Understanding The Bible
STUDY REFERENCE
Clarence E. Mason's "ESCHATOLOGY 3"
ADDENDUM 3
"WAS THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT CONDITIONED?"
Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
(King's Business, March 1960)

 

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BY THE AUTHOR
Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible
1970

Edited by Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.


SECTION: Addendum 3 (See pages 10-12)
"Was the Abrahamic Covenant Conditioned?

All premillennialists properly insist that the validity of the premillennial position depends heavily upon the unchanging character of the covenants of God with Abraham and with David. It is, indeed, due to these covenants that we insist upon the unchanging continuance of the promises of "a land, " "a people, " "a kingly line, " with a view to the establishment of a future kingdom ruled over by David's greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in a period of blessing to "all families of the earth" (period later identified as being a thousand years. Rev. 20), Gen. 12:1-3.

The opponents of the premillennial position are just as urgent in saying that the earthly aspects, at least, of the covenants of God with Abraham and David, were dependent for their continuance upon the continued obedience of Abraham and David and their respective descendants. Thus, Israel's failure set aside any promised rights they had to the land, to an earthly kingdom, and to any particular relationship to Christ in a future kingdom on earth, say the amillennialists. According to this view, Israel's failure has made them neligible and has opened the door for the Church to take over and inherit the spiritual aspects of those covenants. Thus Christ is king, but not king of the Jews. He reigns over the hearts of His own in all the world, the Church having superseded Israel as "the seed of Abraham." Any "earthly" promises have been set aside in favor of "heavenly" promises.

The premillennialist replies that there is, of course, a half truth in all of this. Israel is blind in part and is temporarily set aside during this age when God is taking out from the nations "a people for His name, " Jew and Gentile. But Romans 9-11 is just as insistent that God will graft "the natural branches" back into their native "olive tree" when Israel repents; Then all the Israel of God will be rescued by the return of "the Deliverer out of Zion, " and all God's kingdom promises to Israel, and through Israel to the world, will be fulfilled in accordance with the unchanged Old Testament Scripture. Thus Israel's failure requires discipline, but the covenants are not canceled, and the Church does not take over permanently.

The most casual reading of amillennial and premillennial literature on this subject will make crystal clear that the real issue is the question of whether the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants are conditional or unconditional.

This is a crucial point and there is no cause for premillennialists to think that they have solved it by over simplification and a wave of the hand. Mere asserting that the promise to Abraham was unconditional does not make it so. We shall proceed to an examination of this problem, but first let us refresh our minds with the wording of the first announcement of the covenant of God with Abraham as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3:

(1) "Now the LORD has said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: (2) And I will make thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:
(3) And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed."

The usual approach of the premillennialists to this passage declares that Abraham had to leave Ur in order to activate this covenant. Perhaps one of the best and clearest statements of this approach is given by my good friend, Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, in his excellent book, Things to Come. Dr. Pentecost, as well as Dr. John F. Walvoord, whom he quotes, is thoroughly committed to the unconditional character of the Abrahamic covenant, just as much as I. Yet the following selection from his book (pp. 74-75) reveals that he places a condition to be fulfilled by Abraham between the promise of God to him in Ur and the actual establishment of the covenant. He says,

"While Abraham was living in the home of Terah, an idolater (Josh. 24:2), God spoke to him and commanded him to leave the land of Ur, even though it entailed a journey to a strange land he did not know (Heb. 11:8), and made certain specific promises to him that depended upon this act of obedience. Abraham, in partial obedience, inasmuch as he did not separate himself from his kindred, journeyed to Haran (Gen. 11:31). He did not realize any of the promises there. It was not until after the death of his father (Gen. 11:32) that Abraham begins to realize anything of the promise God had given him, for only after his father's death does God take him into the land (Gen. 12:4) and there reaffirm the original promise to him (Gen. 12:7). It is important to observe the relation of obedience to this covenant program. Whether God would institute a covenant program with Abraham or not depended upon Abraham's act of obedience in leaving the land. When once this act was accomplished, and Abraham did obey God, God instituted an irrevocable, unconditional program. This obedience, which became the basis of the institution of the program, is referred to in Genesis 22:18, where the offering of Isaac is just one more evidence of Abraham's attitude toward God. Walvoord clearly states this fact when he writes:

'"As given in the Scriptures, the Abrahamic Covenant is hinged upon only one condition. This is given in Genesis 12:1... The original covenant was based upon Abraham's obedience in leaving his homeland and going to the land of promise. No further revelation is given him until he is obedient to this command after the death of his father. Upon entering Canaan, the Lord immediately gave Abraham the promise of ultimate possession of the land (Gen. 12:7), and subsequently enlarged and reiterated the original promises.

