NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson VII)
Scholar Albert Barnes adds his imprimatur to what others are saying about justification’s independence from good works: “Having shown that Abraham was justified by faith in accordance with the doctrine he was defending, the only remaining inquiry was it after he was circumcised or before; was it as a consequence of his circumcision or not. If it was after his circumcision, the Jews might still maintain that it was by complying with the works of the Law; but if it was before, the point of the Apostle would be established that it was without the works of the Law. Still further, if he was justified by faith before he was circumcised, then here was an instance of justification and acceptance without conformity to the Jewish Law; and if the father of the Jewish nation [Abraham] was so justified, and reckoned as a friend of God, without being circumcised, that is, in the condition in which the pagan world was then, then it would follow that the Gentiles might be justified in a similar way now.”1 Even though circumcision is no longer an issue in the Christian church, the principle of obedience to God’s law over obedience to church law is still a matter of discussion.
Professor F. F. Bruce has quite a bit to say about this subject. His main points are: “What relation, if any, lies between Abraham’s being justified by faith and the rite of circumcision? For a Jew, this was a matter of great importance: circumcision was the outward and visible sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. No uncircumcised man could claim any share in that covenant; circumcision entitled Jews or Gentile proselytes to all the covenant privileges, apart from those who by a willful repudiation of the divine commandments cut themselves off from the covenant people… Abraham, accordingly, is the true father of all who, like him, believe in God and take Him at His word. He is the father of uncircumcised believers, for he was himself uncircumcised when his faith was reckoned to him for righteousness; he is the father of circumcised believers too, not so much on the ground of their circumcision as on the ground of their faith… Abraham’s justification and accompanying blessings were based on his faith in God; they were not earned by merit or effort on his part (as would have been the case had they been conditional on law-keeping) but conferred on him by God’s grace. And the principle on which God thus dealt with Abraham extends to his descendants – not to his natural descendants as such, for they have become subject to the obligations of the law, but to his spiritual descendants, those who follow the precedent of Abraham’s faith.”2
Verse 10: So how did this happen? Did God accept Abraham before or after he was circumcised? God accepted him before his circumcision.
The main point is that justification by grace was offered to Abraham some fourteen years before God required physical circumcision as a sign for him and his descendants that they had been chosen by God to receive such justification. This is clearly recorded in the Torah.3 Later on, God spoke to Abraham and told him: “I am God All-Powerful. Obey me and live the right way. If you do this, I will prepare an agreement between us. I will promise to make your people a great nation.”4 Now, remember, this was all done long before the Law was given to Moses and encoded in the writings of the children of Israel.
Paul saw this then as a reason to say that if God was willing to accept Abraham based on faith, not obedience to the law, then He is willing to do the same for anyone who is justified outside the law. He expressed this in his letter to the Corinthians: “If a man was already circumcised when he was chosen, he should not disrespect his circumcision. If a man was without circumcision when he was chosen, he should not be circumcised. It is not important if anyone is circumcised or not. What is important is obeying God’s commands.”5
Now, since circumcision is a non-factor in Christian theology and belief, if we look at water baptism in the same light, we can then conclude that a believer is justified before they are baptized. And, just as God signaled circumcision as a sign that those who received it were among the chosen, so He gave water baptism to Christians as a sign that they had been chosen by God. But, just as circumcision alone could not save the Jew, so water baptism alone cannot save a sinner. In both cases, this is done by God as a gift for believing, not as a wage for obedience. Unfortunately, this has been turned around by some and baptism is all they have to point to as evidence that they have been made right with God.
