RPM, Volume 16, Number 10, March 2 to March 8, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Covenant of Grace Part 2 - continued
Sermon Number Ten

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.

Westminster Presbyterian Church
411 Chkalov Dr, Vancouver WA 98683


As I begin this morning, I want to take a moment to commend the congregation regarding the attention you have given to this sermon series thus far. These sermons are, by necessity, more doctrinally involved, we might say, then usual. Although we have found plenty of practical applications, whenever you study the Bible systematically, as we are doing in these sermons, a greater degree of concentration is required. And because of the tremendous amount of information to be conveyed in these sermons, there is less time for illustrations, which otherwise provide for a less intense presentation.

With that said, we want to return to our study of the covenant of grace. In the past sermon, I said that the covenant grace can be defined initially as that manner in which God fulfills the promise he made in the Garden of Eden following the fall of man. There, as recorded in Gen. 3:15, God promised to restore the fallen race. The covenant of grace, therefore, is that plan whereby this promise of God is being realized.

In the last sermon, I offered some additional information having to do with the leading characteristics of this covenant. I emphasized that in this covenant of grace, God provides the means for sinful man to regain fellowship with his Creator and, therefore, the designation of God's saving activity as a covenant of grace is entirely understandable. Grace is the unmerited favor of God; grace is in operation when sinners do not receive what they deserve, but are loved, protected and embraced by the very One they have offended. The covenant of grace exists because of God's willingness to show sinners unmerited favor.

Another characteristic of the covenant of grace, which I mentioned, is the way in which this covenant has been manifested to us. The covenant of grace is not defined by one primary portion of Scripture, but has unfolded, so to speak, throughout the rest of the Bible in a series of "sub-covenants" or "secondary covenants." Each of these secondary covenants is a partial manifestation of the overriding covenant of grace; each one provides us with unique information about God's plan for fallen man's redemption and helps us better understand the nature of our salvation. The result, therefore, is a progressive revelation of God's will for us in the Bible.

In identifying these secondary covenants, I noted that most theologians would include the Noahic, the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants. Following a brief description of these three secondary covenants, I stated that they all culminate in the work of Jesus Christ, which is called the New Covenant. From the time God made the promise of redemption in Gen. 3:15, Scripture has one point of focus, which is the advent of the God-Man in whom that promise of salvation would be fulfilled. The covenant of grace unfolds steadily in the Scriptures and reaches its climax in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why we sometimes refer to our system of theology as "Christo-centric. We mean the entire revelation of God centers on and around the Savior.

We now are ready to continue with point number two:

02. The Provisions of the Covenant of Grace (continued)

Last week, I read verses from Gen. 12, 15 and 17. Those passages explained the arrangement that God made with Abraham; this arrangement is one of those "sub-covenants" or "secondary covenants" that give details of God's plan for man's restoration. In the Abrahamic covenant, we have the fullest explanation of the covenant of grace prior to the actual consummation of that covenant in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. The importance of the Abrahamic covenant is illustrated by the fact that the apostle Paul used this covenant as the foundation for his explanation of the atoning work of Christ. The Abrahamic covenant, while not a complete revelation of the provisions of the covenant of grace, nevertheless provides us with a good understanding of the essential elements of God's plan for our redemption.

Moreover, I noted that until the Abrahamic covenant, there had been no official establishment of the covenant of grace. The promise of salvation made by God in Gen. 3:15 communicates the basic idea of the covenant of grace, which is God's intention to restore what sin had destroyed, but prior to Abraham's time, no transaction had occurred to formalize the provisions of the covenant. This is why the study of the Abrahamic covenant is not only profitable, but necessary to a right understanding of the covenant of grace. We also looked at the provisions of the covenant of grace: first, the parties involved in the covenant; second, the promise of the covenant; third, the conditions of the covenant; and fourth, the curse of the covenant. As we looked at Gen. 12, 15 and 17, we saw these four elements in a basic form. The information given to us about these four elements is not exhaustive, by any means, but God's words to Abraham do give us an essential outline of the covenant of grace. Additional Biblical passages expand on the fundamental ideas contained in the Abrahamic covenant to give us a complete understanding of our redemption.

In terms of the parties involved in this covenant, we saw that the Abrahamic covenant involved God, of course, and Abraham; but I pointed out that Abraham was representing others, so it is more proper to say that the parties are God and the house of Abraham.

