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Abraham – Justified By Grace:
He Was Not Justified By Circumcision
(Part 2)

Pastor Bill Farrow

Romans 4:9-12

9 Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted 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.

(Verse 10-12) - But all such doctrines are forms of magic, in which neither the recipient nor the source of the desired result needs to be consciously involved. The result is conferred solely on the basis of the appropriate words being spoken or actions being performed. Even God is not involved directly in the efficacy of the sacraments. They operate not only without the recipients having faith but also without God directly imparting His grace. The power is in the formula of the rite and in the hand of the church present in the administration of that rite.

That is exactly the kind of power the Jews of Paul’s day attached to circumcision. And because they believed that what was true for Abraham in regard to justification was true of every person, especially every Jew, Paul continues to use that patriarch as his model. Answering his own question about the time of Abraham’s being declared righteous, the apostle declares that it was not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.  Before or after he was circumcised? This was the very point of the inquiry. For if he was justified by faith after he was circumcised, the Jew might pretend that it was in virtue of his circumcision; that even his faith was acceptable, because he was circumcised. But if it was before he was circumcised, this plea could not be set up; and the argument of the apostle was confirmed by the case of Abraham, the great father and model of the Jewish people, that circumcision and the deeds of the Law did not conduce to justification; and that as Abraham was justified without those works, so might others be, and the pagan, therefore, might be admitted to similar privileges.  Not in circumcision - Not being circumcised, or after he was circumcised, but before.

This was the record in the case; Gen. 15:6; Compare Gen. 17:10.  The obvious chronology of Genesis proves it. When Abraham was circumcised, Ishmael was thirteen years old and Abraham was ninety-nine (see Gen. 17:23-25). But when Abraham was declared righteous by God (15:6), Ishmael had not yet been born or even conceived (16:2-4). When Ishmael was born, Abraham was eighty-six (see 16:16). Therefore Abraham was declared righteous by God at least fourteen years before he was circumcised.

Abraham was in God’s covenant and under His grace long before he was circumcised, whereas Ishmael, although circumcised, was never in the covenant. Circumcision became a mark of the covenant relationship between God and His people, but the covenant was not established on the basis of circumcision. When Abraham was first given the covenant promise, he was only seventy-five (Gen. 12:1-4). Circumcision came not only at least fourteen years after Abraham was declared righteous but also twenty-four years after he first entered into a covenant relationship with God. In addition to that, because there were no Jews at that time, when Abraham was declared righteous he was, as it were, an uncircumcised Gentile.

The natural question to be asked, therefore, would be, “Why circumcision? Why did God make that rite a binding law on all of Abraham’s descendants?” First of all, Paul says, circumcision was a sign. Abraham received the sign of circumcision. A sign is that by which any thing is shown, or represented. And circumcision thus showed that there was a covenant between Abraham and God; Gen. 17:1-10. It became the public mark or token of the relation which he sustained to God.  Circumcision was the physical, racial mark of identity for His people. Even under the New Covenant, Paul had no objection to a Jew being circumcised, as long as the act was seen in this light. In fact Paul personally circumcised Timothy, who was only half Jewish, in order that Timothy might have better opportunity to witness to Jews near his home area who knew him (Acts 16:3).

Circumcision was also a mark of God’s covenant, setting Abraham’s descendants apart as uniquely His chosen people, the Hebrews, or Jews as they became known during the Babylonian Exile. During the wilderness wanderings in Sinai, circumcision was not performed by that disobedient generation, whom God allowed to die out before they could enter the Promised Land. But when God readied His people to enter the land, the mark of circumcision was reinstituted by Joshua under direct command from God (Josh. 5:2).

Second, circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he, that is, Abraham, had while uncircumcised.  A seal is that mark of wax or other substance, which is attached to an instrument of writing, as a deed, etc., to confirm, ratify it, or to make it binding. Sometimes instruments were sealed, or made authentic by stamping on them some word, letter, or device, which had been engraved on silver, or on precious stones. The seal or stamp was often worn as an ornament on the finger; (Est. 8:8; Gen. 41:42; 38:18; Exo. 28:11, 36; 29:6) To affix the seal, whether of wax, or otherwise, was to confirm contract or an engagement. In allusion to this, circumcision is called a seal of the covenant which God had made with Abraham. That is, he appointed this as a public attestation to the fact that he had previously approved of Abraham, and had made important promises to him.  In other words, every time circumcision was performed God’s people were to be reminded of God’s righteousness that Abraham had, and all other believers have, through faith, completely apart from circumcision.