This was part of Paul’s message to the Galatians: “When someone belongs to Christ Jesus, it is not important if they are circumcised or not. The important thing is faith – the kind of faith available through love.”6 Based on what we said above, you can quote this same verse while substituting the word “baptized” for “circumcised” and it would promote the fact that faith is the elemental essence that brings about justification. While Paul’s teaching here was intended primarily for the Jews in the body of believers in Rome, I’m sure the non-Jews were also paying attention. No doubt they asked the same question that early church scholar Pelagius did: “Now we must see whether circumcision is born of righteousness or righteousness of circumcision. It must be the former because Abraham was righteous before he was circumcised.”7
John Calvin has a theological view of this subject: “We must always bear in mind, that circumcision is mentioned here as the initial work, so to speak, of the righteousness of the law: for the Jews gloried not in it as the symbol of God’s favor, but as a meritorious observance of the law: and it was on this account that they regarded themselves better than others, as though they possessed a higher excellency before God… But Paul maintains the contrary, and thus reasons: ‘If Abraham’s righteousness was the remission of sins, (which he safely takes as granted,) and if Abraham attained this before circumcision, it then follows that remission of sins is not given for preceding merits.’ You see that the argument rests on the order of cause and effect; for the cause is always before its effect; righteousness was possessed by Abraham before he had circumcision.”8
Frederic Godet makes an interesting point here about Abraham’s status. He writes: “There was a time in Abraham’s life when by his uncircumcision he represented the Gentiles, as later after his circumcision he became the representative of the covenant. Now, it was in the first of these two periods of his life, that is to say, in his Gentilehood, that he was justified by faith… the conclusion was obvious at a glance.”9 This is important to understand because if a person believes that their being right with God depends on some rite or ritual, they will also assume that their forgiveness for sins is also included and, therefore, repentance and confession is only due afterward for any sins committed as a believer.
Charles Ellicott makes a similar point: “What is the bearing of this upon the relation between Jew and Gentile? Is the blessedness of the justified state reserved only for the former? Is it limited to those who are circumcised? On the contrary, the state of justification was attributed to Abraham himself before he was circumcised. Justification is the result of faith, not of circumcision. Circumcision is so far from superseding faith that it was only the sign or seal of it.”10 So, for Ellicott, this then was the great test for those Messianic Jews in Rome to consider. Was their hope for justification based on whether their descent from Abraham is spiritual or literal? It is also the great test today for those who feel they became believers after their baptism instead of before.
Verse 11: Abraham was circumcised later to show that God accepted him. His circumcision was proof that he was right with God through faith before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the father of all those who believe but are not circumcised. They believe and are accepted as people who are right with God.
This factor concerning Abraham’s faith was important to Paul. After all, Abraham was not a Jew, he was a Chaldean. He did not have the Law later given to Moses to live by. So there were no good deeds for him to do in compliance with those laws. It was all based on obedience and faith. Even though circumcision and the Law followed, Paul wants these Jewish leaders to know that getting right with God still depends on faith first, not works.
In fact, even circumcision was based on obedience. God said to Abraham: “This is my agreement that all of you must obey. This is the agreement between Me and you and all your descendants. Every male must be circumcised.”11 So in this context, we can clearly see that obedience was the important factor. God could have easily told them to cut off their thumb as a sign that they were willing to be obedient no matter what the cost. The main contributing factor in Israel’s relationship with God from the time they left Egypt until Jesus rose from death was their obedience to Him and His will. Each time they went into idolatry, it was because of disobedience, even though they were all circumcised. Therefore, since circumcision could not keep them from sinning, it likewise could not guarantee their obedience. That was only accomplished by an act of their will in submitting to God’s authority.
Even when examining their deliverance from Egyptian bondage, we read where they were told: “The blood will serve you as a sign marking the houses where you are; when I see the blood, I will pass over you — when I strike the land of Egypt, the death blow will not strike you.”12 Had the blood of the lamb been left in a bowl or put in a jar on the shelf, the death angel would not have passed over that house, and they would have been treated just like the Egyptians. It had to be applied to the doorposts of the house. In other words, the blood on the doorpost was a sign of obedience. Likewise, the blood of Jesus in and of itself cannot be accepted by God as payment for sin unless, and until, it is applied to the heart as a sign of obedience by faith. Thus, obedience became the critical factor in everything the Jews did.
1 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 120
3 Genesis 15:6
4 Ibid. 17:1-2
5 1 Corinthians 7:18-19
6 Galatians 5:6; 6:15
7 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.
8 John Calvin: op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Frederic Godet: Op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Charles Ellicott: Op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Genesis 17:10
12 Exodus 12:13