We identified the second provision of the Abrahamic covenant as the promise God made to the patriarch "to be God to you and to your descendants after you." God promised to establish a unique relationship with Abraham and his descendants; He promised to have Abraham and his descendants as His people throughout the coming generations. We must remember that man is a fallen creature, yet the offended Creator is promising to take him back and re-establish fellowship with man.

As far as the conditions of this covenant are concerned, I said that from Abraham's perspective, there is a two-fold condition, which is belief of God's promise followed by the obedience required by the promise. God appointed a sign of the relationship that He was establishing with Abraham and his descendants. This sign was a physical mark on the body that identified those who were members of the covenant family being created by God. Circumcision served as testimony that a man belonged to God's company and it served as a symbolic seal of all the benefits promised to him by the God of the covenant. Abraham's part in the covenant, then, was to believe that the Lord would do what He promised and to act on that belief by obeying God when he was told to apply the sign of the covenant.

The last element in the Abrahamic covenant was the curse. The curse of this covenant was implied. The curse would consist of missing or being denied the promise of the covenant. The curse of the covenant with Abraham was to be left in a hopeless state, still alienated from the Creator; it was to be cut off from the covenant people that were being assembled by God. This is, in fact, the terminology used in later revelation as the covenant people of God take on a more apparent form as the nation of Israel.

Having provided this review, I now want to move forward with this issue of Abraham's need for a male heir. I have said before that the Abrahamic covenant is the covenant of grace in a foundational form. To understand why I would say that, we must examine the part of Abraham's life that involved the birth of Isaac and God's subsequent command that Isaac be sacrificed. It is during this experience of Abraham that a transition in focus takes place so that the Abrahamic covenant is revealed as the covenant of grace.

Abraham could not become the father of a great nation, as God promised, without a male heir. Abraham could not become the father of a multitude of nations, as God promised, without a male heir; the people of the earth could not be blessed in Abraham, as God promised, unless that patriarch had a male heir. Everything that God said, everything that Abraham anticipated, therefore, depended on Abraham having a son. Notice, then, how the Scripture records the birth of Isaac:

Then the LORD took note of Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him. (Gen. 21:1, 2)

What could be clearer from these verses than that the birth of Isaac was God keeping His Word to Abraham? The birth of Isaac was God bringing to pass what He promised. The Scripture underscores the facts that Abraham was old, Sarah was old and the birth of a child was, indeed, a miracle. Isaac's birth was an undeniable sign that God could and would bring about what He promised to Abraham. With the birth of Isaac, Abraham's pressing worry about having a male heir is relieved. That which appeared to be impossible came to pass. That which Abraham could not do, even though it was absolutely essential, God did.

I said before that the apostle Paul provides a lot of commentary on this portion of Abraham's life. For example, he writes:

In hope against hope [Abraham] believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, "SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE." And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. (Rom. 4:18-21)

Abraham believed that God was able to do the impossible. As Paul said, Abraham considered his own body as good as dead because of his age; Abraham considered his beloved wife Sarah and knew that she was beyond the years of bearing children. Then Abraham considered God and when he considered God, he knew that God is not hindered by any circumstance, but always accomplishes His will. For Abraham, this meant that God could be believed regardless of how things appeared. For Abraham, God's word was as good as done as soon as it was spoken. By faith, the patriarch accepted God's promise as trustworthy. Abraham demonstrated true faith as it is defined in the 11th chapter of Hebrews: Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. God promised and Abraham believed; God promised and Abraham did not doubt.

Let me pause and emphasize the obvious. Our lives would be greatly enriched, significantly more peaceful, and a constant blessing to others if we followed the example of Abraham. Just think about how much worried and suspicion and erroneous assumptions would be eliminated from our lives if we simply read the Word of God and truly believed it. In the very least, we will be caught by the fact that God really does care for his people, and really does do only that which is best for them. And we would find ourselves less likely to interpret words and circumstances in such a way that we form a negative opinion of her brother. And, of course, if we really live believing that God's Word is our mandatory standard, the character of our obedience would rise drastically.

Returning to our story, we see that the son who was the key to the fulfillment of God's wonderful promises to Abraham was born. The son upon whom everything depended was born. We cannot understate the importance of Isaac; his birth was pivotal in the outworking of God's promises to Abraham. Without Isaac, there could be no fulfillment. Moreover, we must not understate Abraham's attitude toward this child of promise. The patriarch rightly understood the importance of his son Isaac; he understood that Isaac was the focal point of all that God had said to him. Abraham realized that God had done the miraculous in the birth of Isaac.

