The covenant that God made with Abram is about the Savior and salvation. God would send into the world a Savior who would come forth from Abram, and in and through Him, the blessings of salvation would reach to all the families of the earth: the Savior would bring salvation to God's people. But exactly how would He do that? How exactly does God save His people? We talked about this in God's covenant with Noah, and we're going to see the same thing here that we saw with Noah: Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.1 That's how God saves His people. It wasn't any different for Abraham than it is for us today. God's people in the Old Testament weren't saved in any other way than the way we're saved today. There's only one Savior and there's only one way of salvation, and that is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
A) God freely lavishes His favor on sinners by GRACE alone: Abraham was an object of God's favor all his life. But he never deserved any of it. That's what grace is. God dealt with Abraham in grace. Now, that doesn't mean that God never gave Abraham any commands to obey. In Genesis 17:1, for example, the Lord says to Abraham, “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be blameless.” God called Abraham to live a holy life; to be blameless; to walk before Him. God gave him commands. But God's favor towards Abraham was never based on Abraham keeping those commands. God's disposition towards him was never based on Abraham fulfilling certain conditions. We see this in the way that God made the promises to Abraham. God never came to him saying, “Abraham, IF you obey Me and live a holy life and walk blamelessly before Me, THEN I will confirm these promises to you.” Or: “If you CONTINUE to obey Me and live a holy life, I will CONTINUE to confirm My promises to you.” The promises God made to him were unconditional: “I will give [this land] to you and to your descendants forever” (13:15); “I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth” (13:16); “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you” (17:6). God simply made promises to Abraham; there were no conditions attached.
Even Abraham's sin couldn't nullify or revoke God's promises. Remember what happened in the last half of Genesis 12? Abraham had used his wife as a shield to protect himself. His behavior was so bad they had him deported (12:19-20). So, in his first test since entering Canaan, Abraham fell flat on his face. How does God respond? Does He revoke the promises He made back in Genesis 12? (Or at least threaten to revoke them if Abraham doesn't shape up?) No. Rather, God continues to reaffirm those promises to Abraham throughout the rest of his life (13:14-18; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 22:15-19). Then, later, in Genesis 20, we find Abraham doing the same thing again: He leaves the land of Canaan, he introduces his wife as his sister, and once again, she ends up in a king's harem—probably for quite some time.2 When everything comes to light, Abraham is again severely rebuked by a pagan king (vv8-10). Now, this was anywhere from 15-25 years after the first time this had happened in Genesis 12. Abraham is a mature believer now. He knows better. But here in Genesis 20, we find him, yet again, relapsing back into his old sins. Well, how is God going to respond this time? The chapter headings say it all: “Genesis 20: Abraham's treachery. Genesis 21: Isaac is born.” In other words: God fulfills His promise to Abraham—not at the height of his obedient faith—but in the midst of the very worst of his sin and failure. That's how God responds to Abraham's sin. Are you amazed? You should be. This is the gospel. God's covenant mercies were never mediated by Abraham's obedience, nor could they ever be nullified by his sin. God's blessing didn't come to him apart from his sin—but in the midst of it. He would at times fail God, but God would never fail him.
Fact is, Abraham couldn't get away from God's mercies. No matter what he did; no matter how hard he seemed to try. At times he wandered away from the Lord; at times he fell flat on his face. But he could never get away from God's blessing or nullify the promises God made to him.3 Abraham had good days, and he had bad days, but God's blessing never went up and down based on his obedience. And it's the same for you if you belong to Christ. Your sin can never nullify God's promises to you, because God's promises to you were never conditional on your obedience to His commands. God's blessing doesn't stop when we stumble and fall—it continues and runs through even our worst failures. This is what the gospel is all about. God lavishes His blessing upon weak Christians who continue to fall flat on our faces. Like Abraham, we too will have good days, and we will have bad days: “But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him.” (Psalm 103:17).
