Abraham Our Father
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, August 31, 2008
Copyright © 2008, P. G. Mathew
"[Abraham] is the father of all who believe." - Romans 4:11
The Jews placed great value on circumcision as a sign of their covenant relationship with God. Yet the gospel knows no discrimination between those who are circumcised and those who are not. In this passage, Paul asserts that everyone who believes in Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, whether Jew or Gentile, whether circumcised or uncircumcised, is a true child of God and a son of Abraham.
We want to examine three points from this passage: that circumcision, which stands for any sacrament, does not save anyone; the true meaning of circumcision; and the divine purpose of circumcision, which God decreed to Abraham.
Circumcision Does Not Save
The Jews maintained that Abraham was only their father and not the father of the Gentiles. In fact, this was a point of great pride for the Jews. Therefore, Paul's statement in this passage that Abraham was the father of all believers, Jew or Gentile, was startling to them. Earlier in this epistle Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile" (Rom. 1:16). Paul now argues that the blessedness of David and Abraham that he spoke about-forgiveness of sins, justification by faith, and the gift of a righteous status-is not only for the circumcised Jews but also for the uncircumcised Gentile believers. This gospel of universal salvation that Paul preached was aimed at destroying Jewish pride and superiority.
Christianity knows no discrimination. Man tries to create differences all the time, in every society and nation. Such differences enable groups or individuals to look down upon others. "There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). God levels everyone by this statement of the universality of sin. God in Jesus Christ saves all who truly believe.
Before God, one people group is not superior to another. The gospel destroys all sinful human pride in such distinctions. God is one, there is one people of God, and there is only one way of salvation. Earlier Paul argued and established the truth that justification is by faith in Jesus Christ apart from works of the law. Now he anticipates another argument of Jewish unbelief. When we argue one point successfully, then unbelief comes in another way. Paul raises the question: What about the God-ordained rite of circumcision? What relevance does circumcision have with reference to this salvation Paul was speaking about? The Jews were asking, "Can we not say that salvation is by faith plus circumcision?" Here Paul tells them no. Circumcision has no material or essential bearing on one's salvation.
To bolster his argument, Paul comes up with an example from history: Was Abraham justified by faith before or after he was circumcised? Paul answers, "It was not after, but before!" Abraham was declared righteous (Gen. 15) some fourteen years before he was circumcised at age ninety-nine (Gen. 17). He was justified while he was a Gentile, long before he was circumcised. He did not earn his salvation by any good works of obedience, especially not through the work of being circumcised. The Jews maintained that their circumcision was not only a mark on their bodies, but also means of their salvation. But Paul argues from Scripture that circumcision was not the cause or ground of Abraham's salvation.
The Jews looked down upon the Gentiles, calling them "uncircumcised" and "defiled" (Isa. 52:1; Acts 11:3). The Jews were proud of their circumcision. It was their passport to heaven, for they believed no circumcised person would go to hell. They believed the Gentiles should first become Jews by conversion and circumcision before they could be saved. To them, circumcision was a necessary condition for salvation.
But Paul put no confidence in circumcision for his salvation. He says that he was circumcised on the eighth day and was perfect concerning the righteousness of the law. He was proud of these things. But he was not saved until he put his faith in Jesus Christ.
Jeremiah says, "'But let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,' declares the LORD. 'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh. . . . For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart" (Jer. 9:24-26). This applies to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. Paul writes: "A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit" (Rom. 2:28-29).
This issue of circumcision was settled by the early church in the Council of Jerusalem in light of what happened in Cornelius' house when Peter ministered to them. "Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church of Antioch to Jerusalem to ask the elders about this question. After the council discussed this, Peter said of the Jews and Gentiles, "'[God] made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith . . . . We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are'" (Acts 15:9, 11).
Let us stop glorying in things external. Paul writes, "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love" (Gal. 5:2, 6). He further explains, "Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law. Yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation" (Gal. 6:12-15).
Paul himself was circumcised on the eighth day, but that did not save him. He became a new creation by the mighty miracle of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. If salvation, therefore, is only by grace through faith and not by works, and not even by the particular God-ordained work of circumcision, why did God decree that Abraham and his descendants be circumcised? True circumcision is a command of God and is a blessing when its true divine significance is understood.
The Meaning of Circumcision
Paul writes that Abraham "received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised" (Rom. 4:11, italics added). Circumcision, therefore, was given to Abraham as a sign and seal of the righteousness God gave to him, a sign of his faith. It was a sign of the covenant of God's salvation relationship with Abraham, which he ratified in Genesis 15.
A sign is not the reality; it is something external and visible that points to a greater reality. Charles Hodge of Princeton says, "What answers well as a sign, is a miserable substitute for the thing signified."1 A sign we see while driving on the freeway that advertises a restaurant is not a restaurant. We cannot go to the sign and get food and drink. We must drive ten miles to arrive at the reality to which the sign pointed. There we can get our hamburgers, French fries, and strawberry milkshake.
