I. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE TEXT
A) The CONTEXT of the Passage: We're told in the first verse of Genesis 17 that Abram is now 99 years old, which means that it had been nearly a full 25 years since he left Haran for the land of Canaan. We're also told in the last verse of Genesis 16 that 13 years had passed between Chapter 16 and Chapter 17. What happened in Genesis 16? Abram had listened to his wife Sarah to take her maid Hagar as another wife. God had promised to make Abram into a great nation, but over 10 years later, he still had no children, and he wasn't getting any younger. So at the suggestion of his wife, Abram tries to force God's timing by taking things into his own hands. He takes Hagar as another wife and she bears Ishmael to him. And from that point on, there's nothing but trouble. When Hagar conceives, she looks down on Sarah; then Sarah retaliates by getting violent with Hagar. Scripture doesn't tell us anything else about those 13 years, but judging from Sarah's words later in 21:9-10, it seems that the family unrest continues. What does this teach us? Unbelief only leaves us empty. Abram had given into unbelief; he had failed to trust in the Lord; and his sin had brought real consequences not just to himself, but to his whole family. But that wasn't the end of the story...
In Genesis 17, God comes once again to Abram to comfort and revive him. And the way God does this is by reminding him of two things: His character and His covenant. God reminds Abram both of who He is and of what He has promised. So, God says, “I am God Almighty. . .” (v1). This is His character; this is who God is. He is God Almighty; the Living God who does the impossible (like cause a 100 year old man and his 90 year old wife to bear children). He is the Sovereign King who rules the earth. God also reminds Abram of His covenant: “. . .My covenant is with you” (v4). God is confirming the covenant He had made with Abram so long ago. In fact, God is here basically reiterating the same covenant promises He had made to Abram back in Genesis 12.1 Now, why would God do that? Why would God tell Abraham in Genesis 17 the same stuff He already told him back in Genesis 12? Because 25 years had passed since Genesis 12. And if you've been a believer for 25 years, you have a much more realistic view of yourself than when God first saved you. If you've been a believer for 25 years, you've been confronted with the depths of your weaknesses, your failures, your sin. And so, God coming to Abram in Genesis 17 to reiterate the same promises He had made 25 years earlier is really the sweetest thing in the world. Because it means that 25 years of Abram's worst sin and failure couldn't mess up the promises God had made to him. Abram had failed God, but God would never fail him. God's promises after 25 years were just as true as ever.
B) The NATURE, IMPORTANCE and PURPOSE of Covenant Signs: After the promises of verses 1-8, the Lord gives to Abraham circumcision as the sign of His covenant with him. We've talked about covenant signs before: The rainbow was the covenant sign given to Noah; circumcision is the covenant sign given here to Abraham; the Sabbath would be the covenant sign given to Israel later through Moses. And, as we mentioned before, “covenant signs declare covenant promises to covenant people.”2 A covenant sign was a tangible picture of God's eternal promises to His people.
We've seen that covenant signs are the foundation for our understanding of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). What this means is that we need to have a right understanding of covenant signs if we want to have a right understanding of the sacraments. And this is so important, because so much false teaching has resulted from a lack of understanding of covenant signs and how they relate to the covenant. This is why, for instance, there are denominations that teach that you can't be saved unless you're baptized.3 It's because they have failed to understand the nature of covenant signs.
In particular, covenant signs are given for the purpose of assuring God's people of His promises. That's what they're for. Covenant signs were never given as some kind of ritual to save unbelievers. Covenant signs aren't given to unbelievers at all—they're given to those who already do believe. God was already in a relationship with Abraham long before Genesis 17. God didn't give Abraham circumcision to save him—Abraham had been walking with God for 25 years! No, it was in order to encourage and strengthen him in God's promises. And to do that, God gives Abraham a very tangible reminder of what He had promised. God marks Abraham's body with the covenant sign of circumcision, so that he would never forget the reality of the promises that God had made to him.4
A question might arise here: Why did Abraham need this kind of tangible sign, and why is it that we need tangible pictures like baptism and the Lord's Supper to strengthen our faith? Shouldn't God's Word be enough? Why can't we just preach? The short answer is that if God has given us covenant signs (or sacraments) and commanded us to take part in them, then we need them—whether we think we do or not. The truth is, we are a weak people who need to be reminded of God's promises. And so, we are strengthened when we hold the bread with our hands, and smell the wine, and taste them both; to remember that just as real as this bread and wine, are the promises God has made to us.5
II. THE HEART OF THE ISSUE
A) The MEANING of Circumcision: So, how are we to understand the covenant sign of circumcision?
