Does Romans 4:13 Universalize Israel’s Land Promises?

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Romans 4:13 has become a hotly debated verse lately between those who believe in a literal future fulfillment of Israel’s land promises and those who do not. Here Paul declares:

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:13).

Much discussion involves what Paul means when he says Abraham is “heir of the world.” Some non-dispensational scholars see this verse as evidence that Israel’s land promises in the Old Testament have been universalized in such a way that there is no longer an expectation of fulfillment of particular land promises for national Israel. Thus, Romans 4:13 allegedly transcends the Old Testament expectation of the land promises to Israel. Theologians such as N.T. Wright and Gary Burge, along with others, have promoted this view. Concerning Romans 4:13 Burge says,

The formula that linked Abraham to Jewish ethnic lineage and the right to possess the land has now been overturned in Christ. Paul’s Christian theology links Abraham to children of faith, and to them belongs God’s full domain, namely, the world” (Gary Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology, 86). (emphasis mine).

N.T. Wright declares:

In Romans 4:13 Paul says, startlingly, “The promise to Abraham and his seed, that they should inherit the world.” Surely the promises of inheritance were that Abraham’s family would inherit the land of Israel, not the world? Paul’s horizon, however, is bigger. The Land, like the Torah, was a temporary stage in the long purpose of the God of Abraham. It was not a bad thing now done away with, but a good and necessary thing now fulfilled in Christ and the Spirit. It is as though, in fact, the Land were a great advance metaphor for the design of God that his people should eventually bring the whole world into submission to his healing reign. God’s whole purpose now goes beyond Jerusalem and the Land to the whole world. (N.T. Wright, “Jerusalem in the New Testament,” pp. 9-10). (emphases mine).

To summarize, this sort of argument can be put in the following form:

  • The Old Testament contains particular land promises to national Israel.
  • The New Testament universalizes Israel’s land promises to all Christians.
  • Therefore, no longer is there an expectation that particular land promises to Israel will be fulfilled with Israel.

But I do not believe this understanding is biblical. What I will argue below is: (1) Paul’s main point in Romans 4:13 is about people who are descendants of Abraham, not land; and (2) universal blessings do not rule out particular blessings.

Romans 4:13 and People

The context before and after Romans 4:13 is speaking of people—descendants of Abraham, both Jew and Gentile. Paul is not directly speaking of land or earth. With Romans 4:1-8 Paul expounded the great truth of justification through faith alone. In doing so he uses examples of two great covenant heads—Abraham (Abrahamic covenant) and David (Davidic covenant). The fact that these two important men were saved through faith alone is evidence that salvation for any person or group is through faith alone, apart from works.

Then, with Romans 4:9-12, Paul explains that the principle of salvation through faith alone applies equally to both Jews and Gentiles. Since Abraham was justified through faith before his circumcision this allows Abraham to be the “father” of two distinct but related groups: (1) Gentiles (uncircumcised) who believe; and (2) Jews (circumcised) who believe. In verses 11-12, the term “father” describes Abraham’s relationship to both groups. Thus, Romans 4:1-12 reveals that Abraham is the father of both believing Gentiles and believing Jews.

When we come to verse 13 and Paul’s statement: “the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world” it seem obvious from the context that Abraham’s status as “heir of the world” is focused on people—descendants who are Gentiles and Jews who have expressed faith in God like Abraham. This is also bolstered by what comes after verse 13, particularly Romans 4:16-17a:

For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”).

Again, the emphasis is on believing Jews and Gentiles being related to Abraham. Abraham is also called “A father of many nations.” In fact, we can say that Abraham is “heir of the world” in the sense that he is “A father of many nations.” Land or earth is not the main issue here.

This does not mean land/earth is irrelevant to discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant as a whole, because the Abrahamic covenant is multi-faceted and includes matters related to Israel’s land and beyond (Gen 26:3-4). But Paul’s specific point in Romans 4:13 is that Abraham is “heir of the world” in the sense of believing people. To conclude that this verse teaches or implies the transcending of Israel’s land promises goes way beyond what Paul is saying here.

