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The Doctrine of Grace in the Interpretation of Prophecy

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[John F. Walvoord, President and Professor of Systematic Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary]

Practically all conservative interpreters of Scripture have recognized the importance of Abraham. This is transparent on the basis of the emphasis given to Abraham and his family in the Book of Genesis. With only two chapters devoted to the account of creation (Gen 1-2 ), one chapter to the tremendous significance of the fail of man into sin (Gen 3), and the next eight chapters covering thousands of years of human history from Adam to Abraham (Gen 4-11 ), it soon becomes obvious that the Book of Genesis is primarily dedicated to the story of Abraham and his family. The large section from Genesis 11:29 to 25:8 is devoted entirely to the story of Abraham himself, and the remaining 25 chapters of Genesis trace the subsequent history of Isaac, Jacob, and the people of Israel in Egypt. From the divine viewpoint the life and experiences of Abraham must have been of tremendous importancce to God, who intended through the patriarch to communicate basic theological truths to man.

Abraham, the Man of Faith

As many interpreters have noted, Abraham is preeminently presented in Scripture as a man of faith. After receiving instruction from God, he departed from Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen 11:31) and began the long journey to the land of Canaan. Halfway there, he settled down in Haran until his father Terah died. Reasons for the sojourn in Haran are not given in Scripture, but perhaps Abraham still needed to grow in faith before he would be implicitly obedient to God. His arrival in the Promised Land was the occasion for the important Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 12:2-3; 15:9-21 ).

In this covenant God promised Abraham he would be a great man. From him God would produce a great nation. God’s blessing would rest on Abraham, and through him blessing would come to all families of the earth. Because of his distinctive place in the purpose of God, the promise was given, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).

The tremendous sweep of these promises of God to Abraham have already been largely fulfilled in history. Scripture faithfully records the blessing of God on Abraham and his posterity. Through Abraham came the writers of the Old Testament and the prophets of old, as well as most of the writers of the New Testament and the 12 Apostles. Most important, through Abraham came Jesus Christ who provides salvation and grace for all who trust in Him. No other covenant in Scripture and no other set of promises is as sweeping and extensive as those given to Abraham.

In Abraham’s later experiences, however, it becomes clear that God was developing Abraham into a man of faith—a man who has been a model through the centuries for all who would trust God. Abraham was motivated by God’s promise of the land (Gen 15:18-21), which he interpreted literally. If the promise of the land had been merely a promise of heaven, as some have suggested, it would not have been necessary for him to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and move geographically to the land of Canaan.

Amillenarians have attempted to dispose of a literal fulfillment of this land promise by two approaches. One view assumes that the promise of the land is literal, but conditional. It is argued that since Israel failed God, the promise of the land will therefore not be fulftlled; the promise has been abrogated. The other view affirms the promises are not literal, but will be fulfilled spiritually in the church. Allis uses both arguments. He argues extensively that the literal promise given to Abraham was conditioned on obedience, that the condition was not met, and that therefore the promise will not be fulfilled.1 However, Allis also uses the argument that the promises are not literal and therefore will not be literally fulfilled.2 In either approach, amillenarians are opposed to any literal fulfillment of the promise of the land to Israel, for this would necessitate the premillennial interpretation of eschatology. However, the Book of Genesis itself gives constant confirmation that God promised a literal possession of the land by Abraham’s posterity, and that Abraham understood it that way.

The promise of the land was given dramatic support when Abraham separated from Lot, allowing Lot to take the rich valley of the Jordan for his herds. On this occasion it is recorded, “And the LORD said to Abraham, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever”’ (Gen 13:14-15). It should be clear from this promise that God meant the promise of the land to be literal and Abraham understood it that way. This promise is constantly repeated throughout the Old Testament.

A particular test to Abraham’s faith was the promise concerning his descendants, for Abraham was then 75 years of age (Gen 12:4), and he and his wife Sarah were childless. How could the promise of the land and the other promises be fulfilled if Abraham had no descendants?

