Sunday Evening Bible Study: Romans 4:9-12

11 Sep

Romans 4:9-12
Abraham is Not Justified by Circumcision

So far we’ve been on a great journey through the book of Romans, but we’ve got miles to go before we sleep, a lot of ground still to cover. We started with the riveting introduction, those first 6 verses so full of great truth, especially the truth that Paul’s ministry is “to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of Jesus’ name among all the nations.” We found in verse 16 that this happened through the gospel, the good news of the crucified and risen Christ. It is there that we have the power of God for salvation. And that salvation comes to all who believe. And that salvation is power because it reveals the righteousness of God, that holiness and love in fullness which forgives and transforms all who believe, because the righteous will live by faith.

But we’ve got a big problem, as we saw in chapter 1:18-3:20, we are not righteous, not even close. We are under God’s wrath because we have taken His gifts but rejected Him as the Giver. We have gone our own way, Jew and Gentile alike. The downward spiral of sin belongs to the most ungodly pagan and to the most self-righteous moralist. All alike are under judgment. Jews can’t trust in their circumcision, they are under sin too. There is none righteous. All have turned aside. There is no fear of God before their eyes. That’s where we are. The law can’t save us, it can only cause us to see that we need to be saved as we see how far short we fall of it, and therefore, of God’s perfect righteousness.

But now . . . But now. A righteousness has been manifested apart from the law. And it’s not the righteousness of our white-knuckled effort that always falls short, it is the perfect righteousness of the Son of God, received by faith. All have sinned, all fall short, but can be justified, declared in the right, through the work of Christ. It’s a gift. What a work. A propitiation, a turning away of the wrath of God through the cross. The God who was angry over our sin has been satisfied and now is not seen as merely angry at sin, but as He really is, holy and loving, not satisfied until justice is done but quick to forgive on the basis of that satisfaction.

By the time we get to Romans 3:27, we’re left in the dust, on our faces crying tears of joy. There is no place to boast. Our lives have been shown to be what they really are; hopelessly rebellious, sinful, wicked. Our Savior has been shown to be what He truly is; overwhelmingly gracious to undeserving sinners like us. We can come to Him, and receive the benefits of His sacrifice, not by virtue of physical lineage or our own goodness or our good works, but by faith. Jew and Gentile alike. The door to life is open.

Then last week, we saw Paul point to Abraham as the example par excellence. If the father of the Jews was justified in the same way we have been talking about in chapters 1-3, by faith, then there is hope for all of us. The very truth that the way is opened to all by faith is deeply affirmed if it was also true of Abraham. And it was. He was counted righteous by faith, not works. So was David, who was forgiven his transgressions and lawless deeds by faith.

Tonight, Paul continues with his discussion of Abraham. Two weeks ago we saw that Paul confirmed that Abraham was not saved by works. Tonight, we are going to see that Abraham was also not saved by the sign of God’s covenant with Him, circumcision. This outward sign came years after God declared Abraham righteous and therefore could not have been the basis of his being made right with God. But there were Jews who insisted that only those who were circumcised could be saved. This was one of the big problems Paul dealt with in Galatians and it was also at the center of a controversy between some Jewish Christians over Gentile converts in the early church. A church council of sorts was formed in Jerusalem to discuss this issue and this is dealt with in Acts 15. But the issue lingered for years. From a theological perspective Paul will put it to rest both here and in Galatians. Circumcision is not the basis of being made right with God. There are other implications we will look at as well.

Most of us today understand what circumcision is (try teaching this to a group of Middle Schoolers) but in our culture, most of us view it as a medical procedure, not a religious rite.

The best correlation to circumcision I can think of that is common in our culture is a wedding ring. When there is a wedding and the bride and groom exchange rings, the ring is a sign of the covenant they make with one another. And circumcision for the Jew was like that, a sign of the covenant. Now, of course, a wedding ring or lack of wedding ring doesn’t guarantee anything. Some people don’t wear their wedding rings anymore because their fingers are bigger than they were 30 years ago. Some people don’t wear their wedding rings because they are afraid to lose it at work. It’s not even necessary to have wedding rings to be married. We just do it because it is a symbol of our commitment to one another. And we can certainly wear rings without being married. Some couples do this. But the symbol is not reality because they are not legally married. So the wedding ring functions somewhat in our culture like circumcision did in the Jewish culture of Paul’s day. So let’s see what Paul says about the relation of circumcision to salvation.

