This month, we will continue our study of God’s covenant of grace. The essence of that covenant is that God has developed a relationship of friendship between Himself, the triune God, and His chosen people in Christ Jesus.
We have seen that Enoch walked with God. We have seen that Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. We have seen that with Noah, God’s covenant includes all of creation, for this is where the church has to live. We have also seen that God made a covenant with Abraham, that is, it is God alone who walked between the two parts of the sacrifice. It is God’s relationship with His people.
I am going to read Genesis 17:1-14.
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.
And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.
What a precious doctrine this is. This is a distinctively Reformed truth that is developed by the Reformed churches from the Word of God. But there is much confusion and controversy about this covenant. Is it a pact; is it a promise; or is it a relationship? The promise: To whom is it given? Is it to every baptized baby, or is the promise only to the elect children? Is that covenant established conditionally or unconditionally? How does God preserve His people—only if they fulfill their conditions or is this an unconditional promise of God? What about the future? Is the covenant an end in itself, a goal; or is the covenant merely a means to a better end? In other words, does God have a covenant in order to save us, or does He save us so that we may enjoy the covenant? Let me answer some of those questions immediately and then we will develop it.
God’s covenant of grace is a unilateral covenant. That means that God alone establishes it. It is an unconditional covenant. It is an everlasting covenant. It is not a means to salvation but, rather, we are saved in order to enjoy covenant fellowship with our God. Yes, the essence of the covenant is a relationship, a relationship of friendship between the triune God and His chosen people in Christ.
Notice, God explains what the covenant means. He says, “I will be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.” In other words, he is saying, “You are Mine. I am your God.” This is brought up in many passages of God’s Word. Later on we will speak on Jeremiah 31:33 where we read: “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The covenant is explained in Scripture by the symbol of marriage. Israel was married to the Lord. We read in Ezekiel 16:8, “Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine.” Where do we read about Abraham? In James 2:23 we read: “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.” What a beautiful picture we have! What an awesome truth this is.
In Scripture we have the figure of the tabernacle that would be built. In the tabernacle amongst the Israelites was the Most Holy Place. And in that Most Holy Place was the Ark of the Covenant. And God came down and dwelt with His people. Just as a family dwells together in a home, God dwells with His people. How beautifully that is fulfilled when God gave His Son, when the Messiah was born as the Seed of Abraham. How close does God dwell with His people? He does it in the person of His Son, who came in our flesh, and He dwells with His Spirit in our hearts.
Now, there are many different covenants. There were covenants between the heathen nations. They were treaties, they were contracts. Even Israel had covenants with the nations around them. But notice, God’s covenant is distinct. It is different from that. God says, “I will establish My covenant.” You see, it is God’s covenant because really it is His own life in Himself. God is a covenant God. That is, the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, and they love each other by the Holy Spirit. So the covenant that God is speaking of, the covenant of grace, is a covenant that He has conceived. He is the author. It is a relationship of friendship with God’s elect people in Christ Jesus. How can God have a relationship with us who, by nature, are sinful? The answer comes that Abraham believed and it was counted righteousness unto him, that is, he is given the righteousness of Jesus and that is the only way that we can have a relationship with God: made righteous by God by the blood of Jesus Christ. So, let us look at that covenant of grace made with Abraham.
I said earlier that it is unconditional. God says, “I will establish my covenant with thee and with thy seed after thee.” God does not say, “Hey, Abraham, lets you and me work out a relationship.” Now, there are some who say, “Yes, God established His covenant unconditionally, but if you will remain in the covenant, that depends upon if you fulfill conditions.” Can the covenant be broken? Look at our text (Gen. 17:7): “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for [what?] an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” It is not a temporary covenant. It has no conditions—always. “I will establish my covenant with thee for an everlasting covenant.” Yes, Abram has a part, that is, he is called (v. 1) to walk before God and be perfect. Always he will live a life of thankfulness. You see, there are obligations in the covenant, but they are not conditions. The walk of Abram was not the basis for God’s forming a covenant with him. But, rather, that walk was the fruit of God’s covenant. It is indeed a covenant of grace. It was established with Abraham and it is established with us who are sinners. Think of Abraham. He left the land that God gave him and went to Egypt and dwelt with lies. Abraham tried to help God out by having a child with Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar. You see, he and we quite often try to take matters into our own hands. God’s covenant is a gracious covenant. It is not merited by us; it is not earned by us. In fact, it is undeserved.
Now, the covenant does contain promises. It is important for us to distinguish. The covenant is not a promise, but it is a relationship. It includes promises. God promises (in verse 6) that nations are going to come forth from Abram and a king will come from Abraham, and (v. 8) the land will be given. There are spiritual promises of blessings and salvation. But the covenant, while it contains promises, is more than just a promise. It is a relationship.
