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Friday, 12 July 2013

Is an understanding of the promises to Abraham necessary for salvation?

In my own estimation, the greatest contribution that Christadelphians have made to biblical theology has been their understanding of the close relationship between the promises God made to the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David) and the gospel or good news preached by Jesus and the apostles.

Christadelphians have correctly highlighted how much the New Testament writers emphasize the patriarchs and the covenants of promise that they received. This is particularly evident in the teaching of Paul. For instance, preaching in the synagogue at Antioch, Paul addressed the congregation as "sons of Abraham's family" (Acts 13:26 NASB). Having described the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he then declared, "And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers" (Acts 13:32 NASB). Later, explaining his relationship to Judaism as he stood on trial before Agrippa, Paul declared, "And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers" (Acts 26:6 NASB).
 
In Paul's epistles, the same emphasis comes across. After a lengthy analysis of the promises to Abraham in Galatians 3, Paul concludes, "And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise" (Gal. 3:29 NASB). And again, in Romans 4, Paul emphasises that the promise to Abraham "will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all" (Rom. 4:16 NASB).
 
Now, it is not only Christadelphians who have grasped the importance of the promises. One only needs to pick up a book such as The Promise-Plan of God by Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. to see that there are also Evangelical scholars who have understood that the promises are the unifying thread that runs throughout Scripture. Where Christadelphians have differed, however, is in their insistence that comprehending the promises to the fathers is a prerequisite for salvation in Christ. The Christadelphian argument goes something like this:
 
C1. Salvation is by faith in the gospel of Christ.
C2. The gospel of Christ is none other than the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
C3. Therefore, one cannot understand the gospel of Christ without understanding the promises to Abraham.
C4. Therefore, one who does not understand the promises to Abraham does not have saving faith.
 
This, I believe, is a flawed argument with a thrust that is very different than Paul's. I would express Paul's argument as follows:
 
P1. Salvation is by faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
P2. The gospel of Christ is none other than the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
P3. Therefore, whoever puts their faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes an heir of the promises to Abraham.
P4. Therefore, Gentile believers are heirs of the promises to Abraham, regardless of whether they keep the Law of Moses.
 
Observe that the first two premises are the same in both arguments. The difference is in the implications of these two premises. I would assert that premise C3 is nowhere in the New Testament, and consequently the conclusion C4 cannot be inferred.
 
By contrast, premise P3 is central to Paul's argument. In Galatians 3, Paul's central concern is not with the promises to Abraham per se, but rather with basis on which Gentile believers receive the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2 NASB). Paul uses Abraham as a vehicle in his argument. He emphasises that the gospel was preached to Abraham in the words, "All the nations will be blessed in you" (3:8), inasmuch as all those who have faith are blessed just like Abraham was (3:9). Thus in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham comes on the Gentiles, so that they can receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (3:14). This promise is contingent on faith in Jesus Christ (3:22). Whoever has faith in Christ Jesus is a child of God (3:26) and consequently becomes a descendant of Abraham and an heir of the promises (3:29).
 
A similar line of argument appears in Romans 4. As we read earlier, Paul writes there that the promises to Abraham's descendants are for those who have the faith of Abraham. The faith of Abraham does not refer to an explicit understanding of who Abraham was or what he believed. Abraham had an embryonic understanding of what has now been revealed more plainly through Jesus Christ. The key element of Abraham's faith was his belief that "what God had promised, He was able also to perform" (Rom. 4:21). This faith was credited to him as righteousness. Paul's conclusion is then unmistakable: righteousness will in like manner be credited to all those who "believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification" (4:24-25). This is none other than premise P3: whoever believes in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ effectively has the faith of Abraham and is a joint-heir of the promises made to him.
 
Space does not allow us to proceed much further, but it is worth mentioning that most discussion of the promises to Abraham in the New Testament occurs when speaking or writing to Jews or concerning Judaism. There is no mention of the promises to the fathers, for instance, in the message Peter preached to Cornelius (Acts 10:34-43), or Paul's speech to the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31). Although an argument from silence, this is contrary to what one would expect if the author of Acts sought to convey that understanding these promises was a prerequisite for Gentiles to be saved.
 
