“Your Promise Gives Me Life” (Ps 119:50)
To promise is to assure that one will do a particular thing or that a certain thing will happen. God’s promises of blessing and curse play a key role in helping believers grow in sanctification (2 Pet 1:4) and suffer with hope (Ps 119:50). Promises are one of Scripture’s unifying motifs, and some scholars have even argued that divine promise is the theological center of the Christian canon. This post overviews the major divine promises in Scripture and considers the challenge and the need for Christians to claim OT promises.
The Importance of God’s Promises for Christians
God’s promises confront a whole host of sins. For instance, if we are anxious about having enough food, clothing, and shelter, we heed Jesus’s call to “seek first the kingdom of God,” confident that “all these things will be added to [us]” (Matt 6:33). When covetousness rises in our soul, we nurture contentment by recalling promises like, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5). And in our passion for sexual purity, we fight lust by remembering the promise, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8).
But not only this. When we face suffering, God’s promises in Scripture supply one of our bulwarks of hope. As the psalmist declared, “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Ps 119:50). Christians must recognize the importance of God’s promises for both our pursuit of holiness and our hope in suffering.
God’s Major Promises in Scripture
Addressing the first human, God’s initial promise in Scripture is this: “In the day that you eat of [the forbidden tree] you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Following their disobedience, Adam and Eve’s spiritual death and exile from the garden proved Yahweh’s faithfulness (3:22–24). But even prior to punishing them, Yahweh also cursed the serpent and promised that one of the woman’s male descendants would triumph over him (3:15). From this point forward, salvation history discloses a hope in this coming offspring and in the global reconciliation that he would ignite.
Scripture next anticipates the curse’s reversal in God’s promises to the patriarchs, which relate to offspring, land, blessing, and divine presence.
- Offspring. God will grow the patriarchs into a great nation (Gen 12:2; 46:3) and raise up kings in their midst who will influence the nations (17:6, 16; 49:10). In time, Abraham’s fatherhood would include the nation of Israel and the nations more broadly (17:4–6, 16). This would occur through the rise of a single male descendant (22:18).
- Land. Yahweh committed not only to give the patriarchs the land of Canaan (17:8); he also promised that a royal deliverer would expand it to include the rest of the world (22:17–18; 26:3–4)—realities that are now inaugurated in Christ’s first coming and will be consummated in his second.
- Blessing. God promised to bless Abraham and his offspring through Sarah (12:2; 49:25–26). Ultimately, he would use one of Abraham’s descendants to overcome his enemies (22:17; 24:60) and bless the nations (12:3; 28:14).
- Presence. From the beginning, God’s blessing is associated with humanity’s ability to represent him rightly in the world (1:28). By contrast, curse brings only tragedy. In such a setting, Yahweh affirmed that he would be present with the patriarchs and their offspring (9:27; 48:21).
Most of these patriarchal promises are initially and partially fulfilled in the Mosaic covenant, but all are only completely fulfilled through Christ and the new covenant.
Some Reflections on Prosperity Preaching
If “all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in [Jesus]” (2 Cor 1:20), should we as Christians claim all the Bible’s promises as our own, including the OT’s? Prosperity preachers quickly answer Yes, contending that Christ has already secured every spiritual and physical blessing for us to enjoy today.
Health and Wealth
Consider the words of prosperity author Gordon Lindsay:
In Deuteronomy 28 God lists various diseases that will come upon the Israelites if they do not obey the voice of the LORD…. Some contend … that sickness was spoken of as a curse then, but since today we are under a different covenant, the situation concerning sickness and healing is reversed…. How ridiculous! The New Testament teaches divine health for the believer just as much as the Old Testament does.
Similarly, Joel Osteen stresses that Moses’s charge to “choose life” (Deut 30:19) is “a choice we have to make on a moment-by-moment basis. We must choose to dwell on the positive” and thereby live our best life. Finally, Oral Roberts appeals to passages like 2 Corinthians 9:10 when offering the following financial principle: “If you sow it, God will grow it.”