1) Circumcision was NOT an ETHNIC sign: it was not a sign to mark Jewish ethnicity (the physical offspring of Abraham). We know this, first of all, because Abraham is commanded not only to circumcise his children, but to circumcise all the household servants that lived with him, who were not of his offspring, but foreigners (vv12-13). If Abraham is here commanded to circumcise those who are ethnically non-Jewish, then circumcision cannot be an ethnic sign.6
2) Circumcision was also NOT a NATIONAL sign: Some people argue that circumcision in the Old Testament was merely a mark to identify the members of the nation of Israel.7 They would grant that Gentiles were indeed, at times, circumcised just as the Jews were (as in the case of Abraham's servants), but they maintain it was a badge of national allegiance, not spiritual allegiance. According to them, it was given, not to mark the people of God, but the members of the nation of Israel. In other words, they say that circumcision had no spiritual significance—it was merely a sign of national identity. Scripture teaches us, however, that circumcision was never given as a national sign; but as a spiritual one.8
FIRST, Circumcision was a spiritual SIGN because the covenant was a spiritual COVENANT. The best way to properly understand the sign of God's covenant with Abraham is to understand the nature of God's covenant with Abraham. After all, the whole point of a sign is to point us to the reality that it represents. The whole purpose of a wedding ring—the sign of the marriage covenant—is to point us back to the marriage covenant that it represents. In the same way, the best way to understand the covenant sign of circumcision is to understand the actual covenant that God is making with Abraham. And Genesis 17:7 tells us one thing in particular that's absolutely vital in understanding this covenant. Here in verse 7, God says to Abraham: “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.” What does this tell us? The covenant God is making with Abraham is about salvation in the fullest sense. We've seen this over and over and we see it again here.9 God says to Abraham: “I will. . .be God to you and to your descendants after you.” This is the very heart of God's covenant with Abraham. It's about God owning a people for himself in the fullest sense—it's about salvation; it's a thoroughly spiritual covenant. And circumcision is given as the sign of that covenant. As God tells Abraham in Genesis 17:11: “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” If God's covenant with Abraham is about salvation, then the sign of that covenant has to be about salvation.10 Again, that's the whole point of covenant signs: the sign is given as a picture of what's being promised; the whole purpose of the sign is point to what's being signified.11 So, if God's covenant with Abraham is about salvation, then the sign of that covenant must also be about salvation (rather than national identity).12
SECOND, Circumcision was a spiritual SIGN because Scripture explicitly TELLS US so. Scripture actually tells us quite plainly that circumcision was a sign—not of national identity—but of spiritual identity; in two ways: FIRST, Scripture tells us that circumcision signified JUSTIFICATION by faith. Outward circumcision was given as a sign of inward saving faith. We see this in Romans 4:11, where we read: “and [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised. . .” This passage is incredibly significant. Paul is here explicitly telling us what circumcision was all about: Circumcision was given as the sign, or mark, or badge of Abraham's faith. This passage of Scripture couldn't be more clear: Abraham's circumcision was not a sign of national identity; rather, it was one of spiritual identity. It was given to Abraham as a sign and seal of his justification by faith.13 SECONDLY, Scripture teaches us that circumcision was given to signify REGENERATION by the Spirit. Outward circumcision was given in order to point to the inward regeneration—the new birth—that takes place when God circumcises a man's heart. God would later warn His people through the prophet Jeremiah: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4).14 Outwardly God's people were circumcised, but many of them in Jeremiah's day lacked the reality of what the sign pointed to—the circumcision of the heart.15
So, according to Scripture, circumcision wasn't a sign of ethnic identity or a sign of national identity—it was a sign of spiritual identity. It was a sign of salvation. And it was given to Abraham to mark him as one who belonged wholly to God. In circumcision, God's covenant sign is given to mark God's covenant man as an heir of God's covenant promises. That's what circumcision is all about. Further, the sign of circumcision wasn't just given to mark Abraham as a believer. From this point onward, it would be the outward sign that would mark all the Old Testament people of God.
