4. Blessings or curses on others depending on how they relate to Abraham.
Covenants can be conditional in that they are null and void if one party fails to “keep their side of the bargain” so to speak. Unconditional covenants are not contingent on the response of the receiving party involved. A little bit of a rabbit trail but this article might be helpful.
Back to @tsweaver’s question. I think it is indeed unconditional. J. Scott Duval and J. Daniel Hayes write it better than I could in their book, Living God’s Word (pgs. 33-35)
- In Genesis 15 God formalizes the promises of Gen. 12:1-3 into a covenant. That is, God makes several promises to Abraham that establish a relationship between them. In Genesis 15 God goes a step further and initiates a covenant-ratifying ceremony that formalizes the covenant between them…He [God] has Abraham bring several animals and cut them in half, arranging the halves on the ground opposite each other. Later that night, as Abraham falls into a deep sleep, God reveals to him that his descendants will be oppressed for four hundred years in another country (we find out later this will be Egypt), but that God will then bring them up out of that land and give them the Promised Land (where Abraham was currently residing).l
- At this point a fascinating event takes place. A smoking pot with a blazing fire, representing God himself, passes between the halves of the cut animals. This is significant, for in the ancient Near East, apparently the formal practice for ratifying a serious covenant agreement between two people was to cut animals in half and then for both parties to pass between the halves. This probably was a symbolic way of saying something like “May this happen to me if I am unfaithful to this covenant.” Remarkably, in the covenant-ratifying ceremony between God and Abraham, only God passes through the cut animals. That is, God seems to be unilaterally binding Himself to this covenant…
- …[in Genesis 17 God] tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations as well. God also informs Abraham that this covenant will be passed on to his descendants forever. Then God tells Abraham that he and his descendants must undergo circumcision as a sign of this covenant (17:9-14)
- With this demand for circumcision, God is not changing the covenant into a two-sided covenant that has human obligations. Circumcision functions merely as a sign that Abraham and his descendants understood that they are under this covenant…
I think it’s so cool that God wants to involve humans in His story and covenant making processes yet knows we could never be perfect to keep our side of the promise. His provision and grace is so evident in the Abrahamic covenant.
What do you think?
I think @RebekahD’s response here is spot on!!!
There does seem to be vigorous debate with the nature of other covenants (such as, the Mosaic Covenant), and it may be the case that the conditionality/unconditionality of the Abrahamic Covenant gets caught up in that. However, I just want to recapitulate what has been said in affirming the covenantal ceremony which occurs in Genesis 15. In that regard, the Abrahamic Covenant does seem to be “unconditional.”
However, while we’re caught up on this topic, I think some nuances can be brought out. I’ll frame it in the form of questions first:
- When we think about conditional or unconditional, with whom is this in reference? In other words, to whom are these conditions being made/not made?
- Assuming that we accept the reading which identifies this covenant as “unconditional,” what does that suggest for those receiving that covenant? In other words, how should the covenant members respond in light of God’s covenant with them?
- Again, assuming an unconditional reading of this covenant, what implications are borne out by that?
So, let’s consider the first question. There does seem to be a presupposition (though correct me if I’m wrong here) that in asking whether this covenant is conditional or unconditional, the orientation is cast upon the recipients. In other words, the nature of this covenant hinges on what is expected/not expected of those the covenant is made to. However, we should bear in mind that there are at least two parties involved in any covenant, including the one who establishes that covenant.
So, in a sense, yes, the Abrahamic Covenant is “unconditional” in that its efficacy/progress is not contingent upon those receiving the covenant.
However, from God’s perspective, it is not without “conditions,” in the sense that the conditions are gathered up in God and his commitment to fulfill the promises he’s made with Abraham and his offspring. In other words, God has bound himself to this covenant, taking upon himself both sides of it (*as was already explained in Rebekah’s response), such that Abraham and his offspring cannot thwart or revert this covenant. And because we know that God is true to his Word, he will succeed and fulfill those promises. He additionally guaranteed this, to make it ever the more convincing, by binding himself to His Word with this oath.
Now, this brings us to the second question I posed. What does that mean for those who receive the covenant? How are they to respond?
And that is where circumcision came in. It was the visible sign and seal of God’s covenant with his people. By this ceremony, God’s people were continually reminded for the generations to come that God would remain true to His promises and His covenant people. This was not the condition upon which the covenant stood or fall. It is what physically marked the people of God, displaying in them God’s covenant to them as a people and as individuals.
