The Sign Of Circumcision
The Place Thereof
In a Brief Survey of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans
Based on sermons preached in PCC Worship Services, July 2003 to Sep 2005
Part 18b of 83

9 Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. &c” (Romans 4:9-17)

[The apostle Paul is building a case for the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. He shows in chapter 4 that both Abraham and David were justified by faith. But now an important a loophole remains: Both Abraham and David were circumcised Jews! This being the case, then could it be that only those who are circumcised can receive justification? This notion is what Paul is seeking to dispel from verse 9 onwards. 

In the first instalment of our study of this passage, we saw Paul arguing that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, and therefore it can’t be that circumcision is a pre-requisite. In this second instalment, Paul argues that circumcision belongs to the law while justification is part of the gospel promise —JJL]

2. The Place of Circumcision

Paul says:

13 For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: 15 Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.

God had made a promise to Abraham that he should be the heir of the world. This promise is recorded in Genesis 12 and Genesis 17. Abraham would be the father of a multitude of people. They would receive a heavenly inheritance from God. This inheritance is typified or pointed to by the land of Canaan.

The land of Canaan was not the inheritance itself. It was a picture of the heavenly inheritance. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear when he tells us that Abraham was looking for “a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb 11:10). Abraham’s heart was set not on an earthly inheritance, but on the heavenly inheritance pointed to by the land. This inheritance, we should realise is synonymous with eternal life. What is eternal life, but knowing God in Christ or having an everlasting life of fellowship with God in Christ. And how can we have fellowship with God except we first receive the righteousness of God. Therefore the spiritual inheritance typified by Canaan is really God’s righteousness and all the benefits that come with it.

How would Abraham and his seed receive what God has promised? Will they have to work for it? Well, God has promised unconditionally, and therefore it can only be received by faith. If it were received by obedience to the law, then the promise becomes an empty promise. Why? Because fallen man can never keep the law. There is none righteous, no not one. In fact, the law show us we deserve wrath rather than love.

This is what Paul is saying in Galatians 3:17, when he affirms that…

the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.

God has promised. He would keep His word. He would not make it impossible for the children of Abraham to receive what He has promised!

Now, bear in mind that Paul is addressing the question of whether circumcision is prerequisite to receiving God’s righteousness.

Why then does he speak about the law? What has the law to do with circumcision? Well the fact is: Although circumcision was given 430 years before Moses, it was nevertheless an act of the law. The Jews understood circumcision as an act of the law. To be circumcised for the Jews is to embrace the law. Circumcision, for the Jew is the first act of obedience. It is meaningless for a man to be circumcised except that he keeps the law in its entirety.

Circumcision, in other words, was taken as the embodiment of the law. Paul is arguing that if circumcision is a prerequisite, then neither Abraham nor his seed could not have received the things promised, for fallen man cannot keep the law perfectly.

The Jews were saying: “You must be circumcised!” Paul is saying, “No; you must believe!”

Some of the Jews would have responded: “Yes; you must believe; But you must also be circumcised if you want God’s blessing.” Paul is says, “No, no; justification is by faith alone. If you are thinking of circumcision as a means to obtain God’s righteousness, you are mistaken. God’s blessing of righteousness must be received by faith alone.”

You cannot work for it. Circumcision is not a pre-requisite for enjoying a right relationship with God.

What does this mean for us? It means, that nothing that we do can add to our standing before God. Christ has done it all. We must never, ever think that we must add anything to what he has done for us.

Now, of course Paul is not saying that circumcision is bad. In the old covenant it was right and proper for the people to be circumcised. Those who would not be circumcised were to be cut off according to God’s commandment.

Neither is Paul saying that baptism is not essential. But we must never think of baptism as more important than faith in what Christ has done. We are justified by grace through faith alone. All true believers will seek baptism and will keep the law of God. But their baptism and law-keeping do not make them Christians. This is a doctrine that we must bear carefully in mind.

We know of professing Christians who live lawless lives. These cannot be genuine, for Christ came to rescue us from sin. He does not only remove our guilt of sin. He delivers us from the power of sin and makes us hunger and thirst after righteousness. On the other hand, we know of Christians who are zealous for the law. It is right to be zealous for the law of God. But these brethren are daily afflicted in their conscience because they cannot meet up to the demands of the law although they try. And so they begin to doubt their salvation. What has happened? They have begun to look to themselves rather than to Christ!

Oh how important it is to understand the biblical balance. As Christian we must keep God’s commandments, for Christ said: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” But at the same time, we must never derive any confidence from our obedience to the law. Our confidence must be in Christ. We must live by faith, not by sight. Faith looks at Christ, sight looks at ourselves. Sight believes in our own obedience; faith believes in God’s promises.

But isn’t God’s promise to Abraham extended only to those who were circumcised? Let’s look at Paul’s answer in his third argument.

…to be Continued Next Issue

JJ Lim