"Justification is illustrated in the Old Testament" Page 3 of 6 (series: Lessons on Romans)
by John Lowe
10 How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.
Here Paul seizes on a historical fact that most of us would never have noticed. He uses the chronology of Genesis to show that Abraham was justified before he was ever circumcised. Abraham was 86 when Ishmael was born. “Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram” (Gen. 16:16). “Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin” (Gen. 17:24). But God declared him righteous before Ishmael had even been conceived—at least 14 years before Abraham’s circumcision. If the father of the nation of Israel could be justified while he was still uncircumcised, then the question arises, “Why can’t other uncircumcised people be justified?” In a very real sense, Abraham was justified while he was a Gentile, and this leaves the door wide open for other Gentiles to be justified, entirely apart from circumcision.
11 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.
Circumcision, then, was not the cause of Abraham’s justification. It was merely an outward sign in his flesh that he had been justified by faith. Basically, circumcision was the external sign of the covenant between God and the people of Israel; but here its meaning is expanded to indicate the righteousness which God imputed to Abraham through faith.
In addition to being a sign, circumcision was a seal— a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised. A sign points to the existence of that which it signifies. A seal authenticates, confirms, certifies, or guarantees the genuineness of that which is signified. Circumcision confirmed to Abraham that he was regarded and treated by God as righteous through faith.
Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of Abraham’s faith. This may mean that his faith was righteous or it may mean that he obtained righteousness through faith. The latter is almost certainly the correct meaning; circumcision was a seal of the righteousness which belonged to his faith or which he obtained on the basis of faith.
Because Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, he can be the father of other uncircumcised people—that is, of believing Gentiles. They can be justified the same way he was—by faith.
When it says that Abraham is the father of believing Gentiles, there is no thought of his being the father physically, of course. It simply means that these believers are his children because they imitate his faith. They are not his children by birth, but by following him as their pattern and example. Neither does this passage teach that believing Gentiles become the Israel of God. The Israel of God is composed of those Jews who accept Jesus, the Messiah, as their Lord and Savior.
12 And the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
Abraham received the sign of circumcision for another reason also—namely, that he might be the father of those Jews who are not only circumcised but who also follow his footsteps in a path of faith, the kind of faith which he had while still uncircumcised.
There is a difference between being Abraham’s descendants and Abraham’s children. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants” (John 8:37). But then He went on to say, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). So here Paul insists that physical circumcision is not what counts. There must be faith in the living God. Those of the circumcision who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are the true Israel of God.
To summarize, then, there was a time in Abraham’s life when he had faith and was still uncircumcised, and another time when he had faith and was circumcised. Paul’s eagle eye sees in this fact that both believing Gentiles and believing Jews can claim Abraham as their father and can identify with him as his children.
The facts are these:
1. Genesis 15:6 records the event of Abraham receiving righteousness from God.
2. Sometime after that, Abraham had a son by Hagar when he was eighty-six years old (Gen 16:16).
3. At least one year had to elapse between the two events so that at the outside Abraham was eighty-five years old when righteousness was imputed to him.
4. Ishmael was thirteen years old when both he and Abraham were circumcised (Gen 17:25–26).
5. Abraham had righteousness imputed to him at least fourteen years before he was circumcised. Paul concludes that circumcision had nothing whatever to do with the imputation of righteousness to Abraham. This does not mean circumcision was unimportant. Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of the faith he had in Jehovah.
Circumcision did not bring righteousness, but it was the visible sign to Abraham’s descendants of the righteousness that was imputed to him by faith. Also, circumcision was God’s seal of righteousness. Once righteousness has been imputed to the individual, it is sealed there forever. This is true also of Christian baptism. It does not bring about salvation but is an outward sign declaring salvation and is God’s seal of approval on the finished work of Christ in behalf of the believer. Abraham received righteousness before he was circumcised so that he might be the father of all them that believe, whether circumcised or not, who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham—the faith he had before he had any external sign. They were to walk in the foot prints of Abraham, not in the steps of a man who legalistically carried out a right that God demanded of him. Abraham, therefore, not only bears a physical relationship with the nation Israel, but also bears a spiritual relationship with all who believe by faith, whether Jew or Gentile.
13 For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
The argument continues relentlessly on as Paul chases every possible objection down every possible alleyway of logic and Scripture. The apostle now must deal with the objection that blessing came through the Law, and that therefore, the Gentiles who did not know the law were cursed—“But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:49).
When God promised Abraham and his seed that he would be heir of the world, He did not make the promise conditional on adherence to some legal code. The law itself wasn’t given until 430 years later—“And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect” (Gal. 3:17). It was an unconditional promise of grace, to be received by faith—the same kind of faith by which we obtain God’s righteousness today.
The expression heir of the world means that he would be the father of believing Gentiles as well as of Jews, that he would be the father of many nations, and not just of the Jewish nation. In its fullest sense the promise will be fulfilled when the Lord Jesus, Abraham’s seed, takes the scepter of universal empire and reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Each of Abraham’s descendants expected to receive the inheritance of Abraham. Although not directly stated, this promise is drawn from Genesis 12:3—“I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abraham’s heritage was limited in geographical terms to the land between Egypt and the Euphrates (Gen 15:18; 13:14). But the promise was made to Abraham and to his seed. In Galatians 3:16 the “seed,” is obviously Jesus Christ. The promise of inheriting the world must be understood then in relationship to the Messiah’s future domination of this earth as “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev 19:16). This promise will come to reality when the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, sits on the throne of David during the Millennium and rules the entire world with a rod of iron.
This verse clearly teaches that justification in the Old Testament, as well as in the New Testament, is totally independent of the Law that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Abraham never had the Law—and without the Law, Abraham was justified. The Law did not do away with the promise that God gave to Abraham. The promise came 430 years before the Law. The two covenants cannot be mingled together—they are both fundamental principals.