'"The one condition having been met, no further conditions are laid upon Abraham; the covenant having been solemnly established is now dependent upon divine veracity for its fulfilment.

"Whether there would be a covenant program with Abraham depended upon Abraham's act of obedience. When once he obeyed, the covenant that was instituted depended, not upon Abraham's continued obedience, but upon the promise of the One who instituted it. The fact of the covenant depended upon the obedience; the kind of covenant inaugurated was totally unrelated to the continuing obedience of either Abraham or his seed."

It is with this position that I disagree, namely, that a condition had to be fulfilled by Abraham in order to activate the covenant. It appears to me that we concede the very thing around which the question of conditional or unconditional hinges, as witness the quotation from Dr. Walvoord, "... the Abrahamic Covenant hinged upon only one condition. " This concession, in my judgment, plays into the hands of those who insist that Abraham's continued obedience was necessary to the fulfilment of the covenant.

May I suggest that you look above and read again the truth referred to in Genesis 22:18, where the offering of Isaac is just one more evidence of Abraham's attitude toward God? I submit that if the Abrahamic Covenant had been conditioned upon Abraham's obedience (Gen. 12:1), then that obedience was not completed in the act of Abraham's leaving Ur, for his "father's house" was with him (11:31) even though he had left his "kindred" and his "country." Nor was his obedience completed by indirection in the release afforded him by his father's death (11:32), nor by his going into "a land" that God would show him (12:1), nor by his separation from Lot (13:9), because Abraham"s obedience on the occasion of his willingness to offer up Isaac is accompanied with the same basic language formula in Genesis 22:16-18 as God had used in Genesis 12:1-3. If tit be argued that the obedience of Abraham would have been necessary to the establishment of the Abrahamic Covenant in the first instance, then it might likewise be affirmed just as surely that his obedience in the willingness to offer up Isaac would of necessity have to take place before the covenant could be established.

This reasoning is fatal to the thesis of an unconditional covenant, for it requires the continued and cumulative obedience of Abraham as the basis for the establishment of the Abrahamic Covenant. And however loudly we may protest that the covenant when once given becomes an unconditional covenant, if one espouses this theory the Scripture plainly indicates a shifting of the obedience-condition:

from Genesis 11:31 (leaving "country" and "kindred")
to 11:32-12:6 (death of father and entrance into the "land" that God would "shew" him)
to 13:9 (the final break with his father's house by separation from Lot)
to 15:1-7 (the promise of Isaac because Abraham ignored the king of Sodom and honored God through Melchizedek)
to chapter 22, especially verse 16 (because he did not withhold Isaac)

This constant shifting of Abraham's fulfilment of the condition of obedience from 11:31 to 22:16 plays into the hands of amillennialists who insist that the covenant was always conditioned upon obedience. This presents us with the added hazard of proving that the covenant was really and finally established in Genesis 12. For, if we argue that Abraham yha.d to perform even one act of obedience before the covenant could be established, our opponents have a dangerous wedge and precedent offered them as basis for their insisting that other and further acts of obedience continued to condition the covenant.

It appears to me that the basic hermeneutical cue to the solution of the passage is the recognition that the sequence of the oft-repeated word "and" merely connects the clauses of Genesis 12:1 with those of 12:2 and 12:3. Thus, rather than urging that obedience to the command of verse 1 established the covenant of verses 2 and 3, the better solution is that the "and" which opens verse 2 is not one which implies any condition but simply the first of a series of "ands" which describe a sequence of events.

God did not say to Abraham, "When you get out and because you get out of Ur (i.e., leave your "kindred" and "father's house, " v. 1) and get to "a land that I will show you, " (v. 1), "I will then make a covenant with you." Nor did He say, "I will then make this covenant valid which I am preannouncing to you, subject to your obedience." The verses are simply stating the sequence of events which will necessarily occur as God works out His unconditional covenant already announced to Abraham before he left Ur.

