Thus far we have seen that the covenant of grace is unfolded through several successive, smaller covenants. The first of these is the covenant with Noah in which God promises to preserve the stability of nature so that He can fulfill the covenant of grace. The second covenant made is the one with Abraham. In Genesis 12 we read how God called Abram out of paganism and pledged to give him a nation of descendants (vv. 1–3).
Some time later, Abram tells God that he has no natural heir and will have to leave his estate to his servant (15:1–3). But God tells Abram that He will provide a son for Abram, and Abram believed that God would do so (vv. 4–6).
However, as is so often the case with fallen human beings, Abram soon begins to doubt the promises of God. When God promises him a certain land, Abram asks God how he is to know that God will fulfill His pledge (vv. 7–8).
God does not chastise Abram for His lack of faith; rather, He tells Abram to cut up various animals and to lay their pieces side by side in a line with a pathway between the pieces (vv. 9–11). This command might seem a bit strange to us until we understand its ancient Near-Eastern background. When covenants were made in that region, there was often a cutting ceremony involved. The parties of the covenant would divide animals and walk between the pieces, signifying that if they broke the covenant they too would meet the same fate. When we continue reading, we see that it is only a smoking pot and flaming torch that pass between the pieces. The smoking pot and flaming torch are a theophany, a visible manifestation of God. It is God, and God alone, who takes upon Himself the curse of destruction if the promises to Abram are not brought to pass.
This is done before Abram’s name is changed to Abraham. It is done before any commands are given. God is pledging that no matter what His people do, He will fulfill the promise. To be sure, obedience on our part does matter. But God, knowing the extent of our sin, shows us that it is He alone who will be able to fulfill the covenant. It is God who must take the necessary steps in order to reckon us obedient to the covenant.
At this point in the Abrahamic covenant, God takes it upon Himself to make sure the covenant is fulfilled. But God was making Himself responsible for this long before Abraham was born. God’s children are His solely due to His electing grace. Remember that you are a believer only because God chose you.