Was Abraham declared righteous before or after he was circumcised? ROMANS 4
Before the Law, saved by grace through faith. After the Law, same thing. The Law did not have any impact on how we are saved. Some have asked, is God’s blessings for the Jew or for the Gentile also? There were some Jews in Paul’s day and probably some Orthodox Jews today that are probably thinking God may have had two systems for salvation. Maybe for the Gentiles God had this system of faith. But for the Jews, by following the Law was meant to be something like faith plus works. Or just works, period. Could it be possible that there are really two systems involved here. And Paul says let’s consider when Abraham received his declaration of righteousness.
Romans 4:9-12 **
Abraham Justified Before Circumcision
9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted (credited) to Abraham for righteousness. 10 How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
** All scripture is from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.
We are going to decipher what all this means. Paul is moving back and forth on a single point and that point is, ‘let’s consider when Abraham received his declaration of righteousness’. Let’s go back in time and put the events in order. When was God saying he (Abraham) was righteous? Before or after he received circumcision? And remember that circumcision in the Jewish culture was that defining mark that said you were in or out of the Nation of Israel. Paul answers the question of ‘was this for everyone or just for the Jews or what‘? Circumcision was like a Jewish birth certificate. It was the basis for Jewish identity and it was the sign of belonging to the Abrahamic covenant. Notice he calls it the sign of the covenant. Every boy born in the family of Israel was to be circumcised at the age of 8 days old. Women are not circumcised, of course, but they were included under this sign through association with the male authority figure in their life. A daughter was covered by the sign of her father. And when the girl was married, she was covered by the sign of her husband.
Therefore, circumcision was a key distinction between Jew and Gentile. And since Paul uses Abraham, notice how he says, for we say faith is credited to Abraham in verse 9. Paul is just acknowledging He (God) was the one who raised Abraham as his example and every one knows that Abraham was circumcised. He was the first. So Paul says Abraham was the father of the Jewish people. That raises the question: is this plan only for the Jewish people who are circumcised? But here again the Lord orchestrated Abraham’s life in such a way that the timing of the events would ensure that we would not come to that mistake. Because Paul said in verse 10 the moment that he was justified was the moment God declared him not guilty in chapter 15 of Genesis which happens two chapters earlier than when he gets circumcised in chapter 17 of Genesis.
So clearly circumcision is not a part of salvation either. And it’s apparent that God created that gap in time just to make that clear to us. But more than that there is something deeper going on here. It means Jewish identity is not a part of the plan either. Jewish people are important to God’s plan, but Jewish identity is not a prerequisite for salvation which Abraham proves. Because he did not have that identity at the moment he was declared righteous. The moment Abraham was declared righteous, he was for all sense and purpose a Gentile not a Jew.
So that raises up a couple of interesting questions that lead to some Christian applications. First, what is the significance of circumcision? In Jewishness? In the way God prescribed it? Paul gives that answer in verses 11-12. Paul says Abraham received circumcision as a sign or as he calls it later, a ‘seal‘ of the righteousness of the faith Abraham had beforehand. This is what Paul is saying. He says that the sign is a witness to the covenant that God made with Abraham. So that mark he put in his body served as evidence that he was in covenant with God. And God ordered him to take that mark of circumcision after he believed, to make a point to the world. But a sign is not the enacting of a covenant; it follows the enacting of a covenant. A sign signifies that a covenant has been formed. Like a highway sign that announces you are approaching a city. The sign doesn’t make the city a reality…the city doesn’t appear because we erected the sign. We only erect the sign after a city has been established. So, Circumcision was an outward sign or evidence of Abraham’s faith in the promise God gave him, which Paul says he had beforehand. And then God designed the method of circumcision to reinforce this truth. Let’s go back to Genesis 17 for a moment and see how God prescribes this to happen:
10 This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. 13 He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. 14 And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”
God commanded that the mark be taken at a very early age to reinforce the meaning of the sign. A mark in the flesh is given to male Jewish children at 8 days old, before the child is old enough to choose this mark for himself. Or before he can even understand it. This reminds us that the covenant is already in force for each Jewish child on the basis of God’s promise to Abraham without respect to the child’s personal choice. Just as the covenant was in effect for Abraham before he was circumcised. By virtue of his belief in the promise. Furthermore in verse 14 it says, if a child is not circumcised, the child breaks the covenant, and you can’t break a covenant unless it’s already in effect.
