The Sign Of Circumcision
The Timing
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 18a 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.… 16 Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,…” (Romans 4:9-17)

The book of Romans is centred on the theme: “Justification by grace through faith in Christ alone.” This doctrine answers the most pressing question that man can ever ask, namely: How can I enjoy a right relationship with God?

Paul’s answer is unequivocal: God is holy therefore sinful man can enjoy a right relationship with Him only if he has the righteousness of God. And he can only have God’s righteousness if God gives it to him. And he must receive it by faith in Christ alone. The good works of man cannot buy God’s favour because there is none that does good. Unless God first declare a man to be righteous in Christ, nothing that he does can be acceptable to God.

Paul summarises the doctrine very succinctly in chapter 3. In chapter 4, he proves that Abraham was justified by faith too. Many of the Jews thought that Abraham was accepted by God because of his obedience to God. But the apostle showed that this was not the case. “For what saith the scripture?” he asks? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” he answers (v. 3).

The Scriptures is clear that Abraham experienced God’s blessing not for His good works or obedience, but for his faith. And Abraham was not the only one who enjoyed this blessing. David spoke of this blessing too (v. 7-8). He spoke about it in the context of forgiveness from gross sin that he committed.

But both Abraham and David enjoyed the same blessing: For they were both sinners in the sight of God. Abraham might not have sinned as grievously as David, but he needed reconciliation with God too.

Both Abraham and David were reconciled to God not because they deserved reconciliation. They deserved nothing but condemnation. Neither were they reconciled because they did good in the sight of God. No, all their good works were but filthy rags in the sight of God.

No, no; they both received reconciliation by faith in the Messiah to come. They were able to enjoy a favourable relationship with God not because they earned it, but because Christ purchased it for them.

But now an important a question remains: Both Abraham and David were Jews were they not? They were both of the Circumcision were they not? If that is so, then could it be that only those who are circumcised can receive the blessing of God’s righteousness? Regardless of whether they receive it by faith or not, could it be that circumcision is a pre-requisite? Paul anticipates this question in verse 9, —“Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also?”[1]

This is an important question. If it is indeed true that circumcision is a pre-requisite for receiving God’s blessing, then there are a couple of serious implications:  First, it could mean that the people of God should still be circumcised today. Gentiles should be grafted into the commonwealth of Israel by circumcision. Or secondly, if you agree that baptism has replaced circumcision, then you will have to conclude that God will bless only those who have been baptised today. If that is the case, then Paul would have gotten his priorities upside down, for He said that Christ sent him not to baptised (1 Cor 1:17). And he baptised only a few households in his whole ministry.

Can you see now why it is important to know whether one needs to be circumcised to receive God’s blessing? It is no doubt an important question. And important questions must be answered from the Scriptures.

This is what Paul is doing in our text for this study. And his answer in a word is: No, circumcision is not a prerequisite for justification. But this is too important a question to answer in a word. It is too important for us to gloss over it. Thus, Paul proves his answer in 8 verses. His arguments can be simplified into 3 points:

(1)  Abraham was justified before he was circumcised;

(2)  Circumcision is of the law. If it is a prerequisite, then neither Abraham nor his seed could have received the promise attached to it, for fallen man cannot keep the law perfectly; and

(3)  God’s promise (which is part of circumcision) is not made to Abraham’s physical seed (who were circumcised), but to His spiritual seed.

The Lord helping us, we want to look at these three points, in this tranche of studies. I trust that as we look at them, we will learn something about the relationship between justification and circumcision; and so between justification and baptism.

1.  The Timing of

Paul says:

9b we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. 10 How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. 11 And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised:…

What Paul is saying can be verified in Genesis 15 and 17. Abraham was circumcised when he was 95 years old (Gen 17:24). This is recorded in Genesis 17. But he was declared righteous more than 10 years earlier as recorded in Genesis 15.

It was while he was still uncircumcised that Abraham exercised a living faith, and was counted righteous. Only after this, was he given the sign of circumcision by the LORD. In fact, the sign of circumcision was given as a seal to point to the righteousness which Abraham received by faith before he was circumcised.


Note carefully, that circumcision does not point to the faith of Abraham (just as baptism does not point to our faith). Circumcision pointed to the righteousness of God, which is received by faith. It points to what God has done rather than what Man does.

And why is circumcision called a seal? A seal is something that authenticates. If you receive a diploma or a degree, you will notice a seal on it. The seal tells you that it is a genuine certificate. In days passed seals were made with red wax and stamp. Today most people use a method called “hot stamping.” Whatever the method, a seal authenticates.

Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that God had already imputed to him ten years earlier.

Now, what was true for Abraham, says Paul, is also true for all believers whether Jews or Gentiles. This is what he is saying in verses 11-12.

But let me simplify what he is saying so that we may understand his argument. He is saying that because Abraham had faith and righteousness before he was circumcised, he became the father of two companies of people. The first company comprises believers who were not circumcised. The second company comprises believers who were circumcised. The first company (v. 11) are Gentiles believers while the second company (v. 12) are Jewish believers.

The point is clear: Abraham was given the sign of circumcision after he was justified so that it may be clear to all that he is the father of believers rather than of the Jews only.

This being the case, how could circumcision be a pre-requisite to receive God’s blessing—whether for Jews and Gentile? If circumcision was not prerequisite for Abraham who is the father of the faithful, how can it be so for us? Circumcision is therefore not a pre-requisite for receiving God’s righteousness. Not for Abraham. Not for his children.

What does this mean for us? Does it not mean that a man can be right with God even before He is baptised? Baptism is not a pre-requisite for justification. The Roman Catholic Church is wrong. Protestants who hold to baptismal regeneration like Rome are also wrong. Those who hold to baptismal regeneration will tell you that you need to be baptised or you cannot be saved. A friend of mind once met a stranger who believed strongly in baptismal regeneration. This stranger tried to convince him to go with him to the beach so that he could baptise him immediately.

I must say that the stranger was zealous. But it was zeal without knowledge. The apostle Paul writing under inspiration would have us know that circumcision was not a pre-requisite for justification in Christ. Today baptism has replaced circumcision as the seal of God’s righteousness. Therefore today baptism is not a pre-requisite for justification in Christ.
All Christians ought to be baptised. It is an ordinance of Christ. Those who refuse baptism when they can be baptised show a disregard for Christ. They can be none of His. But let none say that unless we are baptised, we cannot be saved.

…to be Continued Next Issue

JJ Lim


[1] Actually, Paul had already answered the question in his summary of the doctrine of justification. He had said: “It is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith” (3:30), but he must now make it absolutely clear.