By Faith not Circumcision – Romans 4:9-12

Abraham’s saving faith was demonstrated before he was given the sign of circumcision. It was not the physical act of circumcision that saved, but his faith before the act. In Genesis 17 God gives Abraham a sign of his covenant: each male born in his household be circumcised on the eighth day. But Paul has cited Genesis 15:6 to show Abraham believed God, and that faith was “credited to him as righteousness.” This is after the second time God spoke to Abraham and conformed his covenant.

romans-4The three repetitions of the covenant are important since the progressively narrow the promised child from Abraham’s heir (Gen 12) to an heir coming from his own body (Gen 15) and then specifically Sarah’s child (Gen 17). At first, Abraham’s heir was an adopted child, Eliezer of Damascus, or perhaps Lot. After the second announcement, Abraham and Hagar have a child, Ishmael. After the third God specifically says the promised heir will be from Sarah and adds circumcision on the eighth day. Ishmael is circumcised (Gen 17:23), but he is thirteen at the time (Gen 16:16, Abraham is 86 when he is born, and Gen 17:1, he is 99 when the covenant is repeated a third time).

Circumcision was a “seal” of the righteous status Abraham had already received (Jewett, 317). Paul’s point is that Abraham was obedient to the sign of the covenant, but it was after his faith had been credited to him as righteousness. “Paul contends that circumcision served as a “seal” (σφραγίς) that confirms the validity of a reality already present, that is, righteousness through faith” (Jewett, 319).

Paul says God gave the sign when he did so that Abraham could be the father of all who believe, both the Jews and Gentiles. It was always possible Gentiles could become part of the people of God, although it was necessary for them to convert to Judaism. By the first century there was some debate whether Gentiles converting to Judaism were required to be circumcised (Galatians, for example, but also the Izates story in Josephus).

Paul’s point here is a radical re-reading of Abraham’s story since he argues Abraham can be the father of faithful Gentiles in their uncircumcision since Abraham himself was declared righteous before he was given the sign of circumcision. Circumcision was a key boundary marker in Second Temple Judaism, for Paul to suggest all Gentiles could be declared righteous like Abraham was without submitting to the sign of the covenant is radical indeed! (See, for example, my comments on Galatians 2 several years ago).

This means Abraham is not first the father of the Jews, but the father of Gentiles who are now being declared righteous by faith in Jesus (Barrett, Romans, 90-91).

In the same way, not ritual can impart any saving grace to a person, only through belief can a person be justified. Christian rituals such as baptism or communion are not intended to make a person right with God.

16 thoughts on “By Faith not Circumcision – Romans 4:9-12

  1. I have come across many individuals within and outside of the church that seem to struggle with the idea of circumcision and the importance of it. There is confusion as to whether or not circumcision saves and makes a person “righteous,” even to this day. It is vastly important to study scripture and realize that God’s command to Abraham and his descendants to be circumcised was just an act of obedience and a sign of the covenant. The time in which circumcision served as a “seal” as mentioned above, is no longer the time period in which we live today. Abraham is a man/character in the Bible that should be looked up to as someone who followed God’s commands and who had incredible faith. “Abraham, whose life was held up as such a model of piety” (Moo, 1739). The topic of circumcision can be confusing, especially when you bring the Gentiles into the story and not knowing for sure if they were required to be circumcised as well. Abraham is the father of both Jews and Gentiles who are being declared righteous by faith in Jesus Christ. Justification and righteousness did not come through circumcision, but by having faith in Jesus. “So, if people were accepted by God, because of their works (or circumcision), he would be under an obligation to accept them…God cannot be under any obligation to any human creature” (Moo, 1744).

  2. This means Abraham is not first the father of the Jews, but the father of Gentiles who are now being declared righteous by faith in Jesus (Barrett, Romans, 90-91).

    On a side note, I wonder what it would have been like to be an early Jewish Christian, and realize that the father of your nation is also the father of all nations. Abraham was a central character for the Jews, so to be told that their father figure, besides God, is now the father figure of all…this probably didn’t sit well with some. Just an interesting thought that came to mind.

