The Unconditional Nature of The Abrahamic Covenant
The previous article indicated that the most crucial issue related to the Abrahamic Covenant is this: the nature of that covenant. Is the covenant conditional or unconditional in nature? Is the fulfillment of its promises dependent upon the human obedience of Abraham and his physical descendants or upon the faithfulness of God to His Word?
It was noted that, although some theologians are convinced that the covenant is conditional, there is extensive biblical evidence to the effect that it is unconditional in nature. Those lines of evidence will now be examined.
First, no conditions (no “if’s”) were stated when the Abrahamic Covenant was formally established (Gen. 15:7-21), and, according to Galatians 3:15, once a covenant has been established no conditions are added to it.
Second, when the covenant was formally established, only God passed between the halves of the animals. A deep sleep came upon Abraham so that he could not move between them. This indicated that the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises was totally dependent upon God, not upon Abraham. The only time that both parties of a covenant would pass between the pieces of animals was when the fulfillment of the covenant was dependent upon both parties keeping commitments. Concerning the significance of God alone moving between the halves of the animals, Berry writes:
Here it is to be noted that it is a smoking furnace and a flaming torch, representing God, not Abraham, which passed between the pieces. Such an act, it would seem, should be shared by both parties, but in this case it is doubtless to be explained by the fact that the covenant is principally a promise by Jeh. He is the one who binds Himself.1
Third, God formally established the Abrahamic Covenant in response to Abraham’s question: O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it? (the land) [Gen.15:8]. In the immediate context (v. 7) God had just reminded Abraham of the fact that He had brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees in order to give him the land of Canaan to possess it. In response to this reminder Abraham asked God for confirming proof that He would fulfill His promise to give him the land. God consented to give such proof. He formally established a solemn covenant with Abraham as that proof. In other words, God formally established the Abrahamic Covenant as His way of giving Abraham confirming proof that He would fulfill His promise to give Abraham the land. The point is this: The purpose for the formal establishment of the Abrahamic Covenant was that of assuring Abraham that God would keep His word. The total focus of the covenant was the faithfulness of God to His commitment. The focus had nothing to do with the faithfulness or obedience of Abraham or his physical descendants. If the fulfillment of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant depended in any way at all upon the faithfulness of anyone other than God, then how could that covenant accomplish its intended purpose?
Fourth, the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect even after the patriarchs of Israel had sinned several times. Although Abraham had sinned several times (Gen. 16:20) after the covenant had been established, God later confirmed the covenant with his son, Isaac (Gen. 26:1-4). In spite of Isaac’s sin after that confirmation (Gen. 26:6-11), God later confirmed the covenant with his son, Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15; 35:9-12; 48:3-4). Even though Jacob and his sons were guilty of different sins (Gen. 37:18-36; 38:12-26), Joseph regarded the covenant to be in effect at the end of his life and was convinced that it would continue to be so into the future (Gen. 50:24-26). Several generations after Joseph, when the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, God made it clear to Moses that the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect (Ex. 2:24; 6:2-8).
Fifth, even after the nation of Israel had sinned in numerous ways over the course of several centuries, David regarded the Abrahamic Covenant to be in effect with Israel in his day. In 1 Chronicles 16:15-18 David exhorted Jews to do the following:
Remember His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations, The covenant which He made with Abraham, And His oath to Isaac. He also confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, To Israel as an everlasting covenant, Saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan, As the portion of your inheritance” (cf. Ps. 105:8-11).
Why would David exhort Jews of his day to remember the Abrahamic Covenant, if it were no longer in effect with them? Why would he exhort Jews to remember the covenant forever, and why would he specifically call attention to the promise concerning Israel’s possession of the land, if at any point in history that promise of the covenant could be annulled?
