In Christ alone is all our trust
For full and free salvation.
With His own blood He ransomed us
From ev’ry tribe and nation.
For us He lived and died.
Now, at the Father’s side,
Full knowing all our needs,
Our High Priest intercedes.
He lives to make us holy.
GARY A. PARRETT
It might seem that the best way to begin a study of God’s character, his holy-love, is to open a concordance and look up all the instances of holiness and all those of love and see if a synthesis is possible. This would yield much that would be helpful.
But there is a better way. It is to begin at the beginning and see how God revealed his character across time. In doing so, we find that as God’s redemptive history moved toward its goal, it provided what are the contours of our subject. It was moving toward Christ, in whom it culminated. From that time on, the Holy Spirit’s work became that of applying to sinners the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross. This progressive unfolding of the purposes of God is, at the same time, the unfolding of the character of God. We see more and more clearly what God’s redemptive plan was, as we move from Abraham toward Christ, and we also see the principles in that plan as it unfolded. That should be no surprise. It is the same triune God at work in this plan. It is the God who James says is one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). And redemption means the same thing whether a person was born millennia before Christ or is yet unborn. It is redemption from sin, and that, in the nature of the case, can only be by grace.
We therefore need to try to understand—and this is where we are going to start—what in this history changes and what does not change. What are the continuities and what are the discontinuities? And what, across the long stretches of time that make up the Old Testament, do we learn about God’s character?
Adam, we know, was created to be God-centered in his thoughts, God-fearing in his heart, and God-honoring in all that he did. But of course he fell, and his vision of God was lost, as was his understanding of his place in God’s world. It is this vision, this goal, that is being restored by Christ in those who are his. And for us today, being God-centered as we were intended to be means we must first become Christ-centered. Indeed, we cannot be God-centered unless we are first Christ-centered, because we must first be redeemed. Being God-centered has to be premised upon that redemptive work, that forgiveness, that inward regeneration without which we can neither be subject to God nor believe his Word. It is here, within this long history that led up to Christ and here, within this nexus of ideas, that we find the disclosure of God’s holy-love. So, our task in this book is to explore this history and unpack these ideas.
In this and the next chapter, then, we are going to explore this link between God-centeredness and Christ-centeredness. And we will do so by looking at some of the ways in which the Old Testament revelation unfolded as it moved toward Christ. We need to see this because this is where God’s holy-love comes into view, and that is what we are pursuing in this book. Supremely, as we will see, it is in the Father’s
giving of the Son, and in Christ’s self-giving on the cross, that we have the greatest, and final, revelation of what this holy-love means.
However, the moment we see this we stumble upon a dilemma. If Christ is thus so important to the unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes, then how could David, who had not heard the gospel of Christ, have come to the deep knowledge of God that he did? Indeed, it almost seems at times as if David had a deeper and truer knowledge of God without the gospel than we sometimes have with it. Could this be so?
If we are perplexed about this question, we are in good company. So, too, were the apostles, at least initially. They struggled to understand God’s ways as they traveled in their minds from the Old Testament and into their own time with their experience of Christ. They had known him. They had followed him. They had heard his teaching and seen his miracles. They had seen him crucified and then, astonishingly, resurrected. They therefore were asking themselves how their knowledge of God through Christ related to what those in the Old Testament had known. And that is our question, too.
That Abraham became the pivot in how the apostles sorted this out is clear from the fact that Peter, Paul, James, and the anonymous writer to the Hebrews all referred back to him (Acts 3:25; Rom. 4:2; 9:7; Gal. 3:6–9; James 2:21–23; Heb. 2:16; 6:13; 7:1–10; 11:17). They were all working out what it means to know God through Christ, given the fact that the promise of justification was first made to Abraham (Gen. 15:6). So, how did that promise relate to what Christ had done? Theirs was not a narrow consideration of how one text relates to another but, rather, of whether there are connecting principles along the line of this redemptive story that are like the ligaments that hold our bodies together. If there are these connections, what are they?
These ligaments, in fact, lie in three things that have not changed across the centuries that divide us from Abraham. They are, first, that thecause of our acceptance before God has not changed. For Abraham as for us today, it is grace. Nor yet, second, does the instrument of our acceptance change. For Abraham it was faith and for us it is faith, too. And now for the less obvious part to the answer: Third, the ground of our acceptance is also unchanged. It is Christ. That is certainly and obviously so today but I will argue it was so for Abraham, too. Everyone who is justified—or who in previous ages was justified—is made acceptable by God through Christ’s death on the cross. There, sin was credited to him, innocent though he was, and there his righteousness was credited to believers, sinful though they are. Thus it is that those from the Old Testament period were, and we today are, justified.