    I understand how easy it would be for early Jews to over-spiritualize a physical religious custom and find salvation through it. In modern culture, we see this reasoning through the physical ritual of baptisms. Sometimes people rely too heavily on their baptism for salvation, rather than the saving power of Jesus. But, when it comes to unbelievers, I’m seeing less and less people truly seeking salvation through religious customs. Rather, I see people submitting to false idealisms for a short period of happiness, rather than a physical religious ceremony for salvational purposes. I see people believing that success will bring them into a better life. I see people believing that sexual relations will bring them into a better life. I see people believing that happiness will bring them into a better life. Instead of over-spiritualizing a religious custom, most non-believers are finding a false spirituality through a self-seeking attitude. And they’re leaning their salvation not on a ritual, but on a selfish philosophy.

    Finding a false salvation through a physical object, religious ceremony, or humanistic philosophy will not bring a person eternal fulfillment. It will only leave them gassed, continuing to fill up a God sized hole with finite things.

    The only way to find salvation, the only way to find true fulfillment, and the only way to fill that God sized hole within every humans soul is to rest in the soverignty of Jesus, and to have faith in His death, burial, and resurrection.

  3. I cannot help but shake my head every time I read about how the Jews tried so hard to instill their belief of “works salvation” on certain righteous people mentioned in the Bible. Though, this does somewhat makes sense because of the Jews’ childhood. They learned from an early age the significance of being circumcised and the importance of following the Mosaic Law. A fault in their reading of the Scriptures comes in their chronology. They seem to ignore the fact that Abraham was considered righteous before the Mosaic Law even existed. Thinking of the Torah as a collection of “vertical truths” makes sense of this argument against the Jewish interpretation of the Genesis 26 text. From a surface reading of scripture, a reader may think that God’s standard for righteousness had changed, due to the evidence that Abraham was justified through faith and Israel was told to follow the Mosaic Laws. God did not change. Rather it was a vertical truth that made Him choose to tell Israel to distinguish itself from the nations by following the Law. Some Jews may have believed that God would never accept anyone who did not follow the Law due to the distinguishing rituals that those current Jews had to participate in (i.e. circumcision, food law). God’s standard for righteousness has always been through faith. However, displaying faith can take a couple different forms. Abraham displayed his faith through his belief in God’s promise and his willingness and obedience to leave his home country and travel to a foreign land. Israel showed their faith by living according to the Mosaic Laws and following the guidelines laid out for them. Abraham was considered righteous before circumcision and all these other Laws came to be (Romans 4:10). As an act of faith in response to God’s promise for Abraham, Abraham was circumcised. God does not change the method by which one is justified. He only changes the methods by which faith is exampled. Christians today show their faith by their good works. (James 2:18)

  4. I think it is so interesting and insightful when Paul explains that Abraham is the father of the Gentiles, and not only the Jews. God said to Abraham that he will be the father of many nations, not just the nation of Israel. 4:11-12 says, “So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” Faith had to come first before Abraham’s circumcision, otherwise circumcision would have meant nothing. Douglass Moo explained that for the Jews, circumcision was extremely important to them because it set them apart from other nonbelievers. They could maintain their identity (Moo, pg. 93). Moo also said that Paul had to show how the gospel “stands in continuity with God’s promise to Abraham” (Moo, pg. 90). Abraham therefore unites all believers.

    I agree that “rituals” cannot make you right with God. However I do believe practices such as baptism and communion are important in any Christian’s life. In a way, baptism is a lot like circumcision, but should definitely also be regarded more as a “seal”, a sign of the covenant and their commitment, and not be seen as required for salvation. Rituals diminish the immense magnitude of God’s grace. “And he received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (4:11).