Some interpreters say that it is reasonable to suggest that, initially, Abraham very likely believed that Isaac was the Messiah (that is, the one by and in whom blessing would come to the nations of the earth). The nature of God's promises to Abraham and the circumstances of Isaac's birth support such a conclusion. There is no reason to think that Abraham viewed Isaac as only the first in a long line of descendants one of whom someday would be the one to bring blessing to the nations of the earth. Abraham had no reason to doubt that Isaac was that individual. All the promises of God, as I just noted, would have led Abraham to such a conclusion. Throughout this narrative, Isaac is the subject of attention.

If this assumption is correct, then it underscores the incredible faith of Abraham when God said: "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you." (Gen. 22:2) Even if there is no way to prove that Abraham initially viewed Isaac as the Messiah, the very least that must be said is that in this test, God asked Abraham to sacrifice the son upon whom rested all that God promised and all that Abraham anticipated. God plainly declared to Abraham: "...through Isaac your descendants shall be named." (Gen. 21:12) For Abraham to become the father of nations, as God promised, Isaac had to be alive; the blessing promised to the nations of the earth required that Isaac be alive.

Scripture says nothing about Abraham struggling emotionally or intellectually with this command. What is reported is this: "[T]hey came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son." (Gen. 22:9, 10)

Many have asked how Abraham could do such a thing. Many have wondered why he did not protest. Although the answer to these questions is clearly given to us in the Bible, it is a sad fact that so many you'd ignore the answer or, when finding it, dismiss it as unbelievable. But if you believe that the Bible is the Word of God and is, therefore, trustworthy and everything it addresses, then we have a sure explanation regarding Abraham's conduct:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, "IN ISAAC YOUR DESCENDANTS SHALL BE CALLED." He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type. (Heb. 11:17-19)

How could Abraham do such a thing? Although the answer is extremely uncomplicated, it does or should satisfy our inquiries. Abraham could do such a thing because God commanded it. Why did Abraham not protest? He did not protest because the Word of God was his law. Abraham realized how important Isaac was, but even that recognition was not sufficient for Abraham to doubt or disobey God's command. Abraham acted by faith; that is, even though he could not see the end of that episode, he trusted that all would be well because God was there.

Abraham had something in his possession that negated doubt and rendered his personal opinion on the matter irrelevant. Abraham had in his possession the promises of God. And so the writer of Hebrews states that "he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son..." Within the context of God's promise to multiply his descendants and bring blessings to the whole earth, Abraham was commanded to slay Isaac. God's word was absolutely reliable as far as Abraham was concerned. Therefore, if God told him to sacrifice Isaac, he would sacrifice Isaac being assured that God's promises would not fail and, if necessary, God would raise Isaac from the dead! This is the faith of our father, Abraham; this is the faith that dispels doubt and creates unwavering hope in our hearts.

After the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, he said:

"By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice." (Gen. 22:16-18)

After Abraham demonstrated steadfast faith in God, God repeated His intention to multiply the family of Abraham and, through him, bring great blessings to the world. Here is where a wonderful transition takes place. Remember that the writer of Hebrews said: "[Abraham] considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received [Isaac] back as a type." The episode with Isaac was a picture of something that would one day come to pass when God the Father would send His only begotten Son into the world to be sacrificed for sinners and thus enable those sinners to be restored in fellowship with their Creator; this would be the fulfillment of that promise made in the Garden of Eden. On Mount Moriah, therefore, the focus shifts from Isaac to Christ, from earth to heaven, from the temporal to the eternal; and this also is where it becomes obvious that the Abrahamic covenant is a model of the covenant of grace.

The inspired commentary of the apostle Paul on this matter, which we find in Gal. 3, assures us that we are correct in seeing a shift in focus from Isaac to Christ. The first thing that Paul tells us is that the promises that God spoke to Abraham amounted to the gospel: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'ALL THE NATIONS SHALL BE BLESSED IN YOU.'" (Gal. 3:8) The Abrahamic covenant was an explanation of the gospel, which says that God mercifully and graciously restores us without regard for our merit. Then Paul says: "So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer." (v. 9) And, further, the apostle writes that in Christ, the blessing of Abraham has come to the Gentiles (cf. 14). Paul teaches that the Abrahamic covenant was the covenant of grace in a rudimentary form.

Another tremendously significant comment of Paul comes in Gal. 3:16 where, as he explains that the gospel promises of the Abrahamic covenant were not nullified with the giving of the Law, he adds: "Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, 'And to seeds,' as referring to many, but rather to one, 'And to your seed,' that is, Christ." Paul explains that when God promised great blessing to the seed of Abraham, He had in mind, in an ultimate fashion, one particular descendant, Jesus Christ. All the descendants of Abraham, that is, all those down through history who imitate the faith of Abraham (cf. Gal. 3:9) are subjects of God's blessing, but Christ is the special descendant of Abraham who kept Abraham's side of the covenant in an ultimate and perfect way; Christ came and obeyed God perfectly and then laid down His life to atone for the sin of Abraham's people.