If all of this is true, then we are in continuity with those who lived during the Old Testament period who were part of the “remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5). They were descended from Abraham ethnically. However, the promise of justification was not just for Abraham. It was for us, too. We who are Gentiles are also “children of Abraham” (Rom. 9:7–8). It is “those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Abraham was at the head of this deep and long stream of justification that has coursed through history, making its way through the ancient people of God and now flowing on down the centuries, spilling out into all of the countries of our world and now showing up in every culture.
When the apostles went back to first principles, they began with grace. The only explanation of Abraham’s standing before God, of his call to know God, was an unearned, undeserved, inexplicable grace.
When we first meet Abraham, he stands out as quite admirable despite the fact that he was living in an unusually corrupt pagan culture. Here, one would think, might be someone whose righteousness, whose immediate obedience to the call of God, would naturally commend him to God. But that turns out not to be the case. Had Abraham’s “works”—the actions and words that flowed from his character—been the basis of his acceptance before God, they would have been seen as his “due,” just as a wage is owed and then paid after the work is done. That, though, is precisely what Paul counters. Justification before God is no one’s “due.” It is not and cannot be earned. It is, and only ever can be, a “gift” (Rom. 4:4).
As Paul teaches, this theme continues from Abraham’s time to ours. It is true that John does appear to set up an antithesis between the Old and New Testament in this regard when he said, “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
This could not mean, though, that in the Old Testament people knew only the law whereas in the New Testament God’s ways have suddenly turned toward grace. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was grace at the beginning, and it is grace now. The difference is that in the Old Testament, God’s loving-kindness was invisible. In the incarnation, though, his grace and truth were made visible in the person of Christ. What changes is not the presence of grace in this river of redemption, or its nature, or its necessity, but only its revelation. The language of grace becomes the language par excellence of the New Testament epistles because the apostles could look back on Christ in whom that grace had been exhibited. He was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
It is striking how Paul, in speaking of Abraham’s justification, moved seamlessly from saying that for Abraham it was not by “works” to saying that for those in Paul’s day it was not by the “works of the law” (Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10). In fact, he used these assertions as substitutes for each other. For example, when speaking of justification, he said in Romans 3:28 that it is not by the “works of the law” but in Romans 4:6 he said simply that it is not by “works.” On the face of it, these would seem to be equivalent statements in which Paul was showing how the principle of “works” was being encountered in his own time as “the works of the law.” What may seem to be simple, though, has turned into a highly controverted matter in the learned academy today.
The traditional view is that when Paul spoke of “the works of the law” he was thinking about people commending themselves to God on the grounds of their obedience to what the law prescribed. He had in mind that kind of Jewish legalism that began with the Mosaic law. From this there had blossomed hundreds of other rules and sub-laws. And there were Jews who imagined that by earnest observation of all of these requirements people could build up enough moral standing before God to warrant being justified at the end of time. That was why Paul and Peter had such a sharp falling out. Peter, who knew that circumcision was not a ground of our acceptance before God, nevertheless was demanding that Gentiles honor it (Gal. 2:11–21). He was violating the very principle—grace in its opposition to works as a basis of acceptance—that was at the heart of the gospel. No wonder Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11).
Today, though, a counterargument has arisen. It is that the “works of the law” refers, not to this kind of legalism, but to matters that were distinctive to Jewish national identity—and that is a little different. This included male circumcision, food laws, temple worship, keeping the Sabbath, and all the other obligations that devolved upon them as being Jews. In this reconstruction, Paul’s contention, in effect, was that Jews had become racists, that they would not allow salvation outside of their ethnic boundaries unless, as in the case of “God-fearers” and proselytes, those people became one of them.
There is no doubt that Jews did think this way, but the question is whether this kind of ethnic exclusivity was what Paul had in mind when he spoke about the “works of the law.” Did Paul really argue that it was their sense of Jewish identity that stood in the way of their believing the gospel, or was it their confidence in their moralism? Was it sin that stood in the way of Jews being accepted by God, or was it their exaggerated, harmful, ethnic self-consciousness? If we go with this new understanding of Paul, it leads to an entirely different gospel message.