This understanding is bolstered by Paul’s use of kosmos for “world.” Sometimes this word is used of the physical world (Matt. 24:21; 25:34), but it is often used in Scripture for people (see John 3:16; 1 John 2:2). Context will determine which sense is best. There is another Greek term for “earth” or “land.” The term specifically refers to land, ground, or earth (see Matt. 4:15; 5:5). And if Paul would have used in Romans 4:13 it would be clear he meant physical geography and not people. But he uses the broader kosmos term.

In summary, to claim that Romans 4:13 is indicating a universalization of Israel’s land promises makes no sense since land is not primarily in view. If geographical land is not Paul’s point, then certainly Paul is not universalizing Israel’s land promises.

Israel and Israel’s Land as Means for Blessing the Earth

Here I want to make a broader theological point that involves how particular and universal fulfillment relates to land. Beyond Romans 4:13, if one considers the Abrahamic covenant as a whole we do see a relationship of the covenant to land. First, Israel was promised a particular land with certain dimensions (see Gen. 12:6-7; 13:14-17; 15:18-21) as part of the Abrahamic covenant. Fulfillment of the land promise is even reaffirmed hundreds of years later during times of national apostasy:

but, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought up the sons of Israel from the land of the north and from all the countries where He had banished them.’ For I will restore them to their own land which I gave to their fathers (see Jer. 16:15). (emphasis mine).

Second, both Israel and Israel’s land will be used by God to bless all people groups of the world, not just with salvation but blessings to the whole earth (Gen. 12:2-3; 22:17-18; Isa. 2:2-4; Ps. 72:18-19 Zech. 9:10). As Israel is blessed, ultimately through the Messiah, blessings will spill over to other nations and their lands. Isaiah 27:6 states: “In the days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and sprout, and they will fill the whole world with fruit.” Thus, Israel and Israel’s land function as microcosms of what God will do for all nations and their lands. As God blesses Israel, blessings will come to other nations (see Isa. 19:15-25).

So it is theologically true that planet earth and the nations of the earth will be blessed. But it is through the means of Israel and Israel’s Messiah that this will occur. God has determined that particular blessings to Israel are the means for bringing blessings to the nations. The particular (Israel and Israel’s land) is the means for universal blessings (Gentile nations and their lands). This is a “both/and scenario,” not an “either or.” (The complete fulfillment of these universal land blessings awaits Israel’s salvation and the second coming of Jesus and His kingdom [see Rom. 11:12, 15, 26-27; Matt. 19:28]).

What is wrong about the arguments of those like Wright and Burge concerning Romans 4:13 is that they assume universal blessings do not coincide along particular blessings to national Israel. Allegedly, universal fulfillment does away with particular promises to Israel. But this does not have to be the case and is refuted by other Bible passages and the Bible’s storyline as a whole.

Let us just assume for argument’s sake that Paul in Romans 4:13 is speaking of Abraham being “heir of the world” in a universal sense involving the earth for all believers, Jew and Gentile. Does this rule out the fulfillment of land promises to Israel? No, because universal fulfillment does not exclude particular fulfillment. In fact, particular fulfillment is the means of universal fulfillment. This is explicitly predicted in Genesis 12:2-3 when God tells Abraham that the nation to come from him (i.e. Israel) will be the means to bless the families and nations of the earth (see also Gen. 22:18). So even if Paul were thinking of land or earth in a universal sense in Romans 4:13, this would not rule out particular fulfillment of land promises to national Israel. Both could be true at the same time.

It seems like some who hold to a universalization of the land promise to Israel based on Romans 4:13 are approaching this verse as a proof text apart from its context or assuming certain things that are not accurate. In the cases of Burge and Wright, both believe the New Testament reinterprets or redefines the storyline of the Bible.

For example, Burge declared a hermeneutic of “reinterpretation”:

For as we shall see (and as commentators regularly show) while the land itself had a concrete application for most in Judaism, Jesus and his followers reinterpreted the promises that came to those in his kingdom. (Jesus and the Land, 35) (emphasis mine).

N.T. Wright uses “redefining” in regard to Jesus and His kingdom:

Jesus spent His whole ministry redefining what the kingdom meant. He refused to give up the symbolic language of the kingdom, but filled it with such a new content that, as we have seen, he powerfully subverted Jewish expectations. (Jesus and the Victory of God, 471). (emphasis mine).