Thus Abraham will first leave Ur ("country" and "kindred") for the very good reason that God has commanded it, and that Abraham believes God and will therefore exercise the obedience that is the hallmark of true faith. This is not the basis for God then making a covenant. The covenant was given before he left Ur, not because he left Uri

Unfortunately for the condition-of-obedience theory, Abraham would not and did not leave his "father's house." Abraham's obedience was not complete and God had to wait until Abraham's father, Terah, died. Further, it is obvious that his obedience to this command concerning his "father's house" was not complete until after entering the land, for Lot was still with him. Abraham made no move to separate from Lot. He did it only because their herdsmen could not get along together (Gen. 13:5-9). This demonstrates that these things were not primarily steps in obedience on the basis of which God's covenant hinged. Indeed, some of them were apart from Abraham's action entirely, as for example his father's death. They are rather a sequence in which things naturally occurred in the implementation of God's already announced unconditional covenant.

The next event after the completion of Genesis 12:1 in accordance with God's announcement was that God would make of him "a great nation" (v. 2). Necessarily this required the birth of Isaac and the extended growth in numbers of his descendants, first in Palestine and finally in Egypt. Then God made his "name great" (v.2) through Israel's exaltation of it as being the name of their nation's founding father. Finally, through his own experiences and those of his descendants, the rest of verses 2 and 3 were fulfilled in the history which grew out of Genesis 12, with an overriding climactic central thought that "all the families of the earth" would be eventually "blessed" through Abraham's Seed-the Lord Jesus Christ!

Hence, verses 2 and 3 are no more conditioned upon verse 1 by the "and" which introduces verse 2, than any other statement of these three verses is conditioned upon the material that precedes it by the and which introduces each of these statements.

The proper interpretation of the ands, therefore, is that they are simple conjunctions, binding together, and making as one whole, a list of related statements, but at no point is it said that any one of these statements depends upon a previous statement. It is simply the sensible and reasonable order in which the story would unfold, and the events transpire as an all-knowing God foresaw and foretold them. God gave the covenant to Abraham before he left Ur of the Chaldees. He did not predicate the covenant on Abraham's obedience but upon His own unconditional purpose. He announced that He would do these things for Abraham and through him to his descendants, to the nation Israel, and to the world, with all its ultimates fulfilled through Abraham's Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus the proper viewpoint is that the giving-of the covenant was not conditioned upon Abraham's obedience, whether it be in chapter 11, 12, 13, 15, or 22, but that the covenant was unconditionally given in Ur to one who God knew would obey Him because he believed Him and loved Him. The key passage in substantiation of this thesis is recorded in Genesis 18:17-19, where we read;

"And the LORD said. Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do; Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him."

Observe that this was said before the great climactic act of obedience in Genesis 22, and it presents the better explanation of what God subsequently said in Genesis 22:16-18:

(16) "By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:
(17) That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; (18) And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice."

This solution avoids the peril of making the institution of the Abrahamic Covenant dependent upon the obedience of Abraham, which all admit was at first very incomplete. The peril is all the more apparent when it is remembered that his obedience was not declared by God to be complete until he demonstrated his willingness to slay Isaac in sacrifice (Gen. 22). Thus the solution avoids the peril of starting an obedience aspect of the covenant, demanded by amillennialists as being continuous, but which the usual premillennial view wishes to break off arbitrarily somewhere along the line between chapter 11 and chapter 22. If we start with obedience as a prerequisite to the covenant, the amillennialist has a right to claim we are inconsistent and have no warrant to stop with Abraham's leaving Ur, for who can confidently declare at what point his obedience would be sufficiently complete to cause God to establish the covenant? If Genesis 22 be urged as the completion of his obedience, then the covenant was not made in Genesis 12 or 15, but only after Isaac was offered in Genesis 22. This would work against and not for premillennialists in our argument with the amillennialists.

The discussion concerning the Abrahamic Covenant above may well lead to a broader inquiry than this one covenant. To be specific, what do we mean by an unconditional covenant? And what do we mean by a conditional covenant? And, perhaps, more basic, what is a covenant? Here are my suggested definitions:

(I) A covenant is a sovereign pronouncement of God by which He establishes a relationship of responsibility (1) between Himself and an individual (e.g., Adam in the Edenic Covenant), (2) between Himself and mankind in general (e.g., in the promise of the Noahic Covenant never again to destroy all flesh with a flood), (3) between Himself and a nation (e.g., Israel in the Mosaic Covenant, Ex. 19:3ff.), or (4) between Himself and a_ specific human family (e.g., the house of David in the promise of a kingly line in perpetuity through the Davidic Covenant). _A covenant of one category may overlap with other categories, as in the case of the Davidic Covenant where the promise of a continuing kingly house to David has tremendous results (3) to the nation Israel and (2) to the whole world of men in the eventual reign of Jesus Christ.

