This article is about the promises of God, and our faith in these promises of God.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1989. 5 pages.

Embracing the Promises

One of the most important words in the Bible is the word 'promise'. In fact, one can almost say that the message of the Bible may be summed up by that one word. In Scripture, God appears as the One who promises salvation in Jesus Christ His Son.

It is impossible to over-emphasise the role this promise of salvation plays in the life and experience of believers. That started already in paradise when God came with a promise to our first parents after they had sinned. While they could expect words of condemnation and judgement, Adam and Eve were surprised by these words that spelled 'hope': 'I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel' (Genesis 3:15) Though addressed to the serpent, these words were meant for Adam and Eve's comfort. The Lord here comes to them in grace, promising deliverance from the power of Satan by the Seed of the woman.

From her earliest times, the Church has regarded this passage, Genesis 3:15, as the 'mother-promise' and thus the source of all the other promises of salvation which God progressively revealed in Scripture.

We may also call this mother-promise the first promise of the covenant of grace. This covenant God made in principle with Adam after the fall; it was established more formally with Abraham when he promised, 'I will be a God unto thee and thy seed after thee' (Genesis 17:7)

At Sinai the Lord repeated this same promise to Israel as a nation, whereby it became his special people, living with Jehovah in special covenant relationship. That relationship still exists and is in force wherever the Church of Christ is found on earth. Wherever sinners are saved and believers live in obedience to God's Word — there is the covenant, whether this is understood clearly or not. You see, there is no salvation apart from the covenant of grace. Every sinner who comes to faith and repentance does so only as a result of what God first promised to Adam, and later to Abraham and his descendants after him. And salvation always involves faith in these promises and the life of the Christian is also a life of faith in these promises.

To be saved it is necessary that we embrace the promises of the gospel. Adam did this and his faith comes to expression in the giving of the name Eve to his wife 'mother of the living'. Abraham also believed God's promise concerning his great descendant Jesus Christ.

Of all the patriarchs we read that they embraced the promises. What does this expression mean, embracing the promises? Let us read the passage where this expression occurs, in Hebrews 11:13. Referring to the saints mentioned earlier in this chapter but especially to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah, the apostle says:

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

'These all died in faith'. The faith in view here is defined in v.1 where the apostle says:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

What was it that the patriarchs hoped for and what were the invisible realities that occupied their minds and hearts? The land of Canaan as their inheritance and other blessings connected with the coming of Abraham's great Descendant, in whom all nations of the earth were to be blessed.

Now the apostle tells us here that all these patriarchs died in faith, i.e., as believers in those promises before they had received the things promised, before taking possession of Canaan and before Christ was born. Yet there was a sense in which they did enjoy the promised blessings. They had fellowship with God as their Covenant God. They lived in Canaan, which to them was a symbol of heaven. In Isaac they saw the coming Messiah. They saw these blessings afar off, from a distance. 'Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it and was glad', Jesus said (John 8:56). When? Standing at the cradle of his son Isaac, the child of promise, Abraham saw something of the glory of Christ. Similarly, Jacob saw the glory of Shiloh, and Job knew that his Redeemer lived. These Old Testament saints lived by faith and by hope (Romans 8:24). Through the binoculars of faith, objects that were far away were brought very close to them and they were just as happy in the Lord as the New Testament believers of whom Peter wrote that, although they had not seen Jesus with their physical eyes, they loved him and rejoiced in him with joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). So there is not much difference between the Old and the New Testament believers as far as their enjoyment of promised blessings is concerned. It was not just the patriarchs and other Old Testament saints who had to live by faith and hope. Also for us the life of faith consists of laying hold on and enjoying the things promised before the actual possession of them is obtained. We too live and die in the hope of eternal life, just as they did.

True, there is this difference — Christ has come. Bethlehem and Calvary lie behind us. The Resurrection and Ascension have taken place. The Spirit has been poured out at Pentecost. We live in the time of fulfilment. Still, even for believers today there is much left to hope for. Not all of God's promises have been fulfilled. We still await Christ's second Advent. We still look for a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13), and long for a glorified body while we groan in this tabernacle (Romans 8:23; 2 Corinthians 5:2). Freedom from sin and imperfection, deliverance from the body of death, the enmity of the world, Satan's wiles, and strife in the church are all future blessings. They are ours by promise, but not yet by actual possession. We still wait, we still expect. We long for the time of fulfilment. The patriarchs stood at the beginning, we at the end of the ages. But the way of salvation is the same for all; we all live by faith and by hope.