In the same way, a wedding ring is not what brings about a marriage relationship. A wedding ring points to a prior reality and reminds us of our ongoing responsibility to one other. Abraham's circumcision when he was ninety-nine years old pointed to his prior justification. So circumcision, Paul argues, is not the ground or the necessary condition of our salvation.
Not only was circumcision a sign, but it was also a seal of the righteousness Abraham had by faith. A seal is that by which something is confirmed, authenticated, or guaranteed. It confirms the truth or reality of something else. The mark of circumcision Abraham received in his body at age ninety-nine confirmed to him the righteous status God conferred on him fourteen years before. Circumcision, therefore, has no independent value. It is not a passport to heaven, as the Jews maintained. It is confirming and comforting because it assures us of the reality of our justification by faith before, but it is not productive of our salvation. It is like the seal and stamp on my photo on my passport. It does not make me a citizen of my country, but it confirms, guarantees, assures that I am. The seals on my degrees that hang in my office do not make me a scholar, but they assure and confirm that I am. I had to go to the university many years to study and pass several examinations to achieve those degrees. The seal presuppose the existence of things sealed.
Baptism is also a seal of the prior reality. James Boice speaks about the doubts that plagued the great reformer Martin Luther in his final days. He questioned the value of the Reformation, his own faith, and even the work of Jesus Christ. But when such doubts came to him one after another, he would write, "Baptizatus sum!" which means, "I have been baptized." His baptism was a sign and a seal of the reality of his salvation in Christ. Luther was telling himself, "I have been baptized. I belong to Jesus Christ." The thought of his baptism confirmed and assured him of his prior salvation by grace through faith alone.2
The Purpose of Circumcision
What was God's purpose in giving the sign and seal of circumcision to Abraham? Paul discloses the divine purpose in verses 11-12. The first reason was that Abraham might be the father of all Gentiles who believe and are saved, though uncircumcised. That is why I can proudly say that I, a Gentile, am truly a child of Abraham. There is not one way of salvation for the Jews and another for the Gentiles. There is only one way of salvation for all sinners-the way of faith in Jesus Christ.
Why was Abraham justified before he was circumcised? Paul reveals that it was to demonstrate that we do not need to be circumcised to be justified by grace through faith. Abraham was uncircumcised when the God of glory justified him by faith. (PGM) In the same way, God can justify all Gentiles without them being circumcised. Abraham, therefore, is the father of all believers who are not circumcised. Most Christians today were Gentiles by birth, not circumcised in the biblical sense. But we believed in Jesus Christ and are children of Abraham. There is no discrimination. As God credited Abraham with the righteousness of God in view of his faith, even so to a believing Gentile God reckons the righteousness of God through his faith, though uncircumcised. So Abraham truly is the father of all believers. The blessing of Abraham through his Seed, Jesus Christ, comes to all people, as God told Abraham that all the nations of the earth will be blessed through his offspring (Gen. 18:18; 22:18).
The second reason is that Abraham also is the father of all believing Jews, though they are circumcised. Abraham was circumcised, though after his justification. So he is the father of the Jews, not because they are circumcised, but because they believe as Abraham did. They walk in the steps of the faith of their father Abraham. At age seventy-five, while he was in idolatry, he was called by the God of glory to follow him. Abraham lived another one hundred years, walking in faith, until he died in faith. Abraham, therefore, is also the father of all Jewish people who walk in the faith of Abraham.
Paul writes, "And 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" (Rom. 4:12, italics added). Whether Gentile or Jew, we must walk in faith in the footprints of our father Abraham. We must walk single file behind him, not abreast, following in the footprints of his faith life. We must become disciples of Abraham, who himself was a disciple of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus said, "Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). All along Abraham believed in the Messiah promised to him by God the Father. This Messiah says, "Deny yourselves, take up the cross daily, and follow me through death unto life everlasting." Paul exhorts, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). We walk by faith, not by sight-faith in God and the holy Scriptures.
Paul is telling all believers to imitate Abraham's faith, not his circumcision. He uses the word "follow in step with" elsewhere: "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" (Gal. 5:25). We must follow in the Spirit's footprints. We must follow Jesus in his footprints, not creating our own way. We must follow him.
The Jews claimed they were Abraham's descendants, yet only a few believed in Jesus. Paul deals with this issue with great sorrow: "It is not as though God's word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel" (Rom. 9:6). In the same way, not all who claim to be Christians are Christians. There is the larger circle of professing Christians and a smaller circle inside of those who are true Christians. There is a large circle of Jews but a smaller one who are true believers. Yet they are not Abraham's children through natural means. Paul clarifies this point: "Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham's children. On the contrary, 'It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.' In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. For this was how the promise was stated: 'At the appointed time, I will return and Sarah will have a son'" (Rom. 9:7-9).
