Promise and Performance


In 2 Timothy 1:9 Paul tells us that God has purposed our salvation by grace in Christ Jesus from all eternity (REB). Again, in Titus 1:2 he informs us that God who never lies promised us eternal life before the ages began (cf. Rom. 8:28-30). The inference we draw from this is that God had our salvation in view when he created the world to be inhabited (Isa. 45:12,18). In the words of Isaiah he formed and made for his glory everyone called by his name (Isa. 43:7). They were created for himself so that they might declare his praise (Isa. 43:21; 1 Pet. 2:9). In Ephesians 1:11-14 Paul elaborates on this to some degree, but in Romans he goes so far as to say that when we are led by his Spirit, we become God’s adopted children and heirs (8:14-17).


In light of this, it comes as no surprise that in the course of the history of the people of God there is strong stress on the divine promises. John informs us in his first letter that the promise God has made to us is eternal life (2:25), and in his gospel that God’s love for the world was such that this would be granted to all who believe in Christ (John 3:16). Of course there were adumbrations of this in the OT.


According to the Psalmist (8:5f.), Genesis 1:26,28 constitute a conditional promise. The proper exercise of dominion over the temporal and hence corruptible creation by man will lead to his being crowned with glory and honour.

Genesis 2:16f. reads more like a threat than a promise, but the implication of God’s command is that obedience on the part of man (Adam) will lead to (eternal) life. This would appear to receive support from Paul’s comments in his letter to the Romans regarding future judgement by works. For in 2:7,10 he merges these two promises when he says that to all those who seek glory, honour and immortality (Gk. incorruption) God will grant eternal life. (1* The tendency of translators to imply that incorruption and immortality are equivalent involves serious misunderstanding, cf. Vine, Expository Dictionary, pp.131,320. After all, when Jesus was raised physically from the dead never to die again (Rom. 6:9), he was still corruptible flesh, Luke 24:39; John 20:24-28, aging and hence subject to decay like the temporal earth from which he stemmed, Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12. As such he necessarily had to undergo ascension and retransformation in order to regain his divine glory and splendour, John 17:5,24; 20:17; 1 Cor. 15:50ff. To go no further, this demonstrates the invalidity of premillennialism and the idea that Christ will return to corruption, that is, earth/flesh, Acts 13:34, cf. Heb. 2:9; 7:26; Rev. 20:11; 21:1, etc. See further below.)

Three Tests

Welcome though these promises may be since they provide hope for the future and counter the enigma and apparent purposeless of life on earth (see e.g. Ecclesiastes), there are tasks or tests to be undertaken and conditions or obstacles to be overcome with a view to their fulfilment. And Scripture draws attention to three in particular. From the start man faces what we may call in alliterative terms a problem, a persecutor and a pretender.

1. The Problem of the World

First, there is the problem of exercising dominion over the rest of creation or world by God’s vice-regent man who, though corruptible flesh like the rest of the animals (Gen. 6:17), is also made in the divine image. This dominion, which implicitly promises heavenly glory and honour (Ps. 8:5f.), would appear to be a tall order even in Genesis 1. Though Adam makes a propitious start in that he appears to tend the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15) and name the animals around him (2:19f.) with some success, once the commandment of 2:17 comes he rebels against the word of God, sins and is cast out. When this occurs, it becomes evident that rei(g)ning in a recalcitrant creation, which God himself had originally reduced to order from its initial chaos (Gen. 1:2) and pronounced ‘good’, that is, suitable for his purpose (Gen. 2:9; Eccles. 3:11) is likely to be a Herculean labour which proves beyond his capacity (Gen. 3:17-19). So we may draw the conclusion that while Adam prospers to some degree in horticulture, his prospects in agriculture and the wider world in general are somewhat less sanguine.

2. A Persecutor (The Flesh)

Second, the prime source of Adam’s trouble appears to be his fleshly weakness. This is first highlighted by the seduction of Eve who, when her fleshly appetites are appealed to, succumbs to temptation. She cannot resist taking the fruit that God had forbidden on pain of death (Gen. 2:17; 3:6). The immediate gratification of her physical desires is obviously clamant and she gives way. And that Adam accedes to the same desire demonstrates the fact that the flesh is a fatal weakness in the constitutional makeup of all human beings.

Much later in Scripture Paul draws attention to the fact that the flesh is a law to itself (Rom. 7:23,25); it acts and reacts spontaneously and needs to be mastered (cf. Gen. 4:7) like the world itself. (For obvious reasons the ‘world’ becomes much more comprehensive in meaning as revelation and human development progress. See further below.) His own personal attempts at overcoming it by the law of his mind prove abortive. Like Eve before him he cannot control and tame his illicit covetousness (Rom. 7:7f.). Thus when the commandment makes its impression on his developing mind he caves in like his distant forebears and forfeits his claim to eternal life (7:9-11). In the following verses he goes on to show that his flesh wars, first, against the law, which cannot restrain it (Rom. 7). Secondly, he avers that even when the empowering Spirit comes through faith in Christ (Rom. 8:2), his flesh continues its unremitting onslaught and tempts him to sin. (Cf. Jesus’ temptations which occur after his baptism with the Spirit.) In Galatians 5:16f. (cf. James 1:4), while the apostle tells us that if we walk by the Spirit, we shall not gratify the desires of the flesh, he graphically depicts the continuing conflict and mutual opposition between flesh and Spirit. And it comes as no surprise that the warnings of Paul and the rest of the NT writers against giving in to fleshly temptation, to which their readers have previously fallen prey in their unregenerate (Gentile) state (cf. Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17; 1 Pet. 4:3, etc.), occur with frequent regularity (Rom. 13:14; 1 Pet. 2:11, etc.).

