Lesson 36: God's sovereignty, our responsibility (Genesis 17:1-27) (2023)

A newspaper published the following disclaimer: "The headline in the First Christian Church program in last week's newspaper was 'Our God Abandons'. Actually the title is 'Our God reigns'" (Reader's Digest, 9/93, s. 53.)

Because of the spread of human-centered theology in our day, many Christians live as if God had to relinquish his role as ruler of the universe. Although no sincere Christian would say such a thing, many Christians practically deny the absolute sovereignty of God. For example, I was at a funeral where the pastor, no doubt trying to comfort the bereaved, assured us that God did not cause this tragic accident. Perhaps he was trying to make a subtle distinction between God causing something and allowing it to happen. But his words didn't seem very comforting to me. If God didn't ultimately cause it, then who did? If Satan caused it against God's will, then Satan has as much or more power than God, which is not a comforting thought! If the accident was caused by man's free will, we must ask, "Did that free will somehow thwart God's plan?" If so, then man and not God is sovereign, which again is not very comforting. Our God either resigns or reigns.

But many Christians are afraid to assert God's absolute sovereignty, believing that it follows that humans do not have free will and that God is responsible for evil. They declare God's sovereignty simply by saying that he existspredictedwhat will happen (because he knows everything in advance), but it happenednot to judgeor order everything. But that makes man sovereign because it makes God's plan for eternity dependent on what man does, not what God has preordained.

The Bible unequivocally affirms God's absolute, complete sovereignty over his creation, his absolute holiness, and at the same time human beings' full responsibility as moral subjects under God's sovereignty. God's sovereignty and man's responsibility are real and real at the same time, but God's sovereignty is the foundation of everything else and therefore must prevail and never be diminished in order to affirm man's responsibility.The WestmeNsterBelieve(III:1) sums it up as follows:

God reigns from eternity according to his own will, the wisest and most holy counsel, freely and immutably over all that happens: and yet it is so, for thereby God is not the origin of sin, nor is violence sacrificed to the will of God. The freedom or conditionality of secondary causes is not abolished either, but established.

The Scriptures clearly affirm that God acts according to the counsel of His will, not the will of man (Eph. 1:11). At the same time, and because God is sovereign, human beings are responsible to obey and submit to his sovereignty. A correct understanding of God's sovereignty is therefore essential to correct obedience to Him.

Both truths are clearly seen in Genesis 17. Thirteen years after Ishmael's birth, God appeared to Abram and said: “I am God Almighty [“El Shaddai”]; Go before me and be blameless” (17:1). God is sovereign; Man has an obligation to obey Him. God then makes it clear what He will do with and for Abraham (17:2-8). There isn't much human free will or room for debate in these verses! God does not ask Abram's opinion, not even on the personal matter of changing a 99-year-old man's name! He simply proclaims, “This is how it will look; so will I do it.” Period!

Another commandment follows (17:9), reflecting Abraham's responsibility to keep God's covenant. This is followed by several divine statements about what will happen. God renames Sarai and tells Abraham that he will give him a son and make her the mother of the nations. When Abraham asks that Ishmael, his son from Hagar, be God's chosen one, God refuses the request but agrees to bless Ishmael. But God sovereignly chooses to make His covenant with Isaac (17:21). The chapter ends with Abraham's obedience to God because he and all the men in his household are circumcised. The two main themes of this chapter are as follows: (1) God will carry out His sovereign plan; (2) God's people are responsible for keeping their covenant. God's sovereignty and human responsibility, both in the same context. But God's sovereignty seems to be the supreme factor underlying everything. We see it...

Since God is absolutely sovereign, we must walk before him in obedience, no matter how difficult it is.

1. God is absolutely sovereign.

The Bible begins with God, not man: "In the beginning God..." (Genesis 1:1). Who God is has specific implications for how we should live. Here God appears to Abram and proclaims, "I am El Shaddai [God Almighty]." This is the first of 48 uses of the name for God in the Old Testament (31 times in Job). Although disputed among Hebrew scholars, it likely derives from a word meaning "mountain," indicating God's strength and stability. The Septuagint (200 BC) and the Latin Vulgate translate it as "all-powerful". In the context of Genesis 17, God is clearly sovereign and tells Abram what he intends to do as God and how he expects Abram to obey him. This name indicates that God is the one who has the power to fulfill his purposes and promises. Abram's response to the fall before God (17:3, 17) shows that Abram knew who was master and who was not!