Abraham was moved first to suggest Eliezer of Damascus, his principal servant, as his possible heir, and Eliezer had children (Gen 15:2-3). Abraham was led, however, to a tremendous step of faith in the memorable experience which is recorded in Genesis 15:4-6, “Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, ‘This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.’ And He took him outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

God rewarded Abraham’s faith by a solemn ceremony in which blood was shed to confirm the covenant. God said the land would extend “from the River of Egypt as far as the great river, the River Euphrates” (Gen 15:18). Again literal land is obviously in view as it is described as containing the heathen tribes that then inhabited it (Gen 15:19-21). With all the evidence in the Book of Genesis, it is strange that it has been so popular in some forms of theology to spiritualize these promises and take them in less than their actual sense.

But Abraham had further tests to his faith. Sarah suggested he have a son by Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl they had brought back from Egypt. Abraham gave consent and in due time Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old (Gen 16:16). The Bible then records nothing about the next 13 years in Abraham’s life. Apparently Abraham was content in the hope that Ishmael would be able to fulfill the promises God gave him concerning his posterity. When Abraham was 99 years old, however, God plainly told him that Sarah was to bear a son (Gen 17:1-2, 15-16). Impossible as it was for Abraham and Sarah in their old age to have children, the promise was nevertheless fulfilled (Gen 21). Abraham, the man of faith, was growing in faith.

But then came the supreme test of Abraham’s faith. The touching account of God’s test of Abraham’s obedience and faith is recorded in Genesis 22. Abraham was instructed to offer Isaac as a burnt offering on a mountain in the land of Moriah. In the culture in which Abraham had been raised in Ur of the Chaldeans, human sacrifice was not unknown, but it was foreign to all that Abraham knew of the God whom he worshiped. Nevertheless the Scriptures record in this instance complete, implicit, and immediate obedience. What a test it was for Abraham as he and his son took the several-day journey to the place of God’s appointment. However, as Abraham poised the knife to take the life of his son prior to the burnt offering, the Angel of the Lord interposed and stopped the sacrifice. It is most significant that the Angel of the Lord was in all probability the Lord Jesus Christ, an Old Testament theophany. The sacrifice of Isaac could be stopped even though the sacrifice of the Son of God on Calvary could not. Abraham took a ram, however, and offered it for a burnt offering in place of his son (Gen 22:13). The Lord then reaffirmed to Abraham that He would bless him by making his descendants numerous, and blessing all nations through them (22:17-18 ). Later the same promise was confirmed to Isaac (26:24 ) and to Jacob (27:29 ).

Just as this promise of the land is evaded by those who wish to deny a future millennial reign of Christ, so a literal interpretation of the seed of Abraham is also constantly avoided. It is most important to note the emphasis on the physical seed of Abraham by Isaac his son. God specifically refused Eliezer and his children, and rejected Ishmael, though he was a son of Abraham. The physical descendants of Abraham, to inherit the promises, had to come through Isaac.

All this emphasis on the literal, physical line of Abraham to Isaac and Jacob, reinforced by the New Testament genealogies that trace Christ to Abraham (Matt 1:1-16) and on to Adam (Luke 3:23-37), make clear that God regarded the seed of Abraham in a literal sense. However, the promises to Abraham extended not only to his physical descendants, but to all nations (Gen 12:3; 22:18 ). This reference to all nations is quoted in Galatians 3:6-9 to indicate that Christians are the spiritual children of Abraham, for they, like Abraham, trust in God.