Now, all of this does not mean that the promises to the fathers are irrelevant or unimportant to Gentile Christians. An understanding of the covenants of promise in Genesis, and indeed of the whole Old Testament, is highly profitable for any servant of Christ (2 Timothy 3:16). One who is ignorant of these things is weak in his or her knowledge of the Word, and Christadelphians have done well to emphasize the promises in their teaching. However, there is a world of difference between saying a person's knowledge is limited and saying that such a person's faith is void.
 
What is wrong with the Christadelphian stance that a person cannot be saved without understanding the promises to Abraham? Firstly, it creates an unnecessary fellowship barrier. Secondly, and more seriously, it imposes a requirement for salvation the apostles did not impose. It comes dangerously close to violating the principle of Acts 4:12, by adding a second name (Abraham's) by which we must be saved.
 
Mercifully, God does not refuse to justify us due to flaws or limitations in our understanding of his Word:
"Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen." (Eph. 3:19-20 NASB)

5 comments:

Sarah said...

Hi Tom, I decided to post this reply here in multiple comments despite its length! I also emailed it to you due to the lack of formatting here.

First, let us ensure we are interpreting the question in the same way.

What is “salvation”? And what are the “promises to Abraham”?

Salvation means to be saved from something. What do we need to be saved from? We recognize that all humans will die and perish. Why this actually happens needs a metaphysical explanation as naturalism can observe it to be true but not offer an explanation. Not only does the Bible offer an explanation (i.e. that death is the wages of sin), but it sets forth a way in which death can be overcome. In other words, the Bible offers a way of “salvation” from death. When referring to “salvation”, I am therefore speaking of the Bible’s way of overcoming death.

I will assume that we both accept the Bible’s authority. All quotations are from the ESV unless noted.

Also, discussing elements of faith “necessary for salvation” is the most important conversation we could ever have, and I approach it with the desire of serving our Heavenly Father in sincerity and truth.

Before addressing the second question, may I identify two framing ideas about salvation from the Bible. I said that the Bible offers a way of salvation. In fact, the Bible refers to one way or the way. For example, Peter told the Jews that there was salvation in the name of Jesus Christ and there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Whatever the way or plan established by God for His creation, once set it will not change until it is fulfilled. Paul introduced himself to Titus by speaking about the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted… (Titus 1:2). That means that God’s Word is consistent from Genesis to Revelation, Old to New Testament, that although the books may have different purposes or audiences, they must hold together around the same truth. [Also this means that although church history shows that generally believed doctrines have “changed” over time (e.g. catholic church councils adopting different creeds or protestant denominations ‘updating’ their statements of belief), what is actually God’s truth does not change.] May I call this the “One Truth” principle.

A second idea that follows is that we need the whole Bible to see the whole picture of God’s plan. Jesus, the apostles and Paul all taught from the Old Testament (OT). For example, Paul told Timothy … and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (3:15) This says directly that the OT is able to make one wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. This implies that one needs the OT to understand what is being expounded/explained in the New Testament (NT). May I call this the “Whole Picture” principle.

I believe the Scriptures show that Paul, as the prominent NT evangelist to the Gentiles, rested on both of these principles when preaching salvation.

Now – what are the promises to Abraham, and do they have anything to do with salvation?

Paul summarizes his hope in three ways:

1) Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and resurrection of the dead that I am on trial. (Acts 23:6)

2) And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to the fathers…and for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! (Acts 26:6)

3) For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you [the Jewish leaders in Rome] and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain. (Acts 28:20)

So Paul’s hope is the resurrection of the dead (a direct message about how death will be overcome) which = the promise made of God unto the fathers (of whom Abraham was one) = the hope of Israel.

Sarah said...

Sarah's reply continued (2)...

This sounds like the promise to Abraham has very much to do with salvation. In fact, they are equated! Thus the answer to your question is YES, and could be answered like this: “An understanding of the promises to Abraham is necessary for salvation because it is WHAT you are hoping for. If you do not understand the promises to Abraham, you do not understand what you are hoping for. Or else you are hoping for something different that is not part of the way of salvation.”

Let’s go to the Scriptures to follow how Paul and others expound the teaching about salvation.

First, this teaching about salvation is called ‘the good news’ or the ‘gospel’. Paul told the Romans that he was not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Romans 1:16) and that this gospel of God was promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures… (vs. 2).