Sixth, Moses promised that, even though Israel would become idolatrous and evil and would be scattered and suffer because of its sin, in the latter days it would return to God and be obedient, because God would not fail Israel nor destroy it nor forget the Abrahamic Covenant which He swore to their fathers (Dt. 4:25-31). Several things should be noted concerning this promise. First, it is the same people (literal Israel, the physical descendants of Abraham) who would depart from God and be scattered from the land of Canaan (v. 26) who would also return to Him and be obedient in the latter days. This implies that the literal nation of Israel will still exist in the latter days and that God will have a program for that nation during that period of history. Second, the Abrahamic Covenant would still be in effect with the literal nation of Israel in the latter days in spite of its idolatry, evil and traumatic history of dispersion and suffering. Certainly that could not be true if the continuation of that covenant with Israel were dependent upon the faithfulness or obedience of that nation. Third, Moses made it clear (v. 31) that this promise in Deuteronomy 4 would be fulfilled because of God’s faithfulness. Even though Israel would fail Him, He would not fail it. He would be faithful to His covenant commitment which He had sworn to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Seventh, even after Israel had compiled its sordid record of sin throughout all its centuries of Old Testament history, the Holy Spirit indicated that the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect with that nation and that that covenant had something to do with Israel’s deliverance from its enemies (Lk. 1:67-75). Shortly before Jesus’ birth the Holy Spirit prophesied the following through the Jewish priest, Zacharias:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant . . . To show mercy toward our fathers. And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to Abraham our father, To grant us that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, . . .
Eighth, even though Israel committed its ultimate sin of rejecting the Son of God, Jesus, as its Messiah, the Apostle Peter still regarded the Jews (even the very Jews who had rejected Christ) as sons of the Abrahamic Covenant. Peter said the following to a crowd in Jerusalem: Men of Israel, . . . The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His Servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered up, and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, – a fact to which we are witnesses (Acts 3:12-15).
Having thereby identified his audience, Peter said to them: It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, “And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways (Acts 3:25-26).
Peter’s use of the present tense (“are the sons”) indicates his conviction that these Jews were still sons of the covenant and that the covenant was still in effect with them. The only way that the Abrahamic Covenant could still be in effect with the nation of Israel after its rejection of Christ was if that covenant were unconditional. If that covenant had depended upon the obedience of Israel for the fulfillment of its promises, certainly it would have been nullified by Israel’s worst sin.
Ninth, the Epistle to the Hebrews indicates that God doubly emphasized the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant was His unchangeable purpose and that, therefore, that covenant was still to be a source of encouragement to Jews who were living when that epistle was written. Hebrews 6:13-18 states the following:
For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply you.” . . . For men swear by one greater than themselves, and with them an oath given as confirmation is an end of every dispute. In the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, in order that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, we who have fled for refuge in laying hold of the hope set before us.
Two things should be noted concerning this statement. First, God wanted to impress Abraham and his descendants with the fact that He is absolutely determined to fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant and that fulfillment of the covenant is dependent totally upon God’s faithfulness to His word. Second, the Abrahamic Covenant was still to be a source of encouragement to Jews who were living when Hebrews was written (during the 60’s A.D.), in spite of the fact that Israel had rejected Christ several decades earlier.
Tenth, the Abrahamic Covenant included a universal promise of blessing to all families of the earth through Abraham’s seed. The fulfillment of this promise involved the coming of the Redeemer and the provision of salvation for all peoples of the world. If the Abrahamic Covenant were conditional, then the coming of the Redeemer and the provision of salvation were dependent upon the obedience of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the people of Israel. Such an arrangement would have jeopardized the coming of Christ and the whole program of redemption. It also would have undermined the certainty of fulfillment of many Old Testament Messianic prophecies. It is a fact, however, that the Redeemer did come and salvation was provided in spite of the many centuries of disobedience by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the people of Israel. That fact practically demands that the Abrahamic Covenant be unconditional in nature. And if it is unconditional in nature, then the fulfillment of all its promises (including the national promises to literal Israel) is dependent totally upon the faithfulness of God to His word.
The next article will examine the effect of the Abrahamic Covenant upon the nation of Israel.
- George R. Berry, “Covenant,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), II, 727.