“For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” —Romans 4:3
After what was addressed in Romans 4:1-8, that the sinner is justified by grace through faith; and with Israel’s forefathers given as an example (Abraham and David), the Jew may quite naturally agree that Christ’s righteousness is imputed; that is, that righteousness is accounted to him by God’s grace through faith. Yes, they may certainly believe and trust in Christ apart from keeping the commandments of the Law of Moses, but they may have insisted that there must have been at least one condition to assist faith: circumcision. The Jews might rationalize that circumcision was commanded by God, and that it came before the Law; and since it is a sign and a seal of Abraham’s faith (they may conclude), saving faith must therefore be accompanied by circumcision for it to be complete. For that reason, some of them may have even thought that one must be a Jew in order to be saved by faith. Yet in our text, Paul removes that idea before the question can be raised.
To truly get an idea of what Paul is talking about here, let’s make sure we have a Biblical perspective of Abraham, faith, and circumcision.
“After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward. And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And He brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and He said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.” —Genesis 15:1-6
We briefly covered this passage earlier in our article, “Justification by Grace.” Abram’s faith was based upon the Word of the Lord, viz., upon God’s declaration of what He would do; Abram was told to “Look now” to ponder and consider the stars as an example of how plentiful God would make his descendents; and he believed God and God placed His own righteousness upon Abram’s account for that belief. In fact, Abram’s faith was in the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, because his faith and trust was in the Word of the LORD (Genesis 15:1, 4); and we know that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (John 1:1, 14). Furthermore, God’s declaration came by way of nothing that Abram did. Abram did nothing to warrant God’s making to him any promise whatsoever.
Additionally, that Abram is counted as having Christ’s righteousness is evident in scripture because his life is not the most exemplary. He sires a child through Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid (Genesis 16) and he lies to Abimelech of Gerar about Sarah being his wife (Genesis 20:9-12). Yet, he does grow in faith once he is justified. That is evidenced in what he does in Genesis 22, taking Isaac his son to sacrifice on Mt. Moriah upon the Lord’s word.
Yet, Paul’s point is that God has counted Abraham righteous by His faith, prior to Abraham’s being circumcised. It is written,
“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect. And I will make My covenant between Me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep My covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken My covenant.” —Genesis 17:1-14
So more than thirteen years after Genesis 15:1-6 (because Abraham is 99 years old according to Genesis 17:1, and he was 86 years old when Ishmael was born according to Genesis 16:16), God establishes the covenant of circumcision with Abraham as a sign, or token, between God and Abraham according (Genesis 17:11). This is where, I believe, a great misunderstanding takes place concerning circumcision as a sign (אות).
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant of God’s promise to Abraham by which God would make Abraham a father of many nations (Genesis 17:4-5); and kings shall come forth as His descendents (Genesis 17:6); that this covenant will be established with his seed (Genesis 17:7-8); and because of Galatians 3, we understand Genesis 17:7-8 to have a twofold meaning with regard to Abraham’s “seed.”
Yes, although it does refer to a singular people coming forth from his loins to inherit and inhabit the land (that is, the Jews), it also spoke of the “seed” as a singular noun, that is, of the One to come (in other words, Jesus Christ), the descendent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, coming through the people of Israel, and specifically through the tribe of Judah, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22): that is, salvation, Jesus the Messiah with whom and from whom salvation lay, would come from among the Jewish people— “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11).
That was the covenant promise of circumcision; that faith will come to many nations, not just to the Jews, because the Seed of Abraham, one descendent of Abraham, would have His flesh cut and His blood would be shed. Circumcision is a prophetic type of Christ’s atoning death (“But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh,” Romans 13:14).
Abraham was already counted righteous in Genesis 15:6. He had a lapse of faith in Genesis 16 when He took Hagar, acting in the flesh and not in the spirit by faith; so we know that righteousness by faith is imputed, not imparted. Yet, we also see, that because the imputation of righteousness through faith is very real, it produces a life that has evidence of that faith through good works; as the LORD command Abraham to “walk before [Him], and be… perfect” (Genesis 17:1), and with that command, Abraham responds to the majesty of God by works produced by faith: Abraham “fell on his face” in worship (Genesis 17:3).
Let’s recap: Abraham is justified by God through faith. More than thirteen years later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, by way of circumcision, as a sign of God’s promise to make Abraham the father of faith unto many nations; and by this covenant, God would bring the promised Christ, that Seed, through Abraham’s progeny.
Finally, the covenant of circumcision foreshadowed the new covenant that God would make through His Son. The blood covenant through the cutting of the foreskin in circumcision would only be unto Abraham’s generations in his descendents; the blood that came through the cutting of Christ’s flesh would be unto all generations afterward by faith. That’s what circumcision is all about. Like the law, it leads us to Christ by faith.
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Read the previous article in this series, “The Solas: United, Yet Alone” (Romans 4:16-17).