CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On the Promises of God

Jul 31, 2017

All believers should love the promises of God, and all should want to claim those promises. But the simple truth is, many of these promises are conditional. They are not automatic, in other words, but they very much depend on us and what we do.

There are of course many wonderful unconditional promises of God found in Scripture. One well-known one is found early on in Genesis 9:11: “I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Promises of god 1But a closer look at the many promises found in Scripture will reveal that a great deal of them are in fact conditional. Often this is quite clear because of the “if-then” way they are expressed. These promises make it clear that if we do something (obey God, pursue righteousness, keep his word, etc), then we can claim those promises.

And if we do not do something, then we will not be able to claim those promises. Just today I was reading Isaiah 58. It is one long example of this very thing. There are wonderful promises found therein which we all would happily want to claim, such as:

-your healing will quickly appear (v. 8)
-you will call, and the Lord will answer (v. 9)
-your light will rise in the darkness (v. 10)
-The Lord will guide you always (v. 11)
-you will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land (v. 14)

Wow, what great promises! But every single one of them is conditional. They do not come automatically – there are strings attached. Yet plenty of Christians will pull these promises out of context and seek to claim them for themselves. There are at least two main problems with this.

First, these promises were primarily addressed to ancient Israel, not to us. And often in these same passages curses are promised by Yahweh to Israel for disobedience as well. So will we Christians claim those sorts of promises? I rather doubt it – we tend to be a bit selective about God’s promises!

But even if we can take a secondary application from this passage, as I just said, it is 100 per cent clear that these are all fully conditional. Only if the Israelites of old (or believers today) do certain things can they see these promises realised and fulfilled. And just what are those conditions?

The first several promises I mentioned above all are associated with how Israel does fasting. Yahweh makes it quite clear (in verses 5-8) that unless their fasts are accompanied with repentance, brokenness and humility, and demonstrated by works of justice and righteousness (including feeding the poor) they will not get such promises.

Consider also the wonderful promises of verse 14. They are immediately preceded by verse 13:

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,”

We see a number of if-thens found in this chapter. Many wonderful promises are found in it, but every single one is conditioned on the obedience and righteousness of the people of God. There is and can be no glib “name it and claim it” silliness going on here.

The Bible is not a jar of lollies which any child can thrust his hand into and grab as many goodies as he can. Many of these are clearly marked ‘conditional promises only’. Only under certain clearly specified conditions can these promises be appropriated.

Yet we have a church full of believers who spend all their time cherry-picking Bible promises, when so very many of them just cannot be claimed without first meeting the biblical conditions attached to them. There are of course just so many of these conditional promises.

I think a great exercise for any believer would be to go through the Bible and find all the promises of God, and see how many come without any conditions, and how many come with conditions. That would be a great project for any believer to engage in, time permitting.

But let me offer just a few more of the many conditional promises found throughout Scripture.

Genesis 4:7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

Exodus 19:5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.

Deuteronomy 11:13-15 So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today – to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul – then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Deuteronomy 11:22-23 If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow – to love the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways and to hold fast to him – then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you.

Psalm 37:4 Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 91:9-10 If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the LORD, who is my refuge – then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 16:7 When a man’s ways please the Lord,
he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.

Isaiah 1:19-20 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.

Isaiah 26:3 You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.

Isaiah 48:18 If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea.

Matthew 6:33 Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.

John 8:51 Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

John 11:40 Jesus said: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

John 13:35 Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 15:10 Jesus said: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”

John 15:14 Jesus said: “You are my friends if you do what I command.”

1 Corinthians 15:2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Ephesians 6:2-3 “Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

Philippians 4:6-7 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

God is always faithful to do what he has promised. But quite often those promises are contingent upon the choices we make. If we obey, if we stay humble, if we do that which is right, and so on, then we can often claim those promises indeed.

But we must take great care against being presumptuous. The promises of God are not some grab bag of goodies that anyone for any reason can avail themselves of. They are usually given to God’s covenant people – whether Israel of old or the church today. And a biblical covenant usually involves responsibilities for both parties.

God will always take his covenant responsibilities seriously – but we must do so as well. So by all means enjoy and delight in the many promises of God found in the Bible. But make sure you appropriate those promises as God intended.

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One Response to On the Promises of God

  • Some translations have headings such as “Blessings for the Church” and “Curses on Israel” within the one passage. This is not a new thing either. The headings are thought up and put in by the translator and may be wrong just as the text may be translated poorly in places (though it’s difficult to translate from one language to another and find the right balance between being literal with producing something that’s easy to read and understand)

    A proverb is a saying that generally holds true. Whilst some proverbs may be promises care needs to be taken not to assume they all are.

    I don’t think Proverbs 16:7 always hold true even if the condition stated is met. Elijah dealt with the prophets of Baal, but Jezebel was not at peace with him and openly threatened to murder him. Mordecai was a righteous man and yet Haman grew all the more determined to kill him. Jesus came to save and yet he was handed over to be killed by his enemies.

    In Proverbs 26:4-5 there are two statements that encourage the opposite reaction to a fool. Which one do we lay hold of and follow?

    Or think of proverbs from outside the Bible such as “many hands make light work” and “too many cooks spoil the broth”. Which is right? It depends on the context.

    We need both a head knowledge of scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit to remind us of it and apply it correctly to different situations.

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