Troublesome Topic: Our Use of the Word “Promise”

Lesson 8 of 12

Today we hear a great deal about God’s promises. Some have attempted to count all the “promises” of God in Scripture and there are different numbers that are thrown around in expressing this idea. But we need to be very careful about this concept of promises because things are not as they appear.

First of all, a covenant is not primarily the making of a promise; a covenant is a type of relationship. We should never think that the terms “promise” and “covenant” are synonymous. The association has been made because of the way God committed himself to Abraham, and the entire human race, to provide salvation and reconciliation. This was promised to him first in Genesis chapter 12, then ratified by the establishing of the covenant relationship in chapter 15, and made even more secure in chapter 17. However, said covenant relationship was not without its demands on Abraham.

Another reason to be careful about the use of the word promise is that those things which we have so often called promises are, in reality, covenant blessings! In the context of a covenant, they play the role of blessings that come to those who follow the covenant stipulations, called conditions.

What is the difference between covenant blessings and promises? By “promise” we get the impression that what has been pledged will happen regardless of any other factor; it has the air of unconditionality. A covenant blessing is by no means unconditional. On the contrary, it is seated squarely on the condition of our faithfulness to the covenant stipulations.

However, the Bible sometimes, though rarely, does use the word “promise.” To what is it referring? When the Bible speaks of a promise, or the promises, it is making reference specifically to the promise of God to Abraham that He would provide to the world the blessing which it so desperately needed. That promise made to Abram in Genesis chapter 12 is spoken of throughout the rest of scripture as God’s commitment to provide salvation for mankind.

Scripture usually speaks of “the promise” in the singular, and seldom uses the phrase “the promises.” Every time the Bible refers to God’s “the promise” it is pointing to one thing—God’s offer of salvation, not other things. When it refers to “the promises” of God, it is pointing to God’s offer of salvation, and everything related to it. So both “promise” and “promises” in Scripture refer to the same thing.

For these reasons, and probably others too, we should consider the context very carefully before we use the phrase “the promises of God.” We should not be quick to call everything a promise, especially if the Word of God does not refer to it as such. We could very likely be leading people away from the meaning that God intended. If there is a covenant blessing pronounced, and we speak of it as a promise, we are guilty of altering scripture. We must plead His mercy for having done that very thing over and over again.

Therefore, when you see a statement in the Bible about God’s protection from danger, remember that it is not a promise, but rather a covenant blessing given to those who are faithful to God’s covenant. The same is true for statements of God’s provision of material goods – such provision is a covenant blessing, not a promise; it is conditional, based in part on our obedience (it is based also on the will of God who knows when we need a trial rather than ease and comfort).

The next lesson in the Full and Medium Length Series on Covenants is: Our Use of the Term “Blessing”