So Abraham shows us the very way of salvation. God’s covenant relationship with us is based on his grace, to which we respond with faith, or trust, and that is what puts us in a right relationship with God.
One of the most important concepts in the Bible is the relationship or agreement known as a covenant. This idea runs through Scripture from beginning to end; in fact, the Old Testament and New Testament are simply another way of saying “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant.”
So what is a covenant? A covenant is an agreement between two parties involving both promises and obligations. Things like business contracts or diplomatic treaties are modern variants of the covenant idea. But in its biblical sense a covenant is more personal and relational than either of those kinds of agreements.
The closest parallel that we’re familiar with to the biblical idea of covenant is marriage. A Christian marriage is a good illustration of what the Bible means by covenant. Marriage is first of all an agreement: a man and a woman agree to live together in the most deeply personal of all human relationships. The relationship is permanent and binding, as each partner promises to remain faithful as long as they both shall live. A marriage begins with a wedding, that is, a public ceremony involving rituals and vows which formalize the couple’s commitment. There is a physical token or sign – a wedding ring – symbolizing the new relationship that binds these people together. And the whole undertaking is founded upon love, and thrives on mutual trust and faithfulness.
All these are the elements that also characterize a biblical covenant. It is a personal relationship based on unconditional love. It involves mutual promises and obligations. It is established with a ceremony and symbolized by a physical sign of the new relationship. And it requires trust and faithfulness if the covenant is to endure.
RENEWAL OF PROMISES
Like so many other things having to do with faith, the covenant of grace in the Bible formally begins with Abraham. The fundamental promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12 is that he would bless Abraham, and through him all the world’s peoples would also be blessed. The basic promise of blessing to Abraham is accompanied with, and expanded by, two secondary promises – both of which are repeated at greater length in Genesis 15 when the Lord again speaks to Abraham.
After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless? . . . You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Some years have passed since Abraham settled with his household in Canaan. God has blessed him economically, and Abraham has become a very wealthy man. But the promise of a child for him and Sarah has not yet been fulfilled. Following ancient near-Eastern custom, Abraham has adopted a servant from his household as his heir. “No,” says the Lord, “your own son will inherit your estate, and, moreover, your descendants will be numberless as the stars.” Then the Lord also repeated the second promise he had made earlier to Abraham, the one concerning the land of Canaan (v. 7-21). Canaan would be given to Abraham and his offspring, and they would possess it as their own territory.
Both of these covenant promises from God to Abraham point to something greater than their literal and physical fulfillment. God’s ultimate concern in calling Abraham and establishing a covenant with him was not to create a new country in the Middle East that would be occupied forever by a tribe of Abraham’s distant relatives! God’s ultimate concern is with the whole world, and with every tribe and people. Abraham was just a starting point, and the promises God originally made to him of land and descendants were merely the shadows of greater things. The New Testament makes it clear that the Promised Land ultimately points to no earthly territory but rather to heaven, the homeland and dwelling place of all God’s people (Heb.11:16). And Abraham’s covenant descendants are not those who trace their physical ancestry to him, but rather are the spiritual children who, like Abraham, live by faith in God.
JUSTIFIED BY FAITH
These are the promises of the covenant. God takes the initiative. He makes the offer. But a covenant takes two parties. For it to take effect, we must respond. The most important verse in the passage I read earlier from Genesis 15 is the last one, verse six. In fact, Genesis 15:6 may be the most important verse in the whole Old Testament. It says that after God renewed his covenant promises to Abraham, Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord credited (or counted) it to him as righteousness.”
I call this the most important verse in the Old Testament on the strength of the apostle Paul’s testimony. In two crucial passages where he is explaining the very heart of the gospel, Paul focuses on Genesis 15:6 and the example of Abraham, “the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9). Quoting this verse in Galatians 3, the apostle insists on the principle that salvation comes only by faith in God and not by anything else. Not by religion, not by doing good works, not by birth or background. Not only was Abraham credited with righteousness or made right in the eyes of God by this means, but Paul also adds that the blessing God promised to all nations through Abraham is this very same covenant of salvation by grace through faith. The apostle affirms “that those who believe are the children of Abraham” (Gal.3:7).