God's sovereignty is fundamental to his being as God. A non-sovereign god is no god at all. RC Sproul once taught that. He opened the class by reading the passage from the Westminster Confession quoted above: “God, in the wisest and most sacred counsel of his own will, has voluntarily and immutably administered in all things that ever come to pass.” At that point he paused and asked, "Is there anyone in this room who doesn't believe the words I just read?" Many hands went up. Then he asked, "Are any staunch atheists in the room?" No hands were raised. He continued, "Anyone who raised their hands on the first question should have raised their hands on the second question." He went on to argue that we have no guarantee that any of God's promises will ever be fulfilled , if there is even one particle in the universe that circulates freely and is completely free of God's sovereignty. This one independent particle could potentially destroy all of God's plans and promises to us. He concluded: "Without sovereignty, God cannot be God" (Chosen by God[Tyndale], s. 25-27).

A. God's sovereignty means that He initiates, carries out and fulfills His purpose in His own time and in His own way.

Notice the authoritative way in which God tells Abram what is going to happen. He repeatedly says, "I will" and "You will" (17:2-8). God does not argue or ask Abram's opinion. God proclaims, God commands, God reveals what He has already decreed. Abram did not prepare this interview, nor did he indicate when it would end. God appears unbidden, tells Abram what will happen, and (17:22): "When he had spoken to him, God parted from Abraham." God's sovereignty means that God, not man, determines the course of human history and they on his schedule and way, not ours.

God's sovereignty extends to human salvation. A lot of people stumble here. They believe that God is not just in saving some and not others. But the Scriptures are clear that God, not man, has sovereignty over who is saved. We have already seen how God sovereignly chose Abram while he lived in Ur in Chaldea and lived as a Gentile. God did not choose Abram's countrymen or neighbors. He chose neither Abram's father nor his brothers. He chose Abram. Here God tells Abram that while He will bless Ishmael and his seed materially and temporally, His covenant will be made with Isaac (17:20-21).

Was God unfair to Ishmael? Is it unfair to anyone not chosen for salvation? Only if Ishmael and those not chosen deserve salvation. When someone deserves salvation and God does not save them, then God is most unjust. But if all deserve his judgment and he sovereignly chooses the salvation of some, that is his prerogative as God. As Paul states in Romans 9:19-23, we who are clay must not question the potter's sovereign right to do what he will with what he made. Those who are not chosen for salvation receive exactly what they deserve, which is the righteousness of God. But God is not unjust to anyone when he shows mercy to some. Indeed, if God had not chosen certain persons for salvation, no one could ever be saved, because "the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and him."I can'tUnderstand them, for they will be judged spiritually” (1 Corinthians 2:14, emphasis mine).

Why am I emphasizing this? This is not just an abstract theological point that is interesting to discuss. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is important to a correct understanding of salvation. When you believe that you are responsible for your own salvation, whether through good works, agency, or faith, you will not despair of yourself and trust in God's sovereign mercy. But when you arrive at the end and realize that there is nothing in you worthy of God's redemption, then in Jesus' story you and the publican cry out in desperation, "God, be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13 ). Then you are saved.

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is also the basis for a life of submission and trust, for it humbles our pride and assures us that God will triumph and those who oppose Him will ultimately lose. It is at the heart of all Christian ministry because it assures us that our work in the Lord is not in vain. It enables us to endure trials and wait for God as Abraham did, knowing that even if we are persecuted, suffer and die, He will do what He has promised in God's perfect time. God's sovereignty, then, means that he initiates, carries out, and fulfills his purpose in his own time and in his own way, as seen here in his dealings with Abraham.

But why did God make Abraham wait so long before giving him Isaac? Why did God not allow Ishmael?

B. God's sovereignty means that he receives all the glory and man does not.

Abraham's response in verse 18 shows that he was then quite content with Ishmael as his promised son. During those 13 years, despite the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar, Abraham developed a strong bond with the boy. But God firmly rejects Ishmael, stating that Sarah will bear Abraham a son and that son will be the one with whom God will make his covenant.

Why not Ishmael? Because Ishmael represented man's striving to help God (Galatians 4:29). Abram boasted in Ishmael because he was able to father a son. But before Isaac came, both Abraham and Sarah were humanly incapable of procreation. They couldn't accept the loan. All glory to God. God's hesitation with Abraham and Sarah ended it, so that all the glory of his grace was his. If our proud body can claim an honor, then it will. That is why God is waiting for us to come to our end.

This too is the truth of salvation. When we believe that we can contribute in some way to our own salvation, we take credit for it. When we believe that we have come unto Christ of our own free will, we will boast of our wise choice. If we think it was because of our faith, we will boast of our great faith. If we think it was because of our rational abilities, we will boast of our great intellect. But if our salvation depends solely on God's sovereign decision, and if God chose those who were foolish, weak, and despised, then no one can boast before God (1 Cor. 1:27-31).

We fight the doctrine of the absolute sovereignty of God because it kills the body. We cannot acknowledge our salvation if it belongs exclusively to God and not to us. With the flesh we can create Ishmael, and that's enough for us. But that's not how God works. Wanting to bring us all to the end, He gives us Isaac to bow to in amazement while Abraham laughed in amazement at what God was doing (17:17). The only way to come to terms with the sovereignty of God is to surrender and let God be God.

