Pastor David B. Curtis


Faith or Circumcision?

Romans 4:9-15

Delivered 04/17/2011

We have been talking for the last three weeks about the doctrine of justification by faith alone. So let me ask you, "Are you getting tired of hearing the message of faith alone?" Are you maybe thinking, "Paul, you have ridden this horse of justification by faith alone until it is exhausted? Why are you so focused on the truth that God's righteousness is credited to people by faith alone apart from works?" We might be tempted to say to Paul, "We've got it! We've got it!"

Paul is hammering on this truth because it is the Gospel, and it destroys pride and boasting:

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. "The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' Luke 18:9-12 NASB

This Pharisee had a lot to boast about, he had a high view of himself. He was like so many today, he trusted in himself and his accomplishments.

"But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 18:13-14 NASB

Notice who it is that God exalts--the humble. The humble look to God to do what they cannot do themselves. It is the humble who realize that they are saved by faith alone! But the proud are trusting in their accomplishments.

Due to the tendency to rely upon one's morality and good deeds for standing with God, most people have an aversion to the biblical Gospel of faith alone. The mind naturally finds faith alone as the way to God offensive. Surely there's something that we can do to achieve right standing with God! So Paul is making sure we don't miss it. Paul's statement (4:5) that God justifies the ungodly, turns all works systems inside out. Salvation comes to those who recognize their ungodliness.

This "works thing" is something that most Christians struggle with. Most Christians are legalistic in their walk with God. As a Christian, do you understand that nothing you ever do will cause God to love you any more or any less? You are loved and accepted through the merit of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ rendered perfect obedience to God, and you have received His righteousness by grace through faith.

So what motivates you in service to God? Do you do it out of a love for Him? The person living by grace, lives holy out of a loving response to the abundant grace of God already manifested in Christ:

For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 NASB

The word "controls" here is the Greek word sunecho, which means: "to hold together, i.e. to compress, constrain, compel." It is the love of Christ that compels us to no longer live for our selves, but for Him. So, gratitude should be our primary motive for service.

Let's look at our text for this morning. In verses 9-15 of chapter 4, Paul deals with the issue of, Who are the children of Abraham? Is it the circumcised or uncircumcised?:

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." Romans 4:9 NASB

After describing the blessing of justification and forgiveness in verses 6-8, Paul asks in verse 9, "Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also?" Why does he ask that? He asks because the blessing that David pronounced in Psalm 32, which Paul quoted in verses 7-8, was understood by the Jews as applying only to the circumcised. So Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 again, "Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness." Then he asks again:

How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; Romans 4:10 NASB

The Jew thought that God accepted him because he was circumcised, but Paul makes it clear by quoting from Genesis 15:6 again, that God accepted Abraham at least 14 years before his circumcision (some of the Jewish scholars claimed the period between Genesis 15 and 17 was 29 years).

To us, circumcision is simply a medical procedure whereby the foreskin is removed soon after birth. To the Jews, circumcision was a sacred ceremony that marked out a man as a true son of the covenant. Barclay says, "To a Jew a man who was not circumcised was, quite literally, not a Jew, no matter what his parentage was."

The Jews believed that circumcision of all the rites and all the rituals was the most important. They actually believed that circumcision was a surgical act that secured their righteousness. They thought that circumcision was what made a man acceptable to God, just as today many people think that baptism is what makes a man acceptable.

The book of Jubilees, which is an ancient Jewish work, considered one of the Pseudepigrapha Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians, is dated at around 160­150 BC. It has this to say on circumcision in chapter 15:

25 This law is for all the generations for ever, and there is no circumcision of the days, and no omission of one day out of the eight days; for it is an eternal ordinance, ordained and written on the heavenly tablets. 26 And every one that is born, the flesh of whose foreskin is not circumcised on the eighth day, belongs not to the children of the covenant which the Lord made with Abraham, but to the children of destruction; nor is there, moreover, any sign on him that he is the Lord's, but (he is destined) to be destroyed and slain from the earth, and to be rooted out of the earth, for he has broken the covenant of the Lord our God.

In the Midrash it is said, "God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised should be sent to Gehenna."

In the Jewish mind, circumcision was salvation. So the objection to Gentiles being saved by faith alone hit the streets early in the days of the First Missionary Journey. After Paul and Barnabas had preached the Gospel in the Galatian area, zealots appeared, troubling the new converts into thinking that they were not truly converted unless they had been circumcised:

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." Acts 15:1 NASB

The Judaizers said, "Believing the Gospel of Christ is not enough, you need to be circumcised or you will not make it to heaven." The Jews couldn't even conceive of an uncircumcised person being acceptable to God. By insisting on circumcision, the Judaizers thought that they could determine who was admitted into the covenant.

