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17. The Covenant of Circumcision

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. 2And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. 3And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, 4As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. 5Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. 6And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. 7And 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. 8And 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.

9And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12And 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. 13He 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. 14And 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.

15And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. 16And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. 17Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? 18And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! 19And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. 20And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. 21But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year. 22And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham.

23And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him. 24And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. 27And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.

7. And thy seed after thee There is no doubt that the Lord distinguishes the race of Abraham from the rest of the world. We must now see what people he intends. Now they are deceived who think that his elect alone are here pointed out; and that all the faithful are indiscriminately comprehended, from whatever people, according to the flesh, they are descended. For, on the contrary, the Scripture declares that the race of Abraham, by lineal descent, had been peculiarly accepted by God. And it is the evident doctrine of Paul concerning the natural descendants of Abraham, that they are holy branches which have proceeded from a holy root, (Romans 11:16.) And lest any one should restrict this assertion to the shadows of the law, or should evade it by allegory, he elsewhere expressly declares, that Christ came to be a minister of the circumcision, (Romans 15:8.) Wherefore, nothing is more certain, than that God made his covenant with those sons of Abraham who were naturally to be born of him. If any one object, that this opinion by no means agrees with the former, in which we said that they are reckoned the children of Abraham, who being by faith ingrafted into his body, form one family; the difference is easily reconciled, by laying down certain distinct degrees of adoption, which may be collected from various passages of Scripture. In the beginning, antecedently to this covenant, the condition of the whole world was one and the same. But as soon as it was said, ‘I will be a God to thee and to thy seed after thee,’ the Church was separated from other nations; just as in the creation of the world, the light emerged out of the darkness. Then the people of Israel was received, as the flock of God, into their own fold: the other nations wandered, like wild beasts, through mountains, woods, and deserts. Since this dignity, in which the sons of Abraham excelled other nations, depended on the word of God alone, the gratuitous adoption of God belongs to them all in common. For if Paul deprives the Gentiles of God and of eternal life, on the ground of their being aliens from the covenant, (Ephesians 4:18,) it follows that all Israelites were of the household of the Church, and sons of God, and heirs of eternal life. And although it was by the grace of God, and not by nature, that they excelled the Gentiles; and although the inheritance at the kingdom of God came to them by promise, and not by carnal descent; yet they are sometimes said to differ by nature from the rest of the world. In the Epistle to the Galatians, (Galatians 2:15), and elsewhere, Paul calls them saints ‘by nature,’ because God was willing that his grace should descend,406406     Quia continua serie prosequi nolebat Deus, gratiem suam ergo totum semen.” So it is, both in the Amsterdam edition, and in that of Hengstenberg; but the word nolebat (was unwilling) seems so contrary to the writer’s line of argument, that the French version is followed in the translation, which is, “Pource que Dieu vouloit poursuyure,” etc. — Ed by a continual succession, to the whole seed. In this sense, they who were unbelievers among the Jews, are yet called the children of the celestial kingdom by Christ. (Matthew 8:12.) Nor does what St Paul says contradict this; namely, that not all who are from Abraham are to be esteemed legitimate children; because they are not the children of the promise, but only of the flesh. (Romans 9:8.) For there, the promise is not taken generally for that outward word, by which God conferred his favor as well upon the reprobate as upon the elect; but must be restricted to that efficacious calling, which he inwardly seals by his Spirit. And that this is the case, is proved without difficulty; for the promise by which the Lord had adopted them all as children, was common to all: and in that promise, it cannot be denied, that eternal salvation was offered to all. What, therefore, can be the meaning of Paul, when he denies that certain persons have any right to be reckoned among children, except that he is no longer reasoning about the externally offered grace, but about that of which only the elect effectually partake? Here, then, a twofold class of sons presents itself to us, in the Church; for since the whole body of the people is gathered together into the fold of God, by one and the same voice, all without exception, are in this respects accounted children; the name of the Church is applicable in common to them all: but in the innermost sanctuary of God, none others are reckoned the sons of God, than they in whom the promise is ratified by faith. And although this difference flows from the fountain of gratuitous election, whence also faith itself springs; yet, since the counsel of God is in itself hidden from us, we therefore distinguish the true from the spurious children, by the respective marks of faith and of unbelief. This method and dispensation continued even to the promulgation of the gospel; but then the middle wall was broken down, (Ephesians 2:14,) and God made the Gentiles equal to the natural descendants of Abraham. That was the renovation of the world, by which they, who had before been strangers, began to be called sons. Yet whenever a comparison is made between Jews and Gentiles, the inheritance of life is assigned to the former, as lawfully belonging to them; but to the latter, it is said to be adventitious. Meanwhile, the oracle was fulfilled in which God promises that Abraham should be the father of many nations. For whereas previously, the natural sons of Abraham were succeeded by their descendants in continual succession, and the benediction, which began with him, flowed down to his children; the coming of Christ, by inverting the original order, introduced into his family those who before were separated from his seed: at length the Jews were cast out, (except that a hidden seed of the election remained among them,) in order that the rest might be saved. It was necessary that these things concerning the seed of Abraham should once be stated, that they may open to us an easy introduction to what follows.

In their generations This succession of generations clearly proves that the posterity of Abraham were taken into the Church, in such a manner that sons might be born to them, who should be heirs of the same grace. In this way the covenant is called perpetual, as lasting until the renovation of the world; which took place at the advent of Christ. I grant, indeed, that the covenant was without end, and may with propriety be called eternal, as far as the whole Church is concerned; it must, however always remain as a settled point, that the regular succession of ages was partly broken, and partly changed, by the coming of Christ, because the middle wall being broken down, and the sons by nature being, at length, disinherited, Abraham began to have a race associated with himself from all regions of the world.

To be a God unto thee In this single word we are plainly taught that this was a spiritual covenant, not confirmed in reference to the present life only; but one from which Abraham might conceive the hope of eternal salvations so that being raised even to heaven, he might lay hold of solid and perfect bliss. For those whom God adopts to himself, from among a people — seeing that he makes them partakers of his righteousness and of all good things — he also constitutes heirs of celestial life. Let us then mark this as the principal part of the covenant, that He who is the God of the living, not of the dead, promises to be a God to the children of Abraham. It follows afterwards, in the way of augmentation of the grant, that he promised to give them the land. I confess, indeed, that something greater and more excellent than itself was shadowed forth by the land of Canaan; yet this is not at variance with the statement, that the promise now made was an accession to that primary one, ‘I will be thy God.’ Now, although God again affirms, as before, that He will give the land to Abraham himself, we nevertheless know, that Abraham never possessed dominion over it; but the holy man was contented with his title to it alone, although the possession of it was not granted him; and, therefore, he calmly passed from his earthly pilgrimage into heaven. God again repeats that He will be a God to the posterity of Abraham, in order that they may not settle upon earth, but may regard themselves as trained for higher things.


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