However, just as the covenant neither stood nor fell upon the rite of circumcision, neither was it the sufficient ground of acceptance before God. Not only was Isaac circumcised, but so was Ishmael! And if we remember, God said that Ishmael was NOT the child of promise/the covenant.
So again, how are members of the Abrahamic covenant expected to respond in light of God’s promises? And I think the simple answer is this: the rite of circumcision was to be joined by faith in order to be efficacious and beneficial for covenant members.
So…does that make this covenant conditional? I still would say “no,” however, it is an important element to keep in mind as we distinguish between those who are the true children of Abraham and those who are not (i.e., those who benefit from the Abrahamic Covenant’s “unconditionality” and those who, in some sense, do not).
Which brings me to the last question (and I commend those who have read this far ).
So, let’s grant that this covenant is “unconditional” with respect to what is expected from its recipients and that God unilaterally takes upon himself the conditions in carrying out the promises and purposes of this covenant. And let’s grant that those sovereign purposes of God, are truly efficacious only for the “true” offspring of Abraham, to whom God has bound himself in covenantal relationship (although certainly, there is another sense in which the offspring of Abraham is a blessing to “all nations”).
What are we then to expect? What does this imply for the course of redemptive history? Firstly, it means that these promises will be fulfilled. The ground of these promises is no less than God’s own character. Secondly, it guarantees God’s relationship to his people (cf. Gen 17:7–8), a people he promises to make numerous and multiply (12:2, 15:5, 17:2). Thirdly, God promises a land for his people; and we, along with the saints of old, await to see this promise, as we look forward to the eternal city and land in which we will dwell with God!
But finally, how about that offspring, to whom God’s promises are made? If we are to trust Paul’s reading of this in Galatians, then we know that the chief one to whom these promises are made is Jesus himself (cf. Gal 3:15–16)! So, in the person of Jesus Christ, we find the fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes of the Abrahamic Covenant. He is the One through whom the nations are blessed! He is the One who guarantees our entrance into that holy and eternal city, as He has gone there ahead of us. Though Him, we can be assured that perfect relationship to and with God has been achieved, maintained, and perfected forever.
So, is the Abrahamic Covenant unconditional? Probably…but only because any and all conditions are met by God Himself. And we have this most thoroughly confirmed and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our response? Believe in the Gospel, trust in Jesus—be reconciled to God. And thus, the benefits of God’s promises to Abraham and his offspring may be ours as well, by grace through the gift of faith.
Hello brother Jason @jasonarevalo, I’ve kind of followed your trend for a long time now and admire your kind and convincing responses. I agree with you and @RebekahD completely and would love to summarize your responses in four questions:
- What makes this covenant unconditional?
In other words, anyone in the lineage of Abraham, inherits the covenant and its’ benefits (Please correct me, if I’m wrong).
- What makes it conditional?
By this quotes, it therefore implies that one must choose to partake in the sign of the covenant in order to receive the benefits of this covenant. (Please correct me if I’m wrong).
- In the new testament we then partake of this covenant spiritually by being circumcised of heart through our faith in Jesus Christ, right?
- So then, the whole world has a cord of binding to this covenant as all the nations of the earth are to be blessed through this unconditional conditional covenant right? That is, every nation has a spiritual bearing to the acts of this covenant? Let me now quote a scripture;
Psalm 2: 12 - ‘Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all those who put their trust in Him’.
Also, Galatians 3:13-18 affirms so much of this. However, in the quoted psalm above, the nations are commanded to ‘kiss the son’ - by implication, a condition; which is to pay homage. How can the following statements in that psalm apply in the covenant which is by faith. (Please do read John 3:16-18, then kindly assist me to understand). Thanks a lot.
Shalom, and yes it was commendable to read that far
That was a great explanation @jasonarevalo! Thanks for all of that!
@Bassey good questions, your summary was well done. I’ll address one of your questions now and maybe someone else can jump on for some more perspectives and details.
We need to be careful about thinking through the framework of doing things in order to get something from God. I am so guilty of this in that I love to think in “if…then” scenarios. It’s easy to slip into this thinking pattern with the subconscious assumption that we can manipulate God into giving us what we want; it’s pride that creeps in and brings responsibility/burden of making things work back on ourselves. However, God is sovereign and has He has a greater view of the overarching story taking place. He is causing all things to work together for our good and His glory.
Ephesians 2:8-9 is very clear “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
But in specific regard to the Abrahamic covenant, check out Romans 4. Particularly verses 9-17.
“Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.”
In this case, we see those who do not partake in the outward sign of circumcision sharing in the promises of God through their faith. This is only possible through the sacrifice of Jesus which fulfilled the law and allowed Gentiles to share in the promises of the Abrahamic covenant.
Thanks so much for your question, Bassey! It’s reminded me again of the overarching story of scripture and brought my heart to worship.
Good morning from Florida!
Now, to be charitable upfront, I think you are mostly right in how you summarized our thoughts, framed them around questions, and explained how you were understanding them. That being said, let me attempt to go through the questions you listed, and contribute, as there are certain nuances you introduced that may not have come up before.
- Your sentence here is true, but given how short it is, I would offer to you to maintain certain nuances here as well (which you may be doing, but, just putting it out here for clarity’s sake). Mainly, when we refer to “anyone,” let there be a distinction made.
There were those who were included in the external, physical community of faith, and in that sense, enjoyed the benefits of that covenant. However, circumcision, even then, was meant as a sign and seal of God’s promises to his own people (Gen 17:7). In other words, they were not only to be circumcised externally, but their hearts were also to be circumcised (cf. Rom 2:29). This presupposes that the true people of God is comprised of all those who have, do, or will have faith in God. For example, Abraham was circumcised after he had professed faith, whereas Isaac, only a young child, was circumcised before he professed faith. Nevertheless, the inheritance and benefits of the covenant did not await that profession of faith (God’s promise to Abraham and his offspring had already been unilaterally made!).
So, your statement is not wrong. We just have to work out each term to ensure we mean the same things by each.
- Which brings me to this question.
There is a sense in which you’re right. Those who typically receive the benefits of the covenant are those who have also partaken in the sign of the covenant. That being said, the word sign is very important.
A sign is not the efficient cause of the covenant’s benefits. The efficient cause is God’s unilateral commitment to establish and to keep that covenant. The sign acts as an external rite of those promises, thus ensuring to the community of faith God’s faithfulness to his covenant.
Also, we must understand that this does not mean people today are to appropriate circumcision in order to benefit from the Abrahamic covenant. (I don’t think anyone is defending that here, but it’s important to keep out in the open as we are mindful of how the trajectory of scripture is worked out.) We as New Covenant people no longer exercise circumcision, but baptism. WAY more to be said here, but it would veer off into another topic.
The sense in which this is right is in highlighting how this sign was connected to ushering one in/confirming one’s place in the community of faith. By extension, it is also connected to our ideas of how people are joined with the community of faith today!
However, we should make a distinction in categories here. Because what we ought to say is that God is the primary cause of one’s inclusion within the community that God establishes! The sign of the covenant is administered, as a secondary cause, to welcome/confirm one’s inclusion within that community. In other words, those who partake in the sign (both externally and internally) do so, because they benefit from God’s covenant to them. These are not to be separated, but as I understand it, this is the order. God’s initiative to establish and keep covenant precedes and supersedes one’s reception of it.
In general, my invitation to you here is to explore the relations between primary and secondary causality. May provide you with more possibilities of categories!
I think this is right. Just keep in mind that faith is not something we express in order to get something from God. Faith is a gift from God, too (as explained by @RebekahD). Thus, the principle of God’s grace is still at play here…we do not, in any way, merit the benefits of this covenant “by our own works.” This is a work of God!
I commend your thoughts here, as you are rightly engaging at the heart of the covenant, particularly with New Covenant understanding! Yes, all nations are gathered up in the promises of this covenant. And yes, I do think this connects with those other texts you mentioned.
That being said, we do not yet see the whole world benefitting from this covenant. For that to be the case, we would see a global recognition of Jesus as Lord. We await the day when the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14).
In the case of all those who have not and will not believe in the Son, they are condemned already, as John 3:18 says.
The psalm you quoted states no differently. Granted everything that’s already been stated, this describes the position people are to confront when faced with the Son. If they believe in him, they will be saved, but if they do not, his wrath is kindling…already! They are already condemned, even as they await final judgment! The underlying question here is not whether faith is the means of salvation—we would agree here. The question is: from where does faith come?
Therefore, as I wrap up this response, let us consider John 3 again in its larger context. These three verses you referenced are involved in a passage about the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, we must remember, is not a Gentile, but a Pharisee! And it is to him that Jesus not only explains, but exhorts him to be born again. He tells him that no one can see, no one can enter the kingdom, unless he be born again. We have no quarrel with imploring people to be born again, exhorting them to look upon the Son and to believe (Jn 3:14–15). Nevertheless, we understand that being “born again” is a divine work of God, by his Spirit (3:5–8). Paul confirms this in Titus 3:5, where he explains that God “saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
@jasonarevalo, are you a Pastor? I really love the way you put down your words, I would love to be like you.