Look first at verse 9 . . .
Romans 4:9  Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.

This is last time Paul deals with circumcision in a significant way in Romans. He brings it up one more time in 15:8 with reference to Christ’s ministry, but a topic that he has mentioned several times in chapters 2 and 3 is dealt with in a definitive way here in chapter 4, verses 9-12.

At the heart of Paul’s discussion of circumcision is the issue of the blessing. Paul is asking how the blessing of forgiveness of sins is related to circumcision. Does one have to possess the sign of the covenant, circumcision, in order to be saved? Some Jewish rabbis taught that the forgiveness David spoke of in Psalm 32 was only for the Jews. Here is one quote from a Rabbinic source from the middle ages, “And, if thou wouldst say, ‘Another nation too he cleanses, know that it is not so, but it is only Israel. It is only Israel that He forgives. When David saw how God forgives the sins of the Israelites and has mercy on them, he began to pronounce them blessed and to glorify them: ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven.’”

James Dunn says: “It is a striking fact that the difference between Jew and Gentile could be summed up and focused in the one ritual act of circumcision, and underlines the importance of circumcision for Jewish self-understanding.”

So again, this issue of circumcision was very important to some Jews. There was a whole class of people called Judaizers who insisted on circumcision being a part of salvation. This, as we have said before, was a big concern of Paul in the letter to the Galatians. We have also seen it in Acts 11 when the circumcision party criticized Peter for eating with the Gentiles.

So this matter of circumcision was a serious matter for the Jews. Paul has already said that Abraham was made righteous by faith. But was it a faith that followed circumcision or preceded it? If it followed circumcision than circumcision could be put up as a prerequisite to salvation. So this is another important hurdle for Paul to jump in his argument that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. He begins to address the issue with verse 10 . . .

10  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.
Verse 10 gets to the point. How was the blessing applied to Abraham? How was he reckoned righteous and forgiven? Well the first answer to that how question is “by faith.” But there is an important time element which Paul is trying to address here as well. Was he counted blessed before of after his circumcision. The concern is, again, was circumcision a necessary prelude to Abraham’s justification? If so, he could be declared righteous by works. In other words, his faith was grounded in works rather than his works flowing from faith. But if he was declared righteous before he was circumcised, then his righteousness would be by faith, and his blessedness would be a gift of grace rather than a wage that was earned. Paul doesn’t wait for an answer, “it was not after, but before.” The implication is that Abraham was justified by faith alone, what Paul has been driving at all through this section he affirms once more.
So circumcision is not and never was a way to salvation. It was rather a sign of a status given by God’s grace, His gift. This is what verse 11 begins to address:

11  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,
Notice Paul calls circumcision a sign and a seal. What is it a sign and seal of? The righteousness Abraham had by faith before his circumcision. In other words, Abraham was in the right with God by faith and this is what his circumcision symbolized. So the standard is set for all through Abraham. Abraham is the father of all who have faith and all who come to God by faith are counted righteous, whether they are circumcised or not, whether they are Jew are Gentile. The critical part of being a child of Abraham is not sharing the rite of circumcision, but by sharing his faith.
Abraham was justified before there was any Jew or Gentile, any nation of Israel. Circumcision was in fact the act of God among His people that set them apart as His people, confirming His promises to Abraham to make of Him a nation, a people for God. We see this progression all the way through Genesis and Exodus.
The flood came in Genesis 6-8 and destroyed all people but Noah and his family, eight people. And these repopulate the earth. From the family line of Noah’s son Shem comes Abraham, living in Ur in modern day Iran. God calls Abraham and he moves to Canaan and God gives him the great promises of nation, land and Savior.
Abraham gets to Canaan and a famine hits. He goes to Egypt and God preserves him and he returns to Canaan. And God reaffirms His promises to Abraham. It is at this point, in Genesis 15:6 that we read the words, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
But even Abraham didn’t live perfectly in light of the righteousness that was credited to him. He tried to fulfill God’s promises through his own ingenuity and, with the encouragement of his barren wife Sarah, he impregnated her maidservant Hagar and to her was born Abraham’s son, Ishmael. A son, yes, but not the son of God’s promise. Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born. And then, 13 years later, when Abraham is 99 years old, God institutes the covenant of circumcision.
So there wasn’t some little gap between Genesis 15 where Abraham is counted righteous and Genesis 17 where he is circumcised. No argument can be made that these two things go together to bring justification. There was a gap of at least 14 years and, most commentators say, closer to 20 years, between the events of Genesis 15 and Genesis 17.  Abraham was declared righteous long before he received the sign of that righteousness. So Abraham has the distinction of being the physical father of Israel and the spiritual father of all who have been saved since his time, for he is the example for the way all come to God, by faith. Jews weren’t saved by circumcision, they were saved by faith. Paul will be very clear later that not all in the physical nation of Israel were true Israel, but only those who lived by faith. Gentiles weren’t condemned for their lack of circumcision, so long as they came to God by faith. One of the early church Fathers, Clement, put it like this. “It is through faith that Almighty God has justified all that have been from the beginning of time.” Interestingly, Clement was active in ministry at the end of the first century and do you know where he did his work? Rome. I feel sure he read this letter and knew its contents and was just affirming what he read in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Now I need to say two more things here before we move on to verse 12. First, if people of the Old Testament were justified by faith, but John 14:6 says no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, how were people of the Old Testament justified since Jesus had not yet come?
The answer must be, based on Romans 4, by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. It is true that Christ had not yet come in Old Testament times, but His coming had been promised, even as far back as Genesis 3:15, God promised to defeat the serpent through a descendant of the woman. In God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, he said all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham. No one in the Old Testament was saved through law keeping, because all sinned.
God’s covenant with Abraham was by grace. His covenant with Israel was by grace, as Deuteronomy 7 tells us, God chose Israel not because they were better or more numerous than other nations, but just because He set His love on them. So God has always worked by grace, not law.  We have been seeing this in our series on Exodus. God brings up the Israelites up out of the bondage of Egypt. This was not something Israel could do for themselves, it was the grace of God. And so it is with our souls. God saves us by grace through faith.
When we get to the ten commandments, the core of God’s law, we will see that before any commandments come, God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” The commands flow from this basis of God’s grace in saving us. The law and even the sacrifices could never make anyone right with God, they just showed the seriousness of sin and the need for a real redeemer. But they were there all along, testifying to the coming of this Redeemer. And then God gave words to the prophets about this coming Savior.
God planned from the foundation of the world to send His Son, so the power of His redemption is not time-bound. It’s interesting that at the transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appear, the thing they are talking about is Jesus’ redeeming work. “And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Luke 9:30, 31
And the New Testament tells us that Abraham had a faith that looked forward to the Savior. Paul says in Galatians 3:8, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “[Gen 12:3] ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.” And Jesus said in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”
So it is right to say that Old Testament saints were saved by looking forward to what Christ would accomplish and New Testament saints are saved by looking back at what Christ has done. But by saying this, we are not saying that all Old Testament believers had a full understanding of exactly how Christ’s ministry would unfold. There is a progression in the story of redemption in the Bible. There is a fuller understanding and I believe that understanding has continued to develop over time. But there was enough in the Old Testament for people to be saved. And they were saved not by law-keeping or by virtue of being Jews. They were saved as all people have always been saved, by grace through faith. But if this is true, then what is the place and point of the nation of Israel? My short answer is, God has a distinct purpose for Israel, but it is not ultimately separate from His purpose for the Gentiles but intimately linked with it. For my long answer, you’ll have to wait until we get to Romans chapters 9-11.
The bottom line is, all are saved, past, present, and future, by grace through faith, that faith which is itself a gift of God.
The second issue I will address I will look at very briefly. Some of you, especially if you are from certain backgrounds, may have heard this verse taught or preached from as an argument for infant baptism. That just as circumcision was a sign and seal for the Jews, infant baptism is a sign and seal for us. I can do no better on that question than John Piper does in a sermon on that topic, so I have referred you to a internet link to that sermon so you can listen to it or watch it if you are interested in that topic.