I recently talked to a good friend of mine with a keen theological mind. As we talked about this issue of Romans 4:13, he asked a good question that goes something like this:

Imagine assembling a list of all the passages in the Bible that speak of land promises to Israel. You compile all these many passages in a column. Then you put Romans 4:13 next to this long list in another column. Do you think the average Christian is going to conclude from this that Paul is claiming that the land promises to Israel will not be fulfilled?

In my estimation, it is hard to see how they would. Romans 4:13 does not do this.

The issue of fulfillment of Israel’s land promises involves looking at many passages and issues. And here we have only looked at one. But for those arguing for the transcending of Israel’s land promises, the search will need to go elsewhere since Romans 4:13 teaches no such thing.

(For more detailed discussion on a biblical view of Romans 4:13 see this article by Nelson Hsieh, and the chapter, “Zionism in Pauline Literature: Does Paul Eliminate Particularity for Israel and the Land in His Portrayal of Salvation Available for All the World,” in The New Christian Zionism.)

Photo by Robert Bye.

Michael Vlach bio

Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.

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There are 38 Comments

G. N. Barkman's picture

Yes, Saul made the same mistake nearly every other Jewish student of the OT made.  And that's my point.  It's hard to find anyone in Israel who was looking for a Messiah like Jesus.  In time, many came to understand and believe that Jesus was the God promised Messiah, but not from their study of the OT alone.  The idea, stated on SI, that God's integrity requires that the OT land prophecies be crystal clear, and cannot possibly be understood differently than DT's believe, is not born out by the prophecies regarding the coming Messiah.  The Messiah prophecies were not crystal clear.  We understand them in the light of their NT fulfillment, not from the clarity of the OT.  We read our NT understanding back into the OT, and it all becomes clear.  It evidently wasn't that clear to most OT saints.  

Could something similar apply to OT land promises?  I'm not insisting on my interpretation, but I am appealing for an admission that maybe, just maybe, the OT prophecies could be fulfilled a bit differently than they might appear at first glance.  I am frankly surprised at the vehemence with which such a possibility is so stoutly resisted.

G. N. Barkman

Ed Vasicek's picture

The Messiah prophecies were not crystal clear.  

Not so sure I agee with this.  There were many and scattered, and the sheer quantity of them may have made them difficult to harmonize, but they were not concealed. 

Luke 24:25-26:

25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?”

In contrast, the promise to Abraham is quite simple.  That's why some of us feel such vehemence.  If the obvious things aren't clear, how can we hope to understand the less obvious?


"The Midrash Detective"

G. N. Barkman's picture

Hardly anyone understood them correctly until the NT fulfillment.  Its easy enough for us to read our NT understanding back into the OT, see what is now, to us, significant clarity, and conclude that the Messianic promises were clear.  If so, why so few who understood them?  They are clear enough to us, but not the OT saints before the coming of Christ.

Similarly, the promises to Abraham have not yet been entirely fulfilled.  We may be as wrong about the manner of their fulfillment as Saul of Tarsus was about the promised Messiah.  The final fulfillment may surprise a whole lot of OT scholars, who may, like Saul, find out that they were vehemently mistaken.

G. N. Barkman

pvawter's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

The final fulfillment may surprise a whole lot of OT scholars, who may, like Saul, find out that they were vehemently mistaken.

This comparison is baseless. Paul was not a Jewish saint who came to see Jesus as the fulfillment of his messianic hopes via a bit of new revelation, nor was he a justifiably mistaken interpreter of OT prophecy. He was an unbeliever who set about trying to obtain his own righteousness by the law rather than God's righteousness by faith. His conversion was not due to his finally realizing his mistaken hermeneutic, it was the confrontation of his stubborn rebellion against the God he falsely claimed to follow.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Hardly anyone understood them correctly until the NT fulfillment.  

I agree and I disagree.  Many certainly understood certain points about His coming.  For example, the teachers of the Law told the Magi He would be born in Bethlehem.  Some Jews understood that Isaiah 53 applied to the Messiah.  The dead sea scroll people even evidenced belief that the Messiah would rise from the dead on the third day.   They just couldn't put the package together, but between them all, they understood the parts.

