“But the children of promise are counted as the seed.” Romans 9:9
When Abraham was 100 years old, God promised to give him and his wife, Sarah, a son. You may remember Sarah laughed when she overheard this incredulous news. Nevertheless, after a year, she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy named Isaac. He was called a child of promise, and it is because of him those who are of God’s election are also called children of promise.
What does this term mean? Who are the children of promise? How is it different between the Old and New Testaments? More importantly, are you one?
The First Child of Promise
“And He said, ‘I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’” Genesis 18:10
Shortly before God made this promise to Abraham, He told Abraham he would be the father of many nations (Gen 17:5). At the time, Abraham assumed God was referring to his first son, Ishmael, that he would be the one to carry on the family line. His assumption was not an unreasonable expectation. Cultural traditions at the time dictated that the oldest son would continue the family bloodline. But God emphatically said that would not be the case this time.
“Then God said, ‘No, Sarah, your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, with his descendants after him.” Genesis 17:19
It may seem odd that God would choose Isaac and not Ishmael to establish His covenant. But God wasn’t looking at cultural laws. His plan was more long-term. His eye was on establishing the bloodline of Jesus, the Savior to come (Matthew 1:1).
The Problem with Ishmael
So, why didn’t Ishmael qualify?
It is important to remember Ishmael’s mother was Hagar, one of Sarah’s slaves (Genesis 16:1–4). He was not the son of both Abraham and Sarah, whom God had blessed. Plus, Abraham was never married to Hagar, and he had intimate relations with the slave only because of Sarah’s impatience with God to have children.
For these reasons, another son would be necessary to accomplish God’s plan. And so, because of God’s great love for Abraham, a second son was promised to the elderly couple, and he became the first child of promise.
Later in Genesis 21:10, Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Her request was highly taboo at the time. Legal codes of the day forbade anyone from dismissing a slave’s son after a rightful heir is born. It was also upsetting to Abraham, who cared for Ishmael very much. But God knew Isaac was the child of promise, so He told Abraham to listen to Sarah and send both Hagar and Ishmael away, assuring Abraham He would bless the boy regardless.
The apostle Paul refers to these events later in the New Testament to make his point when he talks about the children of promise in the books of Galatians and Romans.
Physical vs. Spiritual Children of Promise
In Paul’s letter to southern Galatia’s churches, the apostle is again coming against false teachers who were proclaiming people are not saved by faith through Jesus’ shed blood on the cross. They declared that one must first become professing Jews submitting to all Mosaic Law before becoming a Christian. Such heresy greatly upset Paul and prompted him to warn the churches of the consequences of their sin.
It is within his warning that Paul attempts to remind the churches about the children of promise in Galatians 4:28–31.
“Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise…What does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.’ So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.” Galatians 4:28–31
He does it again in his letter to the Romans.
“Nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but ‘In Isaac, your seed shall be called.’ That is, those who are the children of flesh; these are not the children of God, but the children of promise are counted as the seed. For this is the word of promise: ‘At this time, I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.’” Romans 9:8–9
Paul is saying to both groups of people that not all of Abraham’s descendants are considered physical children of God. He is also saying not all who descended from Isaac, the original child of promise, are true spiritual people of God. In other words, not everyone is a child of promise.
Children of Promise in the New Testament
In Romans 9:8–9, Paul is saying some Jews are elected to salvation as well as some Gentiles, but not everyone, even if they descended directly from Abraham. In his letters, Paul refers to God’s words spoken to Moses in Exodus 33:19 as evidence of his teaching.
“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”
“So, then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy…Therefore, He has mercy on whom He wills.”
In verse seventeen, Paul quotes from Exodus 9:16 to remind us that God shows His mercy so that His power may reside within His chosen people and that His name is declared across the earth.
God chooses or “elects” whom He wills to salvation. His decision is made before any of us are born, which means He doesn’t base His choice on our good works. God alone decides who will be the children of promise (see also Ephesians 1:4,11; 2 Timothy 1:9; Revelation 13:8; 1 Peter 2:9; and many more).
Up until now, it may seem as if God only chooses certain people for salvation and not others, but that is not exactly true. So, we must ask then, who are His elect?
The Bible says all of us.
Remember, God’s promise to Abraham was that He would bless all nations through Abraham’s seed, both physically and spiritually. So, here is some clarification.
