(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 2/3/02 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Let's read Romans 4:1 through 15:
Romans 4: (1) What then shall we say our father Abraham to have found according to flesh? (2) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has a boast, but not with God. (3) For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness." (4) Now [to one] working, the reward is not counted according to grace, but according to debt. (5) But to the [one] not working, but believing on Him justifying the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (6) Even as also David says of the blessedness of the man to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: (7) "Blessed [are those] whose lawlessnesses are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; (8) blessed [the] man to whom [the] Lord will in no way charge sin." (9) [Is] this blessedness then on the circumcision, or also on the uncircumcision? For we say the faith "was counted to Abraham for righteousness." (10) How then was it counted? Being in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision! (11) And he received a sign of circumcision [as] a seal of the righteousness of faith [while] in uncircumcision, for him to be a father of those believing through uncircumcision, for righteousness to be counted to them also, (12) and a father of circumcision to those not of circumcision only, but also to those walking in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham during uncircumcision. (13) For the promise [was] not through Law to Abraham, or to his seed, [for] him to be the heir of the world, but through a righteousness of faith. (14) For if those of Law [are] heirs, faith has been made of no effect, and the promise has been annulled. (15) For the Law works out wrath; for where no law is, neither [is] transgression.
In the past two sermons, we saw that Abraham and David believed the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, and they were justified through the instrument of this belief. They were not justified based on anything they did, and not only that, but they KNEW they were not justified based on anything they did. Paul uses Psalm 32 to show the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works, whose lawless deeds have been sent away from us as far as the east is from the west, whose offenses have been totally removed from the eyes of God's law and justice, who are not chargeable with their sins.
Now, starting with verse 9, Paul continues the question and answer format to make another point, which is that this blessedness is APART FROM the Law. Let's look at the first question: "Is this blessedness then on the circumcision, or also on the uncircumcision?" The typical Jew would answer, "It's on the circumcision, of course. Only those who are of the circumcision are blessed." The next sentence is not an answer to the question; instead, it's the reason why the question is asked. It's as if Paul is saying, "After all, we're saying that Abraham's faith was counted to him unto righteousness." He is reiterating what he said in verse 3 in order to keep the reader with him in this argument. We've already gone over Abraham's belief and how it is counted to him unto righteousness, so we'll go to the next two questions: "How then was it counted? Being in circumcision, or in uncircumcision?" Paul is asking, "How, or under what circumstance, was Abraham's faith counted unto righteousness? Was it counted only when he was circumcised, or was it counted when he was yet uncircumcised?" Now we can see the Jews getting jittery. They know that, according to their Scriptures, Abraham was blessed, and his faith was counted unto righteousness, BEFORE he was circumcised. Let's go back to Genesis 15:6:
Genesis 15: (6) And he believed in Jehovah. And He counted it to him for righteousness.
Here we see that Abraham, who was still Abram at the time, believed God's promise, and God counted it to him unto righteousness. Now when we look over at verse 18, we see that God makes a covenant with uncircumcised Abram. In chapter 16 verse 16, we see that Hagar bore Ishmael when Abram was 86 years old. Then, in chapter 17, verse 1, we see that Abram was 99 years old, and in verse 11 is when God commands Abram to be circumcised, and he was circumcised in verse 24, and his name was changed to Abraham. We can see that at least THIRTEEN YEARS went by between the blessing of Abraham and Abraham's circumcision. It wasn't just a couple of days or a couple of years. Abraham was blessed of God, was in covenant with God, was given faith, MORE THAN A DOZEN YEARS BEFORE he was circumcised! So, Jews, what do you have to say about that? What is the effect of circumcision? Where does all your boasting in circumcision go?
Let's go back to Romans 4:10. Paul answers the question emphatically: "Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision!" So let's go back to the first question in verse 9: "Is this blessedness then on the circumcision, or also on the uncircumcision?" Paul clearly shows, to the consternation of the Jews, that this blessedness is also on the UNCIRCUMCISION, those whom the Jews counted as unclean heathens! To prove the point, Paul uses Abraham himself, the one whom the Jews say is their father in the faith, who was one of those uncircumcised ones that the Jews despised so much, yet in his uncircumcision, he was blessed! Boy, this really puts a wrench in the wicked Jews' notion that circumcision was necessary for justification. And it puts a wrench in the notion of some today that baptism is necessary for justification. There are some groups out there now that call themselves Christian who believe that one cannot be justified unless one is baptized. The Roman Catholics and the Boston Church of God (or is it the Boston Church of Christ? I can't remember what they call themselves) are two of the most prominent ones.
Justification is NOT based on ANYTHING the sinner DOES or is ENABLED to do or that is DONE TO them. God does not BLESS based on ANY of these things. As David says, the BLESSEDNESS is totally found in the work of GOD in CHRIST on BEHALF of the sinner. Whether or not someone is circumcised or baptized has NOTHING TO DO with the ground of salvation or of being blessed or entitled to heaven.