Notice what Paul says about them:

But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. Galatians 5:11-12 NASB

This is one of the strongest statements Paul ever made. The word Paul uses for "mutilate" is apokopto, it means: "to amputate or castrate." Paul presses the matter: "if cutting off a little flesh is good, cutting off much flesh is even better. Why not be so pious as to castrate oneself?"

Bordering Galatia was the territory of Phrygia, where the goddess Cybele was worshiped. It was the practice of the priests and devout worshipers of Cybele to be castrated. All the priests of Cybele were eunuchs. So Paul says that if you're going to go the route of human achievement and get yourself circumcised, you might as well go the whole route and castrate yourselves and become a full-fledged pagan!

So the matter of circumcision played a very, very important role in the preaching of the Gospel to the Jews and to the Gentiles, because if Gentiles thought they had to become Jews to be made right with God, the Gospel was at risk. It would mean that people did not become right with God through faith in the work of Christ, but through religious initiation.

In case you are thinking, "What relevance does this have for us?" The only debate over circumcision today is whether it is a useful medical practice. So how does this apply to us? We have today in churchianity thousands of people who are basing their salvation on baptism, conformation, or some ritual of the church. Paul is destroying the idea of salvation by circumcision and at the same time he's destroying all sacramental ceremonial ritual approaches to salvation.

The church of Christ, using Acts 2:38, teaches baptismal regeneration:

Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38 NASB

This is the first message ever preached to the Church and is a pattern of all Apostolic preaching. So does verse 38 give us the conditions of eternal life? Is this how we are to be saved? No, if you look at the context, you'll see that these Jews had already believed. As people who now believe that Jesus is the Christ, they ask, "What shall we do?" To which Peter responds, "Repent and be baptized."

Is baptism necessary for the forgiveness of sin? At first reading of the text, it does seem to indicate that. There's a little Greek preposition that is translated "for" that can also be--and often is--translated "because of" or "on behalf of." So the Greek text could actually be translated, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ because of the forgiveness of your sins." Therefore, baptism would not be a means of forgiveness; it would be the public declaration of the forgiveness of sins. The Greek word can go either way.

The Roman Catholic Church views baptism as a sacrament. According to the Catholic Church, a sacrament is: "A thing perceptible to the senses, which on the ground of divine institution possesses the power both of effecting and signifying sanctity and righteousness." It is a "thing" that possesses the power to sanctify and make righteous. It is a "thing" that grants righteousness.

Catholicism believes that the act of baptism in water actually conveys or passes on grace to the person baptized. What this means is that when a person is baptized, it brings about a transformation in their life, that transformation is spiritual death to spiritual life.

This is why it's so important that a Catholic priest baptizes infants. If the infant is baptized near birth, their entrance into heaven is unhindered; however if they are not baptized, they can in no way gain entrance to heaven. Instead they go to limbo, which is a place of natural happiness, but it is short of heaven, because God is not there. Listen to page 1213 from the Catechism of the Roman Church: "Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit, and the door to which gives access to the other sacraments. Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the church and made sharers in her mission: Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word."

In Catholicism, the rituals are almost endless. Listen to some quotes from Roman Catholic theology. "The Sacraments confer grace immediately with the mediation of faith." "Sacramental rites confer regeneration, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life."

I went to a Catholic funeral, and one thing that the priest said over and over was, "We know that he is in heaven because he was baptized."

Catholics aren't the only ones who view "things" as sacraments, this seems to be a characteristic of fallen man. The Jews thought that things could confer blessing. When Hezekiah became King, he brought about a revival in Israel; one of the things that he did was smash the brazen serpent that Moses made:

He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan. 2 Kings 18:4 NASB

By way of contempt he called it, Nehustan, which signifies "brass"; suggesting that it was only a mere piece of brass, had no divinity in it, and could be of no service to them. The Jews had taken that piece of brass and turned it into a idol. They were actually believing that it had some kind of spiritual powers.

So when Paul deals with the issue of circumcision and the inability of any religious rite or ceremony to justify, he sweeps all of this away.

To the Jews who felt that this blessedness of which David spoke was only for those who were circumcised, Paul repeats Genesis 15:6, though he alters the wording slightly to get the point across: "For we say, 'Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.'"

