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Sermon preached on Romans 4:9-12 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/22/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“But While Uncircumcised”
What makes you part of the family of God? What makes you part of the community of blessing? It is fitting that we start and end each of our worship services with divine blessings. It’s fitting, because that’s part of the community to which we now belong. We belong to the group of people who are receiving blessings from God. But the question Paul’s been addressing in Romans so far, is how is someone a part of that family? What fundamentally makes someone be a recipient of these blessings? What takes you from being an outsider when you come here, to being an insider? Someone who isn’t just sitting here and hearing the blessings, but someone who truly partakes in these blessings and privileges of God’s people?
At the heart of this question, is what makes us in a right standing before God. That’s been Paul’s general subject. He’s been talking about justification. How man cannot be justified by our works, we keep falling short of that goal, and so we needed another way for justification. That other way is through faith in Jesus Christ, in his saving work. That’s what Paul’s been talking about. And in our last passage we saw him flush out two related ideas. He said this justification happens via imputation of righteousness. Christians are reckoned or considered righteous on account of their faith. That’s the imputation of righteousness. Righteousness imputed or charged to the account of believers. God counts us to be in a right standing before him, not because we’ve earned it. No, he graciously accepts our faith in its place, and accounts that as righteousness. All because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
So that was one new concept from last the passage. The other new point from last passage was that this is not something unique to the New Testament. This is something that the Jews in the Old Testament received as well. He used the examples of Abraham and David as examples. He started with Abraham, and then went to David. It was his reference to David that talked about the blessings of all this. This idea of imputed righteousness by faith, is the blessing. Well, then Paul uses David’s teaching on this blessing to transition now back to Father Abraham. That’s when he asks the question in verse 9. Is this blessedness just for the circumcised? Or is it something for the uncircumcised too? Abraham and David were both circumcised. Some at that time thought Christian salvation depended on also being circumcised. Acts 15:24 notes that some were saying this at that time. And so Paul feels necessary to address that mistake here too.
And so that is what we’ll be considering today too. How’s circumcision relate to our justification? Is there a connection? Of course what we’ll see is that circumcision is not a requirement to be justified, and it never has been. And yet we’ll also see that circumcision in the Old Testament did have some connection with their justification, in a different way. We’ll see that. And we’ll think about how this offers some additional application for how we think of the sacrament of baptism – in many ways the New Testament equivalent of circumcision.
So let’s begin then today by understanding Paul’s point about the status of Abraham when he was justified by faith. He’s making the point that circumcision is not a factor in how someone is justified. He’s using Father Abraham, the Father of all the circumcised, to make this point. Read with me then verse 10. Verse 10 starts out, “How then was it accounted?” That’s the question. How was it account? How was righteousness accounted? How was this righteousness by faith imputed to Abraham? Under what circumstances? Keep reading with me in verse 10. “How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.”
Some English translations express this in terms of timing. Was Abraham justified by faith, before he was circumcised, or after he was circumcised? Well, certainly the timing aspect is a big part of this. You see, Paul had made the point back in verse 3 that Abraham was accounted righteous by faith. Paul made that point by quoting Genesis 15:6. Paul now draws our thoughts out to Genesis 17. That’s two chapters later in Genesis, and at least 14 years later. We know this because in Genesis 15:6 when Abraham is said to be justified by faith, his son Ishmael was not yet born. Ishmael was then later born to Abraham when he was eighty-six years old, per Genesis 16:16. And in Genesis 17, when God had Abraham circumcise himself, there we find that Abraham was 99 years old. This would put Ishmael at around 13 years old, so again this means a time frame of at least about 14 years between the reference to Abraham being accounted righteous by faith, and his later circumcision. Some have suggested an even longer time gap than this.
And yet Paul’s point is not put in terms of timing as much as it’s put in terms of status. Verse 10 literally is not about time markers, but about Abraham’s state. Was he in the state of circumcision when God imputed righteousness to him? Or was he in the state of uncircumcision? Well, Paul’s point is clear. He was in the state of uncircumcision. And so God imputed righteousness to an uncircumcised person. Abraham didn’t do some act of righteousness as the grounds for why God imputed righteousness to him. He was imputed righteousness on account of faith, not on account of circumcision.
What’s behind this is that many Jews at that time liked to think of circumcision as a work of the law. It was to them a work of righteousness. God commanded that they be circumcised. So they became circumcised in obedience. The temptation then came for them to justify themselves before God by that fact. Many thought themselves to be right before God because of this very work. Well, Paul’s already made the case that just obeying the command to be circumcised doesn’t make you inherently righteous. He’s already made the point that you have to keep the whole law of God. You break it at any point, and you cannot be justified by works of the law. He’s already made the point that this is the problem for all humans. But, even if you did grant them for the sake of argument that circumcision was some righteous act of the law, you still have to account for Father Abraham. Was Abraham’s righteousness based on his act of circumcision? No. That can’t be the case because God accounted him righteous, when he was uncircumcised.