So what WAS the purpose of circumcision? Let's read verses 11 and 12:
Romans 4: (11) And he received a sign of circumcision [as] a seal of the righteousness of faith [while] in uncircumcision, for him to be a father of those believing through uncircumcision, for righteousness to be counted to them also, (12) and a father of circumcision to those not of circumcision only, but also to those walking in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham during uncircumcision.
Let's go through this carefully. First, we see that Abraham received a SIGN of circumcision. Circumcision was a SIGN. A SIGN is a TOKEN or a MARK. It is something that SIGNIFIES a truth. Paul goes on to show what it signifies. This sign of circumcision was received as a SEAL. A SEAL is a STAMP or a CERTIFICATION. So what is Paul saying here? Abraham received the MARK of circumcision as a CERTIFICATION of the righteousness of faith. Now this may still be difficult to understand, but let's keep going to see if I can make it clearer. What is the righteousness of faith? Some would say that Abraham's faith was counted to him INSTEAD OF or IN THE PLACE OF righteousness, meaning that God accepted Abraham's faith IN PLACE OF perfect righteousness, and thus the righteousness of faith is that perfect righteousness that God attributed to Abraham in place of righteousness. This cannot be so, or else Paul's whole argument of salvation by grace is meaningless. This righteousness of faith is a righteousness that is RECEIVED BY faith. And what is the righteousness that is RECEIVED BY faith? It is the imputed righteousness of Christ that Paul talked about in verse 6.
The last part of the phrase is "while in uncircumcision." Abraham had faith while he was in uncircumcision. The sign of circumcision was received as a certification of the imputed righteousness of Christ that Abraham had received by faith while he was yet uncircumcised. Does that make things clearer? The circumcision actually ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING as to Abraham's justification or blessing. It was a SIGN that was received as a SEAL of something that had already happened in Abraham's life over a dozen years before he received the sign.
Now if we just read about Abraham's circumcision as an adult without seeing the command about who else should be circumcised, we could come to the conclusion that, since circumcision is a sign that is received as a seal of righteousness received by faith, then only those who had received this righteousness by faith should have been circumcised. This would be the "believers' circumcision" view. But, obviously, this would be an error. Let's turn back to Genesis 17, and I'll read verse 7 through 13:
Genesis 17: (7) And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your seed after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you and to your seed after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your seed after you the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession and I will be their God. (9) And God said to Abraham, You shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you in their generations. (10) This [is] My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised. (11) And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin. And it shall be a token of the covenant between Me and you. (12) And a son of eight days shall be circumcised among you, every male in your generation, he that is born in the house, or bought with silver from any son of a foreigner who [is] not of your seed. (13) The child of your house and the purchase of your money circumcising must be circumcised. And My covenant shall be in your flesh for a perpetual covenant.
Now this raises some questions, doesn't it? If circumcision was a mark that was received as a seal of the righteousness that is received by faith, then why did God command that every single male child who was born to Abraham and Abraham's physical descendants be circumcised, even when they had no capacity to confess their faith, and when we know that some of them will grow up to show that they are unbelievers? Well, one thing we can see for sure is that, for children who are under the pale of the covenant, even children who end up showing themselves to be unbelievers, this sign of God's righteousness was to be administered. Some would say that this is because the covenant was merely a temporal, physical covenant and had no spiritual significance. However, as we saw a couple sermons ago, when God covenanted with Abraham, this covenant was a spiritual covenant and spoke of Abraham's spiritual seed. Thus, circumcision signified a SPIRITUAL COVENANT. Even though it was applied to the natural seed of those within the pale of the covenant, it signified the blessing of the spiritual seed. Thus, it did not matter whether or not the one who was physically circumcised was a believer or not, because the very ordinance of circumcision signified a spiritual reality for all the people of God, not necessarily a spiritual reality for the person to whom the circumcision was administered. Just as circumcision did not actually DO anything as far as the ground of Abraham's salvation went, circumcision of children did not actually DO anything as far as the ground of their salvation went. Circumcision did not save, did not cut away any sin, and did not gain God's blessing, although it is a SIGN of salvation, cutting away sin, and God's blessing, not necessarily to the one receiving it. In the same way, baptism does not save, does not wash away any sin, and does not gain God's blessing, although baptism is a SIGN of salvation, washing away sin, and God's blessing, not necessarily to the one receiving it. As with Abraham, adults who were outside the pale of the covenant and have been regenerated receive the SIGN of baptism as a certification of the righteousness that they received by faith before they were baptized. And as with Abraham's physical seed, children who are inside the pale of the covenant receive the SIGN of baptism as a certification of the righteousness that God's people receive by faith. It does not mean that they are surely saved or even will be surely saved. It does not mean that God has covenanted with them in particular. It points to the spiritual reality that God has unconditionally covenanted with His people, Abraham's spiritual seed, based on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. It also shows that the children within the pale of the covenant are set apart from the world, as 1 Corinthians 7:14 says.