Thank you @RebekahD, you reminded me too of an important posture of the mind. Humility in faith- submission to the grace of God.
However, @jasonarevalo I have a problem understanding point no 2. Where you spoke of primary and secondary causality. Please could you elaborate more. I kind of understand it this way, that God is the primary cause of the inclusion of anyone into the covenant in that He chooses who, and that the sign of the covenant is the secondary cause in that we who accept the covenant believe (that is have faith and are baptized). Please do point me to what you mean clearly.
God bless you all
Shalom and good evening from Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria.
Hi again @Bassey,
Again, it warms my heart to read your very kind words. In terms of being a pastor, I am presently in seminary, so if the Lord wills, it is certainly possible that I could be a pastor, though I am not, currently. Believe me when I say this: I have a whole host of imperfections and God is still working on me. I’m grateful for his gifts, but am reminded of my creatureliness, in need of his grace!
As for point no 2, I actually think you just gave a good, succinct explanation. In essence, what you said is what I am getting at:
God is the primary cause, both in time and in efficacy. So, before the foundations of the world, he made his determinations. And then, in the course of history, it was his initiative to establish the covenant. In other words, with respect to time, both in God’s plans and actions, he made the first move!
With regards to efficacy, primary would mean that God’s will supersedes the will(s) of those who would be below that. In other words, when God (sovereignly) wills something to happen, it will come to pass. After all, it is in God’s nature that he is powerful enough to accomplish whatsoever he desires to accomplish. None can stay his hand (cf. Dan 4:35)! *Again, even more nuances can be given here, but, it would carry us on to other questions.
Now, when it comes to secondary causality, the way I am using that term is to say that God’s plans and actions are worked out through subordinate, instrumental causes. God not only ordained and acted from the primary level (his own character and divine initiative), but he also ordained and acted through the means (eg. Acts 4:27–28). So, that’s why we can comfortably implore “believe and be baptized,” because we know this is what is to be expected of God’s elect, knowing that God made the first, primary move. Those who refuse (and persist to refuse!) to believe are not a part of God’s people.
However, at this point, because I sense the possibility of the question, let me point out one more, pastorally-oriented thing. Just because there is all this talk of those who are elect and those who aren’t does not permit us to withhold our proclamation of the Gospel from any. We do not know who will or who will not believe. So, we are to continue preaching the Gospel, whether to the professed believer and/or the skeptic. They are equally held to account for their response to the Gospel. However that works out behind the scenes in any of our respective systems of theology, we must be in agreement that the Gospel is to be preached to all peoples of all nations, anywhere and everywhere. The need is no less for those who claim to believe and the need is just as much (if not more) for the one who is still caught up in rebellion. Does this all make sense?
Preserving and working out these distinctions can help us understand how it is that God’s sovereignty is preserved, even as his creatures are making choices. God’s covenant will succeed and it will be so through all who believe on his Son.
Blessings to you brother!
Soli Deo gloria.
I wish you a successful finish from the seminary. You will be what God wills that you be @Jasonarevalo. Thank you for the clarity. I’m learning a lot from you. God bless you. Please does soli Deo gloria mean 'to the glory of God '? And are you latin or Spanish?
Thanks again for the help. Shalom!
Thank you @Bassey. It’s a pleasure to be a servant in this way, through this medium. Blessings to you!
“Soli Deo gloria” is the fifth of the Five Solas of the Reformation. They’re like a group of five slogans which summarize the essential teachings of the Reformers.
But anyway, yes, you’re basically right. The only thing is that the “Soli” qualifies it as “to the glory of God alone,” and yes, I think it’s Latin.
Today, there are a number of Christian figures I admire who sign off their writings with the statement, as a kind of conscious tradition of attributing glory to God alone in our efforts. In other words, this is not merely a mental exercise, but an act of worship
Oh, and as for me, I’m part Hispanic
Thank you for making out time to explain @jasonarevalo. God bless you.
I think I’ll adopt it as well.
Soli Deo gloria
Thank you for your contributions to this discussion! I have enjoyed reading and learning. Where are you going to seminary? How far along are you and in what degree program?
