Why Does it Matter Which Came First: Circumcision or Justification?
From Gospel Translations
Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." 10 How then was it credited? 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 uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
Why is Paul so riveted on the truth that God's righteousness is credited to people by faith alone apart from works? We might be tempted to say to Paul, we've got it! We got it in Romans 3:22. We got it in 3:28. We got it from the story of Abraham in 4:1-5. We got it from the illustration of David's psalm in 4:6-8. We got it! Why do you keep pursuing this? Why do you go back to Abraham in Romans 4:9-12 - today's text?
There are at least four answers to that question, two in what we have seen so far and two in today's text.
"Faith Alone, Apart from Works" - Undercuts Boasting
First, Paul is riveted on this truth because it undercuts pride and boasting. Look at Romans 3:27-28. "Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law."
It may seem strange in our self-saturated and self-exalting and self-aggrandizing day that anyone would be attracted to something because it destroys boasting rather than enabling boasting. Bumper stickers are an in-your-face kind of boasting: "Pagan and proud of it," "I smoke and I vote," "Get in touch with your inner grown-up for a change." The quick, clever put-down, the sarcastic one-liner, is the communication of choice. Public figures from politicians to preachers posture with a kind of bravado and swagger: if they don't know the answer to the question, they answer a question that wasn't asked and try to keep up the impression that the king has clothes on. Ours is a self-assertive age.
In this atmosphere where we all live, the story of Jesus about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) won't get quoted on your average T-shirt. The Pharisee prayed and looked down at the tax collector with disdain. But the tax-collector stood at a distance, beat his chest with his fists and said, "God, be merciful to me, the sinner!" To which Jesus responded, "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Paul is totally in tune with Jesus Christ when he says, in effect: I am riveted on the truth of justification by faith apart from works because it undermines my boasting and your boasting. When having right standing with the most important Person in the universe, namely, God, is based on child-like dependence on mercy, rather than on will-power performances of good works, boasting is excluded.
And that is important because in the end, this universe is all about the greatness of God, not the greatness of man. We were put here to enjoy making much of God; we were not put here to be made much of by God or man. Creation is about God. He must increase; we must decrease (John 3:30). "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:31). The most basic way to make much of God is to trust his free and undeserved mercy -like a little child trusts his father. Our joy is not in self-exaltation but God-exaltation. There is more lasting satisfaction looking up into the Himalayas than looking up into the mirror.
We know we are on the right track here because a few verses later in Romans 4:20-21, Paul shows that Abraham glorifies God by trusting him: "With respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform." So the first reason Paul is riveted on the truth of justification by faith alone apart from works is because getting right with God by faith undermines boasting and glorifies God.
"Faith Alone, Apart from Works" - Preserves the Blessedness of Imputed Righteousness
The second reason Paul is riveted on the truth that righteousness is credited to us by faith alone apart from works is that this preserves for us the great blessedness of forgiven sins and imputed righteousness. That is what we saw last week from Romans 4:6. "David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works." Paul wants to bless you. He wants you to see that the gospel is good news, not hard news or bad news. He is for you and not against you. He wants you to rejoice and be glad. The point of taking away your boasting is not to take away your joy. It's not to take away your blessing. It's to preserve your blessing.
If getting right with God (being justified) were based on works, or on faith plus works, then our blessing would be taken away. The blessing of Romans 4:6, that God and his spokesman Paul want for you, is a solid, unshakable basis for your acceptance with God, namely, the righteousness of God in Christ, not your own righteousness. And therefore Paul is jealous for us to get this righteousness and this acceptance with God the only way it can be gotten, namely, by faith apart from works.
So the second reason Paul is riveted on this truth of justification by faith alone is to preserve the great blessing for us of forgiven sins and imputed divine righteousness. Boasting is excluded; being right with God is included.
Now we come to Romans 4:9-12 and find two more reasons why Paul is so riveted on this truth that righteousness is credited to us by faith alone apart from works. Let's get our bearings in this text and see these two reasons.
"Is This Blessing on the Uncircumcised Also?"
After describing the blessing of justification and forgiveness in verses 6-8, Paul asks in verse 9, "Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also?" Why does he ask that? For the Jewish people, circumcision was one basic act of obedience that defined them as Jews. This was the mark that they had a special covenant of acceptance with God. So Paul's question is: Did they get right with God by getting circumcised? Did the work of circumcision - this act of obedience - put them in a right relationship with God?
So he asks, "Is this blessing [referred to in verses 6-8 -God's imputed righteousness and the forgiveness of sins] on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also?" His answer has two steps and a conclusion.
Step one in verse 9b: "We say, 'Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.'" Step one says, "Let's take Abraham again as our example here, the father of the all the Jewish people. His faith was credited as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
Step two in verse 10: "How was his faith credited as righteousness? While he was circumcised or uncircumcised?" Answer: "Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised." Genesis 15:6, where Abraham is declared righteous by faith comes before Genesis 17 where the practice of circumcision is instituted.
Conclusion: The blessing of getting right with God and being accepted by God did not come by means of circumcision. It came before circumcision and independent of circumcision. It came by faith, apart from works. That's what Paul wants to establish here with the example of Abraham.
Now let's look at two implications of this which show two more reasons why Paul is so riveted on this truth of justification by faith apart form works.