Let’s finish up tonight with verse 12 . . .
12  and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
The family of Abraham is defined by faith. It is not as exclusive as some people believe it is (it is not limited only to Jews). But at the same time, it is not as inclusive as many believe it is (it does not include every Jew, but only those Jews who walk by faith). This is why salvation in the Bible can be pictured in both a big tent kind of way and at the same time, as a narrow way. God so loved the world, there will be a numberless multitude from every tribe and tongue and nation, yet the way is narrow that leads to life and few find it. How can both be true? This is how. Anyone can come to Jesus. Race doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter, your past doesn’t matter, you can come to Jesus by faith. It’s not your work, it’s the gift of God, but He’s not holding out on you because of anything in you or about you. The door is wide open. Yet the way is narrow, because you can’t come to God in any old way you want. I’m sincerely going to try to work my way to you God. It won’t work. I’m going to sincerely belief in the power of meditation to bring me to God. None of it will fly. We must come to God through His Son. Jesus is the only way to salvation. So this is the nature of the thing. It’s generously narrow.
One other little note before we go. I was struck in verse 12 by the phrase “walk in the footsteps of faith.” Why did Paul put it this way? Why not write it more simply? I kept wondering if Paul was trying to communicate something more to us. I think he is. And I think it is another attempt on his part to show us how faith and obedience relate to one another. Again, Romans 1:5 says that the aim of Paul’s whole ministry was the obedience of faith: “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake.”
The obedience of faith is the truth that real obedience flows from faith. Works are never the basis of justification but are always the fruit of justification. Paul is the last person in the world who would affirm a kind of easy believes, or as Bonhoeffer called it, “cheap grace.” Christ’s righteousness is counted to us when we trust in Jesus, so that the foundation of our works is not trying to earn our own righteous standing before God but living out of the reality that we have been given righteous standing with God through Christ. As Charles Wesley’s famous hymn says, “He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free, His blood can make the foulest clean, His blood availed for me.” He breaks the power of canceled sin. The sin is canceled, we are justified by grace through faith. But now God breaks its power over our lives by sanctifying us. This is where Paul is taking us in chapters 6-8. We don’t have to break the power of sin before God will cancel it. That is really good news.

CONCLUSION: N.T. Wright, “The church today, and in every generation, must make sure the door is wide enough open to let in people of every ethnic group, every type of family, every geographical region, every sort of moral (or immoral) background. But it must also make sure that the defining characteristic of the membership for this multi-ethnic family remains firmly stated and adhered to: the faith that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. Keeping this balance, and doing so in the right spirit, remains a major task facing Christians in the twenty-first century.” So we must ask, do we have unnecessary barriers up? Are we doing anything that says, “you can only be here if you have X, Y or Z thing true of you.”
I always hate to hear descriptive labels used about churches. They’re a church full of Republicans. They’re a church full of rich people. They’re a community church. They’re a church of families. They’re a church of homeschoolers. They’re a pro-life church. They’re a church that helps the poor. They’re a church for college students. They’re a church for old people. They’re a contemporary church. They’re a traditional church.
And I just don’t want any of these labels. I just hate the labels. Because every label that includes somebody excludes somebody else. And my heart is that the dividing line in this place is Jesus. My heart is that young and old, all races, all backgrounds are welcomed here and loved here, because the thing we care about is not our pet passion or our treasured things, but what we care about most is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of reconciliation, that through faith you can be justified from all the things you could never be forgiven of through good deeds or political involvement or good relationships. Let us be characterized by love for the gospel and we will thrive, whether we are abased or whether we abound. Let’s give ourselves to this, as children of Abraham and followers of Christ, because He alone is worthy.

2 Responses to “Sunday Evening Bible Study: Romans 4:9-12”

  1. Diane September 12, 2012 at 10:20 pm #

    Pastor Frady, You have no idea how this message has ministered to my wicked heart. Thank you so much for taking the time to post it. I pray that I remember this message tommow. God bless you and your congregation. I know they already are! (Being from the west I did have to google Bojangles biscuits though. 🙂

    • jsf08 September 13, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      Thanks Diane. Make sure to go to Bojangles if you’re ever in the south. 🙂

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