This is not always understood clearly. Many people think that New Testament believers have a much richer spiritual life than the saints of Old Testament times because we possess the complete revelation of God in Christ. But that is not necessarily true. Objectively, indeed, we know more. But do we also, for that reason, experience more of the love of God and have more assurance of salvation? I do not think so. If that were true how could Abraham be held up in Scripture as an example for believers? He is called the father of all who believe. That implies there was something about his faith that should inspire all of us. What was so special about the faith of this Old Testament saint? His clinging to the promises of God. Abraham's life was a life of faith in what God had promised him. And this is what characterises, or should characterise, our spiritual life also. God's people today still live on the promises of God in Christ. This is true of beginners in grace as well as of more advanced believers.

In this connection, I want to point out another error which is sometimes found among us. It is the idea that living on the promises is something for beginners. They get some hope out of this or that promise and plead with God to fulfil his Word to them. But those who are more deeply led get past that stage. They live more out of the fulfilment of the promises; they possess the things promised: Christ and his benefits, access to the Father through the Son and by the Spirit, etc. They are blessed possessors, while these little ones are still hoping and waiting for what the Lord promises in his Word.

This I call a serious error. Scripture teaches clearly that the assured Christian also lives on or out of the promises. His only ground of confidence lies not in what he possesses, but in what God promises in his Word. The whole Church, both in the Old and New Testaments, and also the whole Church, small and great, beginners and more advanced believers, live, or should live, out of the promises. They all get help, comfort, strength and hope from what God has said in his holy gospel.

That is precisely why Abraham can be our example. If you want to know what faith is and what God's people experience in the life of faith, study the life of Abraham and that of the other patriarchs. The promises were dear to them. 'Having seen them afar off', they were persuaded of them, i.e., they were convinced of the trustworthiness of God who made these promises. They knew that he would be true to his Word.

And so they embraced these promises. They saw them 'afar off, were persuaded of them and embraced them' (Hebrews 11:13]).  Literally, it says they greeted them or they welcomed these good tidings with all their heart. These patriarchs stretched out their hands towards the promised salvation. As Jacob said on his deathbed: 'I have waited, o Lord, for thy salvation' (Genesis 49:18). He greeted him, the coming Shiloh and Saviour.

This presupposes a prior greeting on the part of God. For it was he, who in Christ, came to these patriarchs, promising them salvation and all other blessings.

This God comes also to us in Christ with the same promises: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, communion with God, etc. To us who are the New Testament Church, the same God and the same Christ and the same gospel come. But have we embraced these promises? What does that mean, to embrace the promises? It means to believe them and to put all your trust in them. It means to receive the Christ offered to sinners in those promises as the only God-given and God-sent Saviour and Redeemer.

It is a sad thing that for many of us the promises of the gospel are dead capital. They do not excite us. Many sit under the preaching without being in the least affected by it. They remain as cold as ice-water under the sweetest invitations and the most generous offers.

How do we explain this? Some would simply say: Those who show no interest are obviously reprobates. Like Esau they despise the things of God. They prefer the things of the world and the pleasures of sin.

It has to be admitted that there are people like this in our congregations. Whether they are reprobates, God only knows. But it is certain that they are unconverted. Therefore they have to be seriously warned both from the pulpit and in private pastoral contact.

Many people in our congregations, though not Christians, appear to be interested in church. They regularly attend, take part in many activities, and contribute financially (sometimes generously), and yet there is little or no evidence of spiritual life.

When confronted with the claims of Christ, the necessity of faith and repentance, etc., they will remind you that they are unable to comply with these demands and that salvation is the Lord's work. And when pressed to embrace Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel to sinners, or at least to plead the promises, they express doubt as to whether these promises are meant for them.

Amazing, that in sound churches, this is still a question for many. Ministers make this clear time and again from the pulpit and in private conversation, namely, that the promises of the covenant of grace are addressed to all who belong to the visible Church (Acts 2:39).

Still, there is uncertainty among us. There is even confusion with many older people who by now ought to be well-grounded in the faith. One can still meet people who do not dare to believe that the promises are for them. They are too sinful, too unworthy for that. The promises, they think, are for God's people only. And so, unless this is made clear to them first, namely that they belong to God's elect, they dare not appropriate anything to themselves. To do so, they fear, would be presumption resulting in self-deception.

