The Gospel Coalition Canada, under the leadership of Pastor Paul Carter, just completed a trilogy of interviews with Bruxy Cavey. The purpose was to gain a clearer understanding of Cavey’s teachings, a body of teachings which I call “Bruxyianity.” My purpose in writing this is to discuss Part II yet again. Having already corrected one thing Cavey said in Part II here, I now want to comment on something Pastor Paul Carter stated in the same interview.
Let me explain the context of what I want to comment on.
Very early on in the dialogue, Cavey made himself interviewer and Carter the interviewed. In response to a question by Cavey, Carter said that penal substitutionary atonement is not the whole Gospel. I think I know what Carter’s saying there. If he’s saying what I believe he’s saying then I say he’s right on. Penal substitutionary atonement is ground zero of the Gospel, and all the implications of the Gospel flow out of it. I think that’s what he meant. What did raise my eyebrow, however, is what Carter said right after that:
In Galatians 3:8 the Apostle Paul says that: “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8 ESV) So “the gospel” preached to Abraham was simply the Good News that in his Seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The mechanics of how that would be accomplished were not clearly spelled out, and yet, according to Paul, it was the Gospel.
It sure seems like Carter is saying that Abraham only had faith in just a promise without knowledge of a penal substitute. And it sure seems that Carter is grounding that assertion in Galatians 3:8. Now I’m no expert in exegeting the words of Pastor Paul, but I have been exegeting Saint Paul for some time now. And if Pastor Paul is saying what it sounds like he’s saying, I’m saying he’s not saying what Saint Paul said. Again, I’m open to correction here, but it sure seems like that’s what our dear brother said.
It is true that revelation has come to us progressively. Abraham received revelation progressively. The Bible was written progressively. So, Abraham did not have the fullness of the complete Bible that we have. He did not have the fullness of the mystery that we have, and maybe that’s what Pastor Paul meant. But, again, in the context of an interview (that has been edited as he’s indicated) with a man who has denied penal substitutionary atonement outright multiple times over multiple years, it would have been a good idea to clarify that Abraham did have a type of knowledge of the penal substitute.
A thorough exegetical study of Galatians 3—the chapter Carter grounded his assertion in—tells us that yes indeed God demonstrated to Abraham that God Himself would be the penal substitute for sinners. Yes, God did communicate that to Abraham. Yes, the context of Galatians 3:8 tells us that. In what follows I demonstrate that a thorough exegetical study of Galatians 3 leads us to believe Abraham had faith in a future penal substitute. Please follow along carefully.
In Galatians, Saint Paul was arguing that justification is by faith, not circumcision. The Apostle Paul cites Genesis 15:6 in Galatians 3:6, just two verse before 3:8 as proof of his assertion. The citation indicates that Abraham was justified by belief prior to circumcision and the Mosaic Law, and thus justification does not occur by circumcision or the Law. Justification is by faith. To understand Galatians 3:6 we must not only interpret it within the context of Galatians 3 but also within the context of Genesis 15. What I’ve already said about the context of Galatians 3 will suffice for this blog, but I do need to zero in on Genesis 15 to understand Galatians 3:6 which is a quote of Genesis 15:6. And in zeroing in on Genesis 15, you will see that Abraham received a not-so veiled promise of the message of penal substitutionary atonement. Yes, he sure did. And that is the message Abraham believed before he was circumcised, and I am arguing that it is the message Abraham had saving faith in.
Abraham first received the promise in Genesis 12:1-3. Between then and Genesis 15 a lot of things went down. He made his faithless Egyptian mistake in Genesis 12. He separated from his nephew Lot in Genesis 13. And in Genesis 14 he went to war against a tyrannical king named Chedorlaomer. Chedorlaomer was a powerhouse who, prior to meeting Abraham, had defeated 10 Canaanite city-states and taken Lot prisoner. With his rag-tag band of merry men, Abraham chased Chedorlaomer down, rescued Lot, and liberated the Canaanite cities. At the end of Genesis 14, he encountered the godly Melchizedek who blessed Abraham, and then he met the sleazy king of Sodom who offered Abraham some material wealth. Abraham curtly rejected the offer because wanted God to get all the glory in providing for him, not the sodomite.
By this point God had already promised to Abraham descendants and land. Years had gone by, and now at about 75 years of age Abraham had neither. With that, he had just made enemies with the most powerful king in the region, Chedorlaomer, and he had tersely turned down the offer of wealth by the sleazy king of Sodom. Let’s just say he wasn’t making friends with people in high places. So, Abraham is wondering (1) if Chedorlaomer is going to return to grind Abraham into pulp, and (2) if God will grant him offspring now that he’s so old. Genesis 15 opens with Abraham wondering whether God will be faithful, and Genesis 15 closes with God’s faithfulness being grounded in a penal substitute. In 15:1, God answers Abraham’s doubt with two statements. First, God is Abraham’s “shield,” thus He will protect him from Chedorlaomer. Second, God will reward him greatly, thus He will provide. In 15:2, Abraham wonders if God would provide an heir for him, and in 15:3-5 God answers in the affirmative to explain that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of heaven. Abraham believed the promise, and God “counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:6).