The important point which amillenarians seek to gloss over is that the spiritual seed of Abraham—believing Gentiles inherit the promise given to the Gentiles, not the promise that was given to Israel. In spite of this clear indication in Galatians 3:6-9, 29, Pieters makes the dogmatic and blanket statement, “Whenever we meet with the argument that God made certain promises to the Jewish race, the above facts are pertinent. God never made any promises to any race at all, as a race. All His promises were to the continuing covenanted community, without regard to its racial constituents or to the personal ancestry of the individuals in it.”3

The promises about the physical descendants of Abraham and Isaac, clearly channeled to Jacob only, are never applied to Gentiles, though Abraham’s spiritual descendants include all those who put their trust in Christ and who thus inherit the promise of blessing given to all nations (Gen 12:3). Because of Abraham’s faith, he received a literal fulfillment of God’s promises about his descendants, not a general spiritual or nonliteral fulfillment.

The Scriptures also record the growth of Abraham’s faith from his initial step in leaving Ur, however hesitatingly, until he came to the unquestioning willingness of obeying God in sacrificing his son Isaac. Subsequent Scripture records the beautiful story of Abraham’s securing a bride for Isaac (Gen 24), and the entire account of Abraham’s great faith is summarized in Hebrews 11:8-19. In Hebrews 11:16 one further element in Abraham’s faith is introduced which is not mentioned in Genesis: Abraham not only had faith concerning the ultimate possession of the land by his posterity, but also he looked for the eternal city, the new Jerusalem, which would be his ultimate home in eternity. The promised land is to be possessed by his descendants in time; the eternal city is to be possessed by him in eternity.

Amillenarians attempt to confuse the promise of the eternal city with the promised land, as if one were the same as the other. Obviously even as a type, the land is not a heavenly city, and the heavenly city is not the land bordered by the River of Egypt and the River Euphrates (Gen 15:18-21). In spite of this, it is characteristic of amillenarians to write as Allis does, “In Hebrews as in Romans, we find nothing about a return to the land of Canaan. On the contrary, the writer stresses the heavenly character of the hope which the patriarchs cherished. It was not an earthly land, but a home (xi.14 , a ‘country of their own’ [patris]) which is not earthly, but heavenly (vs. 16 ). a city ‘whose maker and builder is God’ (vs. l0 ).”4 For amillenarians—committed to the doctrine that there is no future millennial reign of Christ and no future possession of the land by Israel—it is incomprehensible that God could offer to Abraham both the hope that his posterity will inherit the land and that he would have an eternal home in the new Jerusalem.

Abraham, the Man of Grace

The obvious emphasis on Abraham as the man of faith in the Book of Genesis and in Hebrews 11 has justified the preeminence of Abraham in the entire Old Testament as a man of faith. But Abraham was more than a man of faith. He was also a man of grace. And this gives tremendous insight into how to interpret the Abrahamic promises.

Obviously Abraham was chosen in grace. Nothing in Abraham is mentioned that would have caused God to select him from the mass of humanity in his generation. God chose Abraham in a culture of paganism and selected him and his posterity. In like manner all those who are saved by grace are also chosen in grace. God does not choose the elect on the basis of any merit in themselves. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph 1:4).

Not only was Abraham chosen in grace but also he was justified by grace through faith. While believers in the present dispensation have unusual blessings from God, Abraham, declared righteous by God, is the pattern of all who have been justified through the history of the race. Justification is never by works; it is always by grace.

In addition to being chosen in grace and justified by grace, the promises given to Abraham are based on grace and not works. It is strange that this should be challenged by some who are otherwise committed to the doctrines of grace and justification, and even to unconditional election. The common teaching of amillenarians that Abraham’s promises were conditioned by works is not supported in either the Old Testament or the New Testament.

Of special significance is Romans 4, which states that Abraham was justified and blessed on the basis of grace and not works (Rom 4:1-12). Romans 4:13-16 makes this even more specific.

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain 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.

The reasoning is obvious. Abraham lived long before the Mosaic Law and therefore was not subject to it. So his promises were by faith and grace, as Romans 4:16 makes plain. This results in the promise being certain to all his descendants, and the promises of blessing on the nations likewise stem from God’s grace. While the Mosaic Law offered many conditional promises, the promises to Abraham were not conditional but were based on God’s gracious and sovereign purpose.

