Post Series on Romans 4:1-25:
- Righteousness Comes by Faith (Romans 4:1-8)
- Why did God Seal the Blessing of Abraham with Circumcision? (Romans 4:9-12)
- Why Does God Extend Righteousness by Faith Alone? (Romans 4:13-25)
With the first 8 verses of Romans chapter 4, Paul decisively settles the question that righteousness comes by faith. But, this statement only raises another question: to whom does righteousness come by faith? To the Jews only, or also to Gentiles?
Paul puts the issue this way:
9Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9-12)
Abraham was justified by faith before circumcision
Paul makes a shrewd exegetical observation. We read that Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15:6: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” But, it was not until Genesis 17 that Abraham received the sign of circumcision.
So, circumcision came after Abraham’s justification by faith alone. Because of this, we cannot in any way consider circumcision to be the cause or the basis of Abraham’s righteousness. Abraham was made righteous by faith, not by circumcision or any other works of the law.
Circumcision confirmed that righteousness comes by faith
Since circumcision was not the instrument of Abraham’s justification, circumcision had to serve a different purpose. Paul explains that circumcision merely served as confirmation that Abraham’s righteousness had come by faith: “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11).
It helps to understand the role of a seal. In the Bible, a seal served to confirm the validity and the authority of a message. So, in the book of Esther, we read about the King’s decree to allow the Jews “to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, children and women included, and to plunder their goods…” (Esther 9:11). The king made several copies of this decree and sent it to every province by couriers mounted on swift horses (Esther 9:13-14).
But, you might wonder, how would the people in the far provinces know with certainty that the real King had issued the decree? Might not a Jew, worried for his own life, have forged the documents to gain ability to protect himself and his family?
Not at all! Why not? Because we read that the letters were “sealed with the king’s signet ring” (Esther 9:10). The king had a ring with a special emblem engraved in it. To certify the validity of a document issued in his name, he would pour a bit of wax on the document and press his seal in the wax before it cooled. This seal carried with it all the weight and authority of the king himself.
So, if circumcision is a seal of the righteousness that Abraham had by faith, this means that circumcision served as the confirmation (with the full weight of God’s authority) that righteousness comes by faith. Circumcision was not the basis for making Abraham righteous; rather, circumcision authenticated God’s chosen means of justifying his people: faith.
Circumcision always pointed to the necessity of faith in Christ (and his birth, death, and resurrection)
God was very explicit about the meaning of circumcision. Physical circumcision was to symbolize the need of God’s people for heart circumcision. The Old Testament rings with calls for God’s people to circumcise their hearts (Deut. 10:16, 30:6; Jer. 4:4, 9:25-26), and Paul himself had pointed to the necessity of heart circumcision only two chapters earlier in Romans:
28For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Rom. 3:28-29)
The graphic symbolism is the reason that God chose circumcision as the sign and seal of his covenant promises–and particularly, to point forward to Jesus Christ who would fulfill all God’s covenant promises. Circumcision pointed forward to Christ by foreshadowing Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection.
As to foreshadowing Christ’s birth, God had promised Abraham offspring in the covenant. And ultimately, God was promising that one day he would send The Offspring of Abraham, the Messiah through whom he would bless all the families of the earth. Since the covenant promises dealt with offspring, God put the mark of his covenant promises on Abraham’s reproductive organ. But even though the sign was placed only on men, Jewish women were included in the blessing of Abraham as well, since obviously “man is born from woman” (1 Cor. 11:12). But since baptism (the sign of the New Covenant) does not require the male reproductive organ, both males and females may joyfully receive the sign of the new covenant.
Circumcision also foreshadowed Christ’s death. The bloody cutting away of the flesh pointed forward to Christ’s bloody sacrifice, when his own flesh would be pierced, and his own blood would spill in order to circumcise our hearts. For this reason, the nature of the covenant sign changes from the Old Covenant to the New–now that Christ’s blood is shed, there is no more blood to spill. Accordingly, the sign of the new covenant is not bloody circumcision, but the purifying waters of baptism.
Paul himself correlates the two signs in Colossians 2:
11In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11-12)
Physical circumcision and water baptism point to the same reality: heart circumcision/baptism in the Holy Spirit. Now that we look back to Christ’s bloody sacrifice, we use water to point to (sign) and to confirm (seal) the reality of justification by faith alone as the covenant blessing for the people of God.
Finally, circumcision anticipated the resurrection of Christ. Robert Haldane expresses this magnificently in his commentary on Romans:
“Here [Rom. 4:11], it would appear, we learn the reason why this seal [of circumcision] was to be affixed on the eighth day after birth. On the eighth day, the first day of the week, when Jesus, the seed of Abraham, arose from the dead, that righteousness, of which circumcision was a seal or pledge, was accomplished.
In reference to this, and to the change respecting the Sabbath from the seventh to the eighth day, in consequence of His resurrection, when our Lord brought in the everlasting righteousness, and entered into His rest, the eighth day is in many ways distinguished throughout the Old Testament.”
Circumcision not only pointed to the way righteousness comes by faith, but circumcision also anticipated the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, by pre-figuring his birth, death, and resurrection.
Therefore, the blessing of Abraham extends to the nations
Since circumcision pointed to the necessity of justification by faith alone (and since circumcision was not the basis of justification itself), the blessing of Abraham may extend beyond the Jewish people (the circumcised) to all the nations of the world (the uncircumcised).
Even for those whom Abraham is not a biological father, or a father by circumcision, Abraham becomes the father of those who follow “in the footsteps of faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
The New Covenant blessing of Abraham
That righteousness comes by faith is the blessing of Abraham, and circumcision was merely a witness to the blessing. The good news for Gentiles, then, is that we may receive the blessing of Abraham through the new covenant blessings purchased for us in the sacrifice of Jesus.
Praise God for his faithfulness! He promised to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham, and, in Christ, he has done exactly that!
What’s more is that this theology helps us to understand the reason for our baptism. Our baptism is God’s seal that righteousness comes by faith. Do you ever doubt God’s goodness? Do you doubt God’s favor toward you?
Rather than trying to convince yourself that you are somehow a good enough person for God to love, look to your baptism! The water on your body in baptism was the mark God placed on you to seal and confirm the reality that righteousness comes by faith. God loves you, and he approves of you by making you righteous in Christ through faith. Trust him. Believe him.
And look to your baptism as a physical sign and seal to confirm to you all the covenant promises that God has sworn to you as the spiritual children of Abraham.
Thank you for this teaching. I have been considering why Muslims practice circumcision. In their understanding it is just copying what the prophets did. I now challenge them to find out what the theological meaning was to Abraham, the first prophet to be circumcised.