Variously, Paul is said to have preached:
- to carry my [Jesus’] name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (to Ananias - Acts 9:15); Jesus Christ (Acts 9:20)
- the word of the Lord (Acts 15:36, 16:31-32 and 19:10 – note that the Jews and Greeks heard the same word, consistent with the “One Truth” principle)
- Jesus and the resurrection (Jews and Gentiles in Athens - Acts 17:18) and the true God/not idolatry (vss. 22-29) and judgment (vs. 31)
- all the counsel of God (Acts 20:27 cf. 2:23 referring back to Jesus’ crucifixion)
- gospel of the grace of God / kingdom (Acts 20:24, 25)
- gospel of God (… which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son Romans 1:2)
- the way (according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the prophets, having a hope in God, which these men [the Jews in Jerusalem] themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust) Acts 24:14-15
- those things that the prophets and Moses said would come to pass (to Agrippa - Acts 26:22)
- kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (to the Gentiles - Acts 28:31)
- word of faith (Romans 10:8)
- Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23)

If Paul is teaching one way, then all of these elements harmonize and comprise the one truth. Notice that he is using the two parts of the Old Testament (Law of Moses) and prophets, as well as Jesus’ death and resurrection in his teaching of the gospel. This is consistent with the “Whole Picture” principle.

That the gospel was given by promise makes clear why Paul refers to salvation as an “inheritance” or the recipients being “heirs”, such as explaining that the angels were ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14) or when he told king Agrippa his role was to open the eyes of the Gentiles so that they may turn away from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place [inheritance – KJV] among those who are sanctified by faith in me (Acts 26:18). Here too we learn that salvation, or overcoming death, includes both forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among other faithful. Also, ‘by faith’ or belief is linked to how we are sanctified.

What is the actual inheritance promised? John the apostle of Jesus says, And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life. (1 John 2:25). Jesus says it was eternal life (e.g. Mark 10:17). James the Lord’s brother asked, Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)

So if by the “One Truth” principle the writers are referring to the same truth or way, we can equate this inheritance = eternal life = heirs of the Kingdom. Our salvation is receiving the promise of this inheritance.

...continued...

Sarah said...

Sarah's reply... part 3 of 4...

If the gospel says our hope is eternal life and inheriting ‘the Kingdom’, and this is the way of salvation, and the New Testament preachers agree, then we ask: where is this taught in the Old Testament?

Paul told the Galatians that the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, In you shall all the nations be blessed. (Galatians 3:8)
Although this one verse doesn’t explain it all, Paul says the gospel is that all nations of the earth would be blessed in Abraham, being the father of the Jewish nation (and eventually of Jesus). And that is through faith Gentiles are justified.

The actual promises that God spoke to Abraham are:
- God would make of Abraham a great nation, make his name great, bless them that blessed him, in his offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed (12:2-3, 22:18))
- all the land [of Canaan] which he saw he would have with his offspring forever for an everlasting possession (13:15, 17:8)
- he would be a father of a multitude of nations, God would establish his covenant between Him and Abraham’s offspring for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto him and to his offspring after him (17:4-8),
- God would multiply his offspring as the stars of heaven, sand on the seashore, the offspring would possess the gate of his enemies (22:17-18) – this identifies a particular single descendant

(Note that God made similar promises to Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob, and more specific promises about the special single descendant to King David, in 2 Samuel 7.)

The words ‘eternal life’ or ‘kingdom’ do not appear. But ‘everlasting’ and ‘forever’ do. When God says the land of Israel would be Abraham’s and his descendants’ forever, this must come true. This is where the idea of the kingdom on earth comes from, and why it makes sense that all those faithful in Hebrews 11 died without having received the promises – they are not living in that land for ever, the offspring of Abraham is not possessing the gate of his enemies yet. The land which Abraham saw is the land of Israel, so to live in it forever, he and his offspring would need to be raised from the dead to receive eternal life.

If these promises were to Abraham and his offspring, who are his offspring? Collectively,the Jews and singularly Jesus (according to Zacharias in Luke 1:69-73 and Paul in Galatians 3:16) and also the Gentiles who have faith in Jesus Christ: in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.(Galatians 3:14 NASB). In fact the whole chapter of Galatians 3 is about the Gentiles becoming heirs with Abraham.

...continued...

Sarah said...