B) God freely lavishes His favor on sinners through FAITH alone: How was it that Abraham was able to enter into these covenant mercies, and live out all of his days under the blessing and favor of God? We're given the answer in Genesis 15:6. We'll be looking at Genesis 15 in more detail later, but let's just look at this verse together now. The Lord had just promised in verses 4-5 that He would multiply Abraham's descendants like the stars of the heavens. We then read in verse 6: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This is the first time in the Bible where faith is explicitly joined together with justification; it's the first time that we're told that the way justification happens is through faith.4 When and how was it that God credited righteousness to Abraham? When he believed God's Word—that's all he did.5 The truth in this single verse is so important that the New Testament quotes it four times. For instance, Paul says in Galatians 3:6-7: “Even so Abraham 'believed God, and it was reckoned to Him as righteousness.' Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.” (cf. Romans 4:3,22 and James 2:23). So, justification comes about through faith. We could note here a few things in particular about faith:
1) FAITH IS ALONE: Paul writes in Romans 4:3-5, saying: “For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. . .” Paul here quotes from the passage in Genesis 15:6 and draws out one implication for us: Abraham was not justified by a combination of faith in Jesus plus his own obedience. Genesis tells us that Abraham was justified by faith, and Paul clarifies that he was justified by faith alone.6 Notice how Paul puts it. Paul doesn't say: “But to the one who does not ONLY work, but ALSO believes. . .” Rather, he puts them at a complete contrast: “But to the one who does NOT work, BUT believes. . .” In other words, Paul is not saying: “NOT ONLY works, BUT ALSO faith.” Rather, he's actually saying: “NOT ALSO works, BUT ONLY faith.” It's not just that we're justified by faith—Paul's point is that we're justified by faith alone.7
2) FAITH IS INSTRUMENTAL: Again, speaking of faith, Paul tells us in Romans 4:13, “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.” The Greek preposition that Paul chooses to use here has a very particular meaning attached to it:8 It's clear Paul is telling us that this promise given to Abraham was received through (or by) faith, as opposed to because of his faith or on the basis of his faith. This is the way that Paul consistently speaks: we're not justified on the basis of our faith; we're simply justified through faith. In other words, faith isn't meritorious; it's simply instrumental. Faith isn't why we're justified; it's simply how we're justified. Faith isn't the cause of our justification; it's simply the means. Abraham didn't achieve God's blessing because his faith was so great; he simply received the promise God was making to him, through simple faith in His Word. This is important, because sometimes it's almost as though we start trying to turn faith into another kind of work—something we must do, or attain to. But Scripture tells us that God's favor isn't something that can be achieved. Entering into God's covenant mercies isn't something that's even achieved by faith—rather, it's simply received by faith. God holds out His promises to us as a free gift. We simply open our hand and take them.9
3) FAITH CAN BE WEAK: As we read through the Genesis narrative, we see that Abraham's faith in God was constantly going up and down. At the beginning of Genesis 12, he has enough faith in the Lord to leave everything he knows behind, and take his family to the land where God was calling him. But by the end of the same chapter, he doesn't even have enough faith in God to be honest and tell the Egyptians that Sarah was his wife. In Genesis 15, the Lord promises to give Abraham a son, and we read in verse 6 that he believes in the Lord. But in the very next chapter, we see Abraham and Sarah struggling in faith, starting to think maybe they needed to help God out with His promise. And so, Abraham takes Sarah's maid Hagar as another wife, in order that God's promise of an offspring might be reckoned through her, because they couldn't believe at that point that God could really still give Abraham a son through Sarah. So, sometimes Abraham's faith seems unwavering; but other times it seems almost non-existent! Abraham was a man of faith—but even his faith was never a perfect faith. And this is so comforting for us. Isn't it good news that it's not the amount of our faith that brings us into God's favor, but the object of our faith. As one put it: “A little faith in the Lord Jesus saves.”10
C) God freely lavishes His favor on sinners in CHRIST alone: God's favor comes by grace alone through faith alone. But this faith is not just faith in God in general. God's favor comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation only comes through the Savior. We can see this in a few different ways:
1) First, Jesus is the SEED that God promised. We saw this earlier. Jesus is the seed that God promised to Abraham—the seed through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. It's only in Christ, Abraham's true seed, that God's blessing flowed to Abraham himself and then would flow to all the nations. All the promises that God made to Abraham are only fulfilled in Christ.