All claimed they were Abraham's descendants, just as Christians claim, "We are Christians." That does not mean a thing. They boasted in their circumcision that they were physically descended from Abraham. They claimed to be children of Abraham, heirs of eternal salvation. But Jesus told them, "Your father is not Abraham, for he believed in me, but you do not. Your father is the devil" (see John 8:31-59). There are also Christians whose father is still the devil, no matter what they profess-whether they are baptized, whether they join the church or give money to the church or serve in the church. It all means nothing. The truth is that the father of every unbeliever is the devil until God in his rich mercy makes us his children.
Paul speaks of this great transformation in Ephesians 2: "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is at work in those who are children of disobedience. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ" (Eph. 2:1-5).
Abraham is the father of all believers-all who are characterized by faith in God. What does "father" mean? We find some understanding in Genesis 4:20-21: "Adah gave birth to Jabal. He was the father of those who lived in tents and raised livestock. His brother's name was Jubal. He was the father of all who played the harp and flute." Here, the idea of fatherhood is linked with character. The descendants of Jabal lived in tents and raised livestock because their father did so, while Jubal's descendants were noted for playing the harp and flute because of their father.
In the same way, the believer Abraham is the father of all others who believe in Jesus Christ, who are justified by grace through faith plus nothing. In other words, faith is the determining criterion, not circumcision. In fact, circumcision divides, but faith in Jesus Christ unites us. There is no discrimination in Christ; Jesus receives all sinners, both Gentiles and Jews. If we believe, we belong to the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, and we are heirs of God, heirs together with Abraham, and joint-heirs with Christ. We are saved by faith alone, not faith plus circumcision or baptism or anything else. All believers are children of Abraham; all unbelievers are children of the devil, the father of all lies.
Paul explains, "Therefore the promise comes by faith so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring, not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all" (Rom. 4:16). Elsewhere he writes, "Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7).
Are You a Child of Abraham?
Those who believe in Christ are children of Abraham, whether they are Jew or Gentile, black or white, rich or poor, master or slave, male or female. What about you? Do you have faith in Jesus Christ? Do you walk in the footsteps of the faith of Abraham before he was circumcised? Do not boast that you are a citizen of America, citizen of a Christian country, born into a Christian family, or that you attended Sunday School, Christian school, or were baptized and are a member of a Bible-believing church, or that you take holy communion weekly, give to the church, serve in the church, or that you are a missionary, or even a pastor, bishop, or pope. All these things mean nothing.
Circumcision cannot save anyone; neither can baptism or anything else we do. Baptismal regeneration is a falsehood; baptism cannot produce spiritual life. Only the Holy Spirit raises people from the dead and gives them life in Jesus Christ. Neither baptism nor circumcision can save us; Jesus Christ alone saves us from our sins. What must we do to be saved? Only believe. When Christ died on the cross, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. There is now no more barrier to prevent us from coming to God through Jesus Christ. Not only did Christ's death destroy the barrier between man and God, but it also destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile, man and man, and woman and woman. We are all one in the Spirit, one in the Lord, and one in the faith. We are the one body of Christ.
There are no superior Christians, whether Jew or Gentile. Paul says, "This mystery is that through the gospel, the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 3:6). Then he states, "For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name" (Eph. 3:14). Jew, Gentile, brothers and sisters, one family, one God, one Spirit (cf. Eph. 4:4-6).
We are all sons of God and so we are all sons of Abraham. We are all spiritual Israel of God. We are blessed with the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is circumcision? What is baptism? What is the Lord's Supper? They are signs pointing to the greater reality of Christ and our identification with him, our salvation in him. They seal to us the blessings we received when we trusted in Christ. They declare to us when we are about to die that God is our Father, Abraham is our father, and we are one. We are the people of God. They comfort us. They confirm to us our acceptance by God, our fullness of salvation in Christ. It authenticates, assures, that we have passed from death to life, from hell to heaven, from darkness to light, from fear to eternal confidence, from hopelessness to the hope of the glory of God.
I recently celebrated Holy Communion with a sister in Christ who is dying of cancer. This sacrament was a sign and seal to her that she is a child of God and has eternal life. It is a sign pointing to heaven, a seal that assures her she has a share in Jesus and is on her way to seeing him face to face. It was a brief service, for she cannot sit up long. But before she lay down, she said six words: "Life is short. Live for God."
May God have mercy on those who are outside of Jesus Christ, and may they believe in him and be saved. There is no other Savior. No one else died and rose again for our salvation. And may God help us who are already in Christ to pay attention to the words of our dying sister: "Life is short. Live for God." May we live each day for the glory of God.
1 Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans: A Geneva Series Commentary (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 125.
2 James M. Boice, Romans, Vol. 1: Justification by Faith: Romans 1-4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 457.
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Copyright © 2008, P. G. Mathew
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