And finally, we need to notice that the covenant is the goal of all of God’s work. To think otherwise is the fatal flaw of the covenant-thinking of many Reformed folk. They believe that the covenant is a plan and that the goal is to be in heaven. Now, when a carpenter is going to build a house, he builds the scaffolds, he has a plan in mind; but finally the scaffold is taken down, and there is the house. So also there are those who view the covenant as a means in order to save us. But that is not what the covenant is all about. Rather, Abram was saved in order to enjoy a covenant relationship with God. God in His covenant is saying, “You are Mine and I am yours.” It is an everlasting covenant. We are saved in order that there may be this relationship with God for ever and ever. Here on earth already and, finally, in the new heavens and the new earth.
But, as we look at our passage, what is the main point? The main point is that God established a covenant with Abraham and his children. We saw already last week that God established a covenant with Abram (Gen. 15:18). But now, what is important in this passage is that God says, “And with thy seed after thee for an everlasting covenant.” God makes a promise: “I will establish My covenant with thee and with thy seed after thee.” It is with Abraham’s children, not after they finally are mature and they confess their faith, but rather it is with his seed. Have you ever taken a little seed in your hand, between your thumb and your finger, and plant it in the ground so that it grows up? Well, God’s covenant is with our little children already in the womb, not yet developed. Who is this seed? It is our children. And here God is coming and looking at Abraham organically. That is, it is not a covenant with each and every child that is baptized. Rather it is the covenant, a promise. We read in Romans 9:6ff.: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” So, who are these seed? In Galatians 3:16, the apostle Paul, by the Holy Spirit, makes a very important distinction. There we read: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” So, who is the seed of Abraham? It is Christ Jesus, and it is all those who, by the grace of God, believe in Jesus Christ. They are the promised seed. Those are the ones with whom God establishes His covenant.
Oh, how beautiful. God says, “You are Mine!” And Abraham believed God. So, in faith, he had an obligation, did he not? He was to take the token of the covenant and put it upon his household. Now, I said that is an obligation. It is not a condition. Just as in marriage, there are obligations, are there not? But there are not conditions in the marriage. Even if the obligations are not carried out by one of the spouses, yet that marriage is an unbreakable bond till death do them part. Think about families. There are obligations of children in the household and there are obligations of the parents. But, even if the obligations at times are not kept, they are still a part of the family. God makes a covenant with us and our children and we are to take the token of that covenant and put it upon our children—all of them. In the Old Testament it was circumcision; in the New Testament, it is baptism. In the Old Testament it was a bloody thing, for circumcision was the cutting off of the male member that pictures our uncleanness and signifies that we could only beget unclean children. It looked forward to the blood of Jesus Christ that would be shed. Now in the New Testament, we baptize our infants and our children. It is now a baptism of water. So, while the token is different in the Old and the New Testaments, the reality is really the same, is it not? We are unclean, but God is going to make us clean, clean by the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
How shall we respond to this glorious doctrine where God says, “You are Mine”? Well, how can we respond except with great humility. As David would say, “Who am I, what is my house, we are unclean?” How shall we respond except with praise and adoration and thanksgiving to God! What can be closer and what can be more comforting than a close friend, a close friend who shares our joys, a close friend on whom we can rely for help in our adversities. Oh, how awesome is this truth: the Almighty God is my Friend, and He says to me and to my children: “Mine.” And we say again of our God in Christ Jesus: “He is mine.” Oh, by grace God brings us out of our sins. He covers our sins. We and our children do not deserve this, but God’s promise is sure. God gathers into His church not haphazardly—one here and one there—but in the line of generations. And nothing, nothing can separate us from His great love to us in Christ Jesus.
Oh, this truth of the covenant of grace fills us with adoration, and it calls to us to be diligent, to care for our children, to love our children, to embrace our God and to embrace our children, to encourage our children in the way of the Lord, to discipline them, to train them, and, yes, pray for them. Pray for your children that they may be God’s children. God establishes His covenant, a covenant of grace, a unilateral covenant. God establishes it unconditionally. It is an everlasting covenant. He saves us by the blood of Jesus Christ so that we may enjoy covenant friendship with Him now in this life and forever. Let us thank God for that covenant.
Let us pray.
Father in heaven, we thank Thee for the truth of Thy Word. We are thankful that Thou, the covenant God, dost take us up into that life of friendship and fellowship. We thank Thee that Thou hast described what that covenant is. Thou wilt be our God, and Thou wilt say to us: “Thou art Mine.” Receive our thanks, our praise. We pray for our children and our children’s children that they may know and love Thee. Amen.