Dr. Poythress, thank you for your excellent ‘Survey of the History of Salvation’ in the ESV Study Bible, and also for the chance to ask you some questions.
1. In your essay you raise the issue of the Bible’s unifying thread. You suggest that one unifying thread is the divine authorship of each book. What would you say are the other main unifying threads, and do you think there is any one main category or concept which stands out as more foundational than the others?
In one way the divine authorship of each book is the most basic unifying thread, because it is what produces all the others. In addition, the comprehensive unity to the Bible derives from the unity of God’s mind and his plan. But there are many subordinate unifying threads: salvation through Christ, foreshadowed in the OT; promise and fulfillment; the consistency of God’s character, including his love, mercy, justice, omniscience, sovereignty, and truthfulness; the presence of sin and the struggle against it; judgment on wickedness and reward for righteousness; the theme of deliverance; covenant; mediators; God’s presence, especially in theophany, tabernacle, and temple; sacrifice; communion with God; the word of God; death and resurrection; wisdom from God; faith, love, and hope; justification and sanctification.
The editors of the ESV Study Bible asked me to write about the history of salvation, not only because it is an important unity, but because it is sometimes neglected or misunderstood. We now have before us the complete Bible, but God caused the books within it to be written over a period of centuries, during which he was speaking and working in preparation for the coming of Christ. We need to take into account how God works out his plan of salvation in successive stages. The theme of promise and fulfillment, and especially of fulfillment in Christ, is very important for enriching our understanding of what God is saying and doing in the OT. We could also mention the themes of covenant, of mediators (prophets, kings, and priests), and of type and antitype. These themes help us both to understand the theological and Christocentric unity of the whole Bible and to understand in what ways God unfolds his work gradually. OT readers could grasp the fundamental meaning of animal sacrifice, and how it looked forward to a final sacrifice for sins. But they did not understand all the details of Christ’s work. We look back on his completed work, and from this later vantage point, aided by explicit teaching in the NT, we have the privilege of understanding more deeply than OT saints did.
2. Two leading contenders for keys to the Bible’s unity are covenant, and the kingdom of God. Do you think either of these is more dominant, and how would you express the relationship between covenant and kingdom?
The Bible is so rich that we can begin to uncover riches no matter where we start. Covenant and kingdom of God are both fruitful starting points. But people have used these two expressions in more than one way, because they can discover within the Bible riches at more than one level.
For example, “covenant” can be used for the specific agreements or verbal compacts that God makes with particular people, like Noah, Abraham, and David. The same term “covenant” can also be used in modern discussion in a generalizing way, to talk about the unifying patterns that characterize all God’s relations with human beings, not simply those that the Bible happens to call a “covenant.” I think these two viewpoints can be treated as perspectives on one another. The particularities of God’s care for Abraham, and his promises to Abraham, are pertinent to us who through Christ have become Abraham’s sons (Gal. 3:7, 29). The particularities become a window or perspective through which God enables us to see the general pattern of the new covenant (2 Corinthians 3) and what has been called “the covenant of grace.” The “covenant of grace” is a label for the one way of salvation through faith in Christ, as that one way is worked out through the whole of history, and it designates the consistent pattern of relationship between God and man that this one way of salvation includes.
“Kingdom of God” can also be used in more than one way. It may describe God’s universal rule over the whole world, from beginning to end: “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Ps. 103:19). Or, more narrowly, it may focus on Jesus’ announcement of the coming of the kingdom of God such as was promised in the OT. The expression may then describe the climactic acts that the OT predicts, when God acts in power to bring salvation, especially through the death, resurrection, ascension, and on-going rule of Christ at God’s right hand (Eph. 1:21–22). These different meanings can become perspectives on one another. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is one particular instance of God’s sovereignty, a sovereignty that he displays everywhere and through all time. But it is a climactic instance that throws light on all the rest. God always exercises his sovereignty through the Son, and on behalf of the Son (Heb. 1:3; John 13:31–32). The whole of history is moving forward to a time of glorification when Christ will be seen in his central role (Rev. 21:22–22:5).
When we think of either “covenant” or “kingdom of God” in its broadest sense, the concept is broad enough to include nearly everything within its scope. The word “covenant” typically focuses on God’s relation to human beings. But if we desire we can expand our idea of “covenant” to include God’s relation with the whole of his creation (Jer. 33:20), as long as we remember that mankind plays a central role with the created order. Covenant is the means through which God works out his kingly purposes and establishes the climactic phase of his rule. So covenant is part of kingdom. Conversely, God exerts his rule on behalf of his people, for the glory of Christ who is head of his people. So kingdom exists for the sake of Christ, who is the heart of the covenant (Isa. 42:6; 49:8). Either one of these can be viewed as “dominant,” if we enrich its meaning sufficiently.