So Paul clearly teaches that Abraham was justified by faith, not circumcision. But look at what James says:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? James 2:21 NASB

Paul says that justification is by grace through faith, and he uses Abraham as his illustration, and he quotes Genesis 15:6. But James is saying justification is by works, and he also uses Abraham as his illustration, and he, too, quotes Genesis 15:6. How do we reconcile this? I think that the key to understanding this is in:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. Romans 4:2 NASB

Notice the phrase "but not before God," you cannot be justified by works before God, only by faith. James says here that he was justified when? "When he offered Isaac his son on the alter." That was forty years after the time when he is said to have believed God. So if works are necessary for justification, Abraham went forty years believing God without being justified.

This apparent contradiction can be resolved by understanding that there is "another" justification, and it is by works. There is a justification before God, by faith. And there is a justification before man, by works. It should be clear that James and Paul are not using the word "justified" in the same sense. Remember our hermeneutical principle: determine carefully the meaning of words. Language can confuse us when different words carry the same meaning, and when the same words carry different meanings. Take the simple English word "rock." It might mean a stone, or a kind of music, or something you do in a rocking chair, or my dog's name.

So the same words can have different meanings. And different words can have the same meanings. This is true in the Bible as well as in all other books and conversations. James uses the word "justified" in the sense of "vindicate." There are two kinds of justification. Abraham was justified by faith before God, but he was also justified by works before men. The only way we can demonstrate our faith before men is by love.

Living faith is demonstrated in love. Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15:6, and he was justified by works in Genesis 22, which was forty years later. Abraham put his son on the alter, raised the knife to kill him, and God stopped him and provided a ram for the sacrifice. This was an incredible act of love on Abraham's part. He believed God's promise and he acted on what he believed.

The word "justified" can be used in one of two ways: (1) To declare and treat as righteous. (2) To vindicate, to show or demonstrate as righteousness.

"Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children." Luke 7:35 NASB

"Vindicated" is the Greek word dikaioo, which means: "Just or righteous." This is teaching that a wise act produces good fruit, it vindicates a person's wisdom. Paul uses the first and James the second. So, James is using the word "justified" to speak of vindication or a demonstration of his righteousness:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? James 2:21 NASB

Here we see that Abraham was justified WHEN he offered Isaac on the alter. Remember, this was forty years after his justification by faith.

Could Abraham have believed God and not acted to offer Isaac? Do you believe in God and at times not obey Him? Yes. Do you believe that God sovereignly controls all things? Do you believe that Romans 8:28 is true? Yes, but do you always act on what you believe? No!

Point: Like Abraham, we too have been accounted righteous before God by faith. Yet, that original confidence in God can be expanded and developed by a life of active obedience.

James moves to the illustration of Rahab:

In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? James 2:25 NASB

In this illustration, he returns to his fundamental theme of saving the life from judgement. Abraham and Rahab were as different as they could be; Jew/Gentile, man/woman, good/evil, God fearer/pagan. But Rahab was like Abraham in that she acted on what she believed.

What did Rahab believe?:

"For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. "When we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. Joshua 2:10-11 NASB

That is a confession of faith, Your God is God! By acting on what she believed, she literally, physically saved her own life. She would have died with the inhabitants of Jericho had she not acted on her faith. By her "love," putting her life on the line to save the spies, she saved her own life and the life of her family.

What kind of works vindicate faith? I see love as the work of faith:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. Galatians 5:6 NASB

Abraham and Rahab both laid their lives on the line for what they believed. Their love caused them to be willing to sacrifice all for what they believed. Their faith was alive!

When God made the covenant with Abraham, it was in Genesis 15, verse 6 that God said, "His faith was counted to him as righteousness." Between the moment when his faith was counted as righteousness and the time of his circumcision, it was probably at least 14 years. So the blessing of forgiveness and the granting of righteousness was given to Abraham, who was an uncircumcised Gentile when he received it. There were yet no Jews. He was an uncircumcised Gentile from a people of idolaters:

Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. Joshua 24:2 NASB

Abraham was a pagan idolater when God made him a promise, and he said, "Amen"!

and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, Romans 4:11 NASB

Notice that Paul says, "The righteousness of the faith which he had while 'uncircumcised'." The question is this: If Abraham was saved before he was circumcised, then who has the right to truly call him "father?" He is the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that is Gentiles.

Here it says that Abraham is the father of the uncircumcised--Gentiles. And in the next verse he says that Abraham is the father of the circumcised--Jews. He switches the priority of salvation history to emphasize the inclusion of the Gentiles into Abraham's family.