Perhaps Paul’s most graphic image of the nature of the flesh comes in Galatians 4:29 when he portrays it as a relentless persecutor personified by Ishmael. Like the world man was called on to rule over to prevent it from becoming a desolation (Isa. 6:11f., etc., cf. 45:18), so the flesh must be mastered to prevent man from descending into mere animality (Eccl. 3:18; Jer. 12:3; Phil. 3:19; 2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 10).

3. A Pretender (The Devil)

(A pretender is both a dissimulator or deceiver and one who makes a claim to sovereignty like the Old and Young Pretenders of British history.)

Third, behind mankind’s temptation to indulge his flesh is the devil who, first, seduces Eve to sit loose to what was apparently her husband’s admonition regarding the word of God, and who, next, prompts Adam himself to rebel against God’s clearly defined prohibition (cf. 1 Tim. 2:14).

Readers of the Bible cannot but be aware that we, and all our forefathers, have sinned (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 106:6; 130:3; 143:2, etc.) and as a consequence have reaped the wages of death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). In Romans 1-3, Ephesians 2:1-3 and 4:17 to go no further, Paul paints a graphic picture of universal unrighteousness and charges both Jew and Gentile with coming short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Thus, to all intents and purposes, the promises of God to mankind are in abeyance. Or are they?


The Second Adam

Mankind made in the image of Adam (Gen. 5:1-5) and hence deriving from the earth (Gen. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:48a,49a) was, remains and will ever be a failure. Since where there is no law, there is neither sin (Rom. 4:15; 7:7-11) nor righteousness (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7), Adam and all his posterity are created innocent (Gen. 3:22; Dt. 1:39; Eccles. 7:29; Isa. 53:6, etc.). But as they become aware of the law which promises life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11,13,21, etc.), all in their turn fail to keep it (Rom. 3:9). And since transgression of (the) law pays wages in the form of death, every one’s life is forfeit (3:23; 5:12, cf. Job 4:17-19). Left to himself Adamic man is without hope of glory.

The Divine Plan

Strangely, this is precisely what God intended. The Bible tells us that he himself always planned to be the Saviour of his people, that before him no flesh will boast (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29, cf. Gal. 2:16) and that eventually every knee will bend (Isa. 45:22f.). Thus Paul does not mince matters when he says in Romans 11:32 that God has consigned all to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all. And the apostle makes it crystal clear that this mercy is exercised in Christ (Gal. 3:22).

But this raises the question of how this comes about. For if the promise of life and glory and honour was originally made to man on condition of exercising dominion, of keeping the commandment and of resisting the blandishments of the devil, then it must still be so. And it is.

The Incarnation

At his incarnation Jesus became a true human being. Though ultimately deriving from heaven, through his mother his earthly (fleshly) father was Adam, the man of dust (cf. Luke 3:38). This being so, he too was dust, and like the temporal earth from which he was taken he was subject to aging, death and ultimate corruption. But since he did not sin but kept the law, he inherited, first, eternal life at his baptism, and, second, the glory and honour (splendour) implicitly promised to the first Adam at his ascension. This is essentially what the author of Hebrews is telling us in his second chapter.

The Dominion of Jesus

It needs to be noticed, however, that the NT makes Jesus’ victory specific. First, it depicts him as the one who plays Adam’s role and fulfils his original vocation of exercising dominion. Not only does Jesus himself say that he has resisted (cf. Mark 4:18f.) and overcome the world (John 16:33; 17:4f.; Rev. 5:5,12f., cf. Acts 10:38) but the author of Hebrews also spells it out (2:6-9). What is more, his victory is achieved as mankind’s covenant representative for he also delivers his fellows (2:10-13) who through the fear of death have been subject to lifelong bondage (2:14f.).

Victory in the Flesh

Next, as flesh and clearly in the process of growing older (John 8:57) like the creation from which he stemmed through his mother (Heb. 1:11), he overcame sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3). He thus kept the law and inherited life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). While subject to all the worldly pressures, fleshly temptations and devilish seductions common to man, he nonetheless triumphed (Heb. 2:17f.; 4:15). (Clearly the world that Jesus had to conquer was more comprehensive than the mere physical creation that confronted Adam. With the development of the race and the march of history, just as the commandment was expanded into the law of Moses so the creation became the much more complex world of Paul and John, see espec. Rom. 8:31-39; 1 John 2:15-17. For him there were human as well as literal thorns to be overcome, cf. Mt. 13.) Weak like the rest of us in the flesh (2 Cor. 13:4), in the power of God he nonetheless made his flesh his slave using it as the vehicle of his spirit. In the end, he sacrificed it in the service of his Father and as the means of atoning for the sin of his people (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18, etc.). It was thus that he finished the work he had been sent to accomplish (John 17:4) on the cross (John 19:30).