Let's go back to Romans 4, to the second half of verse 11: "for him to be a father of those believing through uncircumcision, for righteousness to be counted to them also." Abraham believed while he was uncircumcised. In addition to the other things his circumcision signified, it also signified that he was the father of those believing while uncircumcised, namely, the Gentiles. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to them as well through the instrument of faith. Now this, of course, is offensive to the wicked Jews. They believed that they had an exclusive claim on Abraham as their father. But Paul is saying that Abraham is the father of the UNCIRCUMCISED who believe. He goes on in verse 12 to show that it is those who are BELIEVERS who are Abraham's children, whether they are circumcised or not. As Galatians 3:7 says, "know then, that those of faith, these are sons of Abraham." Circumcised or uncircumcised - it doesn't matter. What matters is, have you received the righteousness of Christ by faith? Are you, as verse 12 says, "walking in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham"? That faith is belief in the person and work of Christ, which is the only ground of salvation. It is the belief that salvation is conditioned totally and exclusively on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the God-man, to the exclusion of all efforts by the sinner. If you do not have THIS faith, your father is not Abraham, you do not have the faith of Abraham, and you are an unbeliever. Only those who BELIEVE shall be saved.
Let's go on to verse 13:
Romans 4: (13) For the promise [was] not through Law to Abraham, or to his seed, [for] him to be the heir of the world, but through a righteousness of faith.
God's promise of salvation was not through law-keeping. The covenant was, and continues to be, an UNCONDITIONAL COVENANT. God did not say to Abram, "I promise that you will be blessed as long as you get circumcised first." God's promise and his fulfillment of that promise had NOTHING TO DO with Abraham's works. God's promise of salvation is not conditioned in any way, to any degree, on the sinner's efforts. It does not depend on what a sinner does or does not do. It is a COMPLETELY UNILATERAL promise. God promises to save His people conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ alone. There is NOTHING for the sinner to do to secure his salvation, because the work has ALREADY BEEN DONE by another. Even after the written Law came in under Moses, God's covenant REMAINED UNCONDITIONAL. The written Law actually emphasized this fact, because it showed that NO ONE could obtain salvation through keeping the Law, because no one could keep the Law. Salvation is and always has been only through a righteousness received by faith.
Romans 4: (14) For if those of Law [are] heirs, faith has been made of no effect, and the promise has been annulled.
Paul uses simple logic here. If someone could gain salvation by works of the Law, then the promise of salvation conditioned on the work of Christ alone is wiped out, and so is the necessity of belief of that promise. As we have seen before, faith and works do not mix. It's either by faith, or it's by works. If even the slightest bit of works enters the picture, then it's by works. If you do not believe that it is the work of Christ ALONE that ENSURES the salvation of all whom He represented, then you believe in salvation by works. It's either faith in Christ alone, boasting in the cross of Christ alone, or it's the damnable heresy of salvation conditioned on the sinner. It's one or the other, people. Don't say you believe in salvation by grace if you believe that Christ's work did not ensure the salvation of all whom He represented, because you don't believe in salvation by grace. You don't believe that the blood of Christ actually accomplished ANYTHING in and of itself; instead, you think that the sinners efforts need to be added to the mix in order to secure salvation.
Romans 4: (15) For the Law works out wrath; for where no law is, neither [is] transgression.
The Law does not work out salvation. It works out wrath. We saw this earlier in this series. All who strive to keep God's law to gain or maintain salvation and do not keep God's law perfectly are under the wrath of God. Galatians 3: 10 says, "For as many as are out of works of Law, these are under a curse. For it has been written, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all the things having been written in the book of the Law, to do them." Romans 2:13 says, "For not the hearers of the Law are just with God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified." Romans 3: 20 says, "Because by works of Law not one of all flesh will be justified before Him, for through Law is full knowledge of sin." Do you want to gain acceptance before God based on your law-keeping? Well, you've just condemned yourself. You are a law-breaker, and God will not accept law-breakers.
The last part of the verse says, "for where no law is, neither is transgression." This is similar to what Paul said in Romans 5:20, "But Law came in besides, that the deviation might abound." If you don't have rules, you can't break the rules. But once you have rules, the rules are broken, and punishment for breaking the rules comes in. One of the main purposes of the Law is to show people where they have deviated from it, where they have transgressed. And if one understands by the power of the Holy Spirit that no one who deviates from the law is just before God, then he will run to Christ as his only hope of salvation.
What is YOUR hope of salvation? Well, no professing Christian would say "ME," would they? They would say "Christ." But if you believe that your efforts made the difference between your going to hell and going to heaven, then your hope of salvation isn't in Christ at all. You might as well come right out and say "ME." The only hope of salvation is in Christ ALONE, which means that the work of Christ ALONE makes the difference between salvation and damnation. This means that EVERYONE for whom Christ died will have eternal life. This is what Abraham believed, and it was counted to him unto righteousness. The righteousness that Abraham received by faith is the very righteousness of Christ. Is Abraham your father? Are you walking in the steps of the faith of faithful Abraham? If you believe the gospel of salvation conditioned on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone, with no contribution from yourself, then you are of the faith of Abraham, and we are brothers and sisters. Let us who have received Christ's righteousness by God-given faith be comforted and edified by God's precious gospel. Amen.