(II) The covenants are normally unconditional in the sense that God obligates Himself in grace (by the unrestricted declaration, "I will") to accomplish certain announced purposes, despite any failure on the part of the person or group with whom He covenants. The human response to the divinely announced purpose is always important, leading as it does to blessing for obedience and discipline for disobedience . But human failure is never permitted by God to abrogate the covenant nor block its ultimate fulfilment.

(Ill) A covenant is conditional when its establishment is made dependent upon man's acceptance of the terms of the contract, as for example in the case of Israel's acceptance of the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, as evidenced by the words in Exodus 19:5,8:

"if ye will obey.. .ye shall then be" (v.5)....... i.e.. God's offer
which compact Israel accepted as expressed in v.8

"all the people answered... 'all the LORD hath
spoken we will do"....................i.e., man's response

In the light of these definitions, it will be helpful to summarize our discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant in respect to what makes a covenant conditional or unconditional.

It is regrettable that many definitions of a conditional covenant hinge around the idea that God commits Himself to bless a person or group so long as obedience is forthcoming, and warns that He will of necessity discipline him or them if disobedience should later result.

It will be found from the definitions above that this is not that which makes a covenant conditional. It was seen that all of God's great unconditional covenants are not dependent upon the human response to keep them in force. God proposes to see to it that they are kept in force. That is what makes them unconditional. But it must also be borne in mind that in the case of every one of God's unconditional covenants, "the human response to the divinely announced purpose is always important, leading as it does to blessing for obedience and discipline for disobedience. But human failure is never permitted by God to abrogate the covenant nor block its ultimate fulfilment."

And, on the contrary, we saw that the better solution as to what constitutes a conditional covenant is to observe, as in our definition, that the condition is something which precedes the establishment of the covenant. Once the condition is accepted by man, then the covenant is ratified. Further the conditional covenant is to be distinguished from the unconditional covenant in the fact that a conditional covenant is not permanent, since man's failure not only brings discipline, as in the unconditional covenant, but it can in God's time lead to the dissolution or voiding of the terms of the contract. This is something which could never occur in an unconditional covenant.

To return to our discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant in the light of the above, it should be carefully borne in mind that we should avoid confusing an act of obedience as being necessary to the institution of an unconditional covenant. Indeed, the fulfilment of a condition before a covenant is ratified would, according to my definition, make that covenant a conditional one, whereas Abraham's various acts of obedience (or his regrettable failures) would not in any way condition the validity of the making or continuance of an unconditional covenant.

If one argues that the covenant of God with Abraham was tentative until Abraham obeyed some condition upon which the establishment of the covenant would hinge, one has laid the foundation for the argument that the covenant was not unconditional, but conditional in its institution, as well as in its continuance.

In addition, Abraham's failures (as well as those of his descendants) would have long since abrogated the covenant, if its continuance were contingent upon continual obedience (e.g., Rom. 4:13-16). Any one of the following disobediences would have abrogated the covenant:

  1. Abraham's lack of faith and his lie in Genesis 12:10-20.
  2. His failure to separate from Lot previous to Genesis 13.
  3. His failure to trust God to give him Isaac instead of Ishmael (Gen. 16).
  4. His failure to trust God for the renewal of Sarah's body (Gen. 17:17-19).
  5. (5) Sarah's failure to believe God's promise of a son (Gen. 18:12ff.)

The same thesis would apply to the disobediences of Isaac, Jacob, and their many descendants. Because this was not the case and because the covenant was not established upon the condition of Abraham's obedience, it is therefore improper for the amillennialist to bring in a condition then or later (and especially in the case of Israel's failure involved in the rejection of their Messiah) and urge that this is the basis for God's abrogation of that part of the Abrahamic Covenant which refers to the land of Palestine, while also urging that Israel's failure permits only certain spiritual promises to remain to those in Christ, the Seed, namely the Church. All the covenant was unconditional in its institution and from the time of its institution. An excellent proof of this may be found in the words of Hebrews 6:13ff., which reads in the Centenary Version:

"For when God made the promise to Abraham, since he could sware by none greater, he swore by himself, saying: 'Surely I will bless
you, and bless you; I will increase you, and increase you' (Gen. 22:16-17).