The Defeat of the Devil

That Jesus was subject to the devil’s temptations we are left in no doubt. Despite this, according to the NT, Jesus in contrast with all his forebears yielded not an inch (Mt. 4:1-11; 5:18; Luke 4:1-13). He himself, who came into the world with the express intention of destroying the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), insisted that Satan had no claim on him (John 14:30). We have already seen that Jesus delivered his fellows from the fear of death, but the author of Hebrews goes further and says that he partook of our nature so that he might destroy the devil who has the power of death (Heb. 2:14). In other words, like Paul (Rom. 8:3), our author maintains that his victory occurred in the weakness of the flesh. Clearly the second Adam who came from heaven had demonstrated his vast superiority over him who stemmed from the earth. Just as the new covenant eclipses the old (2 Cor. 3), grace outshines works and mercy triumphs over judgement (James 2:13), so the extent of Christ’s victory was greater than the damage inflicted by Adam’s defeat (Romans 5:12-21).

Jesus the Conqueror and King of kings

Thus, we can say without fear of contradiction that, according to the NT, Jesus overcame the world (John 16:33; 17:4f.; Heb. 2:9), the flesh (Mt. 4; Rom. 8:3) and the devil (Mt. 4; John 14:30). In view of his victory, he ascended triumphantly into heaven (1 Tim. 3:16) returning to the presence of his Father who sent him in the first place (John 3:13, etc.). His earthly performance was unique; he had achieved success where all other human beings had failed. As sole Conqueror he was glorified in splendour at the Father’s right hand (Rev. 3:21; 5:5,12f.), and crowned King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 17:14; 19:16).

The Saviour

The NT tells us that while the first Adam became a living being, Jesus, the second or last Adam, became a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45; Mt. 11:27; John 5:26; 17:2). It is therefore he alone who can give us access to the Father (John 14:6) and give us a seat at his right hand in glory (Rev. 3:21). In fact, he is the universal hope of glory (Col. 1:27). For no man can come to the Father except by him (John 14:6). He is the sole Saviour of all his fellows (Acts 4:12) since he alone as man gained life by keeping the law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, cf. Mt. 3:17). It was he who having died for us uniquely paved our way to heaven (Heb. 2:9f.) as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 6:20; 12:2, cf. 1 Pet. 3:18). So, if we do not have the Son, we have neither the Father (1 John 2:23) nor life (1 John 5:11-13).

On the other hand, if we have him, we too conquer the world, the flesh and the devil and abide forever (1 John 2:14-17; Rom. 8:31-39).

Personal performance on the part of Adamic man comes significantly short of the divine glory (Rom. 3:23; 5:12), but God’s promises in Christ prove true (2 Cor. 1:20). The indisputable fact is that Jesus, as the unique, perfect and supreme performer, is peerless, matchless, incomparable and absolutely indispensable. He is the Man, the only man to achieve the perfection of God (Mt. 5:48) and able to give us both eternal life and an incorruptible inheritance of glory (Rom. 2:7,10; 8:17,32; 2 Cor. 4:17; Col. 3:4; 1 Pet. 1:3f.)*. He himself proved worthy to receive the power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing (Rev. 5:12) of God (Rev. 4:9-11). Little wonder that we who believe in him as our representative are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom. 8:37).

Well may we sing: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Rev. 4:11) and “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Amen! (Rev. 5:13f., ESV).

* When Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth (cf. Ps. 37:11), he can only mean the (eternal) world to come (Heb. 2:5, cf. 1:6) or the heavenly country the children of Abraham hope to inherit (Heb. 11:16). The glory of this world is associated with temporality (death) and corruption (Mt. 6:19f.; Gal. 6:8; Phil. 3:19, etc.).

Here on earth we have corruptible bodies which match the corruptible things we possess or inherit (cf. Luke 12:13-21); in heaven we shall have glorious or incorruptible bodies enabling us to inherit permanent treasures, riches or possessions (Mt. 6:19f.; Rom. 8:32; Eph. 1:18; Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 1:3f., etc.). In other words, life and incorruption are complementary concepts (cf. 2 Tim. 1:10) not simply synonyms as scholars, especially translators, frequently imply (cf. Fee, 1 Corinthians, p.802 n.31; Harris, Raised Immortal, p.274).

We tend to forget that when we believe and are born again we have, like Jesus, eternal life (John 3:16), but we clearly lack incorruptibility so long as we are on earth. The glory and splendour associated with our incorruptible bodies await us in the world to come (1 Cor. 15:43, cf. v.40). Quantity of life (immortality) without quality of life (glory) is of dubious value as persecuted Christians are doubtless well aware. The world to come offers much more (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9, etc.).