Paul expands on this point in Romans 4:3ff.
What does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” . . . Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring . . . [that is] to those who are of the faith of Abraham. . . . This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness – for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.
So Abraham shows us the very way of salvation, not only for himself but for every time in every age for everyone. God’s covenant relationship with us is based on his grace, to which we respond with faith, or trust. And that is what puts us in a right relationship with God.
The great American writer Mark Twain once observed that “Admission to heaven is by favor, not merit. If it were the other way, your dog would go and you would be left out!” None of us deserves to be saved, not even Father Abraham. Abraham’s faith wasn’t perfect; it didn’t earn him God’s favor or merit the righteousness that God credited to him. We know from Abraham’s story that his faith sometimes wavered and his obedience could stumble. Faith doesn’t save us by its strength or by the quality of its belief. It is simply our response – our sometimes faltering response – of trust which embraces God’s gracious covenant promise to be our God. When we do that with the central promise of the gospel that God will forgive our sins and grant us eternal life because of the death of his Son on the cross, then we are, in the classic phrase, “justified by faith.”
ONE MORE TIME
So in Genesis 12 God promises and Abraham believes. And so the covenant is begun. In Genesis 15, God repeats the promises, and Abraham again believes and is reckoned to be righteous – acceptable to God – on account of his faith. Finally, in Genesis 17, God repeats the promises yet again, and he completes the covenant with Abraham by adding a ceremony with a physical symbol to confirm all that he has said. Here’s the account in Genesis 17:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. . . . I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. . . . 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
So why does any of this story matter to us now? What difference could this ancient covenant, ratified with the physical sign of male circumcision, possibly make to twenty-first-century people? When we probe those questions we discover that the differences between Abraham and us are all superficial, while the connections remain profound and meaningful. No, a personal relationship with the living God is not found through physical descent from a 4,000-year-old patriarch. The covenant of grace and salvation is no longer symbolized by the ritual cutting of the male foreskin. It’s not about territory in the land of Palestine, or who controls the city of Jerusalem.
But the basic promise is the same. The God of the universe, “God Almighty,” El-shaddai, as he names himself to Abraham, promises that he will be our God, and the God of our children after us. And our response must be the same as well. If we believe God, he will credit it to us as righteousness. But we must do that. Just as in the marriage covenant, there are mutual responsibilities in the covenant of grace. God pledges all the might of his power and all the faithfulness of his character to us in undertaking to be our God. But we have a corresponding responsibility: we must be his people. All we can or need do is accept his grace, but we absolutely have to show that we have accepted it by living as those who belong to him. “Walk before me and be blameless,” says the Lord to Abraham (and to us!) (v.1).
Have you ever formalized your relationship with God? It’s important to do that. Just as a marriage ceremony publicly ratifies the new relationship between husband and wife and seals the permanence of that relationship, so a public acceptance of God’s covenant of grace seals our new, saving relationship with him. You do that publicly by confessing your faith in Jesus Christ and joining the Christian church.
Just as in the old, the new covenant also has physical signs which symbolize our relationship with God and underscore his promises to us. For Christians, two signs have been given. Baptism is done once, at the beginning of our Christian life. This sign promises us our sins are washed away clean for the sake of Jesus, and it reminds us that we belong to him forever. The Lord’s Supper is the sign that is repeated again and again to strengthen our faith. This sign points us to the ground of our salvation, and our assurance and our hope, the cross of Jesus Christ. His body was broken and his blood poured out for the complete forgiveness of our sins.
When we receive these outward signs of the covenant we act out and renew our faith in God, and he reconfirms his promises to us. So if your faith is shaky, take advantage of the signs and reclaim the covenant promises of God!