Now, what is the sign that marks God's people now? It's baptism. Baptism functions now for us in exactly the same way that circumcision functioned for God's people in the Old Testament: Circumcision was the outward sign of justification by faith in the Old Testament; baptism is the outward sign of justification by faith now.16 Circumcision symbolized the new birth (regeneration) in the Old Testament; baptism symbolizes the new birth now.17 Circumcision was the sign given to mark God's people in the Old Testament; baptism is the sign given to mark God's people now. This is why Paul links circumcision and baptism together in Colossians 2:11-12, when he says, “in [Christ] you [New Testament believers] were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism. . .” Paul is telling us that baptism functions now in exactly the same way that circumcision functioned then: Baptism has replaced circumcision as the outward sign of God's covenant people.18
B) The RECIPIENTS of Circumcision: So, again, circumcision was given in order to mark the community of believers in the Old Testament in the same way that baptism has been given to mark the community of believers now in the New Testament. The two signs point to the same reality.
Now, in the Old Testament, circumcision was to be given to two groups of people in particular: FIRST, to ADULT CONVERTS: non-Jewish, Gentile outsiders who forsake their pagan heritage to embrace the Living God and join themselves to His people. This is how it was for Abraham; God called him as an adult. And we see this happen throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. We read of Gentiles forsaking their pagan heritage to take refuge in the Lord and join themselves to the people of God.19 Now, if this foreigner was a male, he was to be circumcised to signify his faith in the Lord and his entrance into the covenant community.20 So, for adult converts like Abraham, circumcision marked spiritual realities that had already taken place. Romans 4:11 tells us that circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign (a picture) and a seal (a pledge) of the faith he already had while uncircumcised. This is why we baptize adult converts only after they profess faith in Christ. We baptize them to signify what God has done—that God has called this person to himself—that God has washed away all their sins in the blood of Jesus and given them a new heart that loves Him and wants to follow Him.
But this sign was ALSO to be applied to COVENANT CHILDREN: And this is what Genesis 17:9-14 focuses on. God is telling Abraham to apply that same sign—the sign that was only given to him after he had believed—he was to apply that same sign to every male in his household. In Genesis 17:10, the Lord says to Abraham, “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. . .” This included both sons and servants—everyone who belonged to Abraham's household and lived under his authority (vv10-13). And not only was Abraham to circumcise every male in his household, he was to do so from this point onward when they were just 8 days old: “And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations. . .” (17:12).21 So, in verses 23-27 we read of Abraham circumcising all of his servants, as well as his son Ishmael (who is 13 years old at this point). Later, after Isaac is born, we read in Genesis 21:4, “Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.” So, this is what is vital for us to understand: the same sign of salvation that was given to Abraham only after he had already believed in the Lord, God then commands that same sign to be applied to his 8-day old children far before belief in the Lord is ever possible. It was adult-circumcision for Abraham. But it was infant-circumcision for his children.22
C) The IMPLICATIONS for Household (Infant) Baptism: And this is exactly why we baptize the children of believers as well as adult converts:23 the covenant sign isn't just for believers—it's for their children. Just like circumcision—baptism isn't just for ingrafted foreigners—it's also for our covenant children:24
So, Abraham was to mark his infant children with the same covenant sign that he had received only after believing. But why? Well, first of all, he was to do so simply because God had commanded him to. Maybe Abraham would have had objections: “But Lord, this is the sign you gave to me only after I had believed. Are you sure I should give this same sign to my infant sons? Shouldn't I wait for my sons to believe, just as I did, before I circumcise them?” Maybe Abraham didn't understand why God was commanding this; still, God had spoken; God had given the command; and Abraham's duty was simply to obey the voice of the Lord. But there was also another reason why Abraham was to mark his sons with the covenant sign. In Genesis 17:7, the Lord said to Abraham: “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.” What is God telling Abraham? He's telling Abraham that the promises of the covenant weren't just for him—they were for his children. And therefore, the sign of the covenant wasn't just for him, but also for his children. Scripture is teaching us that the Covenant of Grace extends not only to believers, but also to their children. Abraham was to mark his offspring with the covenant sign because God was extending to them His covenant promises. Now, this doesn't mean that all of Abraham's children (or ours) will be saved—we'll get to that.25 But God is pledging here not just to redeem an individual—but an entire household—and not only an entire household, but an entire covenant line for generations to come.26
This is God's way; it's how He's commanded us to apply the sign of the covenant: For adult converts like Abraham, the covenant reality—faith in the Lord—must come first; and only then is the covenant sign to be applied. But for the children of believers, the Lord has commanded that the covenant sign be given first, far before the covenant reality of faith in the Lord is ever possible. For adult converts, then, the reality is to precede the sign; but for covenant children, the sign is to precede the reality:27
III. THE MESSAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
We see this clearly in Genesis. And here is what is so important: God nowhere nullifies or reverses or changes this principle when we get to the New Testament. God never says, “We're going to do it differently from now on. The covenant promise isn't going to include covenant children anymore, so stop marking them with the covenant sign.” God never says that. Rather, the New Testament re-emphasizes everything God had told Abraham in Genesis 17: that His promises still extend to our covenant children, and that we are to continue to mark them with the New Testament covenant sign.
