A Commentary by John Stott

Romans 4:9-12. b). Abraham was not justified by circumcision.

Paul’s first question has been whether Abraham was justified by works or by faith (1-3). His second is whether *this blessedness* of justification is available *only for the circumcised* (the Jews) or is *also for the uncircumcised* (9a). This question prompts a supplementary one, concerning the *circumstances* in which Abraham was justified. Was he justified *after he was circumcised, or before?* (10a). In other words, did he submit to circumcision first, and so achieve righteousness, as the Rabbis taught? Or was he already justified when he was circumcised? What was the order of events? In particular, did his justification come before or after his circumcision? Paul’s answer to his own question is brief and blunt: *It was not after, but before!* (10b). In fact it happened long before. For his justification is recorded in Genesis 15 and his circumcision in Genesis 17, and at least fourteen years (even twenty-nine years according to the Rabbis) separated the two events.

Although they were separated, they were not unrelated, however. Abraham’s circumcision, though not the ground of his justification, was its sign and seal. For Abraham *received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised* (11a). God himself had called circumcision ‘the sign of the covenant’ which he had established with Abraham (Gn 17:11). Similarly, Paul now calls it a sign of his justification. As a ‘sign’ it was a distinguishing mark, setting Abraham and his descendants apart as God’s covenant people. Indeed, it was not only a *sign* to identify them; it was also a *seal* to authenticate them, as the justified people of God.

Thus Abraham received two distinct gifts of God, justification and circumcision, and in that order. First he received justification by faith while he was still uncircumcised. Secondly, he received circumcision as a visible sign and seal of the justification which was already his. It is the same with baptism. Leaving aside the debatable question whether an analogy between baptism and circumcision legitimizes the baptism of infant children of believing parents, the order of events for adult converts is plain. First, we are justified by faith, and then we are baptized as a sign or seal of our justification. But we must get the order right, and we must also clearly distinguish between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (justification). As Hodge wrote ‘what answers well as a sign, is a miserable substitute for the thing signified’.

*So then*, Paul continues, there was a purpose in the fact that Abraham was justified by faith, and circumcised only later. Indeed, there was a double purpose. It was first that Abraham might be (as he is) *the father of all who believe*, and so have been justified, *but have not been circumcised* (11b). In other words, Abraham is the father of Gentile believers. Circumcision is no more necessary to their justification than it was to his. The second purpose of this combination of faith, justification and circumcision was that Abraham might *also* be (as he is) *the father of the circumcised who* in addition to their circumcision *also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised* (12). Thus he is the father of all believers, irrespective of whether they are circumcised or uncircumcised. In fact circumcision, which was of supreme importance to the Jews, must not be allowed to undermine or disrupt the unity of believers in Christ. Although according to the Jews Abraham was ‘the great dividing point in history of mankind’, according to Paul Abraham through his faith became ‘the great rallying point for all who believe, whether circumcised or uncircumcised’. For where circumcision divides, faith unites.

Tomorrow: Romans 4:13-17a. c). Abraham was not justified by the law.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Romans. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.