So Paul says that circumcision is a sign and seal of what? Righteousness. Notice what Genesis says:

"And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. Genesis 17:11 NASB

This is what I have been saying throughout this study of Romans, righteousness is covenant membership. To be righteous is to be in covenant with God.

"Sign" is semeion, which is an indicating mark, it points to something else. Circumcision points to the Abrahamic covenant. What is the sign that God made with Noah? Rainbow. Circumcision is a sign of Abraham's faith in the coming seed who would redeem mankind. Circumcision was a symbol of what everyone needed God to do to their heart.

Paul tells us, "it was a sign of righteousness." It was never intended to be the means of righteousness:

and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. Romans 4:12 NASB

This rather complicated sentence is actually saying something simple: The Jews can indeed call Abraham their father, but only as long as they share Abraham's faith.

"The faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised"--He was a Gentile!!!!!! This was a truly shocking thought for an orthodox Jew. All his life he had thought the Gentiles must come to the Jews in order to find faith. Now Paul is saying that the Jews must follow in the footsteps of the uncircumcised Abraham!

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. Romans 4:13 NASB

This is the first of eight uses of the word "promise," a reference to the unilateral covenant that God made with Abraham. Abraham was justified, not by anything he did, not any ritual, or any law-keeping, he was justified because he believed the promise of God.

The Gospel promise is sure because of the One making it: The Lord God who created the heavens and the earth, Who holds every molecule in the universe together, Who raises up and brings down kingdoms and nations, Who gives life and breath to every living thing, Who has no beginning and no ending, Who is not threatened by the anger of men, Who has no need or lack; this Lord God gave the Gospel promise through Christ.

Notice that Paul says the promise was that Abraham's decedents would be heirs of the world:

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:29 NASB

Only those who belong to Christ are Abraham's descendants. Abraham's only descendants are those of faith. If you are an heir, you have a legal right to an inheritance. Since we are now members of God's family, we have a right to all that God has promised to His children.

Some Christians still believe that the Jews must live in the literal land. They insist that prophecy is being fulfilled by the Jews entering the land of Palestine. This is not biblical! The physical land promise given to Abraham is already fulfilled. It was fulfilled when the children of Israel took possession of the promised land, according to Joshua:

So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass. Joshua 21:43-45 NASB

This couldn't be much clearer! The physical land promise made to Abraham was fulfilled. There is no physical land promise yet to be fulfilled. Cannan was a type, a picture of the "rest" of the New Covenant age:

For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. Romans 4:14-15 NASB

Paul uses this same argument in Galatians:

What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. Galatians 3:17 NASB

So 430 years after the Abrahamic Covenant was given, an additional arrangement was instituted by God. This time God made an agreement, not a promise, with Israel. This agreement demanded certain responsibilities of each party to the agreement. There were consequences involved, and each side had to uphold its part. But that agreement was made at a much later time than the promise that was given to Abraham, thus it could have no affect on that promise. The promise and the agreement cannot be mixed together with one another, because they accomplish different results. Thus, the fact that the Law came later cannot invalidate the great life-giving promise that was given originally.

If you can achieve righteousness through morality, then "faith is made void." The word means that faith becomes meaningless or empty. The perfect passive verb indicates that this always and permanently voids faith.

"The Law brings about wrath"--What does he mean by this? He means that when the Law commands a certain kind of behavior, disobedience brings wrath. And we are all disobedient; what was the point of Romans 1:18-3:20. Therefore, if we try to secure our claim on God for eternal life by using the Law of commandments, what we will get is wrath. "The Law brings about wrath."

Tom Holland writes, "In the Jewish mind, the Law was about maintaining salvation and not about obtaining it. It had been true the Law maintained Israel's unique relationship with God throughout the OT, but now Paul is saying its task is completed. The promise has been fulfilled, for what the Law pointed to has now arrived (Gal 3:24)! The promised New Covenant, which would welcome Gentiles on an equal footing with Jews, has been established."

"Where there is no law, there also is no violation"--There was sin before the Mosaic Law, but it was not transgression, because the Law had not been written. Now when the Law was written, it turned sin into transgression, disobedience of the Law, and in turning sin into transgression it worked wrath.

If we can achieve righteousness through the Law, then we can boast before God of how we did not need Him or His provision of righteousness through Christ alone. But nobody ever has achieved righteousness by the Law and no one ever will. We enter into a covenant relationship/righteousness with God by faith alone! No work, no ceremony, no sacrament will ever make a man right with God.

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