A) So at Pentecost, Peter referred back to Genesis 17:7 when he said, “For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:39). Now, if Peter was wanting to emphasize that covenant children were no longer going to be included in the Covenant of Grace, the worst thing he could have said was that “the promise is for you and your children.”28 Here in Acts 2, at the very inauguration of the New Covenant age, Peter is harkening back to Genesis 17 and telling his Jewish audience that in the New Covenant, the promise still extends to covenant children in the same way that it did in the covenant with Abraham.29
B) And then we have the household baptisms in Acts and Corinthians. Someone believes in Christ and then you see his whole household being baptized. The argument isn't that mathematically there was probably infants in some of those households. The argument is that this sounds exactly like what was happening in Genesis 17, where Abraham believed, and his whole household was baptized. God is using the same pattern of dealing with families in the New Testament as He did in the Old.30
C) Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that God considers the children of even one believing parent to be holy: “for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.” This word “holy” is the same word used in the New Testament for professing adult believers (“saints”). Now, this doesn't mean that every covenant child is inwardly or actually holy. But it does mean that covenant children are externally and covenantally holy: God sees covenant children differently than pagan children. Children of believers are set apart from other children as being part of the covenant community.31
D) Even the Old Testament prophecies of the new covenant—which announce the days of the New Testament church—speak of God extending His promises to covenant children. For example, in the context of Israel's restoration from exile and the ensuing glory of the new covenant church, Moses foretells: “Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6). Another example is Isaiah 59:21, where the Lord declares, “As for Me, this is My covenant with them,' says the Lord: 'My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring's offspring,' says the Lord, 'from now and forever.” Not only does the New Testament clearly not revoke the promises made to the children of believers, but the Old Testament clearly prophecies that those promises will continue to be upheld in the new covenant.32
We saw earlier that Abraham was to mark his children with the covenant sign because God was also extending to them His covenant promises. The whole reason he was to mark them with the sign was that they were heirs of the promises. So, we ask: If the children of believers are still the heirs of the covenant promises, why should we stop marking them with covenant sign? Further, if God gave us a clear command to mark our infants with the covenant sign, why would we stop? Baptists ask: Where did God command us to mark our children with the covenant sign? We reply: Genesis 17. Our question to them is: Where did God command us to stop marking them with the covenant sign?33
IV. THE REALM VERSUS THE REALITY
A Vital CLARIFICATION about Baptism: Now, having said all that, there's something really important that we need to clarify. We baptize our covenant children because God commands us to—but that baptism doesn't save them. Water baptism never saved anyone.34 The baptism that saves is the baptism of the heart—the new birth—that only comes about through faith in Christ. Our covenant children must repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ if they would be saved. Baptism is the outward sign that God has given to signify membership in the external covenant community. But—and this is so vital—the outward sign isn't the same thing as the inward reality. In other words, there's a difference between being in the covenant and being of the covenant. All professing believers and their children are considered to be in the covenant—but that's not the same thing as saying that they are all of the covenant.35 The fact is, there are some covenant children who never truly embrace the covenant from the heart.36 We might think of it this way: All the children of believers are born into the realm of the covenant, and for this reason we are to mark them all with the rite (or sign) of the covenant, but this by no means guarantees that they are all possessors of the reality of the covenant.