However, this new perspective on Paul, though it has generated an enormous literature, is actually irrelevant. Consider what Paul argued in Galatians. There, he distinguished between the covenant made with Abraham and the one that came “430 years afterward” (Gal. 3:17) which was made with Moses. However the Mosaic covenant might have played out over the years, however it was used to fortify Jewish national identity in the Second Temple period, has nothing to do with the promise made to Abraham. And it is to Abraham that we must go. The covenant made with Abraham was one of grace; that made with Moses, which involved the keeping of the law, was one of works. The Mosaic covenant brought condemnation, not justification, because it was all about law keeping. The problem is that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” because “no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal. 3:10–11). The law which came with the Mosaic covenant was not, therefore, an alternative to the promise of justification that had been made to Abraham. Paul said that the covenant made with Moses did not “annul” and make “void” (Gal. 3:17) the covenant made with Abraham. And, in fact, even in its inception, glorious as that was, what had been established under Moses was already “being brought to an end,” Paul said (2 Cor. 3:7, 11).
The covenant made with Moses was a provisional step until the coming of Christ. It was necessary to the identity of the Jewish people. But that is exactly why it had to be provisional. How could God create a multinational people—those from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9)—for Abraham if they all had to become part of the Jewish nation and be subject to all of its dietary and ceremonial laws? The fact is that when the promise was made to Abraham, God pointed far down the road of time to the ingathering of
people into saving faith from around the world. That was the promise. It was that “I have made you the father of many nations” (Rom. 4:17), as Paul recalled.
The moral aspect of the law could, of course, continue since that reflected the character of God, his holiness, but the rest of the Mosaic requirements would have to pass away if the promise made to Abraham was to be realized. And so it happened. It was in Christ that these promises were realized, and because of Christ, they now are to be preached to Jew and Gentile alike.
Paul therefore insisted that the Gentiles, to whom he was writing in his letter to the Galatians, were not to be encumbered by the same demands and rituals—the “works of the law”—as the Jews had been. As a matter of fact, these expressions of Jewishness had never been the Galatians’ to start with, and so when he told them to set aside the “works of the law,” he could not have been thinking about Jewish identity.
The truth is that the impediment to being in Christ, for Paul, is not ethnic consciousness per se, nor yet pride in Jewish rituals. It is what lay behind these things. It is sin. And sin creates in each person, Jew and Gentile alike, their own captivity to its impulses.
Many years after Paul, in the sixteenth-century Reformation, justification was being re-debated. This first principle of grace—that grace excludes works—had to be retrieved again. The way the Reformers secured the graciousness of grace was by joining to it the word alone. We are justified by grace alone. Their argument was that whatever is added to grace as a basis of our acceptance before God in fact detracts from it. Whatever is intruded into salvation as a ground of acceptance, be it moral earnestness, complying with religious rituals, or church obedience, diminishes the unmerited nature of God’s saving favor. This was, in fact, the very argument on which Paul had stood his ground against the first-century Judaizers. And that was also why the Reformers rejected the Catholic understanding, which saw a life of obedience in the church as completing what grace had started in baptism. If our justification is in any degree earned then it is, to that degree, owed. Something that is owed is something that we have a right to receive. We are entitled to it. We can stretch out our hands for the reward that is properly ours. But that is exactly what Paul opposed.
It has been tempting to some to think that the Reformers skewed biblical teaching by making justification central and saying, as Luther did, that it is by this belief that the church stands or falls. Could we not major in one of the other metaphors for salvation that the New Testament offers? Is not reconciliation just as important? Or redemption? Or release from the captivity of dark powers? Are these not alternatives that we might choose among, instead of justification?
To move down this road is not helpful because these various metaphors are never offered to us as alternatives in Scripture. They are but the different facets of the same diamond. The work of Christ is many-sided, and we do have to have all the sides to see the work in its totality. This will be taken up in a later chapter.
However, at this point it needs to be said that among these various word-pictures and images, justification does hold a central place. The whole weight of the Old Testament rests on this idea of sacrifice, of sins being transferred to another, and all of this taking place within the understanding of the Abrahamic covenant, so the context is legal. It is no leap in logic, therefore, to say that the courtroom context of justification—with the law, a judge, a charge, a verdict, and a sentence—is precisely what connects with the overwhelming context of Old Testament revelation. New Testament justification through Christ’s substitutionary death is the end to which all of that pointed. This is what Abraham glimpsed. It is what we will take up again in a later chapter.