So Paul’s point here is abundantly clear. Circumcision had absolutely nothing to do with how Abraham was justified. Circumcision was not the grounds of Abraham’s justification. Nor was circumcision the instrument for his justification. I think both of those are important to note. Circumcision would have been the grounds for his justification if God had said that his circumcision somehow earned or merited righteousness. Remember the concept in last passage about a worker earning a wage. But circumcision alone doesn’t earn righteousness before God. Second, you could hypothetically think how God might have appointed circumcision as some instrument by which God could account someone as right before him. But obviously God hasn’t done that. We know that because Paul’s point here. God justified Abraham when he was not in a state of circumcision. The only reference to his state was that of a believer. And so Paul has shown us that faith is the instrument for receiving this imputed righteousness. And of course he’s already shown that Christ and his righteous sacrifice is the grounds for how we can be justified by faith.
So our first point today is that circumcision is not a factor in how someone is justified. We are not justified through circumcision or because of circumcision. Not even Abraham, who was the father of the circumcised, was justified in that way. What then can we say of circumcision? Is there absolutely no connection then with justification? Well, Paul goes on to show that there is some connection. This is verse 11. Verse 11, talking still of Abraham, says this, “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.” Here Paul tells us a little about what circumcision is. He says it’s a sign. And he says it’s a seal. A seal, specifically of the righteousness of faith that Abraham had. That’s where he connects it with the justification concept. And so it’s a sign and a seal of Abraham’s justification; specifically of the righteousness imputed by faith.
Let’s talk through this a bit. Let’s talk first about circumcision being a sign. Signs communicate something. This is the same word in the Greek used a lot in John’s gospel to talk about the miracles Jesus was doing. There in John’s gospel, these miraculous signs were supposed to tell us something about Jesus. They were supposed to communicate the identity of Jesus. That’s what signs do. They give us identifying information about someone or something. Like a stop sign tells us to stop at a particular place. Or think of the military standards held up by many armies. Those are signs that communicate which specific army it is. And so that act of circumcision is a sign, according to Paul. It’s a sign put on Abraham and others. It was supposed to communicate something about them.
Well, what did this sign of circumcision communicate about Abraham? Well, it’s what we see in verse 11. It’s a sign about this justification Abraham has found. It says in verse 11 that this sign is a seal of righteousness that Abraham had by faith. And so it’s a sign that is also a seal. A sign of that seal. A sign that is a seal of the righteousness that comes by faith. So let’s talk then about circumcision being a seal. For a long time in the past when I heard that something was a sign and a seal, the sign part always seemed so clear to me, but the seal part always seemed a bit mysterious. If you’ve found that to be the case, I hope I can shed some light on it, because it’s actually not that complex of a concept.
You see the word for seal here is about a confirming stamp. Think of a king’s signet ring. When they make a law, the king would stamp the law with its signet ring. Then you would know the law was official and legitimate. It had the seal of approval on it. We do something similar whenever we sign a contract. We’ve sealed it with our mark of confirmation. Verbal contracts in business have a certain value, but a signed contract has a stronger legal weight. And so circumcision is such a seal. It’s confirming something. It’s attesting to something.
And, again, we see here what’s being sealed. Circumcision is a seal of the righteousness he received through faith, verse 11. It’s a stamp of approval that one finds imputed righteousness by faith. It’s God confirming mark on his people that through faith, they are counted as righteous. That’s why Paul again makes the point in verse 11 that it’s a sealing of the righteousness he already had, because he already had faith before circumcision. This means that the sealing of this is confirmatory. It’s not creating a state of justification. It’s an outward, visible mark, upon those who have found this justification. It’s a mark that says this kind of faith saves. This kind of faith brings imputed righteousness. This kind of faith instrumentally serves to justify. This is God’s seal upon them to authenticate the value of saving faith.
Let me make sure we understand this second point. If the first point was to say that circumcision was no factor in someone’s justification, then this second point is to say that there is still some connection, nonetheless. There is still some relationship between someone’s justification and the old covenant practice of circumcision. Circumcision was intimately related to someone’s justification by faith. But it was related in the sense that it was a sign and a seal of their justification by faith. And so this means there was religious significance to circumcision. It was to visibly speak about justification by faith. It just was not the grounds or instrument for how someone was justified by faith.
Well then, an application that comes here for us is with regards to our baptisms. Circumcision is no longer a sacrament in the new covenant church. Baptism in the new covenant has replaced circumcision. Though baptism has some differences between circumcision, its relationship to one’s justification is similar as with circumcision. In other words, for a Christian, whether or not we are baptized is not a factor in whether we are justified. Justification is still by faith. You don’t have to be circumcised to be justified by faith. Nor do you have to be baptized in order be justified by faith. Yet, circumcision still had religious significance in the old covenant. And baptism does have religious significance for us in the new covenant. They are both signs and seals of the covenant God has made with his people. And they are both signs and seals of that justification we have by faith. And so a Christian is called to be baptized. They are commanded to it. And it’s intimately connected with our response of faith for adult converts. But baptism is not fundamentally a factor in if you are justified by faith or not. Paul thinks it important for us to understand this. It’s so important because it’s important to understand the concept of justification. We are saved by faith, not by any act, even good religious actions such as baptism. This was true among the Old Testament saints, and it is true today in the new covenant.