But does that mean we are passively holding back and doing nothing? Not at all. A proper understanding of God's sovereignty should motivate us to walk in obedience:

2. We are responsible to walk obediently before him, no matter how hard it is.

Because he is Almighty God, we must walk blamelessly before him (17:1). Because he sovereignly made his covenant and because he will fulfill it, we must keep his covenant (17:2-9). Note two things:

A. We are responsible to walk obediently.

Verse 1 translates to "walk before me, and you will be blameless." Impeccability does not mean perfection, which no believer attains in this life. The word is used to describe both Noah (Genesis 6:9) and Job (Job 1:8), but neither of them was sinless perfect. The meaning of the word is "whole" or "integrated". It refers to a person who walks honestly and openly before God, who fears God and tries to obey him, who confesses and turns from sin. The word "go" means a step-by-step process. The walk is not spectacular and not a quick fix. But if you keep going in the same direction, you will eventually get where you need to be. For the believer, this direction is holiness.

To be honest, sometimes obedience is a struggle. If Abraham struggled with God's rejection of Ishmael, there is not a word about it in Scripture. And if he fought for the circumcision order, there is no record of it here. His obedience was thorough and prompt (17:23, 26). But it wasn't easy.

B. We are responsible for obedience, even when it is not easy.

There are some difficult things that Abraham had to go through in this story. The first was hisname change. It was hard enough being called “The Exalted Father” (Abram) since he had no children. But at least the pain was eased by Ishmael's birth. But now, before Isaac was born, God tells 99-year-old Abram that he will be given a new name: "Father of Hosts" (Abraham)! If his name was embarrassing before, now what? It would be like a completely bald man named Harry, to whom God said, "Now your name will be Bushy Harry." Abraham would be the butt of all jokes!

Then there was this thingclipping. And it wasn't just a private matter that Abraham could handle behind closed doors. He had to do this to every man in his extended house! It wasn't just the excruciating physical pain that was hard to endure. This ritual permanently deformed the man in the place of his manhood where he most wanted to be with others. Why couldn't God just turn the covenant into a tattoo on an arm or an earring or something?

By submitting to God's command of circumcision, Abraham fully surrendered his reproductive powers to God. He recognized his total dependence on God in creating the promised heir. This meant that Abraham did not trust in his flesh, but fully trusted that God would do what he had promised that all glory would be his.

For the men who followed Abraham, circumcision illustrated the importance of sexual purity in obedience to God. That's what made the Hebrews different. So when a young Hebrew boy decided to engage in sexual relations with a Gentile woman, he couldn't help but notice that he was different. At that point he would be reminded that he belongs to the living God and would be in the rather awkward position of preaching!

The bottom line is that obedience to God is often difficult and separates you from our evil culture so that you can become an object of ridicule. But because our God is a sovereign God, a God who chose us and made his covenant with us, we are responsible to obey him, even when it is difficult or embarrassing.


I believe that the root cause of the worldliness and impurity that characterizes the modern evangelical church is a diluted view of the sovereignty and supremacy of our God. When Abraham had a vision of God as Almighty God sovereignly making and keeping His covenant with a man who screwed up as many times as Abraham did, he obeyed without question. Regaining the right view of Almighty God is the basis of obedience, even if it is not easy.

Pastor John Piper recounts a time when he was inspired to preach the greatness of God revealed in Isaiah 6. Ordinarily he would have tried to apply the text, but this Sunday he was simply trying to praise and show the majesty and glory of God, albeit without a word of application. Little did he know that one of the young families at his church had just found out that their child had been sexually abused by a close relative. They were there that Sunday and heard his message.

Piper says many of our pastoral advisers would say, “Pastor Piper, can't you see your people are suffering? Can't you descend from the sky and get to work? Don't you realize what kind of people are they sitting in front of you on Sunday?” He learned the story a few weeks later. The man took him aside after the service and said, “John, these have been the hardest months of our lives. Do you know what's been over me? The vision of the greatness of the holiness of God that you gave me in the first week of January.' It was a rock to stand on.'

Piper concludes, “The greatness and glory of God is what matters. It doesn't matter if the polls provide a list of perceived needs that don't include sovereign greatness of sovereign grace. That is the deepest need. Our people are hungry for God.” (God's supremacy in preaching[Baker], S. 10-11.)

