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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Revisting Abraham's "faith reckoned as righteousness" - Part 4 (Promise vs Law)

(In case you missed them: Part1, Part2, Part2b, Part3)

This past week I began to really think about Paul's terminology of "Promise" as contrasted with "Law," particularly within Romans 4 and Galatians 3. It seems that if we can zero in on precisely what this mysterious term Promise refers to we can better (or even properly) understand Paul's lesson within these key Justification texts. If Promise has nothing to do with some forensic status or of living a perfectly obedient life, then this would cast some serious doubt on the mainstream Protestant reading of these chapters. Here's what I've found regarding this term.

First, let us see where it appears within Romans 4.
Rom 4:13-21. 13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring - not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
The key term "promise" appears five times in Romans 4 and nine times in Galatians 3. Contrast this to the fact "works" appears three times in Romans 4 and five times in Galatians 3. Despite this key term appearing more often than other terms, it seems we hear a lot about "works" yet almost nothing about what this "promise" actually is about. We saw a similar discrepancy in the recent Rom4/Gal3 Adoption post (HERE). When you see discrepancies such as these, namely focusing on a few verses while ignoring verses that could be much more important, we must suspect a shoddy methodology (hermeneutic).

The above Romans passage begins by saying the Promise refers to Abraham becoming the "heir of the world". This doesn't seem to be a direct quote of anything God says to Abraham within Genesis, so it likely means Paul saw the Promise as relating to all the blessings that God had promised to Abraham, not merely the words of Genesis 15:5-6. This would include the Covenant made in Genesis 15:18. Furthermore, to use such mighty language of "inheriting the world" it seems Paul - and possibly the Jews as a whole - understood the Promise to Abraham as much larger in scope than merely owning the Promise Land (an area smaller than Florida). Through the Messiah, the whole world would in some sense be owned, conquered, or influenced. We can certainly see how Jesus fulfills this, as He does rule over the world in a real sense, with Christians throughout the world representing Him. Paul is basically telling his Jewish opponents that the Messianic era would be much larger in scope than Jewish identity. Paul then emphasizes that this Promise wasn't given by the Mosaic Law, but rather 400 years earlier in history, directly to Abraham. Paul says that if the Law bestowed this Promise, by adding additional requirements to what was originally given to Abraham, then the Promise would be nullified. Paul seems to be saying that if the Mosaic Law took on that Promise, then God basically is telling Abraham he didn't actually achieve anything, since the burden of maintaining that Promise simply gets passed down to the next generations other people. And with the Israelites repeatedly failing to maintain the Mosaic Covenant, that would logically mean the Promises have failed (or never will come about), which is unthinkable. 

Now turning to Galatians 3, we read similar yet different language regarding the Promise of God:
Gal 3:13-29. 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. 15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring: “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God [Gen 15:18], so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
Here we see the first reference to Promise to be in regards to receiving the Holy Spirit by faith. This is interesting because nowhere is the Holy Spirit plainly mentioned in reference to Abraham. However, after the Resurrection, Jesus explicitly says the Holy Spirit is the Promise that the Father will send upon the Apostles (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33; 2:39). So in some manner, receiving the Holy Spirit is at the heart of Justification and interwoven into the story of Abraham. Indeed, Paul says he has "just one thing" to ask the Galatians who were Judaizing, "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by faith?" (Gal 3:2). This text is fascinating because it is plainly incompatible with the Protestant notion of Imputation of Christ's Righteousness, for why would Paul be talking about an infused grace if Justification was a forensic event? Furthermore, we see that Paul's question seems to be a normative question, namely that receiving the Holy Spirit is the defining feature of Justification. Some might mistakenly think that receiving the Holy Spirit by faith is a proof for Faith Alone theology, but this understanding is very deficient given that if we do a simple search of "receiving Holy Spirit," we see that it is present within Acts as coming through Baptism and Laying on of Hands (i.e. Confirmation):
  • Acts 2:38-39. Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.
  • Acts 8:14-17. Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John,  who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. 
  • Acts 19:1-7. Paul came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John's baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.
We simply cannot be sloppy and ignore all of what the Bible has to say on such matters. When Paul asks "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" (Acts 19:2; Gal 3:2; Eph 1:13) this is plainly to be understood as within a Sacramental context. It is a shallow and abusive treatment of Scripture to read texts too narrowly and on the surface level. 