I just wanted to add I agree with all this and also affirm that it is certainly Latin. The president and founder of a ministry I used to work for used it often in his letters and on public presentations and advertisements.
It’s a joy to contribute @tsweaver! I’m glad that it can be used for the edification of brothers in Christ like you.
I’m currently attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and am about halfway through my degree. My program is in the Master of Arts in Theological Studies.
That is great! Where Ravi went to seminary right? What do you plan to do with your degree upon graduation?
Shifting back to the main question, I wanted to see what you all thought of these findings (from various sources):
Reasons why the Abrahamic Covenant is Unconditional
- Normally in a blood covenant the two parties would agree on the terms of the covenant, with each committing himself to the fulfillment of certain promises being covenanted, and they would walk hand in hand through the animal sacrificed pieces. In this case, Abraham fell asleep. J. Dwight Pentecost points out that this makes Abraham a “ recipient” and not a “ participant”.
- “The Abrahamic Covenant is expressly declared to be eternal and therefore unconditional in numerous passages.”
- “Except for the original condition of leaving his homeland and going to the Promised Land, the covenant is made with no conditions whatever.”
- “The Abrahamic Covenant is confirmed repeatedly…In none of these instances are any of the added promises conditioned…”
- No conditions were attached to the covenant.
- The promises of the covenant were given before the act of circumcision.
- When the covenant is confirmed by the birth of Isaac and Jacob, the promises are repeated in their original form (Genesis 17:10; 23:12-13).
- “…the reiterations of the covenant and the partial early fulfillment of the covenant are in spite of acts of disobedience.”
- “The New Testament declares the Abrahamic Covenant immutable (Heb. 6:13-18; cf. Gen 15:8-21). It was not only promised but solemnly confirmed by the oath of God.”
- “The entire scriptural revelation concerning Israel and its future as contained in both the Old and New Testaments, if interpreted literally, confirms and sustains the unconditional character of the promises given to Abraham.”
Reasons why the Abrahamic Covenant is Conditional
- “If one denies the factual accuracy of Stephen’s statement in Acts 7:2-4, or holds that it refers to a conversation not recorded in Genesis that took place in Ur whereas Gen 12:1—5 was spoken in Haran…it remains possible to argue that God uttered Gen 12:1-5 in Haran after Abraham’s obedience to YHWH’s command of Acts 7:5 to leave his country, and therefore the promises of 12:2—5 were conditioned upon his obedience to that command. In this view, 12:7 can be Hewed as a reward bestowed upon Abraham as a result of his then-completed obedience to the full command to ‘leave’ Ur and ‘go’ to the land that God would show to him.”
- “Those who view Genesis 12 as an offer of a conditional reward will likely treat Gen 13:14-17 as a more precise delineation of a yet-to-be-earned reward…
- Genesis 17:1-2 is God offering a covenant cutting that will occur only after Abraham meets conditions of obedience.
- There are two covenants in chapters 15 and 17 of Genesis. Chapter 15 is unilateral and chapter 17 is bilateral, as shown in the structure “As for me…as for you…” in Genesis 17:4 and 9. “…the second covenant [is] conditioned upon the ethical command of v. 1 and the ritual command of vv. 9-14.”
- God’s words in Genesis 22:16 "because you have done this thing” prove that the promises vocalized here were conditioned on Abraham’s obedience.
- “The fact that Abraham makes a sacrifice [of Isaac] indicates that a covenant is being cut.”
- “The promises of Gen 12:2-3 are given the status of covenant promises in Gen 22:17—18”
- “Since God’s promises here [Genesis 22] are conditioned on Abraham’s obedience, since they match the promises of Genesis 12, and since Abraham’s obedience is not proven until chap. 22, they cannot have been established as covenant promises until now.”
- “The fact that God here cuts the covenant after Abraham meets the condition of obedience proves that the covenant is conditional, and therefore it is nullifiable.”
- Abraham separating from his land and family were conditions of the covenant.
Yes! He got his MDiv there. Currently, my hope is to (eventually) enter into pastoral ministry, but I also would not be opposed to some kind of teaching position, and/or positions which would permit me to conduct research and writing. Really, I’m just discerning how to bring my various gifts together and how God might use me in the work of building up the church.
I pray God places you in a position to maximize you for His kingdom; and that the rest of your studies go well.
Love it! My first exposure to it being used in this way was with D. A. Carson, but I’ve seen others use it, too. Glad to hear how Christian leaders around the world have the awareness and passion to confess it together!