We rightly refer to father Abraham. He is the central model for us from the pages of the Old Testament, living out the implications of radical faith, faith at the root. As we walk in imitation of him, we are his children indeed. As we walk in imitation of him, we have the family resemblance that Jesus looked for in the Pharisees and did not find (John 8:39).
“Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness . . .” (Rom. 4:9-16)
Summary of the Text
Remember where we are. The universal enemy of our souls is sin, and it afflicts Gentiles and Jews alike. The entire human race is shut up under sin, but God is not intervening at the last moment in a panic, trying to troubleshoot a problem that is beyond Him. He has been declaring His universal plan of salvation for the entire world through Abraham, and He has been doing so from the very first book of the Bible. God’s plan through Abraham is for everyone, and always has been. So is this Abrahamic blessing for Jews only (v. 9)? We can answer the question by remembering that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness, and when did this happen (v. 10). Abraham was right with God through faith before he was circumcised (v. 10). He received circumcision after he received righteousness in order that uncircumcised Gentiles might consider him their father as well (v. 11). His circumcision was a seal after the fact. At the same time, he did get circumcised, so that he might be the father of a certain group of Jews—those who walk in the kind of faith that Abraham had while still uncircumcised (v. 12). For the promise that Abraham would inherit the world was a promise to be received through the righteousness of faith (v. 13), and was not to be received through the Torah. For if the Torah could do it for us, then both faith and promise are made void (v. 14). So the Torah can’t do it—but it can bring wrath. For if there is no law, there is no transgression of the law (v. 15). And so this is why the salvation of the world is by faith, so that it might be gracious (v. 16). This ensures that the promise extends to all Abraham’s seed—both those circumcised in infancy and those who share his faith only. This is what makes him the father of us all (v. 16).
An Abrahamic Timeline
The apostle Paul bases his argument here on the chronology of events, and so we need to be careful as we reconstruct that chronology ourselves. We have already noted that Abraham came out of the idolatrous city of Ur (Josh. 24:2), and that he had trusted in the one who justifies the ungodly, Abraham himself included (Rom. 4:5). This means that Abraham began as an idolatrous sinner. The first biblical mention of Abraham’s personal faith is when he left Ur of the Chaldees (Heb. 11:8). When he left his country, the Bible says that he obeyed God, and God told him to go in conjunction with the promise (Gen. 12:1-3). Abraham went, believing in that promise (Heb. 8-10). He was 75 when this happened. Then when God promised Abraham descendants like the stars, Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:5-6) . He was around 86 at this time. Twenty-four years after his departure from Ur, God established the covenant of circumcision with Abraham(Gen. 17:1-14). This means that Isaac was begotten when Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael was not. Abraham spent 75 years as a sinner, 24 years as an uncircumcised believer in God, and 76 years as a circumcised believer (Gen. 25:7). This helps to put Paul’s timeline argument into perspective.
Abraham, The Believing Gentile
Paul is arguing that Abraham was a believer in the true God, and he was a true believer in the true God, for twenty four years. He was righteous, and he was not a Jew. He was righteous, and not a Jew for a long time. Gentiles (who had been promised to Abraham starting in Gen. 12) are therefore invited to look to him as their father in the faith. He had faith, and that’s all, and they had faith, and that’s all.
Is Circumcision Nothing Then?
As Paul might say, “May it never be!” Circumcision has value in many ways. But the central value is only for those who share the faith of Abraham. Note carefully how Paul limits this. The uncircumcised Abraham is father of the Gentiles, but only those Gentiles who believe. In the same way, he is the father of the Jews, but only those Jews who believe. He is very clear on this. He is the “father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised” (v. 12, emphasis mine). In other words, a circumcised Jew who has faith may rise to the level of that famous Gentile Abraham. But if not, he does not.
Presbyterians and Baptists
Circumcision and baptism are not precise counterparts, but they are close (Col. 2:11). This being the case, let us reason by analogy. The thing that matters is true faith, faith that lives, walks, breathes, and loves. Did you take the sign of baptism after you believed? Then you are a credo-baptist the same way that Abraham was a credo-circumcisionist. Were you baptized in infancy? Then you are a paedobaptist the way that Isaac was a paedo-circumcisionist—provided you believe. If that is there, be fully convinced in your own mind, and don’t sweat it.
Heir of the World
All of the promises given to Abraham were pointing toward the same thing—a saved world. Scripture expresses this in many different ways, but all these expressions are directed at God’s love for all the nations of men. Abraham was looking for a city with foundations built by God (Heb. 11:10). Abraham looked forward to Christ’s day, he saw it and was glad (John 8:56). All the families of the earth would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3). His descendants in the faith would be like the stars for number (Gen. 15:5). God would multiply Abraham exceedingly (Gen. 17: 2), and many nations would come from him (Gen. 17: 6). Paul interprets all this definitively when he says that the promise (expressed in these places) that he would inherit the world was set before him (and before us) as something to be obtained through the righteousness of faith. It was not for him, or for us, to be obtained through Torah. What is it that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4)? Is it not our faith?
Let us close with an observation on one other curiosity. In all the debates and wrangles over justification by faith, it is curious that many in our day are obsessed with believing in the way that Abraham believed, but they want to dispense (almost entirely) with what he believed. But we are told what to believe—that Jesus rose from the dead (Rom. 4:24)—but the entire context of this shows that in His resurrection we are to see the resurrection and salvation of the entire world.