God has made a one-sided covenant with Abram. It depends only on Him. We even saw Him remain faithful to Abram’s descendants even when Abram and Sarai were impatient and schemed to produce an heir without God. God will accomplish His plan and even carries His promise over to Hagar’s descendants even though He is not obligated to do so. In Genesis 17, God redeclares His covenant again and instructs Abram and his entire household to be circumcised as part of this covenant. But, the covenant is one-sided. It depends only on God. Why does God not provide a way for Abram to keep His covenant? Is there a sense in which we also keep a covenant even though the fulfilling of God’s plan is monergistic? Let’s look.
Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you will be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:1-5).
Abram receives his new name, Abraham. God promises, without condition, that His covenant is with Abraham and that Abraham will be the father of many nations. Yet, we also see this instruction for Abraham to walk blameless before God because God is God Almighty. If God’s work is monergistic, meaning it depends only on Him and in no way on us, I have to wonder why He calls His people to live holy lives. What purpose does holy living serve if God is transcendent, unsearchable, almighty, unequivocal, unmatched, and we cannot earn His graces by acting better. What is the purpose of holy living? What does God gain by requiring it in response to His grace?
“I have made you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you. I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.” God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations” (Genesis 17:6-9).
God will do great things. He will give Abraham a land and multiply his descendants. As for Abraham, Abraham shall keep God’s covenant. His descendants shall also keep God’s covenant throughout their generations. What exactly is God’s covenant? Look back at Genesis 15:7-21. The covenant only depends on God’s action. How is Abraham to keep such a covenant if only God can work out the covenant agreement? Abraham cannot give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan. Abraham cannot ensure that he will birth many nations. Abraham cannot force his descendants to sojourn for 400 years in a land that is not their own before returning to occupy Canaan. Only God can do that. How can Abraham and his descendants keep such a covenant? You ever feel like God asks us to do the impossible?
We received one clue when God instructed Abraham to walk before Him and be blameless. How is one blameless under a king or as a citizen of a nation? Even without a law, someone can remain blameless by submitting to the will of a king or nation. With worldly nations, I’m not sure we should by so obsequious. With God, it makes more sense. I think, here, God is instructing Abraham to willfully submit to His sovereign will and plan. The Semitic nations are to submit to the will of God. This is the only possible way people can keep the covenant of God. This covenant is not to be confused with the Law. The Law has not yet been given. The covenant has, though, been made. Abraham’s household is to be the people of God. God is to be their God. They are to be His people. They will keep the covenant that God alone is doing.
“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant” (Genesis 17:10-14)
God now instructs Abraham concerning how they are to set themselves apart from the rest of the world. Every male—natural born, immigrant, and slave—is to be circumcised. Circumcision is the outward sign of the inward commitment to submit to God’s will and plan. This is why certain persuasions of faith that have replaced circumcision with baptism practice paedobaptism (infant baptism). As for them and their houses, they will serve the Lord. I do not treat baptism the same way, but I am happy when families dedicate their entire households to the Lord in commitment to be His people and submit to Him. I admire the practice so long as it is not seen as salvific. It is the outward sign of an inner commitment—a praiseworthy commitment.
Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:15-17).
God renames Sarai, “Sarah.” He redeclares His promise again. She will be the mother of many nations and kings. Because of his age, Abraham does not understand how this will happen. I believe He believes God. He knows how biology works. He knows about Sarah’s menopause. He knows that he is probably all dried up. He is wondering how God can do this work.
And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year” (Genesis 17:18-21).
Abraham asks God to reconsider Ishmael. God will not. He will bless Ishmael, but the son of promise will come from Sarah. God is so gracious that He tell Abraham exactly when she will give birth, “…this season next year.”
When He finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him. Now Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son. All the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him (Genesis 17:22-27).
After God goes up from him, Abram obeys God. He dedicates himself and his entire household, including Ishmael, to God. They will be His people. He will be their God.
Abraham and his descendants will go through much on this earth. From wars to conflict to slavery and a few decades wandering in the wilderness. When we dedicate our lives to Him, we give ourselves over to His will. Our lives are such that we are submitted. We do not become Christians in order to get something from God. We do not follow Jesus in order to better our lives, make money, try to get God on our side, avoid destruction, find wealth, get healed, or have some kind of crutch in this life. Like with Abraham, there is a very real, good promise—eternal life and a great reward. Like with Abraham, the covenant of redemption is monergistic and unconditional. Like with Abraham, we keep the covenant by submitting to the will of God in this life. As we are submitted to God, we are “content in whatever circumstances [we are]. [We] know how to get along with humble means, and [we] also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance [we learn] the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. [We] can do all things through Him who strengthens [us]” (Philippians 4:11-13). We strive to be blameless in God’s eyes.