In verse 12…and he was the father of circumcision to those who are not only of circumcision but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham. So, in other words he can be considered the father of faith for the gentiles who believe because he set that example of what that is. To believe and be declared righteous while being a gentile of the circumcision who are not only of circumcision
This same relationship between covenant and sign holds true for the New Covenant. The Lord makes a promise to us concerning His Son, our Savior. And as we trust in those promises (i.e., believing in the Gospel), we’re declared righteous on the basis of our faith in that promise. Then later we take a sign of that covenant when we submit to water baptism. Water baptism follows our entry into the covenant, it doesn’t bring the covenant into effect (it doesn’t save us). So God determined the timing of circumcision would be at 8 days old to teach us the relationship between the covenant of Abraham and its sign followed in this way. Abraham’s faith brought him to righteousness before the covenant was put in place. And the sign was taken after the covenant was in place to ensure we would know it didn’t create Abraham’s righteousness. So Abraham serves as a model for both the Jew (who has been circumcised) and for the Gentile who has not. Because Abraham was saved before he took the mark, before he became a part of that group (Jews).
The answer to the question, how do you become righteous is the same for both groups: by faith irrespective of when or if we are circumcised. This leads to an important distinction between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant. The Abrahamic covenant promised the blessing of Jewish identity for those born into the line of Abraham. Jews who enter into that covenant do so by birth. And they join a physical line that has been given a series of blessing because of Abraham’s faith. In other words God credited faith to Abraham for his belief in those promises, but he made a promise to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants. So here is God offering a one-way treaty. To you and your descendants here is what I am going to do. Abraham believed that and that is how he got his personal righteousness. But the promise was for the whole progeny of Abraham, Issac and Jacob eventually. The mark was to be the sign He asked for, this circumcision.
But that covenant doesn’t automatically convey the spiritual blessing that Abraham received by his faith in God’s promises. In verse 11 of Romans chapter 4, he says he is a father to those who believe without being circumcise. That is to those who repeat what he did when he believed a promise. But in verse 12, it says he is also a father to those who are circumcised. But notice he adds a qualification to that group. To those who were not only physically circumcised but who have to also follow in the steps of his faith. That’s a big distinction. For you and I as a Gentile presuming we are not taking circumcision as a religious matter. We are not a part of Israel. So we don’t have to worry about our keeping of that covenant, the Abrahamic covenant or for that matter the Old Covenant. We’re not a party to those covenants. All we have to do is repeat the faith of Abraham and that is sufficient to bring us into righteousness because that is the thing that creates righteousness. You could, ironically take the mark of circumcision at 8 days old and never actually have any faith that God is going to keep His promises under the Abrahamic Covenant. Because you never got asked. You are a party to the covenant because it was not dependent on you to agree to it. But salvation is faith in God to keep His promises. You only gain the spiritual benefits if you believe in them.
So the Abrahamic covenant was not a means of salvation, Abraham was not saved because of the covenant. He was saved because he believed the promises God made in the covenant. It established a series of promises to be fulfilled in Abraham’s family line called Israel. And God is fulfilling those promises in that family line and He is doing it without it depending on anyone’s individual faith in the body of Israel. Whether all of Israel was unbelieving or all of Israel was believing doesn’t change the fact that God is fulfilling His promise to Abraham in what He said He would do to those people. For an individual Jew to go to Heaven they still have to believe in the promises God has made to them concerning how He will justify the ungodly.
Only those who believe as Abraham did will receive the righteousness that Abraham received. Paul says in verse 12 that Abraham is the father (in the flesh) of those who have received physical circumcision. But more importantly, he is also the father (i.e., an example) for all who follow in him in faith. So he serves as an example of one who obtains righteousness by faith, whether you are Jew who is circumcised or Gentile who is not (uncircumcised).
There is always that confusion we have about what does it mean that someone has the sign or the mark of the covenant? What does it mean that the Abrahamic covenant was made or the old covenant? These things served earthly purposes that eventually get fulfilled in a spiritual way.
Paul still has another area that he has to get into in order to address a few more doubts. Jews have always been taught they have a special relationship to God and they assumed incorrectly that the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant was limited to them. So in the next post we are going to look at the Gentile side of this.
“The author’s biblical interpretations and conclusions presented in this document rely on original teaching used by permission of Verse By Verse Ministry International (VBVMI). The author’s views may not represent the views of VBVMI, it’s Directors or staff. Original VBVMI teaching may be found at http://www.vbvmi.org.”
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