This is exactly what we see in the Old Testament with circumcision. Abraham was commanded to circumcise both Ishmael and Isaac; but Romans tells us that it was only Isaac who was the true child of promise. Likewise Isaac was commanded to circumcise both his sons, Jacob and Esau; but Scripture tells us that Esau was never saved: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13). Esau was circumcised outwardly, but he was never circumcised inwardly.37 Esau was a covenant child; but he rejected the God of the covenant.38 This is why Paul warns us in Romans 2:28-29, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit. . .”39 Circumcision never saved anybody. There were great privileges that came along with circumcision and being part of the covenant community (Romans 3:1-2). But it never guaranteed your salvation. For, while it was true that Gentile outsiders could be grafted into the covenant promises by faith, it was also true that circumcised covenant children who refused to embrace the God of the covenant would be cut off from the covenant promises. Old Testament covenant children could be either covenant keepers or covenant breakers—those who embraced the covenant from the heart by faith, or those who didn't.40
And the same is true of baptism in the New Testament church. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable about a dragnet. The net represents the kingdom of heaven. It's cast into the sea and is filled with fish. It doesn't capture all the fish in the sea—just a small portion. But when the net is filled, they drag it up to the beach, and they begin to sort out the good fish from the bad fish. There's both good and bad fish in the net; and it's sorted out at the judgment. And that's the way it is in the church. There's good fish and bad fish, and Jesus is going to sort it out at the judgment.41 Or, think about John 15:2, where Jesus says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.” Who are the branches that are in Jesus but not bearing any fruit, that are later (in verse 6) cast into the fire? They're members of the visible church—but they've never been born again. They're members of the covenant community, but they've never truly embraced the covenant from the heart by faith. They've got a baptismal certificate up on the wall, but they've never experienced the baptism of the heart. Don't let that happen to you.
You see, being a part of the covenant community is a wonderful thing—but it's also a dangerous thing. It was a wonderful thing to be a part of the Old Testament covenant community—but once you were part of that community—if you turned your back on the Lord—do you know what happened? You were put to death for covenantal treason.42 Because circumcision was a sign of salvation, but it was also a sign of judgment. And so is baptism. Baptism is a sign of salvation—the waters of regeneration. But it's also a sign of judgment—the waters of Noah. It's a wonderful thing to be a part of the New Testament covenant community; but it's also a dangerous thing, because covenant breakers will be judged even more severely than unbelievers.43 And so we teach these things to our children. We admonish them, we warn them, we plead with them to embrace the God of the covenant by faith.44
V. REVIEWING OUR STUDY
A Brief SUMMARY: Let's try to summarize briefly what we've learned so far:
1) The covenant promises to Abraham were about salvation in the fullest sense.
2) The covenant promises were made not only to Abraham but also to his offspring.
3) The covenant sign of circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign of that salvation:
a) Abraham was marked with circumcision to signify his faith only after he believed.
b) Yet he was then to apply that same sign to his infant sons before belief was possible.
4) New Testament believers have entered into the same covenant promises made to Abraham.
5) The Scriptures teach that those covenant promises still extend to our children.
6) Thus, our infant children should continue to be marked with the covenant sign.
7) This doesn't mean that all Abraham's children (or ours) will be saved: this is by faith alone.