What happens after Genesis 15:6 is what we now turn to. In doing so, I should note that Genesis 15:7-21 follows Genesis 15:1-6, but that does necessarily mean that it follows it chronologically. It is possible that Genesis 15:1-6 and Genesis 15:7-21 are the same story told with more details the second time. That would be consistent with other parts of Genesis. For example, Genesis 2 expand a certain aspect of Genesis 1 in detail. Genesis 2 follows Genesis 1 in the text, but they do not follow each other chronologically. Genesis 11 and Genesis 10 do the same thing. Genesis 11:1-9 explains how the nations dispersed from Babel in Genesis 10:25. Therefore, seeing Genesis 15:7-21 as a retelling of Genesis 15:1-6 in more detail would be consistent with literary structures elsewhere in Genesis.
Not only is it consistent with structures elsewhere in the book, it is so with the actual structure of Genesis 15 itself. I believe that Genesis 15:1-6 and 15:7-21 are the same story told in more detail the second time. The internal evidence indicates so. Both Genesis 15:1-6 and 15:7-21 are structured with parallel uses of the name of God as the plot develops. God is referred to as LORD (v. 1 and v. 7); as Lord GOD (v. 2 and v. 8); as LORD (v. 4 and v. 13); and as LORD (v. 6 and v. 18). Both sections have one use of LORD, followed by one use of Lord GOD, followed by two uses of LORD. The references to God outline both halves of the chapter as the plot develops. Each half of the chapter deals with a crisis of faith, an affirmation by God, and a resolution. In the first half, Abraham believes, and in the second half God enters into covenant with Abraham. Also, in verse 5 immediately following the second use of “LORD” in the first half Abraham is brought outside to observe the stars, while in verse 13 right before the second use of “LORD” in the second half the sun goes down: the parallel chronology fits the time of day. I say all of that because I believe that Genesis 15:6 occurs as a response to the covenant cut in Genesis 15:7-21. We will look at that covenant in a moment, but for now I am explaining that Genesis 15:6 occurs after the covenant is cut in Genesis 15:7-21. Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Based on the above exegetical work, Abraham specifically believed the promise of God in verse 5 because God grounded the promise in the cutting of the covenant in the second half of the chapter. So I conclude that Abraham’s belief was a response to the covenant. In other words, Abraham believed the covenant, and his belief in the covenant was counted to him as righteousness. My thesis is not contingent wholly on this conclusion, but this conclusion adds a great deal of weight to my affirmation that Abraham believed in a penal substitute. You’ll see why shortly.
What does all this have to do with penal substitutionary atonement? A whole bunch. In the covenant of Genesis 15:7-21, God communicates to Abraham that He God Himself will die as the penal substitute for for the sins of Abraham (Galatians 3:8-9; 3:29). To understand why I say this, I will now explain the covenant of Genesis 15.
In response to Abraham’s doubts of Genesis 15:8, God commands him to fetch some animals, specifically “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9). Then Abraham cuts the animals in half so that there is a row between each half (Genesis 15:10). Why the butcher shop blood bath? It was a covenant ceremony.1 Typically, when a more powerful king entered into a covenant with a weaker king they’d both pass through the center aisle of the cut animal halves. The stronger king would covenant to protect and provide for the weaker king. The weaker king would promise faithfulness to the stronger king. By passing through the animals each king was saying that the king who fails to uphold covenant will be butchered like the animals. So, if the stronger king failed to protect and provide for the weaker, the stronger would be butchered like the animals. If the weaker king failed to be faithful to the stronger, the weaker would be butchered like the animals. The penalty—keep that word penalty handy now—yes, the penalty for covenant violation was a bloody death.
Under normal covenant circumstances, Abraham and God would have both passed through. But this was not normal circumstances. God caused Abraham to fall into a deep sleep so Abraham could not pass through. Only God could pass through. After restating His promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces” (Genesis 15:17). A smoking fire pot and a flaming torch? What on earth? To the original readers of Genesis the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch represented the presence of God (Exodus 13:21; 19:18; 20:18). In other words, God passed through the butchered carcasses on His own behalf and on Abraham’s behalf. Do you understand what this means? It’s should fill our hearts with joy and our mouths with praise. God promised that if God failed to keep covenant God would be butchered as the penalty for God’s failure. And, God promised that if Abraham failed to keep covenant God would butchered as the penalty for Abraham’s failure. Yes, God would be butchered as the penalty for Abraham’s failure. God would offer Himself up as penalty for Abraham’s failure. There’s that word again: penalty. God walked through the carcasses on His own behalf. And God walked through the carcasses as Abraham’s substitute. Yes, that’s another important word: substitute. God covenanted with Abraham that if Abraham failed to uphold the covenant God would die as the penal substitute for the failure of His covenant people. And Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:6).