"Faith Alone, Apart from Works" - Keeps Clear the Proper Place of Works and Acts of Obedience
First he stays riveted here on Abraham's righteousness by faith alone apart from the work of circumcision because he wants to show the proper place and value of circumcision. So the third reason for Paul's absorption with this truth of righteousness being credited by faith alone is to make clear that works or acts of obedience have their proper and essential place in the believer's life, but not as the means of justification.
What is that proper place of works and obedience? Verse 11a: "He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised." Two words describe the relationship between circumcision and the righteousness of God that comes by faith: sign and seal.
This is the third reason Paul cares so much about this issue. He wants us to put obedience and works in their proper place in relation to faith and justification. Paul is not just interested in throwing works and obedience out the window. In fact, he said in Romans 1:5 that the aim of his 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."
I take that to mean that true, God-exalting obedience comes from faith. Any other kind of obedience is not true obedience at all. So Paul is utterly committed to making clear that what's at stake in all his talk about justification by faith alone, apart from works, is making sure that works find their proper place. And that place is not as the basis of justification. But as the sign and seal of the righteousness that comes by faith alone.
When your life begins to conform to the will of God, this is a sign. It is a sign and seal that your faith is real and that you have an unshakable righteousness, namely, the righteousness of God in Christ. An act like circumcision, or any other act in obedience to God, does not give you your right standing with God. Faith alone does. But the acts of obedience are a sign and a seal that your faith is real and that Christ is your perfect righteousness.
That's the third reason Paul is so riveted on this truth: his aim is not to destroy works, but to put them on their proper foundation, namely, the foundation of our complete forgiveness - God's perfect imputed righteousness. "He breaks the power of canceled sin" - as Charles Wesley wrote ("Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing!"). First he cancels the sin. Then he breaks the power of the canceled sin. First justification. Then, on the basis of that, sanctification. Paul wants to make this plain for us. He wants us to enjoy this and glory in it. We do not have to break the power of sin first and then hope that God will cancel it. This would not only destroy justification, it would destroy any hope of holiness in this life.
"Faith Alone, Apart from Works" - Opens the Way for All Peoples to Be Children of Abraham
Finally, the fourth reason Paul is so riveted on the truth that righteousness is credited to people by faith alone apart from works is that it opens the way for Gentiles to be a part of the covenant people who will one day inherit the world (verse 13) and who have Abraham as their father. In short, justification by faith alone is a missionary doctrine of the first order. It is all about God's heart for the nations, both Jews and all the other ethnic groups in the world - including Anglo-Saxons, African-Americans, Hispanic, Asian, Somali, Ethiopian, Turkish people, Kosovars, Kazaks, Uzbeks, Maninke, Sukumu.
Notice how verse 11 reasons. "[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised [Gentiles, nations], that righteousness might be credited to them." God's point in justifying Abraham by faith alone before his being circumcised is to make clear that Abraham is the spiritual father of all who are justified by faith, no matter what people group they are from.
This means that you do not have to be a physical Jew or even a kosher proselyte to be a part of the covenant that God made with Abraham. What makes you a child of Abraham and a fellow heir of the promise is not circumcision or any other Jewish custom. It is faith in the God who justifies the ungodly. That is what united Abraham to God. And that is what will unite others to God and to him. Paul says it again in Galatians 3:7, "Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham."
So here is the evangelistic and missionary significance of this. It was not easy for Judaism to be a missionary religion in Old Testament times. There were the obstacles of circumcision, the dietary laws, the cumbersome sacrificial furnishings, the central tabernacle, and the ceremonial laws for ritual purification. This was mainly a come-see religion, not a stripped down, missionary, go-tell religion that fits a lot of different cultures.
But now Paul is making something crystal clear that was not as clear in the Old Testament. All the nations - all the ethnic groups - are meant by God to be included in the promises of Abraham. And the way he is making it clear here (which he does in other ways elsewhere, 1:16; 2:10, 26-28; 3:22, 29-30; 9:8, 24; 11:17-23) is by focusing our attention on the fact that Abraham obtained his covenant relation with God not by means of circumcision or any other Jewish ritual, but by faith - a faith he had before he was circumcised.
Therefore, Paul says (verse 11), Abraham is "the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them." So the message of justification by faith alone should be at the heart of all our missionary preaching and teaching. And all our evangelizing. Every kind of person is included in the gospel - everybody you know -because faith is the most universally accessible act of the human heart in every people and tribe and tongue and nation. Faith is not a performance based on education or personality or culture or ritual or strength or riches. It is what happens when the heart finds itself turning away from all those things and depending entirely on the mercy of God in Christ. Paul is passionate about justification by faith alone because it is the foundation for the great missionary work of his life.
In sum then, Paul rivets our attention on justification by faith alone apart from works for four reasons. First, because it undermines boasting. Second, because it preserves the blessing of forgiven sins and imputed righteousness. Third, because it puts obedience and works in their proper place after justification as signs and seals. And fourth, because Paul is passionate about reaching every people group in the world with the gospel and showing that they can be children of Abraham and heirs of the promise by faith in Jesus Christ alone apart from Jewish ritual - or American culture.
So let us embrace this great truth to our souls and be humble and be blessed and be obedient and be about the great work of taking the gospel to every people and tongue and tribe and nation.