As a side note, this is where opponents of infant baptism miss something. They don’t like to make a connection between circumcision and baptism, because it would imply then that infants get baptized. I’ve heard them say that in the Old Testament belonging to God’s people was about your ethnic lineage, that’s why you got circumcised, but in the New Testament church membership has changed to be about faith. Hmm. Really? It’s changed to be about faith? Paul says otherwise here. Paul says it’s always been about faith! Moving on…
And so then Paul’s conclusion in all of this is that all believers are part of God’s family of blessing. All true believers, Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, receive this imputed righteousness. For Gentiles, it’s about faith. For Jews it’s about faith. He says this for the Gentiles in the last half of verse 11. Verse 11, “So then, he [Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” Abraham serves as the example and precedence for Gentile believers. It’s interesting with Abraham here. The sense you get in reading this, is that Abraham looked more like a Gentile than a Jew when we was first justified. Then in verse 12 he applies this to the circumcised Jews too who had true faith. Verse 12, “And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” But notice again there the small little note – Abraham serves as the example and precedence to the Jews, for sure. Abraham did go ahead and get circumcised. But his faith is such an example and precedence in so far as it was the faith that operated prior to circumcision. That’s the little note I’m referring to here. It was faith that did not trust in circumcision – that’s the faith that circumcised Jews must have in order to walk in Abraham’s footsteps.
Such a fine balance Paul has here. This is like what Paul says in Galatians 5:2 when he told the Galatian Christians to not get circumcised as some were trying to get them to do. He told them that if they did, Christ would be of no value to them. That’s because they would suddenly be expressing a different faith. It would not be the faith of the yet uncircumcised Abraham, then. It would be an expression of the faith that looks to one’s own works to be made right with God. That wasn’t Abraham’s faith. His justifying faith, was one done in his uncircumcised state. That’s the faith Jew and Gentile all must have, if they are to be justified.
And yet for all of us who have such faith, we are part of this family of blessings. The thrust of this passage is that we too, those not circumcised according to the flesh, have found these same blessings. The blessings David and Abraham had. The blessings that the saints of old had. The blessings Christians today have. The blessing that your faith in Christ has been reckoned to you as righteousness. The blessing that your sins have not been imputed to you. The blessing of forgiveness and grace because of Jesus Christ. Because on the cross he gave up his life in our place. That his shed blood was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. That God can be just and the justifier of the sinner who puts his faith in Jesus Christ. That is what you and I have found in our faith. That is why we are now part of this family of those blessed of God.
And we know we are part of the family because of the father language. That’s here in these final two verses. Abraham is the father of the circumcised who have believed. And he’s the father of the uncircumcised who have believed. Jew and Gentile can find Abraham as their spiritual father. If they have the faith Abraham had. And so Abraham is our Father too! And so then let us too walk in his footsteps of faith. Let us get back to the basics of our faith. We don’t call ourselves Christian because our family is Christian. We don’t call ourselves Christians because you were baptized. We don’t call ourselves Christians because we live a pretty decent life. Don’t get me wrong, these are all good things. In some sense they can serve to identify us as Christians to the world. But we are fundamentally Christians because we believe. We believe and trust God to save us from our sins through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus Christ. Yes, hopefully you will seek to cultivate Christian homes. Yes, you should be baptized if you haven’t already. You should look to live a godly life. But these things should be an expression of your saving faith. But it is our faith that justifies us. Don’t miss that.
As we conclude our message for today, I think a warning behind all of this is to make sure that we as the church never setup extra work that people have to do in order to be part of the church family. Don’t misunderstand me – we have to call people to faith and repentance, and that will include calling people to get baptized. I’m not talking about that. We need to call people to that response of faith. And I’m sure that today we’d never say things like that people have to be born into the church to really belong. Or that you have to get circumcised to be right before God. And I don’t see us really having to struggle with the idea that baptism isn’t what justifies you before God. Surely we don’t proactively and consciously set up such hurdles for people.
I think the kinds of issues that protestant churches face today probably aren’t going to look like that. I think rather, it’s more likely that churches can setup cultural hurdles. That people are expected to find the church, instead of the church finding them. And then when they come visit the church, their can be the subtle expectation that the visitor need to be like the church members, or become more like them. That to really be a part of the church family, you have to be like everyone else, or become like them. I’m sure in protestant churches, most people would never consciously think this way. But it seems too easy for churches to become ingrown like this without even realizing it… just going through the motions.
Rather, I think the charge that comes from this again is to keep going to the nations. Keep going to the people that aren’t like us. The people that don’t look religious or Christian. To go to the people whose lives are all messed up and aren’t together. They have just as much interest in the gospel as those whose lives are more cleaned up to our perspective or more like us. This is something I’ve been praying about – how can we do a better job of getting out in the community. To go the people that are in a very different place spiritually. To call them to Christ. That’s what I loved about the outreach BBQ we just had. It was an opportunity to try to proactively reach out into the community in different ways. And it was exciting to see so many of you involved in that outreach in so many different ways! I want to find more ways to do this. This is what I’ve been praying about. I urge you to join with me in such prayer. And please, do share with me any thoughts you have on how to best reach this community for Christ! Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.