BTW, somewhere in the OT is a teaching that Christ would rise specifically on the 3rd Day; haven't found it yet. I understand that "on the third day" is "according tot he Scriptures" (I Corinthians 15:1-5)  and thus also part of prophecy, not just the resurrection in general.  But you might find this a good read on the side, about how some Jews understood the Messiah to rise on the third day.  Find the NY Times article HERE).

IMO, it was anti-Semitism that caused a rejection of Abraham's land promise.  And that anti-Semitism's viewpoint then became embedded in the church.  Now the anti-Semitism is lessened (but still there very much alive hermeneutically), but the viewpoint is vintage and thus respected.

I have done extensive work in Jewish Roots, and I can tell you that many Jews understood pieces, but could not put the picture together, much like it took the church three centuries to harmonize all the teachings of God's Personhood into the Trinity.  But Christians had the pieces before then.

But I think we are getting far off base.  The discussion is about a SIMPLE promise made to Abraham that others have made complex.  The prophecies of Messiah are complex because of their quantity.  It seems to me off base to make cloudy the clear.  Abraham knew what God meant, it was not rocket science.  There may be more added to it or implied, but nothing removed or diminished.


"The Midrash Detective"

G. N. Barkman's picture

To some, I probably sound like I am beating a dead horse.  But statements like the one above keep making my point, even though it is denied.  (Paul takes a different view, but Ed and I have much in common, though with a very different conclusion.)

If OT saints couldn't put the Messianic package together without NT fulfillment, how can you be so sure the you have correctly understood the land promises?  You assert that there is a significant difference between the promise to Abraham, and the promises of the Messiah.  The first is simple and easily understood, the latter not so much.  But once again, many Jews thought the Messianic promises were clear and easily understood, but they were wrong.  A bit of caution in place of dogmatism would have served them well.  Likewise with the land promises.  There really are some reasonable alternate explanations that do justice to the promises.  They will never satisfy those who are convinced there is only one possible way to understand them, but they provide fodder for fruitful exploration for those who wrestle with a proper harmonization of OT and NT passages.  The usual DT approach of interpreting the NT in a manner which basically sidesteps the OT, and makes OT and NT two unrelated documents, is less than satisfactory to many.  I simply appeal for a smidgeon of willingness to acknowledge the possibility that the OT and NT may be more interconnected than allowed by DT.  What if maybe, just maybe, the NT actually provides the key to OT interpretation?






G. N. Barkman

Ed Vasicek's picture

Okay, you are beating a dead horse, and it is not even a real horse, IMO.

The Jews were divided into 16 sects.  There was not one consistent Judaism.  But among the Jews, many DID get specific promises of the Messiah spot on.  

The promise to Abraham regarding land is a single prediction that does not take rocket science to understand.  It is not a "mystery," which, in my PD understanding, means something not immediately obvious.  

There is a huge difference between comparing scores of prophecies, some of them hidden away as shadows, with clear-cut concrete promises.  

I believe -- perhaps more than you do -- about the inter-relatedness of the testaments.  Unlike traditional DTs (I agree with your ciriticism), I do not segregate the testaments.  I believe Christianity is trans-cultural (which is why we are not under aspects of the Law intended for the Jewish people alone) Messianic Judaism.  I believe much of the NT is midrash on the OT.  The difference between my view and CT is that I believe those midrashim add -- but do not subtract -- to God's clearcut promises.

But I will take issue with you on your comparison -- one, simple promise (not just a prophecy, but a promise) to many prophecies and allusions, some of which are certainly unclear, others of which are not.

BTW, the link I posted is sort of off the subject, but fascinating.  IMO, the dead sea scroll people somehow found that 3rd day resurrection in the OT. The article is written from a liberal skeptical viewpoint, obviously.

It has been a pleasure conversing with you, as always, but I think we have said all we can say at this point.  If you want to have the final word, I'll let you!

"The Midrash Detective"

G. N. Barkman's picture


Thanks, Ed.  It's always a pleasure interacting with you.

G. N. Barkman


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