8) But it does mean that our children are included in the covenant and should receive the sign.45
VI. ONE REMAINING QUESTION
The MYSTERY in the Covenant: There's one question that remains. We've seen that the essence of God's covenant with Abraham was about salvation in the fullest sense: The Lord was promising to be Abraham's God. And further, in Genesis 17, we find that God promised not only to be the God of Abraham, but to be the God of his descendants after him (vv7-8). We've seen that this is the whole reason Abraham was to circumcise his children: God commanded Abraham to give his children the sign of the promise (in Genesis 17:9-14) because God had declared them also to be the heirs of the promise (in Genesis 17:7-8). But, there is a significant question we have to answer at this point: If God was actually promising salvation to Abraham's descendants, how could it ever be that there were any of his descendants (like Esau) who were never saved? And, in the same way, if God is making the same promises to us and our children that He did to Abraham and his children, how is it that any of our children come short of salvation? Do you see the tension? If God's promise was of salvation, and that promise extends to our children, then what do we make of the countless instances (both in the Old and New Testament church) of covenant children who walk away from the Lord? This is an extremely important question, which traditionally, has been answered in two different ways:
A) Some view God's promise in Genesis 17:7 to be more of a CONDITIONAL OFFER. God isn't actually promising salvation to our children—He's offering it to them. Those who hold this view say that God is not making an absolute promise to the children of believers to be their God; He's merely making them a conditional offer. What is the offer? God will be their God if they indeed put their faith in Him. God will be their God as long as the covenant child indeed takes Him to be his God. In other words, God isn't truly making an absolute promise; He's only extending to covenant children a conditional offer. He's putting an offer on the table. But at the end of the day, it's all contingent on the response of the covenant child. Salvation is offered. But it can be either accepted or rejected.46
The first problem with this view is that an offer is something very different than a promise. When we read Genesis 17:7, we don't find the Lord offering to be the God of Abraham's descendants—rather, we find the Lord promising Abraham that He will be their God. He tells him: “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 you descendants after you.” This is more than just an offer—this is a promise God is making to Abraham. And when God makes promises, He keeps His promises. Further, if we believe what Scripture says about our inherent depravity—that naturally, every single one of us is not only not able to come to Christ, but not willing to come to Him—then it doesn't make any sense for God to give this kind of offer to our children. Truth is, if God offers us salvation—and that's all He does—none of us would ever be saved. The whole reason God's covenant grace is so awesome is that He does so much more than just offer these things to us. He doesn't just call us—He chooses us. He doesn't just invite us to come—He draws us. He doesn't just offer us life—He raises us from the dead. He doesn't just point out the way—He actually picks us up, puts us on His shoulders, and carries us back home (Ephesians 2:1-5). This is our God. Praise be to Him.47
B) The traditional way to view Genesis 17:7 has always been as an ABSOLUTE PROMISE. God is not just offering to draw our children to himself; He's actually promising to do so. But the question remains: How do we reconcile this promise with what we know both from Scripture and from our own experience—that not all covenant children do indeed embrace the God of the covenant from the heart, by faith? How do we resolve this tension that on the one hand, God is actually promising to effectually draw our covenant children to himself, and yet we know that there are some among them that He actually doesn't draw in this way? There is a single answer that has been given in response to this question among those in the Reformed tradition: God is truly promising to effectually draw our covenant children to himself, but this doesn't mean that He's necessarily promising to draw each and every one of them. What do we mean by this? The promise is real. But it's not necessarily made to every covenant child without exception. It's made, rather, to the elect among our covenant children.
Think about what we see with the patriarchs. God promised Abraham that He would be the God of His descendants. But we come to learn as we continue to read Genesis that God was not actually promising to be God to every single one of them: He fulfilled this promise in Isaac, but He passed over Ishmael. It was the same with Isaac's children: the Lord was pleased to choose Jacob and draw him to himself, but He passed over Esau. The Lord was faithful to keep the promise He made to Abraham, to be not only his God, but the God of his children and grandchildren after him. But what we see is that God wasn't actually promising to be God to each and every child. He was promising to be God to the elect among them. This is the very thing Paul draws out for us in Romans 9. He tells us that God chose Isaac, but not Ishmael. He chose Jacob, but not Esau. Paul isn't just teaching us here about the doctrine of election in general—he's actually teaching us about election as it relates to covenant families. So, if we ask: How can God's promise be true that He will effectually draw our children to himself, when experience shows us that there are some among them that never believe? Paul gives the answer in Romans 9:6-8: “it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: through Isaac your descendants will be named.' That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”48
VII. CLOSING APPLICTIONS
Final REFLECTIONS: Scripture teaches us that the Lord chose Jacob, not Esau. This passage is hard enough already. A lot of people struggle to think that God would choose some people and not others. But the passage becomes even harder when we think about who these brothers were. Jacob and Esau weren't just any children. They were covenant children. As Christian parents, the thing we long for most in this world is for our children to come to know Christ. And the thing that terrifies us more than anything is the thought of that not happening. So these are hard truths for us as parents.
