The Abrahamic Covenant – (Part 3 of 4) – by Dr. Renald Showers –
In our previous article we noted that theologians disagree concerning whether the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional or unconditional. Dispensational theologians contend that the covenant is unconditional in nature (not dependent upon Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their physical descendants, the people of Israel, meeting conditions for the fulfillment of its promises). Many Covenant theologians claim that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional (dependent upon Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel meeting conditions for the fulfillment of its promises). Some Covenant theologians believe that the covenant is unconditional, but that the national promises to Israel must be interpreted allegorically, not literally. Those who claim that it is conditional point to statements in some biblical passages, such as Genesis 17:1-2; 22:16-18, and 26:3-5, as their proof.
On the surface, these statements appear to indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional in nature. But before that conclusion is drawn, several significant things should be noted.
The Significant Things To Be Noted
First, the biblical statements that appear to indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional in nature were made years after God formally established the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. When God formally established the covenant, He stated no conditions. This is significant, because, according to Galatians 3:15, once a covenant is established no conditions are added to it. Thus, to conclude that the statements of Genesis 17:1-2; 22:16-18, and 26:3-5 indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional is to say that God added conditions to the Abrahamic Covenant after it was established and thereby violated the principle of Galatians 3:15.
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 (Genesis 15:8-18). This indicated that the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises was totally dependent upon God, not upon Abraham meeting certain conditions. 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, George R. Berry wrote, "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 one who binds Himself" ("Covenant," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957], Volune II, p. 727).
Third, God formally established the Abrahamic Covenant in response to Abraham’s question, "Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it [the land]?" (Genesis 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 proof that he would fulfill His promise to give him the land. God consented to give such proof and formally established a solemn covenant with Abraham as that proof. The point is that 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, the people of Israel. If the fulfillment of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant depended in any way at all upon the faithfulness of anyone other than God, how could that covenant accomplish its intended purpose—confirming proof to Abraham that God would keep His word to give him the land of Canaan?
Fourth, the Abrahamic Covenant was still in effect even after the patriarchs of Israel had sinned several times. Although Abraham had sinned several times (Genesis 16:20) after the covenant had been established, God later confirmed the covenant with his son, Isaac (Genesis 26:1-4). In spite of Isaac’s sin after that confirmation (Genesis 26:6-11), God later confirmed the covenant with his son, Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15; 35:9-12; 48:3-4). Even though Jacob and his sons were guilty of various sins (Genesis 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 (Genesis 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 (Exodus 2:24; 6:2-8).
Fifth, even after the nation of Israel had sinned in numerous ways over the course of several centuries, King David regarded the Abrahamic Covenant to be in effect with Israel in his day. In 1 Chronicles 16:15-18 David exhorted the Jews, "Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations, even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac, and hath confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant, saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, the lot of your inheritance" (compare Psalm 105:8-11). Why would David exhort Jews of his day to be mindful of the Abrahamic Covenant if it were no longer in effect with them? Why would he exhort Jews to remember the covenant always, 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 from the land and suffer because of its sin, in the latter days it would have opportunity to 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 (Deuteronomy 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 have the opportunity to 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. Surely that would 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 continue to be in effect 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.
The next article will consider more significant things that indicate that the Abrahamic Covenant is unconditional by nature.