In the Old Testament, the promise referred to physical descendants of those who were a part of the bloodline leading to Jesus. They were the physical children of promise.
In the New Testament and under the new covenant, the promise refers directly to faith in Jesus. Those people are known as the spiritual children of promise, which means all people born again by faith in Jesus are called children of promise. They are God’s elect. They are Abraham’s spiritual seed.
So then, what does it mean for those who come to faith after years of sinning against God? That is, if God chooses the children of promise before they are born, then why is that some people don’t accept God’s gift of grace until later in their lives? Does that mean they are not children of promise?
No, it doesn’t.
Just because one doesn’t answer God’s calling until later in life does not preclude them from inheriting God’s blessing of becoming spiritual children of promise. God calls whom He will call (which is everyone), and His timing is always perfect. So, whether He calls to us in our elementary school years or our parenting years or not until our retirement years does not matter.
But here is where things get messy.
God may elect us (translated as “summoned” in Greek) to salvation, but it doesn’t mean we have to accept it. God has given us free will. So, we may either accept Him or reject Him as the Gospel message is presented to us.
The Marriage Feast Parable
Recall Jesus’ parable involving the marriage feast in Matthew 22:1–14.
A king sent out his servants to call people to his son’s wedding. Some people refused to come because they were too busy, to which the king said they were not worthy. He sent his servants out again, and they found enough people to fill the wedding hall, but one man was not wearing his wedding outfit. So, the king had the man thrown out into “outer darkness.” Jesus concludes his story by saying, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
The parable is an illustration of the kingdom of heaven. The king invited (i.e., called/elected/summoned) all the people to come to the bridegroom’s (Jesus’), but some declined to attend. Others responded to the invitation but did not respect it. They refused to wear the proper attire personally provided by the king (God the Father). Their refusal was more of an insult than those who didn’t come at all because it was done directly in the king’s presence. That is why the king threw them out. They sinned right in the king’s face by refusing the garment of righteousness he provided.
The point of the story is we are all invited to the wedding feast with Jesus. We are all called to repent. It is God’s heart to show mercy to everyone (Romans 11:32). But unfortunately, few will respond to the invitation.
The Bible says those who respond by either outright refusing the invitation or rejecting His righteousness (i.e., they’ve heard the Gospel but want nothing to do with Jesus) are doomed to eternal destruction in hell. The Bible calls such people hard-hearted.
Dealing with the Hard-hearted
Remember the story of the Pharaoh and Moses in Exodus 5–14. God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Again, we must look at the original Greek translation, which does not say “harden” but “strengthen.” The verb form more specifically means a cooperative effort between God and man.
God strengthened Pharaoh’s heart — He called to Pharaoh — but Pharaoh had already decided he wanted nothing to do with God’s people or their God. So, God gave him what he wanted.
Perhaps you know someone like that, someone who outright wants nothing to do with Jesus.
Does that mean we shouldn’t try to share the Gospel with them? Absolutely not.
We may know someone whose heart is so hard against God we might wonder why we should bother telling them about Jesus. And we might be right in our assessment. But we could also be wrong. Only God knows who He is currently calling/inviting, which means we must at least try to share the Gospel with that person. It’s what Jesus commanded us to do anyway in Matthew 28:19, where He tells us to make disciples of all nations.
So, if we share the Good News with someone, if they feel God knocking on the door of their heart and respond to it, if they answer the invitation to salvation…God promises they will become His spiritual children of promise.
What is that promise? The promise of eternal life with Him in heaven.
God is Calling You
If you have already accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you are a child of promise. Because of your faith in Him, you have the promise of eternal life with Him.
But if you’re reading this and you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, but you feel Him tugging on you, remember that your salvation is not achieved by being a decent person or performing good works. You cannot earn it in any way.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Ephesians 2:8
Salvation comes only by receiving and accepting God’s gift of grace.
“’ The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation…For WHOEVER CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED.”
If you feel God tugging at you, please don’t walk away from Him. Recognize He has called you to be one of His children of promise. He is inviting you to His wedding feast with a promise of eternal life with Him. Please don’t pass up this divine opportunity. The consequences of turning Him away are eternally catastrophic (click here to learn more).
Will you accept God’s gift today?