"And so by patient waiting, Abraham obtained the promise. (I am referring to the oath) because men swear by what is greater than themselves, and in every dispute of theirs the oath is final for confirmation. On which principle God, wishing to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the immutability of his purpose, mediated with an oath; that by means of two immutable things--his promise and his oath--in which it is impossible for God to break faith, we refugees may have strong encouragement to grasp the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, secure and strong, and passing into the sanctuary which is beyond the veil;
whither Jesus himself is entered as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a priest forever, after the order of Melchisedek."

It is plainly stated that God made a unilateral covenant, imposing upon Himself alone the responsibility for the origination and culmination of the covenant ("he swore by himself"), Abraham entered into the blessing benefits by obediently waiting in faith, but it is just as clear that only Abraham's subjective enjoyment and encouragement were affected by his response. The covenant itself was as firm, unchangeable, and inviolate as the character of God Himself. Because God is unchanging, Abraham can know how sure the covenant is. It is on the basis of His immutability that Abraham is encouraged to rest in sure confidence.

This is in harmony with the great scene in Genesis 15. Customarily in a blood covenant, the carcasses were divided and both covenanters passed together between the carcasses in confirmation of the solemn covenant. But in Genesis 15 Abraham is in "a deep sleep" (v. 12) and cannot pass through the carcasses with God. God passed through alone (v. 17), since the covenant was entirely dependent upon Him. He pledged Himself to fulfill all that He had said before to Abraham, as well as such details as He added here (15:18-21) and later (e.g., 22:16-18). All these things were announced sovereignly by God to Abraham, as being His unconditional good pleasure. He knew Abraham's faith and love would implement the beginning of that sequence of events described progressively in Genesis 12:1-3 and enlarged and reaffirmed in such passages as Genesis 12:7; 13:14-17;
15:1-21; 17:1-8,15-21; 18:17-19; 22:15-18; 26:2-5,24; 28:12-15; 35:9-12; 46:3-4; 48:14-16, 19-20. God's purpose did not rest upon Abraham's faithfulness, but God encouraged and assisted him to grow little by little from the partial step of obedience in leaving Ur, to the full climax of his obedience in offering Isaac, a sacrifice supernaturally interrupted by God Himself.

Thus by the viewpoint suggested in this article, certain advantages are attendant:
(1) the unconditional character of the Abrahamic Covenant is not jeopardized through the admission of even one condition as essential to the establishment of the covenant with Abraham; (2) the unconditional character of the covenant is clearly demonstrated; (3) the amillennial viewpoint is shown to be totally out of keeping with the facts of the case and thus totally incorrect; (4) the establishment of the covenant is shown to be. an act of God's own will which is to be carefully distinguished from subsequent blessing or discipline for obedience or disobedience, respectively.

To summarize, therefore, the basis for God's making the covenant with Abraham was not the fact of his leaving Ur or any other act(s) of obedience. The covenant was given to him before he left Ur, not because he left Ur, and rested upon the unconditional purpose of God to do something in grace, not only for Abraham but ultimately for all the world through the greater Son and Seed, the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is maintained that the following points have been established:

(1) It is urged that the usual definitions of a conditional covenant be re-examined to conform to the thesis expressed in this article, namely, that the condition is offered by God and accepted by man (men) before the covenant is ratified and is not the issue after the ratification.

(2) It is held that blessing and discipline after a covenant is established are an inevitable and inherent part of God's way of dealing with men and their response to Him; and that, in the case of the unconditional covenant, there is no effect whatever on the validity or continuance of the covenant.

(3) It is claimed that a clarification of our thinking, as emphasized here, as to what constitutes a conditional or an unconditional covenant, will warn us against the fallacy of permitting any condition as a prelude to an unconditional covenant, such as the Abrahamic Covenant which has been under consideration here. And, finally,

(4) It is declared that no concession or comfort be given the amillennial position by the fallacy of requiring Abraham to leave Ur, or perform any other act of obedience, in order to pave the way for the instituting of the Abrahamic Covenant. Rather, God announced this covenant of His own free will, apart from any condition, because He had the wisdom, power, and grace to carry out His purpose, for He
"... worketh all things after the counsel of his own will" (Eph. 1:11).


 

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