In spite of the obvious fact that the Abrahamic promise preceded the Law and was not conditioned by it, writers like Allis argue extensively that the covenant with Abraham was conditioned by obedience to the Law of God. Allis writes, for instance, “It is true that, in the express terms of the covenant with Abraham, obedience is not stated as a condition. But that obedience was presupposed is clearly indicated by two facts. The one is that obedience is the precondition of blessing under all circumstances…. The second fact is that in the case of Abraham, the duty of obedience is particularly stressed.”5

Amillenarians attempt to make all the biblical covenants conditional. This is strange since Calvinists like Allis subscribe to the premise of unconditional election and an eternal covenant of grace that assured the salvation of the elect. True, the Scriptures support the concept that many blessings are conditioned on obedience, and this is particularly true under the Mosaic Covenant. In every dispensation, the personal enjoyment of certain blessings from God were only for those who were obedient. But overriding all these considerations is the sovereign purpose of God which will certainly be fulfilled. In the case of Israel, in spite of many failures, God nevertheless fulfilled His promises, not on the basis of their obedience but on the basis of His grace. This is evident in their being brought from Egypt to the Promised Land. It is also evident in their returning from the Babylonian Captivity. Even under the Law there was grace in spite of imperfection.

This controversy over the doctrine of grace and the question of whether God can make a covenant certain, even in view of human failure, is of central significance in the interpretation of the Abrahamic Covenant. Strangely, there has been comparatively little discussion of this aspect, and most treatments of the Abrahamic Covenant between amillenarians and premillenarians dwell primarily on the question of literal or nonliteral fulfillment. A major defect in amillennialism as it relates to the Abrahamic Covenant is a failure to comprehend that Abraham was preeminently an illustration of grace, not of legal obedience, and that the covenant was based on the sovereignty of God and His gracious purpose for Abraham’s descendants. This is not contradicted or compromised by His intention to extend grace even to the Gentiles or all nations, also promised in the Abrahamic Covenant.

The principle of grace as it applies to the promises of Abraham has been neglected in literature on this subject. This element of grace was confirmed as Abraham grew in his faith and as the promises of God were given more specific fulfillment. Sarah’s supernatural conception and Isaac’s birth were obviously not a natural sequence to Abraham’s faith, but were totally the work of a gracious God who fulfilled His promises in spite of Abraham’s lack of faith. God’s confirmation of His promises by partial fulfillment, however, is all the more evidence that God was operating on a gracious basis rather than on a legal ground for fulfilling His promises. Still further confirmation is given in the fact that Abraham’s glorification was also on the basis of grace. In Matthew 8:11, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are referred to as being in the future kingdom. From beginning to end, the life of Abraham is a story not only of a man maturing in faith, but also of a man in whom was displayed the marvelous grace of God. As such, he is an example of believers in this present dispensation who are chosen in grace (Eph 1:3-7), who mature in grace (2 Pet 3:18), and will be glorified in grace (Rom 8:28-32).

Grace in the Interpretation of Prophecy

The emphasis of the Scriptures on Abraham not only testifies to his role as an example of faith, piety, and obedience, but also to the sovereign gracious purposes of God. God’s plan in revealing Himself through the prophets in the Scriptures obviously involved Abraham and his descendants. The purpose of God in providing redemption through Jesus Christ likewise hinged on God’s dealings with Abraham and his posterity. In prophecies pertaining to Israel and indeed in the whole panorama of prophecy in the Scriptures, Abraham is preeminent. The sovereignty of God and the grace of God are eloquently supported by God’s dealings with Abraham and the promises given to him. In like manner, the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise depends on the grace of God rather than on the faithfulness of man.

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1945), pp. 32-36.

2 Ibid., pp. 298-99.

3 Albertus Pieters, The Seed of Abraham (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950), pp. 19-20.

4 Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 101.

5 Ibid., p. 33.

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