Abraham’s acceptance had to be by faith, not faithfulness, precisely because his standing was only by grace and not on the ground of “works.” It was never because of his faithfulness. In this, we have the foundations laid for the great things to come. The “Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). And what was declared to him was not “for his sake alone, but for ours also” (Rom. 4:23–24). This gospel was, and is, a message of grace that stands in defiance of every natural self-justifying instinct we have. It stands for all ages, places, peoples, and cultures. It stands because behind it is the unchanging God of eternity, who cannot lie. We who count solely on his grace “have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18).
The second theme that remains unchanged as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament is faith. Faith is clearly not our
faithfulness, since our acceptance is not of works. Rather, faith is the empty hand that reaches out to receive the gift that only God can give. In biblical terms, faith requires both belief in the promise made and commitment to the Promise Maker. It is never a blind leap, as if we were launching ourselves over a precipice and then hoping, against all precedent, that somehow we will not hit the earth below. Nor yet is it merely superficial assent, like someone saying that they believe the weather might change in a day or two. It is, as Packer says, bothcredence and commitment, and not the one without the other. This is what we see in Abraham’s case, and this becomes the paradigm for New Testament believing (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6–9; Heb. 11:17–19).
The very first unmistakable reference to faith in the Bible was in connection with this promise to Abraham. He was promised an heir, from that heir a seed, a land, and that he would be a blessing to all nations. “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). So, why is this moment so foundational, so prototypical? There are two reasons.
First, Abraham took God at his word, which becomes the key to all of God’s subsequent dealings with fallen sinners. Abraham believed that what had been said would come about. At this point in his life, he had had some experience with God. He had been called long before to leave Haran, and he had done so. He gave up his place and his people. His destination at the time of his call, though, was unknown. He “went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). He had to discover that along the way as God directed him. In this he was taking his first steps in faith. But now he had arrived at this climactic moment when God gave him this promise of an heir, an innumerable seed, and a land.
The most striking thing about Abraham’s faith at this moment is this: he knew himself to be utterly incapable of bringing about any of these things himself. Only God could do this. And Abraham was counting on this. Consider the elements in the promise made to him.
Clearly, an heir was entirely beyond the bounds of possibility for him. Abraham was, at this point, an old man, and his body was “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19). Sarah was “past the age” of being able to conceive (Heb. 11:11). Abraham therefore initially stumbled over this promise. It seemed impossible (Gen. 17:17). And there were ramifications to this. Without an heir, how could he have a “seed”? How could his “offspring” be as numerous as the stars? (Gen. 15:5). This, he came to see, was a promise that only God could bring about, and that is exactly what happened.
So, too, with the other parts of the promise. The land of Canaan was swarming with hostile tribes, and Abraham never did take possession of it. Indeed, he was quite incapable of doing so, and he stumbled initially over this promise as well (Gen. 15:8). And, as we know from later history, the conquest of these peoples did entail a fierce and protracted struggle. This promise had to be held in faith. Abraham, against everything that he saw, against all the odds, against the impossibility of it all, believed that the time would come when God would deliver on what he had said.
So too for the other blessing that God had promised. It was staggering in its proportions. As Paul put it later, “in you shall all the nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8; cf. Gen. 12:2–3; Gen. 15:5; 18:18; 22:17–18). Far beyond an heir was this extended blessing into a multinational people as numerous as the stars in the sky. What, one wonders, went through Abraham’s mind when he heard that promise? Whatever he thought, he also knew that this was far, far beyond the bounds of human possibility. All he could do was to entrust himself to the Promise Maker that he would bring about what was promised.
Here, then, are the two sides to faith. Credence—believing the promises—and commitment to the One making the promises. Abraham would not have entrusted himself, indeed would not have believed what he had been told, had he not been fully persuaded of the utter sufficiency and trustworthiness of God (cf. Heb. 11:11). To say, then, that Abraham was a man of faith was to say that he was God-centered. It was to say that he saw God as the God of the impossible. As improbable as God’s promises seemed at times, he was, nevertheless, a Promise Maker who was utterly reliable and able to bring about what he had promised. Abraham walked in the assurance that, to him and to his offspring, God would always be “their God” (Gen. 17:8) and he would be unrelentingly faithful.
The third element in common as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, at least in terms of knowing God, is that Christ is the ground of our acceptance. This was true of Abraham as it is for us today. However, this truth had to be inferred by those in the Old Testament period. For us today, it is truth that is historically grounded. We now look back on the cross. Its truth is something that we no longer need to infer but, rather, we joyfully and confidently declare. So, how do we connect what we know for certain today with what those in the Old Testament did not know as clearly?