The second instance Paul brings up Promise in Galatians 3 is in reference to the OT quote "and to your offspring," which is a phrase repeatedly given to Abraham (Gen 12:7; 13:15; 17:7-8; 26:3). In fact, Paul's mentioning of "covenant ratified by God" can refer to no other place than Genesis 15:18, which says: "On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, To your offspring I give this land..." This text is extremely significant, for it is a solid proof that Genesis 15 is really about a covenant being made with Abraham, and not so much about some isolated instance of belief in verse 15:6. As I've repeatedly noted, we cannot be sloppy by just reading things on the surface level. In Paul's mind, and in the prevailing understanding of all Jews, the central focus of Genesis 15 is a covenant being made, not some instance of "faith alone" saving Abraham (much less being the moment Abraham gets saved). From this, we can see Promise refers to Abraham being promised he would have many descendants, including most importantly the Messiah, who is Jesus. In Paul's mind, if you deny Jesus, you've basically denied the fulfilled Promise to Abraham. As with the Romans 4 commentary above, the Law never promised this, so the Protestant idea of keeping the Law perfectly in order to be able to stand before the Judgement Seat of God is a complete tradition of men, foreign to Paul's thought, and technically a form of the Judaizer heresy. Once you recognize this, you see the surface-level "faith versus works" hermeneutic is completely bogus.

Another important place where Paul brings up Promise is in Galatians 4, which says:
Gal 4:21-31. 21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.
This is clearly building upon the theme of Galatians 3, and summarized in 4:5-6 a few verses prior: "God sent forth his Son so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts." The entire lesson of Isaac is that Isaac was not born of regular means, as we noted in Part 1 of this series. Isaac was a miraculous birth, to a barren woman. This is an allegory referring not only to the miraculous birth of God's Son, Jesus, but also to our miraculously becoming 'born again' as God's sons. The lesson here is that "works," which are tied to the fleshy/biological realm, have no impact on the realm of grace/miracles. The lesson has nothing to do with 'working hard enough', or 'trying to be perfect', and so 'needing the righteousness of Jesus to be imputed to us'. It is fascinating to note that such Protestant language/themes is entirely absent from Galatians 3-4! This same theme is at the heart of Romans 9 (Rom 9:8-9), which I've written a series on as well (here).

The final question to address is whether God's Promises can depend on obedience, especially in Abraham's case. Often times Protestants read these passages and make the erroneous claim that what God had promised to Abraham "was not dependent upon anything Abraham did," and in this way they conclude the Promise was "not based upon works". Protestants often refer to this as "the Law vs Gospel distinction". While it might sound good, the fact is that Protestant idea is just blatantly wrong, and we can see this error plainly refuted by the Bible. Consider these passages:
  • Jesus tells the Apostles to “wait” in Jerusalem until the promise of the Holy Spirit comes to them (Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4)
  • On Pentecost Sunday, Peter says “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the Holy Spirit; for this ‘promise’ is to you and your children” (Acts 2:39)
  • 2 Cor 7:1, Paul says the ‘promises’ of remaining God’s children hangs on remaining undefiled from the world
  • The teaching “honor your father and mother - that it may go well for you” is a ‘promise’ attached to obeying the commandment (Eph 6:2)
  • 1 Tim 4:8 it says ‘godliness’ is profitable towards attaining the ‘promise’ of eternal life
  • We should take fear and caution to not miss out on the ‘promise’ of entering God’s Rest (Heb 4:1)
  • It is “through faith and patience” that we “inherit the promises,” just as Abraham had “patiently endured, he obtained the promise” (Heb 6:12,15)
  • Citing Habakuk 2:4 (the righteous shall live by faith), Hebrews 10:36 explains this as “you have need of patience, so that after doing the will of God you might receive the promise”
  • Throughout Hebrews 11, it speaks of faithfulness being tied to receiving promises
  • 1 John 2:25 seems the ‘promise’ of eternal life is tied to remaining firm.
All this is to say, the Biblical idea of ‘promise’ doesn’t at all suggest you have no obligations, duties, etc, or even that the ‘promise’ is guaranteed the moment you first believe. It is astonishing that Protestant scholars and pastors care so little for what the Bible actually says that they will ignore the plain teaching in their quest to defend the error of Faith Alone at all costs.

I think the Hebrews 6 reference above is worth concluding this study on:
Hebrews 6: 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. 13 When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” 15 And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised
I think this text is more devastating the Protestant position on Romans 4 than the standard Catholic approach of appealing to Hebrews 11:8 combined with Galatians 3:8 (citing Genesis 12:4). This Hebrews 6 passage explicitly ties Abraham receiving the promise to patiently waiting and enduring all sorts of trials, which is why it is quoting Genesis 22:14, after Abraham survived the test of offering Issac. Paul is obviously speaking of attaining heaven here, for it cannot be referring to the moment of getting saved, and thus fits along with the "awaiting a Sabbath rest" which I wrote about (here) in an earlier post.

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