2) Secondly, Jesus is the SAVIOR that Abraham trusted. We've seen that Abraham was a sinner—and yet God dealt with him in grace. But how could God do that? If Abraham was truly a guilty sinner, and if God is just and will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Nahum 1:3), then how could God deal with Abraham in grace without compromising His justice? The answer is that the day was coming that Jesus would go to the cross to take all the punishment of all those who belong to Him—including Abraham.11 Abraham was a believer in Christ. That's why Jesus said to the Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” That's why we find Abraham building altars and offering up burnt offerings. He was acknowledging his sin and his need for atonement. The blood of bulls and goats could never take away his sin, but they pointed forward to the One who would. Abraham looked forward to the coming Savior, the lamb of God.12
3) Thirdly, Jesus is the SUBSTANCE that the narratives fore-pictured. Genesis doesn't just point us to Christ through the promises God was making. Throughout Genesis, we're also pointed to Christ through the various pictures Scripture was setting before us. In particular, Scripture sets forth both Abraham and Isaac, not only as believers in Christ, but as pictures of Christ, in the following ways:
A) ISAAC is set forth as a picture of Christ's SUFFERINGS: Genesis 22 tells the story of how God tested Abraham, asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. It is a remarkable testimony of Abraham's faith; that he was willing to give up to the Lord what was most precious to him in all the world. But this narrative also serves in many ways to point us forward to the cross: Just as it was with Isaac, Christ was God's beloved son; the son of promise; His “only” son (verse 2). And just like with Isaac, Jesus was given a load of wood to carry up a mountain; it was given to him by his father, and he was to be offered up upon it on the mountain (verse 6). Just like Isaac, who walked with his father and even submitted himself to being bound by his father on the mountain, so too Christ raised no objections to the plan and purpose of his father, but submitted himself entirely to Him, even to the point of death (verse 9). And Hebrews tells us that Abraham received Isaac back from the dead as a type of Christ's death and resurrection (verse 13; cf. Hebrews 11:19).13 It's significant that, at the end of the narrative, Abraham names that place, “The Lord Will Provide” (verse 14). Why not name it, “The Lord Did Provide”? Probably because Abraham himself understood that these events were ultimately looking forward to something else still yet to come.14 Later, we learn that this same place, Mount Moriah, was actually the very place the temple would be built. We read in 2 Chronicles 3:1, “Then Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah. . .” It would be here that God would provide sacrifices of atonement for the many sins and failures of His people. But, ultimately, even those offerings point us forward further still, to Christ. Abraham can tell us that the Lord will provide because he was looking forward to the promised Messiah—the One who would provide for His people in a way that his son and the ram only faintly fore-pictured. Abraham looked forward to the lamb of God who, through his sufferings, would take away the sin of the world.15
B) ABRAHAM is set forth as a picture of Christ's OBEDIENCE: Isaac isn't the only type of Christ in Genesis 22. Abraham is also set forth as a type of Christ—only in a different way. Isaac serves to picture Christ in his sufferings; Abraham serves to picture Christ and his obedience. We see this in Genesis 22:18, where, after Abraham had offered up the ram, the Lord declares to him: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Earlier, we saw that Christ was the promised seed, through whom blessing would come to the nations. But we also see Christ here in another way. Towards the end of the verse, we're told that the nations would be blessed because of Abraham's obedience. What do we make of this? Scripture clearly tells us that Abraham inherited the promises by grace alone through faith alone—emphatically not on the basis of his obedience—indeed, the two are completely mutually exclusive systems (Romans 4:13-16; Galatians 3:16-18). So how are we to interpret these words? We interpret them the same way we did with Noah. Remember how the Lord had told Noah in Genesis 7:1 that his entire household was to enter the ark, but that they were only saved because he alone was righteous? Noah was a picture of Christ, in that his entire family was saved only because of and through and in union with him.16 So it is here with Abraham. Notice what God is saying: NOT: “Abraham, you will be blessed because you have obeyed My voice”; NOR: “the nations will be blessed because they will obey My voice”; BUT: “Abraham, the nations will be blessed because you have obeyed My voice.” This is not a personal, merited righteousness—but a covenantal, imputed righteousness. Scripture is giving us a glimpse of the truth that the nations would enter into God's blessing on the basis of the obedience of another. Here Abraham serves as a type of Christ: we (the nations) are blessed because he (Jesus) obeyed.17
The Lord's words to Abraham in Genesis 22:18
NOT: "Abraham, YOU will be blessed because you obeyed My voice”
NOR: “Abraham, the nations will be blessed because THEY will obey My voice”
BUT: “Abraham, the nations will be blessed because you obeyed My voice”
Don't we often begin to think that God blesses us as Christians when and as we obey Him and keep His commandments? Now, God wants us to obey Him and keep His commandments! And we'll talk more about that ahead. But isn't it freeing, isn't it wonderful to know that, actually, God blesses us, not on the basis of our obedience, but because of the obedience of another? The truth is, God's blessing flows to us because of Jesus. God continues every day to pour out His full blessing upon us in the midst of, and despite our many sins (by grace alone). What's more, He continues to pour out this blessing upon us completely apart from any of our Christian obedience (by faith alone). And He does so because Jesus paid your sin debt in full and His righteousness has now been credited to you (in Christ alone). God's blessing wasn't based on Abraham's spiritual achievements in the Christian life. It wasn't based on his obedience, or on his devotion, or even on his feelings. It wasn't based on him at all. And it's the same for us in Christ. God's favor is based on His promise to bless all those who belong to Jesus. We didn't earn God's favor at conversion. We don't earn it now by trying to be good Christians. We never deserved it in the first place, and we never will. But if you belong to Jesus, then God's favor is upon you, and just like Abraham, you won't be able to get away from it.