3. How would you describe the relationship between the unconditionality / conditionality of the covenants in the Bible, and what difference should this understanding make to our Bible reading as we come across the various covenants in the text?
One of the challenges with respect to understanding covenants is that there is more than one particular covenant in the Bible. We must be careful to study the particularities of each covenant, as well as to see lessons with respect to the general pattern (an overall covenant of grace). For example, God makes a covenant with Noah after the flood, in Gen. 9:1–17. It includes Noah’s descendants (9:9). God makes a promise not to bring another flood to destroy the earth, and gives the rainbow as a sign. The promise is valid for all Noah’s descendants. In the ordinary sense, this is an “unconditional” covenant. There is no extra condition, no “if” clause. God does not say, “I promise this only if your descendants obey me.” Similarly, we can find no obvious added conditions when God promises to Abraham that he will bring the Israelites out of Egypt (Gen. 15:13–16). On the other hand, in the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17, there is a kind of “condition”: someone who is uncircumcised “shall be cut off from his people” (17:14). So circumcision is a kind of “condition” for Abraham’s descendants. In Deuteronomy, as part of the covenantal relation between God and Israel, God requires that Israel remain faithful to him, and threatens to put them into exile if they persistently disobey (Deuteronomy 28). Their obedience is a “condition” for remaining in the land.
Many people are most interested in what to think about God’s promises of final salvation through Christ. These promises are most fully articulated in the NT, and are associated with the new covenant. The promises always come in relation to Christ, who is both God and man (Heb. 1:3; 2:11, 14). As man, Christ was required to trust in God the Father and to obey the Father’s will. These requirements for Christ were, in a sense, “conditions.” Apart from his trust and his obedience, no one would have been saved. At the same time, because Christ is God, and because God promised in the OT that he would infallibly accomplish salvation (Isa. 42:3–4), Christ’s obedience was guaranteed. That does not make his obedience easy or trivial. Remember how he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Hebrews comments on the deep reality of his obedient suffering: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:7–8). Salvation involved a “condition,” that is, Christ’s suffering and obedience. These had to take place if we were to be saved. At the same time, God through his prophetic word unconditionally guaranteed that Christ would meet the conditions!
Since Christ is fully man, God as God had a relationship to Christ the man, and this relationship between God and the man was, in the general sense, “covenantal.” God on his part made commitments to Christ in his OT promises. Christ, in his earthly life, committed himself to following the Father’s way. This covenant between God and Christ was both “conditional”—involving the necessity of Christ’s obedience—and “unconditional”—guaranteed by God. So the words “conditional” and “unconditional” must be used with care. We have to ask ourselves not only which covenantal relation we are discussing, but what aspect of that relation.
When we turn to God’s promises of final salvation to us, they are based on Christ. These promises are secure, because Christ has accomplished full salvation, not merely the possibility of salvation: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54). “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:39–40). “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). Thus, we can say that when we believe in Christ, we are “unconditionally” saved. But then is belief in Christ a kind of condition? Clearly it is. And belief means really trusting in Christ, not merely mouthing words in which we verbally say that we are trusting. Belief is itself a product of God’s prior purpose for us: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
Some people have postulated that God’s initiative in choosing us and “drawing” us goes back ultimately to his foreseeing our future faith. But this order reverses the order of the Bible. This reversal says, in effect, “as many as believed were appointed by God to eternal life.” But the Bible says the opposite: “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). God’s appointment, that is, his choosing us to be saved, is unconditional. It does not depend on our belief or on anything in us. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). But when God draws us to Christ, he provides everything that we need, both faith and the power for new living in fellowship with Christ. Faith and new, holy living are both indispensable parts of the Christian life. They are “conditions” in this sense. But God undertakes through Christ to work in us; Christ’s own power is the guarantee that we will continue: “. . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13).
We should also say that joining the church brings a person into a kind of covenantal relationship with God, since the person makes promises to God at the time of his baptism. But being baptized does not guarantee that a person is eternally saved. The Bible frankly described the possibility and the reality of apostasy—some people fall away from a faith that they earlier professed: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). The “going out” describes apostasy, falling away from the Christian community, the church. Apostasy is like a negative condition. If you are to be saved, you must not apostasize. But this teaching is not inconsistent with the security of salvation for those who trust in Christ. First John says, “They were not of us.” Apostasy reveals openly what was true even beforehand: that the apostate heart was never set on genuinely trusting in Christ in the first place.
A short summary might say that the instances of unconditional promises in the OT anticipate the security that God gives us when he guarantees eternal salvation in Christ. The instances of conditions in the OT anticipate both the necessity of Christ’s own obedience, and the reality that when God works salvation in us, he brings about obedience in us. This working in us is part of the total process of salvation.
Interview continued here with questions 4&5.