Let us begin by noticing that, on their face, the New Testament statements about the uniqueness of Christ as our means of access to the Father are unqualified. They are statements of principle. They are not limited to any specific time. That, at least, is the way they read because they have no addendum. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” said Jesus, and “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He did not limit this statement to those who would come after him. Had Jesus said that this was a truth for those coming after him, he would have suggested that before the incarnation people came to the Father by a different route. But he did not. Christ, then, was the access to the Father for those who were justified who came before him, such as Abraham and David, as well as for those who came after him. So the single point to note here is that Jesus declared himself to be, not a way to this end, but the exclusive way. Nowhere else, and in no one else, can this access to God be found.
The same is true of Peter’s bold declaration about Christ before the high-priestly family of his day. “And there is salvation in no one else,” he declared, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This is the conclusion to his brave address. There is no mistaking his meaning. If the messianic rule had begun (Acts 4:11), if the age to come was dawning, it had come and was dawning only in Christ. There is no messianic rule inaugurated elsewhere, and there is no salvation outside of this rule. There is, therefore, no access to God but through Christ, no authority outside of him to whom appeal can be made, no one else “under heaven” to whom anyone can go. And this access, this “name,” has not been chosen by us but it has been “given” by God. It has been given by revelation. No one discovers it on their own. No one finds it in the religions or spiritualities, or in themselves. We have it because of the supernatural disclosure of the saving will of God that reached its climax in Christ. It was to him that the Scriptures pointed. It is only through Christ that people “must be saved.” We must see that Christ is the only way, because that is what he is. There “is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5–6).
But does this apply backwards as well as forward? Did those who were justified in the Old Testament, such as David and Abraham, find their acceptance through Christ or in some other way? Let us think about this.
If their justification was not because of their “works,” then its basis had to be in some source other than themselves. This much is clear. So, where might we find this source?
In the Old Testament system of sacrifices? It is certainly true that God himself had made provision for sinners to approach him in this way. All of these sacrifices came to a climax on the Day of Atonement. This was the day when “all the iniquities of the people of Israel” could be confessed, and when people would be cleansed from “all” of their sins (Lev. 16:21, 30).
There were three important lessons that went along with this. First, sin could not be forgiven without the payment of a price. That is what was declared in the death of the animals sacrificed. Sinners who had by their sin forfeited their lives were spared that forfeit by God’s own provision. And the death of the animals was a reminder of the seriousness with which God treated this matter.
Second, sin was forgiven because of a substitute. These animals had their lives taken in place of those whose sins needed atonement.
Third, there was a necessary element of appropriation by those who thus sought forgiveness. Those who were present were there not simply to watch a ceremony but to have their sins forgiven. Those who came on this day were to “do no work,” were to be “clean,” were to respect the day as a Sabbath, and were to “afflict” themselves (Lev. 16:29–31). The gravity of their offenses against God was to be understood. They were to repent and accept his means of forgiveness.
As God’s revelation unfolded through the Old Testament, much greater clarity emerged on the substitute in sacrifice toward which the sacrificial system was pointing. We see this, for example, in the passages that foretell the coming suffering servant (e.g., Isa. 52:13–53:12). We see that this messianic servant will offer himself in penal substitution for his people. Indeed, he does so in a way that brings to completion what the Day of Atonement pointed toward.
After the incarnation, it was easy to see that Christ was that final substitute. He did pay the great price in our place. We are to embrace
this divine provision of forgiveness by faith. But our question remains: what was the ground of acceptance by God of those who came beforeChrist?
Clearly, it was not the sacrificial system. It could not have been in Abraham’s case because he predated it. No, this sacrificial system was a pro tem, provisional, didactic solution until Christ came (Gal. 3:24–25).
This, of course, was the argument of Hebrews. The Old Testament sacrifices were not themselves efficacious. They could not be, because they “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9). These sacrifices had to be repeated endlessly year after year (Heb. 10:1, 11). Why? Because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Why? Because these were animal sacrifices, and the very fact that they were repeated showed that none of them, nor all of them together, could ever be ultimately efficacious. They were only provisional.
But “when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12). The entire system, at that moment, came to a conclusion. Christ’s sacrificial work was complete, and his redemptive reign in his people and in the universe began.