  5. When reading this all I could do is revert to my generation and the struggle of water baptism as the action of “righteousness” or in most cases, their salvation. I’m glad you mentioned that at the end. The idea of circumcision for both Jews and Gentiles in that day is correlated with our generations view of baptism and communion as you stated. It seems as though our human perspective wants to cling on to tangible works of faith to earn or deserve our righteousness status. Scripture clearly states, however, that we are only declared righteousness because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross (Philippians 3:9, Romans 6:20,10:4; John 16:10). Righteousness is only produced by faith, as Abraham had before circumcision. That’s Paul major point for the audience. Both Gentiles and Jews can focus on works and ways of life to gain righteousness, but they will only be empty unless their faith is pivotal to those expressions.
    Paul, in my opinion, is not saying to disregard those customs that the Jews held on so tightly. There are obvious reasons for them to be incorporated in the Law. As many scripture states, we are called to live out righteousness in our lives both presently and for the future to come (Galatians 5:5, James 3:18, 1 John 3:7, Matthew 6:33).
    For the specific audience of Gentiles Paul made it clear their requirement. They are called to have faith in Jesus Christ. They are not called any longer to convert to Judaism and its practices, but to only Jesus. The claim that Abraham is the father of the Gentiles is a huge and radical claim that would stir a lot of confusion and possible controversy. We cannot take that claim lightly. That is a pivotal truth that changed the perspective of the Roman audience and should change us in this generation as well.

  6. I find it interesting how it is argued that Abraham is the father of both the Jews and the Gentiles. It makes sense in how Abraham was credited as righteous before the ritual of circumcision came into play. Being a father of the nations gave Abraham not only the title to be the father of the Jews, but also the Gentiles. There was no Law in Abraham’s day to follow such as the Jews did and so Abraham in a way was a Gentile himself. He was the first character really shown to expand and honor the faith that God gave him and is seen as the one who in a way “started the religion.” When it comes to the idea of circumcision and whether or not Gentiles should practice it, I believe that it served to the Jews what baptism stands for to Gentiles. It is not necessary for salvation but rather they are symbols of the faith that you have. There is no need for Gentile Christians today to participate in circumcision because it was a command that was given to the Jews through the Law in the Old Testament, not the gentile Christians.

  7. I agree with what you were saying about Abraham being credited as righteous before the act of circumcision. It was before circumcision that he is credited, and thus the act of circumcision just stands as a sign of that covenant that God made with Abraham marking him as one of God’s righteous. In this view it puts the matter of circumcision as an outward sign of an inward faith that God is in charge, and will do what he says that he will. In my opinion, I feel that this is the direction that baptism has become portrayed within churches. Some think that it is a requirement for being a believer, while others think of it just as an outward sign. This debate would be easily put to rest if looked at in the lens of the way Paul sees circumcision. It is just an outward sign, but he tells the Jews to continue on in their practices, but not to require it of others because it is not a necessity. I think that if people feel led to be baptized, that’s great, but I do not think that it is required of someone to be a believer, because it is by faith that we are saved, not actions.

  8. Abraham is a great example for Paul to use about justification by faith. In Romans 7, when Paul talks about sin and the law, he states that we are fallen, sinful, human beings, and that sin is in our innate being. With sin being in our innate being, and evil following us wherever we go, the law does not save us. The only thing that saves us is God delivering us through Jesus Christ (Romans 7:25). This topic fits in perfectly and relates back to Abraham because Abraham had this concept down. There was no law back in the day of Abraham, so he had faith. Abraham’s faith was his direction, he didn’t rely on anything else. Circumcision, baptism, or communion are rituals that cannot save a being, just like the law cannot save a being. We are sinful, and all of those rituals cannot take us away from the bondage of slavery; only Christ can.

  9. Good article and one of the reasons that Paul was always one of my heroes. It’s important to note that the Jewish circumcision of old was a marking, as opposed to the complete removal of the foreskin that is done today – a procedure that was pushed by Hiram Yellen and Aaron Goldstein in America.

    I have fashioned a solution that has worked brilliantly, which I wrote about in a post awhile back. Relevant to the discussion:

  10. A theme that is mentioned in the book of Romans is being defined by one’s faith. As stated by Longenecker, he states that Abraham believed in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and to put the debate over the law of circumcision (Longenecker & Still, 2014, p. 181). In other words, Paul does not want the legalistic perspective of the Jews to get in way of the progression of the faith of the Gentiles. At the same time, it is clear that Paul wants them to know that they are not going be defined as unfaithful if they do not get circumcised. But in Romans 4:12, Paul stresses that the Gentiles are to follow in the footsteps of the father, and follow the example of Abraham (NIV). When it comes down to it, Paul is making the point that the law of circumcision is an obsolete point in the debate of being a faithful believer. Moreover, the scripture is illustrating a stark contrast and perspective as following the law was very important at the time. Ultimately, the example of Abraham is a comparison that is meant to unite everyone to put their faith in Him.