Although they convey similar ideas, a sign points to something, whereas a seal guarantees it. When an official seal was stamped on a letter or decree, for instance, its authenticity was guaranteed. In that sense, circumcision was the authentication that God’s covenant promises would be fulfilled. It pointed to the fact that God wanted to circumcise, that is, place His authenticating seal upon, His people’s hearts, not simply their bodies.

That was always God’s intent, and the Jews should have known it long before Paul pointed it out in his Roman letter. Moses had declared, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). God had always wanted first of all to cut away the sin that covered the heart. “For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and to Jerusalem,” Jeremiah wrote, “Break up your fallow ground, and do not sow among thorns. Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, lest My wrath go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds” (Jer. 4:3-4). Through that same prophet the Lord declared,

“Let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the Lord. “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised—Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the sons of Ammon, and Moab, and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart” (Jer. 9:24-26).

Every male child of Israel was a testimony that men’s hearts need spiritual circumcision, or cleansing.

In a similar way, baptism symbolizes a believer’s death and resurrection with Christ. Communion symbolizes His redemptive act on our behalf, which we are to commemorate until He comes again. Neither rite has any merit in itself, and the elements of water, bread, and wine certainly have no merit or power in themselves. Both baptism and communion are outward demonstrations and reminders of the inner reality of salvation through Jesus Christ.

As Paul had already made clear in this epistle, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29).

Contrary to the teaching in some churches today, infant baptism does not correspond to the circumcision of Jewish male infants. Even if it did, however, baptism would no more provide salvation than did circumcision.

The Passover meal, which has been celebrated by Jews for some three and one-half millennia, has never been considered a means of deliverance but only the symbol and reminder of it. For the Jew, Passover is a collective symbol of deliverance and circumcision is an individual symbol of justification. For the Christian, communion is the collective, corporate symbol of our relationship to Christ; baptism is the individual symbol of it.

Abraham received circumcision after he was reckoned righteous in order that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, 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.

All this was done that Abraham might be held up as an example, or a model, of the very doctrine which the apostle was defending. The word “father” here is used evidently in a spiritual sense, as denoting that he was the ancestor of all true believers; that he was their model, and example. They are regarded as his children because they are possessed of his spirit; are justified in the same way, and are imitators of his example; see the note at Matt. 1:1. In this sense the expression occurs in Luke 19:9; John 8:33; Gal. 3:7, 29.

Though they be not circumcised - This was stated in opposition to the opinion of the Jews that all ought to be circumcised. As the apostle had shown that Abraham enjoyed the favor of God previous to his being circumcised, that is, without circumcision; so it followed that others might on the same principle also. This instance settles the point; and there is nothing which a Jew can reply to this.  That righteousness … - That is, in the same way, by faith without works: that they might be accepted, and treated as righteous.

And the father of circumcision - The father, that is, the ancestor, exemplar, or model of those who are circumcised, and who possess the same faith that he did. Not only the father of all believers Rom. 4:11, but in a special sense the father of the Jewish people. In this, the apostle intimates that though all who believed would be saved as he was, yet the Jews had a special proprietorship in Abraham; they had special favors and privileges from the fact that he was their ancestor.

Not of the circumcision only - Who are not merely circumcised, but who possess his spirit and his faith. Mere circumcision would not avail; but circumcision connected with faith like his, showed that they were especially his descendants; (see the study at Rom. 2:25).

Who walk in the steps … - Who imitate his example; who imbibe his spirit; who have his faith.

Being yet uncircumcised - Before he was circumcised. Compare Gen. 15:6, with Gen. 17.


Racially Abraham is the father of all Jews; spiritually, he is the father of both believing Gentiles, who believe without being circumcised, and of believing Jews, who … are of the circumcision. Both groups of believers are reckoned righteous because of their faith in God through Jesus Christ, and they also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.