In reality, then, the Abrahamic covenant was between God and the seed of Abraham, which is Christ. Again, this is why I say that the Abrahamic covenant is the covenant of grace in a rudimentary form. The promises made to Abraham were ultimately made to the seed of Abraham, that is Christ. The condition of the Abrahamic covenant is the condition that was ultimately and perfectly met, as I stated, by the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ. Christ's work, therefore, was the Abrahamic covenant carried to its glorious fulfillment.

In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises fellowship and security; He requires belief in His word and a corresponding demonstration of belief through obedience. In Christ, the seed of Abraham, we have eternal fellowship and security based upon our acceptance, by faith, of the Word of God; and our belief, as the Scripture everywhere instructs us, is manifested through obedience to the Word of God. Even the curse of the Abrahamic covenant is carried over so that it now is expressed by one being outside of Christ and, therefore, cut off from the people of God, left untouched in a state of condemnation.

What I'm saying is that all the elements of the Abrahamic covenant were realized in the Person and work of Jesus Christ who, as Paul tells us, was the superior seed of Abraham and the prophetic focus of God's words to the patriarch. Abraham's faith was an illustration of the faith that is required of those who would have union with Christ; Abraham's obedience was an illustration of the obedience due from every person who embraces the gospel.

The importance of studying the Abrahamic covenant now should be obvious. The Abrahamic covenant is one and the same with the covenant of grace. It illustrates for us all the essential elements of God's plan for our restoration.

Before moving to the application I want to direct your attention to an element of primary importance. Abraham was commended for his obedience to God. His first act of obedience was explained by God Himself. After God spoke to Abraham in Gen. 17, He specified a requirement that would signal Abraham's acceptance of the promises. Abraham was told to circumcise the males in his household. Given that the apostle Paul tells us that this exchange was the gospel, we must conclude that marking our children with the sign of covenant inclusion is part of the gospel. Reception of the gospel by a man automatically involves his descendants—this is by God's design, not according to the choice of the man. The believer is obligated, therefore, to affirm his understanding of the place of his descendants in the covenant by applying to them the sign of the covenant, which is water baptism.


In the application, I want to return to an idea that I touched upon in the last sermon's application. I mentioned that the basis for our hope as believers, the basis for our expectation of blessing now and in eternity, is nothing more, nothing less than the living God. I want to expand this idea a bit now that we have covered Abraham's experience in more detail.

The foundation for the Christian religion is composed of all the promises that God has given us in His Word. Those promises tell us what God has planned and what we can expect as His people. Those promises are the basis for our behavior and the basis for our expectation regarding the future. We believe that we are forgiven in Christ because God promises that we are forgiven in Christ; we believe that we will one day enter heaven only because God promises that we will one day enter heaven. We believe that our peaceful existence with our Creator will continue throughout all eternity only because God promises us that our peaceful existence will continue throughout eternity.

There are, of course, other promises of God that should be mentioned. We believe that the wicked will not triumph because God has promised that the wicked will not triumph. We believe that there will be a final judgment of all men, with God's people being vindicated and all others assigned to torment, because God promises such a climax to history. We believe that God opposes the wicked, but causes the righteous to prosper because He makes such promises in His Word.

Let me say again, therefore, that the whole Christian religion, the world and life view of the Christian, how we live from day to day, how we run households, is built upon the foundation of the many promises of God in the Bible. Now, I must ask, what is behind those promises? Why are we willing to take the Word of God and build our lives according to it? Why do the promises of God give us comfort when we are discouraged, hope when we are distressed, and assurance when we are fearful? What is it that makes the promises of God reliable? The answer is: the character of the God who utters the promises.

Ultimately, therefore, the Christian religion is based upon God's character. His promises, upon which we stake everything as believers, are trustworthy only so far as God, according to His Being, is trustworthy. God's promises, by which Christians are guided in everything, are truthful in so far as God, in His essence, is truthful. The response to God's promises, it follows, is a response to God's character. If we believe God's promises, it is because we understand His character and understand that the God of the Bible is good, just, all-knowing, and all-powerful. If we accept God's promises and live our lives accordingly, it is because we believe that the Word of God is as reliable, trustworthy, truthful, and certain as God Himself.