As soon as Genesis 15 turns into Genesis 16, we see that Abraham has already failed to keep covenant. He took the slave woman, Hagar, and had a child of the flesh with her, Ishmael (Galatians 4:21-31; Genesis 16). Abraham failed. And Abraham’s descendants eventually failed. And you’ve failed. And I’ve failed. The weaker partner has violated the covenant time and time again. But God walked through the carcasses on our behalf. He substituted for us in the cutting of the covenant. And because he substituted in the cutting, he also substituted in the penalty for its violation. God had to die, and Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died as the penal substitute on the cross. By Christ’s penal substitution and His victorious resurrection, the covenant is upheld. Glory to His Name.
Allow me to summarize what I’ve said. Genesis 15:1-6 and Genesis 15:7-21 are the same story twice told with more details the second time. In the story, God cuts a covenant with Abraham. And God promises to uphold the covenant on His own behalf and on behalf of Abraham. Consequentially, God promises to be butchered like an animal if He fails to keep covenant, and God also promises to be butchered if Abraham fails to keep covenant. In other words, God promises to be Abraham’s penal substitute if Abraham fails. And fail Abraham did. Fail we all have. So, the only way for the Abrahamic covenant to be fulfilled is for God to die like an animal as our penal substitute. And Jesus Christ Who is God in the flesh died as our penal substitutionary atonement. Then He rose again. Christ is not dead. Glory to His Name. The covenant is upheld by the blood of Christ. The thesis is not wholly contingent on the timeline of Genesis 15, but it the timeline I’ve argued for sure strengthens the thesis.
Going back to the statement by Pastor Paul Carter:
In Galatians 3:8 the Apostle Paul says that: “the Scriptures, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “’In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” (Galatians 3:8 ESV) So “the gospel” preached to Abraham was simply the Good News that in his Seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The mechanics of how that would be accomplished were not clearly spelled out, and yet, according to Paul, it was the Gospel.
At face value, it looks like he’s said Abraham had no knowledge of a penal substitute. Even Genesis 12 presupposes the bruising of the Son’s foot in Genesis 3:15, not to mention other sacrifices mentioned prior and after that promise. While we’re not told if Abraham had the full picture in Genesis 12, God certainly gives enough mechanics by Genesis 15 to demonstrate a future penal substitute. Abraham knew that God represented him in the cutting of that covenant, and that God had promised to die as our penal substitute to uphold the covenant when we fail. Abraham believed the promise of Genesis 15, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Glory to His Name.
Look, I get it that all the details weren’t there for Abraham. Abraham saw through a glass dimly. But to insinuate that Abraham simply had a promise without the promise of a penal substitute is not accurate. I want to be fair. If there’s something else I’m missing, I’m open to correction. But in the context of an interview with a guy who’s denied penal substitutionary atonement multiple time over multiple years, I’m uncomfortable letting things like this go.
I hope you can see why I’m making such a big deal about all this. If Christ did not pay for our sins, we will be butchered like animals and sent straight to hell. Jesus Christ is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Glory to His Name.
Before closing, I will highlight one more element of Genesis 15, namely verse 11. “And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” It’s an odd little element to the story. Between the butchering of the animals and the actual covenant ceremony, unclean carrion birds attempt to destroy the covenant. God put verse 11 there for a reason. The dirty birds attack what God is about to do. They attack the Gospel message in its embryonic state. As they attacked, Abraham rose to defend the message by driving the birds away. Men like Bruxy Cavey have, like birds of prey, been attacking the message of the Gospel for a very long time. The duty of the Church is to drive the attackers away. We cannot stand by and watch these creatures attack the penal substitutionary atonement of the our Lord Jesus Christ. Our God died as our penal substitute because He loves us. We must defend this message.
At the downgrade crisis, God called Charles Spurgeon to chase away the carrion who attempted to devour the Gospel to prevent it from reaching the next generation. Today is not unlike those days. The carrion are attacking our most precious treasure, and it is upon us to drive them away so that our children and our children’s children will still know of our God who died as our penal substitute.
Like Abraham we must be men of faith, and as Spurgeon said, “We who have had the gospel passed to us by martyr hands dare not trifle with it, nor sit by and hear it denied by traitors, who pretend to love it, but inwardly abhor every line of it… Look you, sirs, there are ages yet to come. If the Lord does not speedily appear, there will come another generation, and another, and all these will be tainted and injured if we are not faithful to God and His truth today.”
- For more on this, please see: Allan P. Ross, Creation & Blessing, (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1998), 312. Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, (Crossway, Wheaton, 2012), 248-258. Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), 244-245. Whereas Waltke understands the symbolism of the covenant, I do not believe he understands the absence of Abraham. Of the three books, Gentry and Wellum’s explanation is the superior and most detailed.