There’s an error being taught in many churches, which is that the Tanakh (or “Old Testament”) teaches “works righteousness;” whereas, the New Testament (Heb. B’rit Chadasha) teaches “salvation through grace through faith.” The fact is, that “grace through faith” is God’s modus operandi and is seen throughout both the Old and New Testament, not just the New Testament alone. And this truth is clearly seen when one examines and studies the life of Abraham.
GOD CALLS ABRAM
First of all, God’s relationship with Israel did not begin at Mt. Siani, but with Abram. God speaks to Abram (later called Abraham), after his father death in Haran (Genesis 11:31-32):
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and 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. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Notice here that God does not use the term “covenant,” but He promises Him these things. As a result of these promises, Abram then leaves Haran to go to the land which the LORD promised him. This is where God begins the process of building his relationship with those who would constitute the people of Israel.
GOD REAFFIRMS HIS PROMISE WITH ABRAM
It is not until three chapters later that God enters into covenant with Abram. The chapter begins,
After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1)
Abram responds to the word of the LORD by questioning the LORD. Apparently, sufficient time has passed to where Abram is questioning whether the LORD’s promise of children is actually going to happen.
And Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus [Abram’s servant]?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house [his servant] is my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
Abram here is telling the LORD, since you haven’t kept Your promise to give me offspring, then the only one who is going to end up inheriting from me is Eliezer, my servant. I am sure waiting all this time has been frustrating for Abram, but notice that the LORD does not get on Abram’s case for his statement here. Instead, He reaffirms His promise and then takes Abram outside for a visual to assist His faith.
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.” (Genesis 15:4-5)
It is immediately after these two verses, when we find the statement,
Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
This same verse is quoted by Rav Sha’ul Paulus [Paul] three times in the New Testament (Heb. B’rit Chadasha), Romans 4:3, 22, and Galatians 3:6, and once by the brother of Yeshua/ Jesus, James (Heb. Ya’acov), James 2:23. Why do both Rav Sha’ul Paulus (Paul) and Ya’acov (James) quote this reference in Genesis? Because it is the first time that the root form of the word “faith” appears in Scripture; therefore, this first occurrence establishes its basic, fundamental meaning.
GOD ENTERS INTO COVENANT WITH ABRAM
Immediately after making this great faith statement of the Scriptures, God promises Abram that He would also give him the land (Genesis 15:7). What has intrigued me about Abram is that he can believe God for a son (an heir), but when God promises him the land, he wants some assurances:
And he said, “O Lord GOD, how may I know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:7)
This question prompts God entering into covenant with Abram.
So He said to him, “Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtle dove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds.” (Genesis 15:9-10)
Now when it came time for Abram to enter into this covenant process with God, notice what it says in verse 12:
Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram;… (Genesis 15:12).
Abram did not participate in the covenant ritual at all. The Scriptures are clear, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram.” Instead, five verses later, we read,
And it came about when the sun was set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. ON THAT DAY the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land. From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:….” (Genesis 15:17-18; emphasis mine)
There’s a lot more to this covenant than meets the eye, but what I want to focus on in this article is that both Jewish and Christian theologians agree that the “smoking oven and flaming torch” represent God, who passed through the pieces alone. Abram did not participate as I said. God did it for him. Isn’t this a picture of God’s grace? The fact is, if Abram had participated in the covenant, then when Abram died, the covenant would have become null and void. However, by God performing this covenant by Himself, the covenant remains eternal since God does not die, being an eternal Spirit. Therefore, the promise of the land to the descendants of Abram (Israel) is likewise eternal.
GOD REQUIRES OBEDIENCE
It is AFTER this covenant of grace found in Genesis 15 when God requires two things of Abram:
Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty [Heb. ‘El Shaddai]; Walk before Me, and be blameless.” (Genesis 17:1)
The first thing that God requires is that Abram live “blameless” before him. You see obedience is to be an outward expression of our relationship with God. Our obedience does not result in relationship, but our relationship with God should result in us obeying God. And it is our obedience to God that results in us being blessed by God.
LEGALISM VS. OBEDIENCE
There is another error that’s commonly taught, which is that the blessings of God come upon those who simply believe. This, however, is not seen or taught in Scripture. The blessings of God ALWAYS follows obedience. Now obedience does not mean just going through the rituals, but it means obeying God from our hearts. If our heart is not involved, then it is not true obedience. Consequently, you can have two people do the same exact thing, and for one person, it will be empty ritualism, and for the other person, it will be obedience. What distinguishes the two is the heart: Is the person motivated by their love of God? Therefore, from the outside, there’s no way to watch someone and know whether their behavior is legalism (or empty ritualism) or if it is obedience. Only God knows.
THE MOUNT SIANI CONNECTION
I personally believe that the covenant given at Mt. Siani is a further development and explanation of what God meant when He told Abram to walk “blameless” “before Me.” There isn’t any further explanation of what God meant by walking “blameless.” It is implies through the lack of discussion that Abram understood, at least to some extent, what this requirement entailed.
GRACE AND OBEDIENCE
In addition, it is important to note that this requirement to live blamelessly before God came AFTER the covenant of grace, seen in Genesis 15. Obedience did not come BEFORE Grace, but AFTER WARDS. FIRST GRACE, THEN OBEDIENCE. That is, and has always been, the biblical model.
THE COVENANT OF CIRCUMCISION
Although there is a lot more in this chapter I could touch up, what I want to focus on instead is that in addition to the requirement to walk blamelessly before Him, God also gives Abram the following requirement:
God said further to Abraham (his new name now), “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations,… (Genesis 17:9-12a)
Notice that circumcision is also required in addition to walking blameless before God. These two things are required of Abraham AFTER the grace covenant of Genesis 15. This issue of circumcision is an interesting one, but one which cannot be handled in just a few lines. So I will hold off for another time.
THE BIBLICAL PATTERN
Consequently, when we study the life of Abraham, we discover the development of an interesting pattern:
— God’s Call
— A time of development of one’s relationship with God
— God’s covenant of grace with them
— God’s requirement of obedience
Again note that the requirement of obedience FOLLOWS the covenant of grace; it does not precede it. This same pattern is seen repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. For example, it is seen in the life of Moses and the children of Israel, it is seen in the life of David, and it is even seen in the life of Yeshua/Jesus and His early disciples.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
Consequently, then, although I have found the repetition of this pattern throughout the Scriptures, there are some things I have yet to figure out. For example,
- At what point do we recognize God’s call on our life? When we first feel convicted and start thinking about God or is it when we go to the altar to give our lives to Him?
- At what point do we enter into covenant with God? What is that moment in the life of the believer?
- What is “getting saved”? Is it responding to God’s call or is it entering into covenant with God? Or is entering into covenant with God something that occurs after “we get saved” in our walk with God? If so, what is that? and when does it happen?
As you can see, these questions can provoke a lot of discussion. But even though I am still struggling with these questions in my own mind, I do know that obedience comes as a result of my relationship to God; it does not bring about that relationship. Therefore, the doctrine that the Tanakh (or Old Testament) teaches “works righteousness” definitely cannot be seen or proven in the life of Abraham.