But these, often serious, people do not see that God asks, yes demands, from us faith in his promises and one of those promises is that he will work faith and repentance in our hearts if we humbly ask him for these graces. It is true, of course, and Scripture teaches this clearly, that before a sinner will embrace the promises he needs a new heart. He must be given power from on high, for as Jesus said,

No man can come unto me except the Father draw him.John 6:44

Yet, while it is true that we can only come to Christ and embrace him in the promises if we first receive that power from God, we do not need first to feel this power working in us before we may go to Christ. Let me explain what I mean with some help from Ralph Erskine. Few preachers have had a clearer insight into faith and its difficulties than those great servants of Christ, Ralph Erskine and his brother Ebenezer Erskine. He often spoke of the promises as being pregnant with the blessings of salvation. Where the promises of the gospel are faithfully set forth, he says, there faith will be begotten. And not only faith, but also repentance and all the graces a sinner needs unto salvation.

Now what happens when a sinner is saved? The Spirit will convict him of sin, making him aware of his great need for a Saviour. This is all the work of Christ. He uses the law to expose sin and to drive the sinner out of himself so that he abandons all hope of saving himself and begins to look to the Lord for salvation. Christ then opens the sinner's eyes for the provision God has made in his Son to save sinners. The convicted sinner now begins to pray. He starts to plead the promises, e.g., this one, where Jesus says, 'him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out'. Or, 'he that believeth in me hath everlasting life'. The sinner tries to lay hold on these and other promises and to embrace them; and as he does so, hope is born in his heart. A measure of peace is experienced. He may believe the Lord will be merciful to him.

Now all this presupposes the drawing power of Christ or of the Father and the Spirit. But — and this is Erskine's point — the sinner does not need to be aware of this prevenient work of the Spirit before he may flee to Christ. What brings a sinner to Christ is his need of Christ, the conviction that 'I am a sinner and only Christ can save me'.

Here is where so many have problems. Do I have enough knowledge of sin? Am I sufficiently humbled? Have I experienced the work of the Holy Spirit? If only I knew it was the Spirit's work in me, then I could believe the promises were for me, etc. In other words, they make experience the ground or warrant to come to Christ, whereas the only ground or warrant is the call and invitation of the gospel. That is all you need to be concerned about. Does Christ call me, does he invite me to come to him? If so, I may go no matter how wretched I may feel or how lacking in qualifications I am. With Peter, I may step overboard and say, in effect: 'Unto thy word, Lord, I come. On the waves and the storm, Lord Jesus, I come'.

When the woman with the issue of blood went to Christ she could only come as a result of a secret influence that Christ exerted on her. He drew her to himself. But she was unaware of that; she did not say to herself, 'Now I feel the power of Christ drawing me, I will, therefore, go to him.' No, not at all. She went to the Saviour because she had a blood disease no doctor had been able to cure. But she believed that Jesus could heal her. 'If only I may touch the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole!' But it was only after she had touched Christ that she felt the virtue, or power, that came out of him.

You see, we do not usually know until we believe, until we cast ourselves upon Christ — sink or swim — that it is the power of God at work in us, whereby we are enabled to believe.

But doesn't this lead to easy believism? People say so easily, 'I believe the promises!' True, there are those who talk a lot about faith, but they never seem to have any problems or struggles. I am thinking, however, of those who do find it difficult to believe because they have seen something of their need for Christ, but they don't know how to get to him. And the biggest problem for such people is that they feel so unworthy. Therefore they try to make themselves worthy or acceptable somehow. But, of course, this never works. Only One is worthy and that is Christ. His finished work alone is the ground for acceptance with God. Faith, therefore, must be directed to what he has done for sinners, and not what he does in sinners by his Spirit.

Embrace the promises. Have you done this by grace? Are you still afraid of presumption? Yet you know you need Christ or else you must perish. Listen to what Kohlbrugge once said in this connection:

When some people lift up a warning finger here and say, 'Be careful not to take what does not belong to you', I always think, 'I am lost anyway. I cannot be more lost and doomed than I already am. Therefore I take God's Word as if it was meant for me only'.

For whom are the promises of the gospel? Hugh Binning says this:

For those who accept them. God has his servants to preach them to you, so you would stretch your hand towards them and say, Amen, Lord, Amen!

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