  11. Apostle Paul did a great demonstration on presenting the ultimate purpose and promise of God for crediting a person as being righteous is not dependent on being a jews or a covenantal people, but in faith alone. The Jewish had always assumes righteousness from God is credited to us in some form of circumcision and following the demand of the law. In this case, Paul tracks back to the time of Abraham, whom the Jewish considered as their fore-father, in order to uniquely present why the legalistic view is a contradiction to the ultimate purpose of God in regards to salvation and relationship. Paul, in some from, over and over argues that Abraham was credited to him as righteousness, before the law and circumcision which ultimately indicate it was Abraham faith in God. not law or circumcision. According to Moo, Moo draws David view about how God’s righteousness is received, “a person’s relationship with God comes not by works but by God’s gracious acts. It can be only obtained only as a gift from God” (Moo, pg.76). Even one of the greatest king of Israelite believes relationship with God is not dependant on works, rather it is a gift from God. Because ultimately, human does not have the full capacity to works ourselves to earn that relationship. If the promise of God is dependant on by works of the law, then the promised and the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ will be totally useless.

  12. This is a very interesting post, as I never thought that Abraham was technically father to the Gentiles first before the Jews. Even though it is mentioned that whoever believes in Him goes to the Jews first, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16). Paul does make a good foundational point a little later that “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As for God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11). It as well does not matter that the rituals or works can transmit saving grace, but by believing.

    I think there is also the misconception of doing works for righteousness, as instead we need more of that mental perspective of living “In Christ”. As Paul says to present our bodies as living sacrifices that are acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2) (Long, 1). Which is pretty mind boggling as back then priests would put the sins of all the people on to an animal and then either kill it on the altar or send it to the wilderness as a symbol that the sins are being carried away (Long, 1).

  13. I always find it interesting to look at situations such as this from the Bible (Old or New Testament) where many modern day Christians might think that the answer is obvious! It’s obvious that circumcision is not a prerequisite of righteousness or gaining faith. However, many of us are relatively familiar with the New Testament and we live in a different time culturally than they did back then, so I am always reminded that we ought to look at this in the context of its culture. An example of perhaps a modern day circumcision debate could be drinking alcohol. Bear with me for a moment–alcohol is a stigma that has been around the church for a while. If someone drinks alcohol as part of their lifestyle and then they become a Christian at some point in their life but they continue drinking (let’s say it’s moderately where they abstain from drunkenness or allowing it to affect their behavior towards people), then I’m willing to bet that that there are still some people out there that would argue that the person has not totally been converted yet because they can’t be a Christian and still sip a bud light. I know there are situations where someone can behave with alcohol in very un-christlike ways, but in this circumstance, that is not the case. It feels like this is the same way circumcision was treated in the early church. Afterall, how could someone “actually” be saved if they aren’t circumcised? As ridiculous as that sounds, what are some other ways that we limit the Gospel today?

  14. What if Abraham after believing God, did not follow through with circumcision? This is what the Bible says “This is My covenant that you must keep between Me and you and your seed after you: all your males must be circumcised. But the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin—that person will be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.””
    ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭17‬:‭10‬, ‭14‬ ‭

  15. You could point to Moses, who did not practice circumcision on his own sons (Exodus 4:18-31, death is threatened) or Israel in the Wilderness (Joshua 5:1-9). Apparently there is some grace for those who have not submitted to the sign of the covenant. Circumcision is rarely mentioned in the Old Testament, but by the time Paul was writing Romans 4 (and Galatians), circumcision of a key boundary marker defining what it means to practice Judaism in the first century (consider the reasons for the Maccabean revolt!)

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