I draw your attention to the sovereign, covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. When you see Him as Almighty God, you will be able to walk with Abraham in obedience to Him, even if it is difficult, as it often is.

questions for discussion

  1. Why is it not biblically justified to state that God's election is merely foreknowledge?
  2. How can God be absolutely sovereign and yet not responsible for sin and evil?
  3. A well-known writer says that God did everything in his power to get everyone to heaven, and now the choice is ours. Why can't this be defended biblically?
  4. Some argue that the warnings of Scripture are fiction since God sovereignly predestines everything. Your answer?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, all rights reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation


What is the lesson of God's sovereignty? ›

The Bible teaches us that God is the sovereign Creator King. His sovereignty refers to His supreme power to do everything He wills. He is the Creator, and we are the creation. And yet, in Jesus, God willingly chose to set aside His rights, entering our world to suffer in order to save us.

What is the lesson learned from Genesis 17? ›

In Genesis 17 we learn about further promises and responsibilities the Lord revealed pertaining to the Abrahamic covenant. In connection with this covenant, the Lord changed Abram's name to Abraham and Sarai's name to Sarah. Circumcision became a sign or token (a reminder) of the covenant between God and Abraham.

What does it mean that our God is sovereign? ›

According to these definitions, God's sovereignty in Christianity can be defined primarily as the right of God to exercise his ruling power over his creation, and secondarily, but not necessarily, as the exercise of this right. The way God exercises his ruling power is subject to differing views.

What do you understand of our responsibility from Genesis? ›

In verse 15, humans were placed in the Garden of Eden and instructed to 'work it and take care of it'. In other words, God has given us the responsibility to act as stewards of his creation – to care for, manage, oversee and protect all that God owns.

What is the summary of God's sovereignty? ›

Summary. The sovereignty of God is the fact that he is the Lord over creation; as sovereign, he exercises his rule. This rule is exercised through God's authority as king, his control over all things, and his presence with his covenantal people and throughout his creation.

What does the Bible say about God's sovereignty? ›

We find the phrase (verse 24), “Sovereign Lord, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them,” throughout the Scriptures. In Psalm 146 it is used to make a distinction between those who look to the Lord and those who put their hope in the rulers of men.

What is the meaning of Genesis 17 1? ›

Literally, God commands Abram to walk in the Lord's presence and to be of such good character before God that no valid charge of wrongdoing could be brought against him. This is unlike other times when God spelled out His promises to Abram.

What do we learn from Genesis 1 27? ›

Genesis 1:27 reminds us of our divine identity and the inherent worth of all people. As we embrace our unique gifts and strive to treat others with respect and dignity, we can live lives that reflect God's love and purpose.

What is the summary of Genesis 1 17? ›

Context Summary

God's spoken word results in creation, which God then names and declares ''good. '' The day is then numbered. Each of these days fills something created in one of the prior three days. The sun and moon are created on day four, while day and night were created on day one.

What is an example of God is sovereign? ›

Psalm 135:6-7—Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. God is SOVEREIGN over ALL things.

What is an example of a sovereignty? ›

Sovereignty is the right of a nation or group of people to be self-governing. We speak of countries such as the United States as being sovereign political powers because they are completely independent of any other political entity. Political scientists often refer to this as absolute sovereignty.

Why do we pray if God is sovereign? ›

Q: Why should we pray to a God who has immutably fixed all things according to his sovereign will? The prayers of God's people are part of God's sovereign plan. God has planned to accomplish his will through the prayers of his praying people.

What responsibility did God give man? ›

Mankind has the responsibility, as God's charge on earth, to assist creation to fulfill God's command. Mankind is to rule, as a steward, so that the creations of the world (including animals, plants and resources) are fruitful and multiply.

What responsibilities did God give us over his creation? ›

God has given two roles to humanity regarding creation: exercising both dominion and stewardship over the earth. Our understanding of dominion is that it is not unlimited, but is intended to ensure creation functions properly, thereby accomplishing God's purposes.

What responsibility did God give to Adam? ›

God commissioned Adam to cultivate the garden (v.s 15). He was to look after the Garden. He was to dress (abhadh) it. The word means to work, till, cultivate, dress, and serve the Garden.

What are the attributes of God sovereignty? ›

The sovereignty of God is related to his omnipotence, providence, and kingship, yet it also encompasses his freedom, and is in keeping with his goodness, righteousness, holiness, and impeccability.

How do you explain God's sovereignty to a child? ›

God is sovereign—He is in control of all things. He is all-powerful—He created the whole world, including you! He knows everything and nothing surprises Him. He knows about lost jobs, sickness, and even death.

What is the manifestation of God's sovereignty? ›

Sovereignty is authority. Where God's sovereignty is most manifested is through His Son Jesus Christ. How is this so? Jesus has dominion over all things because he paid the penalty for sin and rose to life in victorious power.

How are you comforted by God's sovereignty? ›

Indeed, we only really find comfort in God's sovereignty when we learn to trust God. [4] If we fearfully dread that one day He will break His word, or turn evil, or relinquish power, we will not have peace.


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