Sarah's reply... part 4 of what I now realize has to be 5 parts (sorry)

Why do the Gentiles need to have faith in Jesus Christ? The promises were delivered to Abraham in the form of a covenant (which is how God delivered His promises to mankind – cf. Noah in Genesis 9:15). A covenant is a written agreement or promise between two or more parties that is usually under seal especially for the performance of some action (Merriam Webster online). Abraham knew the terms of a covenant, that it had to be ratified, or brought into effect, by the death of a covenant victim (the word ‘berith’ for covenant has the sense of ‘cutting’, according to the custom of passing between divided parts of victims- Strong’s Concordance). How was this covenant to be sealed? Much later, the writer to the Hebrews identifies that it was Jesus’ death that brought it into effect (cf. Hebrews 9:11-15). (Also, see ‘Chain’ at end of this discussion for a more complete answer to this question.)

Although Abraham did not live to see Jesus born as that promised descendant through whom all nations would be blessed forever, it is evident that he saw it in his mind and knew it was in the future after his death. When the Pharisees, who mocked his statement that if anyone kept his word that he would never see death by saying, ‘Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died!’, Jesus replied, ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.’ (John 8:50-56) Also Abraham demonstrated his faith in resurrection, as the author to Hebrews says: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19). So we could say that Abraham, like Paul, held the hope and resurrection of the dead and the hope of the promises. He died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar... (Hebrews 11:13)

Thus saying that Abraham had an embryonic understanding of the gospel may be using an inadequate metaphor if by embryonic we mean undeveloped or very premature.

What about the prophets? Where or how do they weigh in on this ‘gospel’? A brief and non-comprehensive answer is that, coming after the establishment of the nation of Israel and its kings, the prophets foretell many key details about the ‘offspring’ – when he would come, what he would accomplish, and how he would be received. For one example, Isaiah 53 says that he will be despised and rejected by men, that he will be afflicted, that he will die for the people, that he will make many to be accounted righteous and bear their iniquities, that he will make intercession for the transgressors.

The prophets also affirm the land of Israel as God’s chosen land forever (the place of the Kingdom) with Jerusalem as its capital. For one example, Ezekiel shares a specific vision about a future temple to be built in Israel – and the name of the city from that time on shall be, The LORD Is There. Ezekiel 48:35. In his chapter 31, Jeremiah refers to the “new” covenant under which Israel would be forgiven and restored as God’s people, which covenant the Hebrews’ author identifies as being the one of which Jesus was high priest. (See the “Name of Jesus Christ” verses chain at the end.) In Romans 16:25-26, Paul says that it was through the prophetic writings that the gospel message was made known to all nations.

...continued...

Sarah said...

Sarah's reply... final part 5 of 5

You raised the point that most discussion of the promises to Abraham in the New Testament occurs when speaking or writing to Jews or concerning Judaism. As the references above show, the NT is replete with the gospel message to both Jews and Gentiles. Even in Acts 10 (to Cornelius) Peter refers to the word that God sent to Israel and since Cornelius was said to be a ‘devout man who feared God with all his household’, I think it is reasonable to believe that Cornelius understood the Old Testament. Also, in Athens, Paul was preaching Jesus and his resurrection from the dead; we saw that he equated the hope of the resurrection of the dead with the hope of the promises to the fathers, so in effect he was teaching the promises to the fathers. Paul is clear in Ephesians 3 that it was revealed to him that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Now, I summarize my answer to your question.

Is an understanding of the promises to Abraham necessary for salvation?

1) Yes, because salvation = eternal life = inheritance of the Kingdom = resurrection of the dead = everlasting promises to Abraham. Forgiveness of sins is included. The fulfilled promises are WHAT salvation is.
2) This is “the way” of salvation taught from Genesis to Revelation. The NT writers use the word ‘gospel’ to refer to the same truth. The NT continues what the OT introduces. The promises about Abraham’s singular offspring are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
3) Both Jews and Gentiles are saved by faith or through faith in Christ Jesus - Romans 3:22-30 –also Galatians 3:26-29 tells us that by baptism into Christ we have put on Christ which makes us (Gentiles) Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise.

This knowledge also makes clear why God’s Word to believers is devoted to the history of Abraham’s offspring the Jewish nation, why the New Testament provides two genealogies of Jesus Christ showing his line from the fathers and why the land of Israel (and especially Jerusalem) continues to be in the world’s focus like no other nation today.

Behold, the LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken. (Isaiah 62:11-12)