Righteousness is a Five Letter Word
May 10, 1992
Certain subjects present a preacher with unusual problems. There are some subjects that quite simply make people uncomfortable no matter how you deal with them. Circumcision is one of those subjects. No matter what I say after that sentence, some of you will have difficulty listening to my words. I confess that I myself feel a bit uncomfortable preaching a sermon on circumcision because it’s hard to know how far to go. I know that if I go too far, I’ll hear about it as soon as the sermon is over!
But there is really no reason to be embarrassed by this subject. First of all, it’s in the Bible and therefore it must be worth talking about. Secondly, circumcision was God’s idea. We’re talking about it this morning because God talks a lot about it in the Bible.
It’s possible that some of you feel uncomfortable because you don’t like any talk of sex in church. Some people simply don’t like any mention of any subject that touches on sex, however remotely. They seem to think that the human body ends at the waist!
But since God talks so much about circumcision, it must mean something very special to him. If it is important to him, then it ought to be important to us as well.
Ray Stedman tells of a young man who came to him one day with an unusual request. “Pastor Stedman, would you circumcise me?” Ray Stedman says he blinked several times before asking the young man why he would make such a strange request. He was relieved to hear the answer: “The Bible says you have to be circumcised in order to know God.” Whereupon he took the Bible and showed the young man that you don’t have to be circumcised in order to know God.
That precisely is the point Paul is dealing with in our passage. Must a person be circumcised in order to be saved? Although that question might not occur to us, it was a burning issue among the Jews of the first century. They answered Yes. Paul said No.
I. What about circumcision?
“Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” Our principal problem in understanding these verses is the fact that circumcision does not mean to us what it meant to the Jews of the first century. 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.” He goes on to quote an ancient Jewish prayer, “Blessed is he who sanctified his beloved from the womb, and put his ordinance upon his flesh, and sealed his offspring by the sign of the holy covenant.” If a Gentile wanted to convert to Judaism, he had to do three things: 1. Be baptized 2. Offer a sacrifice 3. Be circumcised. The point to grasp is that to the Jews circumcision was far more than a ceremony; it was the point of entrance into a living and true relationship with God.
Suppose we go a step farther and ask why God initiated this particular sign for his chosen people? A little reflection suggests three reasons:
Circumcision left a permanent mark on the body. A man could not be “uncircumcised” by re-attaching the foreskin. Once done, the act marked a man forever. Thus, circumcision served as a permanent reminder of a man’s sacred relationship to God.
Circumcision served as a private reminder to the man. Although few other people would ever see the mark on his body, the man would see it every time he undressed. No matter where a Jew went, no matter how far he traveled from Jerusalem, now matter how deeply he drank at pagan fountains, he had a private and personal reminder that he was God’s man first and foremost.
Circumcision continually reminded a man of his spiritual obligations. Suppose a Jew wanted to commit adultery with a pagan woman. Even in the act, the mark would remind him of his sin. In the most private and personal moments of life, he would remember—several times a day—whose he was and to whom he belonged.
No wonder the Jews valued circumcision so highly. It was God’s way of reminding them that they were his people.
Seen in that light, the question makes perfect sense. Must a person be circumcised to be saved? Yes, of course, said the Jews. They couldn’t even conceive of an uncircumcised person being acceptable to God.
Now we come to Paul’s answer.
II. No, Circumcision is not necessary for salvation.
Remember, the context is all about Abraham and the great question—How was Abraham saved? Paul has already established that Abraham was saved by faith—a point his opponents would grudgingly admit. But surely, they would argue, since Abraham was circumcised, does that not prove that circumcision is necessary for salvation? Here is Paul’s answer: “We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised or before? It was not after, but before!”
At first, this might not make sense to us because Paul is making an argument from Bible chronology. He is making a point based on when certain things happened in Abraham’s life. In particular, he’s dealing with the question—”Which came first—salvation or circumcision?” The answer is, Abraham was saved before he was circumcised. Therefore, circumcision cannot be necessary for salvation because Abraham was saved before he was circumcised!
Perhaps a chart will help:
When was Abraham Saved?