Is it unreasonable to suppose, then, that in the mind of God, the justification afforded Abraham was granted in advance based on the final, substitutionary work of Christ toward which all of the Old Testament sacrifices pointed? These were like today’s promissory notes, which do not themselves have value but whose value lies in the later payment that they guarantee. In pointing toward Calvary, in prefiguring what Christ would do, these sacrifices gave enough ground to trust in the graciousness and pardon of God, but that pardon could never be finally grounded in any of these sacrifices themselves. Even for those in the Old Testament period, it could be grounded only in Christ, whom the Father knew was coming in “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). “Christ,” Peter says, “was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times . . .” (1 Pet. 1:20). Based on what the Father determined from all eternity with respect to Christ, he was able to justify those who came to him in faith before Christ had come. He did so, though, based on Christ’s finished work that was yet in the future. God had an “eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11).
It is this eternal perspective that Scripture gives us after Christ’s incarnation that now throws light back onto Abraham. Indeed, had it not been for Paul, we might not have seen the full significance of part of God’s promise to Abraham. Abraham was promised a “seed.” This unexpected gift from God had been mentioned before the climactic moment of Abraham’s justification.
Earlier, God had said that Abraham’s “offspring” would enter the land (Gen. 12:7; 13:15). They would become exceedingly numerous (Gen. 13:16; 22:17), yet they would be strangers and “sojourners” in this land (Gen. 15:13; 17:8). However, God would be with them and bless them (Gen. 26:3–4).
Much later, when Paul came to look back on this narrative, he made a striking argument. Although this seed was made up of many people, what Abraham had been promised was not the plural, “offsprings.” Paul clearly knew the Genesis narrative and knew of God’s intended blessing that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the stars. But he nevertheless made the point that the promise was about asingular offspring: “to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
This has mightily perplexed commentators, not a few of whom have wondered if Paul had become a bit muddled! This, though, is not primarily a linguistic argument but a theological one. Perhaps that is why Paul seems so obscure to us today!
Early on, Abraham was made to see that the stream of redemptive history was not coextensive with all of his many descendants, his “seeds.” Rather, it was to flow down only one side of his progeny. It was to flow, not through Ishmael, who would nevertheless become a great people, but through Isaac (Gen. 17:20–21; Rom. 9:7). It was to run, not through Esau, but through Jacob. This was the stream of God’s electing grace which was to pass on down the ages, cutting right through the people of Israel and then on into our world today. It links all of those who, like Abraham, have been justified. These are Abraham’s “seed.” They find their unity and existence in Christ. In him was realized all that had been promised to Abraham.
Abraham, mysteriously, knew this in faith. And many, many years later, Jesus said that “your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). This is not the only glimmer we have of the preincarnate Christ among his Old Testament people. Jude, referring to the exodus, said that it was Jesus who “saved a people out of the land of Egypt” and afterward “destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 5). Furthermore, as they embarked on their wandering, God’s people were sustained by Christ. They “drank from
the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).
“Regeneration” is specifically New Testament language. Yet it is hard to see how Abraham, David, and the rest of the people of God who were justified could have been so without also being regenerated. How were they able to receive God’s promises and walk in faith if they did not have a spiritual nature imparted to them by the Holy Spirit? Indeed, Paul hints at this. When recounting the struggle between the progeny of Hagar and those of Sarah, he says of the former that they were born of the “flesh” but of Isaac he says that he “was born according to the Spirit” (Gal. 4:29; cf. 4:23). As we move forward into the New Testament, this aspect of the Spirit’s work is given greater clarity. What now becomes possible for us to know, in a way not possible in the Old Testament, is that this regenerating work is directly connected to Christ’s work on the cross and his resurrection. This is resurrection life in the “age to come,” which is gloriously intruding into our fallen world already by the Holy Spirit’s agency.
My conclusion, therefore, is that the cause of our acceptance with God is grace. This is unchanged as we move from the Old Testament into the New, and now down to our own time. Equally unchanged is the instrument of our justification. It is faith. And, finally, unchanged too is the ground of our acceptance. For those justified in the Old Testament, as for us today, it is Christ. It is Christ in his substitutionary death on the cross. This was the case for Abraham. He had to look forward in anticipation to that death. It is so for us today who now look back on it with thanksgiving.
If this is all true, is there no difference between those who were justified in the Old Testament and those who are justified today? As this stream of redemptive history moved forward, through Christ, and into the present, has anything changed? These questions will be taken up in the next chapter.
This is Chapter 2 of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy Love of God Reorients our World by David F. Wells.
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