But this passage in Romans 9 isn't here in Scripture to make us think that God probably won't draw all our children to himself. That's not its purpose. This passage isn't here to discourage us. It's here, rather, to remind us of a truth we desperately need to hear; which is this: God is the One who must save our children. This is something that is exceedingly beyond us—this is something God must do.
A) So, God invites us to PRAYER. If the salvation of our children truly depends wholly upon God, then this should take us to our knees. God wants us to plead with him for the souls of our precious children. And He hears and answers those prayers. In Mark 10:13-16, we read of parents bringing their little children to Jesus, and of Him taking them in His arms and blessing them. These parents were helpless in and of themselves, but they could bring their children to Jesus—and Jesus didn't turn them away.49 Nor did He just bless some of them. The children that were brought to Him were the children that He blessed. Some argue infant baptism from this passage. But whether it proves infant baptism or not, there's no doubt about one thing: When we bring our children to Jesus for a blessing, He never turns us away. So pray for your children (and with them). Bring them to Jesus in prayer.
B) God calls us to NURTURE. It's true that God must save our children. But it's also true that He does so as we make use of the particular means that He's given to us. One of those means is prayer. Another means that He's given us is nurturing our children. Part of this is teaching them. In Genesis 18:19, the Lord declares this about Abraham: “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” We learn several things here,50 but maybe the most important is that God uses appointed means to bring about His promised ends. The Lord would fulfill His promises to Abraham about his children as Abraham taught them to keep the way of the Lord.51 This was the means that God would use. And so, God draws our children to himself as we open up His Word to them and instruct them in His ways; as we admonish them, and charge them—even command them to follow the Lord.52 So, part of nurturing is teaching. But it also involves other things: loving our children, cherishing them, being patient with them, being compassionate towards them—setting before them an example of gospel-living every day. Now, this doesn't mean being perfect. Actually, it means acknowledging to them just how imperfect you are. It means modeling repentance, which includes asking even their forgiveness when you sin against them.
So, we plead for our children—we bring them to Jesus asking for a blessing. We call upon Him to do in and for our children what we cannot. We wrestle for them like Jacob wrestled with God: “I will not let you go unless you bless them.” We pray for them and we pray with them. We claim God's covenant promises for them. And we affectionately teach them and admonish them to keep the ways of the Lord. We teach them about sin and why it is we so badly need a Savior; and that Mommy and Daddy are sinners who need a Savior too, just as much as they do. We show them how precious and wonderful and sufficient Jesus is to wash away all of our sin and give us new hearts. And with God's help, we give them a living example of what it means to walk with God. And we do all these things with expectation, knowing that God has chosen us for the purpose of confirming His promises to our children (Genesis 18:19), and that God fulfills those promises as we lovingly nurture and admonish them; and as we bring them to Jesus in prayer, asking Him alone to do for them what we cannot.53
In Genesis 17:7-8, God is promising to draw to himself a people from among our children. This isn't just: “I will save whoever chooses me from among your children.” Rather, God is promising: “I will take it upon Myself to choose and save a people for Myself from among your children.” The Lord is promising to call and effectually draw and save a people for himself from among our descendants. He will not only be our God; He has promised to be the God of our children also, and our children's children. And for how long does the covenant promise extend? Psalm 105:8-10 says, “to a thousand generations.” The Lord is promising to preserve our covenant line—not only to our grand-children or great grand-children, but even to a thousand generations. Now if we tried to literally calculate this, and estimated a generation at a low twenty years, this would come out to 20,000 years! But of course this isn't a literal number of years being expressed here—it's a figure of speech implying an eternal covenant. We know this from Scriptures such as Isaiah 59:21, where we're told that God's covenant is confirmed not just to a thousand generations, but to 'your offspring's offspring. . .from now and forever.' The covenant is an eternal covenant. And it's not just eternal in the sense that it's never ending. The eternalness of the covenant isn't just speaking to the duration of the covenant, but to the succession of the covenant. It's not saying merely that God's covenant will continue in the world to thousands of generations—but that it will continue to thousands of generations of those with whom He enters into covenant. God's covenant won't just extend to a thousand generations in general—but to the untold generations still to come of those with whom He has entered into covenant—with their children, and children's children, forever: “Never will the line of the faithful be cut off completely.”54