85 years old
99 years old
Paul’s argument is simple. Abraham was circumcised 14 years after his salvation; therefore, circumcision cannot be necessary for salvation.
A Sign and a Seal
But to say it that way leaves an important question which must be answered. What was the point of circumcision if not to provide salvation? Paul answers that question by using two crucial words:
Circumcision is a sign. A sign is something that points the way to something else. If I see a sign that says, “Chicago 50 miles,” I know that the sign isn’t Chicago; it only points the way to Chicago. That doesn’t render the sign without value. In fact, if Chicago is where I want to go, then the sign has great value because it points me in the right direction. In the same way, circumcision was a physical sign given to the Jews to point them to God. It was a divine reminder that they belonged to God, were the special recipients of his blessings, and would one day give account to him.
Circumcision is a seal. A seal authenticates the truth or reality of something else. A passport is not valid without the Great Seal of the United States. Likewise, the seal of a notary public attests to the validity of the signatures on the paper. A seal means, “This is the real thing.” It is an outward indication of an inward reality. In exactly that sense, circumcision meant that a Jew was wholly dedicated to God. Although a man was circumcised as a child, the act was meant as a perpetual reminder that he must live his life in submission to God.
Now note this point carefully. Circumcision had value so long as the outward sign was accompanied by the inner surrender of the heart to God. Paul is not arguing against the validity of circumcision, rightly understood. Far from it. But the Jews had torn the envelope open, thrown away the contents, and kept the meaningless imprint.
The Wedding Ring
Perhaps an illustration will help. On the fourth finger of my left hand, I am wearing the ring Marlene gave me the night we were married 18 years ago. I never take it off, and I’ve only lost it once in all those years—on our honeymoon in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Luckily, we found it in the carpet of our hotel room.
What does this ring mean? When people see it—even people who don’t know me—they recognize that I am a married man. They may not know Marlene, but it doesn’t matter. This ring is a public sign that I belong to someone else. I’m not a free man because I have given myself to someone else.
Now suppose that I take my ring off. Am I still married? Yes. Taking the ring off doesn’t make me single (something you men should remember). I am just as married without the ring as I am with the ring. Then why wear it? Because it is a public, visible symbol of my commitment to my wife. I wear this ring because I am proud of my wife and I want the world to know that I belong to someone else.
Let’s turn the matter around. Suppose a single man puts on my wedding band. Would he then be married to
Marlene? No, he would simply be wearing a symbol of a commitment he has never made.
A wedding ring has no value unless there is a heart commitment behind it. When there is no commitment, the ring becomes nothing more than a circle of silver.
The same is true for circumcision. Where there is a commitment to God, it has great value. Where there is no commitment, it has no meaning, and in fact can become misleading because it makes people think they are God’s children when they really are not.
The principle and application are not hard to see. Outward ceremonies have value only when they are accompanied by inner spiritual change. This, I think, is the # 1 argument against infant baptism. Although well-intentioned, in too many cases it leads people to think that simply because a priest has sprinkled some water on their forehead, they are already saved. Such people stand in the same position as the Jews, who trusted in their circumcision and not in the God who stood behind the circumcision. No religious ceremony—no matter how well-intentioned—can make the slightest difference when it comes to salvation. What God looks for is a heart that is yielded to him.
III. The Application
Paul now makes a very simple application of the truth that circumcision is not necessary for salvation. He offers two deductions from this truth—each based on the word “father.” The question is this: If Abraham was saved before he was circumcised, then who has the right to truly call him “father?” Is this right given only to the Jews (which is what they thought)? Or can the Gentiles call him “father” as well?
1. To the Uncircumcised 11
“He is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” Can the Gentiles call Abraham “father?” Yes, if they have the same faith Abraham had. It’s as simple as that. Since faith saves, and faith alone, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or Gentile. As long as you have the same kind of faith Abraham had, he is your spiritual father.
2. To the Circumcised 12
Now Paul turns to the case of the Jews. Surely they can call Abraham “father.” Yes, says Paul, but only if they too have the faith of Abraham. “He is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” 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 notable fact about Abraham—so far as Paul is concerned—is not his circumcision; it’s his faith. If you need to copy something about Abraham, copy his faith. Then if you want to be circumcised, go ahead, but that’s not the crucial fact.