This conviction is what we see in Abraham. This conviction allowed Abraham to act contrary to what his circumstances and his limited knowledge might have dictated. From his first contact with God through the episode involving Isaac, Abraham showed an unshakable trust in God's promises. Abraham understood that what God had promised to him was as certain as God Himself. Therefore, the character of God, which was behind the promises made to Abraham, is what the patriarch was counting on. Had he not believed that God's character is just, good, and truthful, Abraham could not have behaved as he did. Had Abraham not believed that God, by His very nature, knows all things, can do all things, and has no peer, he could not have demonstrated such great faith. Abraham's conduct was, in the final analysis, a commentary on what he believed about God.

The same thing is true of us. This thought should grab our attention. Our conduct should be a commentary on what we believe about the character of God. We are quick to confess in our Reformed faith such things as God's sovereignty, God's omnipotence, God's omniscience, God's veracity, and God's holiness. We must understand that these things that we confess about God are the reasons why we should keep His Word, why we should believe that He does only good for us, why we should believe that His eye is upon us, why we should believe that He will conduct us safely to our heavenly home, and why we should believe that God will bring history to a close in a manner that will exalt Him. With this Abraham-like conviction concerning the character of God, we will learn to judge our circumstances, not by their appearance, but by what God has promised. Our expectations will be based not on what others say or on what is "likely" to happen given a particular situation, but on what God has said to us in His Word.

This, of course, has implications for us anytime we reach one of those moral or doctrinal crossroads where God's Word takes us in one direction while the wisdom of our contemporaries takes us in another. At those times, we choose to believe what God says even though we have no worldly "proof " to satisfy critics that we are correct. At those times we are declaring that the character of God is behind His Word and, therefore, guarantees that His way is right. This conviction affects the way we worship, the way we perform our jobs, the way we treat our families, and even the way we educate our children. We are persuaded, like Abraham, that the Word of God is dependable because the character of the One who gave that Word is infinitely pure.

If you are facing a situation in which you must choose a path, remember that the path that provides the least resistance, the path that appears to be the easiest to travel, may not, in fact, be the correct path. Search the Word of God and then do your duty as a believer. Trust God in what He says; know that His perfect character is behind every word of Scripture. You cannot go wrong if you live your life, if you lead your family, if you raise your children, if you treat your neighbor as God commands in His Word.

The promises of blessing and peace associated with those commands have the integrity of God behind them. When you understand this, then you will understand why Abraham believed God, why Abraham did exactly what God commanded, and why Abraham did not protest. The character of God gives such reliability and authority to His words that questioning them, failing to be comforted by them, or failing to keep them is an expression of unbelief.

Keep all this in mind when you hear this promise: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life." (John 3:16) Have you believed in the Son of God as your Savior? If so, you are forever secure and will join God in heaven when your days are completed. In the meantime, you have God's eye upon you. You pass through the trials your heavenly Father appoints. He forgives you when you pray; He provides your needs and restores your courage. Life can be difficult, yes, but it is only temporary. A new day is coming, one in which there will be no sin, sorry, suffering, or want.

If you have not believed in the Son of God as your Savior, Jesus also speaks to you. He says that you will perish. That is part of the promise of God; it is, therefore, totally reliable. If you do not believe the gospel, there is no hope for you. God will not alter His promise for you; He will not ignore His promise for your sake. If you die without a saving relationship with Christ, you will not know eternal life or the blessing of heaven.

The obvious step for you to take is one of faith. You must believe the gospel, believe that Jesus Christ gave His life for you, believe that in Him your sins are forgiven, and believe that a home awaits you in the presence of God. At this point in the progress of God's plan, you have the opportunity to ask God to include you in the number of the redeemed.


Hymn for Communion


What comes to mind when we reach this point in our worship? Most of us would include thoughts of thanksgiving, and thoughts of mercy and forgiveness. To these, I would add the thought of relief. Relief results when we realize that in Christ we are safe and have no need of apprehension regarding this life or the life to come.

This sacrament confirms our covenant interest in Christ and it should drive all fear, doubt, uncertainty, and timidity far from our minds. This sacrament represents the culmination of all of God's promises and, therefore, should comfort us according to the holy, pure, righteous, loving, forgiving, and faithful character of God.

Our Savior said: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32) That Savior lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and was raised on the third day because the Father had chosen gladly to give us the kingdom. This sacrament places before us that atoning work of Christ. He, Himself, ordered the observance of this sacrament when, according to Matthew:

Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." (Matt. 26:26-29)
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