The principle of sowing and reaping is, of course, biblical. But do these texts indeed promise increases in material wealth or status as the blessing for which we should hope? Importantly, Paul introduces his discussion of sowing and reaping with the words, “Though [Christ] was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Prosperity teachers assume that riches and poverty here mean material gain and lack, respectively.
However, when Paul speaks of Jesus’s shift from rich to poor, he refers not to a change in Christ’s economic status but to his incarnation and his willingness to die on our behalf (Phil 2:6–7). Second, what Paul means by sowing and reaping is that, as we give to others, God will “make [us] abound in every good work” (2 Cor 9:8). The harvest is not more money or bigger businesses but “righteousness” and “thanksgiving to God” (9:10–11).
The Pain-Free Life
Jesus often healed physical sickness and charged his disciples to do the same (Matt 4:23; 10:6–8). Indeed, after a series of Jesus’s healings, Matthew cites Isaiah 53:4–5: “‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases’” (Matt 8:17). Reflecting on this passage, Lindsay comments, “If [Christ] paid for our sicknesses, then we do not have to be sick.” Instead, “We must recognize sickness as a curse, the work of Satan and something to be banished from our lives.”
However, Jesus did not right all wrongs or relieve all pains during his first coming (Luke 4:16–21; 7:18–23). For instance, we know of him only raising three people from the dead (Mark 5:35–36, 41–43; Luke 7:12–15; John 11:38–46). There is, then, a tension we must hold in this “already-but-not-yet” period.
Living in the Overlap of the Ages
Believers should boldly claim all of God’s promises in Scripture. Every promise is truly ours already, but those we tangibly experience now are related to God’s presence, power, and pleasure. All promises addressing physical, material provision will be realized fully only at the consummation (Rev 21:4).
In view of his steadfast love (Ps. 30:7), though, God may still bring our future hope into the present by means of a miracle. We must, then, not only pray that God would heal the suffering (Jas 5:13–15) but also help the poor (Deut 10:17–19; 1 John 3:17)—all for his glory and his kingdom’s advance. God will relieve our suffering in his own way, but we can trust that he is working all things for our good (Rom 8:28) and that he will one day restore creation.
The NT’s Application of OT Promises to Christians
In grasping how OT promises relate to us, we must not say, “We are part of the new covenant, and therefore old covenant promises do not apply to us.” In fact, the NT is very quick to cite OT promises—assuming their lasting significance!
For example, Paul charges: “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19). The apostle cites Deuteronomy 32:35, which Yahweh declares against all oppressors. Evidently, Paul believes that we can love our enemies when we trust that God will judge in the future. And we believe this because of an OT promise.
Similarly, the author of Hebrews says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb 13:5). Christians should not look to money for security because God has promised to be with us always! He draws on the pledge that Moses gave to Joshua and that Yahweh reaffirmed to Joshua just before Israel’s conquest of Canaan (Deut 31:8; Josh 1:5). Somehow, Christians can and should legitimately use this promise to help us battle giants like covetousness in our own lives.
God’s promises of provision and protection, including those from the OT, are vital for helping us in our pursuit of godliness. Yet Christians need a framework for benefiting from OT promises in a way that does not produce abuses, like those seen in prosperity teaching. The next post will consider five principles that inform how Christians relate to OT promises.
¹See, e.g., Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
²Gordon Lindsay, The Bible Secret of Divine Health (Santa Ana, CA: Trinity Broadcasting Network, 1987), 19–20, 21–22.
³Joel Osteen, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (New York: Warner Faith, 2004), 115.
⁴Oral Roberts, If You Need to Be Blessed Financially Do These Things (Tulsa, OK: Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, 1982), 5.
⁵Lindsay, Bible Secret of Divine Health, 12.
⁶Lindsay, Bible Secret of Divine Health, 5–6.
This blog series summarizes Jason S. DeRouchie’s forthcoming book, Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2024). You can pre-order your copy here.