If you want to go to heaven, you must have Abraham’s faith. After all, if you want to be circumcised, that’s fine too, but it’s not the most important factor.
To say it another way: Abraham is not the father of the circumcised, but of those who share his faith—whether circumcised or not. To put the matter that way would greatly distress the Jews who put more stock in the outward act than they did in the heart commitment that should accompany it.
Paul is saying that salvation is not a racial issue. It has nothing to do with who your parents are or where you were born or what kind of marks you have on your body. Those things don’t matter to God when it comes to salvation.
Who is the real Jew, then? The real Jew is the one who has the faith of Abraham. But when did Abraham have faith? Before he was circumcised. But before he was circumcised, what was he—a Jew or a Gentile? 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!
Let me sum up the application. Who can call Abraham “father?”
—Because Abraham believed before he was circumcised, he is the father of all believing Gentiles.
—Because Abraham believed and was circumcised, he is also the father of all believing Jews.
Therefore, Abraham is the father of all who believe, and only of those who believe. No one else can truly call Abraham “father” in the sense of claiming spiritual heritage.
William Barclay summarizes the matter this way:
Paul has laid down the great principle that the way to God is not through membership of any nation, not through any ordinance which makes a mark upon a man’s body; but by the faith which takes God at his word and makes everything dependent, not on man’s achievement, but solely upon God’s grace. (Romans, p. 67)
Three Implications For Today
1. Salvation is by faith alone wholly apart from human ceremony of any kind.
Here is a message that must be repeated over and over again. No one can be saved by any human ceremony. Faith saves and faith alone. Nothing else ever did or ever will save. Those who come to God must come by way of faith in Jesus Christ. And they must not base any hope of heaven upon any human ceremony—no matter how well-intentioned.
2. Baptism has great value in the church and should be highly honored-but not as a means of salvation.
I don’t know anyone who believes in water baptism more than I do. I preach about it, I teach about it, and I encourage believers to take a step of obedience by following Jesus Christ in water baptism. Twice a year we baptize 10-15 people. I wish we had our own baptistry at Calvary so we could do it more often. I also wish our people took it more seriously, and didn’t see it as something “optional” or “extra.” That downgrades something that I believe to be a direct command of Scripture.
Having said that, I must also say that millions of people have a false hope of heaven because they are trusting in their baptism—either as an infant or as an adult—to save them. I fear that one day millions of people will wake up in hell—trapped in eternal punishment because they trusted in their baptism instead of in the Savior.
If anyone here wants to be baptized, I’ll be happy to do it. But there is no magic in my words or in the water. I can hold you under so long that you’ll come up singing Amazing Grace, but that won’t make you a Christian.
Baptism is good, but apart from a heart commitment to Jesus it is only a dunking in water.
3. Christianity is supremely a religion of reconciliation because it crosses all social, national and cultural barriers.
This certainly was a crucial point to the Apostle Paul. Salvation in Christ is available to all men everywhere without regard to age, ethnic background, cultural heritage, language or national origin.
That’s a good word to think about after the events of the last few days. After watching the riots in Los Angeles, I was struck again with how divided America really is. We talk about a great “melting pot” but all I see is a lot of heat and not much melting. The turmoil in Watts reminds us of the great gulf that is fixed in our society between black and white, rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.
But God has designed the church as the great “melting pot” where racial and ethnic distinctions are transcended by the gospel of Jesus Christ. God’s family is huge and multi-cultural and very diverse.
Is there any hope for our country in these troubling days of division, despair and destruction? Yes there is. And that hope rests 100% in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing else can change human hearts from the inside out. Nothing else can cause people who hate each other to learn to love each other. Nothing else can bridge the chasms that cause us to look at each other with such deep suspicion.
The best hope for our world is still Jesus Christ. When he is lifted up, all men—black and white, rich and poor—are drawn to him. Let us go from this place determined to lift up Jesus Christ. Lift him up, O people of God! Proclaim the good news that he is the Savior! Open wide the doors of salvation! Let us do our part and the world will see Jesus as the Great Reconciler and the best hope for better days to come.