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Getting Right with God

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 4:9–12

Certain observances are important as expressions of faith. However, we must always guard against the subtle danger of rituals, signs, and symbols gradually taking precedence in our lives over a personal relationship with the Lord through faith.


I have noted elsewhere that over the course of a lifetime, a person ends up spending a total of five years waiting in line for something—in traffic, in a restaurant, on the phone—five years waiting for something. But if that same person never missed a Sunday morning church service throughout life, after seventy years he would have spent just five and a half months in church.

Five years waiting in line and only five months in church. Do you think God is impressed? I have met a lot of people who think they are right with God because they go to church. Just a few months out of their entire lifetime!

So how does somebody get right with God? By going to more church services? Getting christened or baptized in church? Maybe spending time helping people?

The truth is, you will spend more time sleeping in your life than you will ever spend doing good things. So, the question remains: how do you get right with God?

Well, here in Romans 4, Paul has brought to our attention two men the nation of Israel would think were right with God—Father Abraham and King David. They were two of the most prominent men in Israel’s history.

But Paul has pointed out that the pages of the Old Testament reveal Abraham and David were sinful men. Lying, adultery, polygamy, murder—even these two men did not deserve to go to heaven. But Paul has made the point that these men were made right with God—they were justified by God—through faith alone.

Now at this point, Paul anticipates his audience saying, “Well okay, Paul, you have shown us that these two men sinned against God, but don’t forget, they were circumcised; they had the physical mark of the covenant. God would have automatically blessed them with salvation.”

Well, here is what Paul writes in verses 9-10:

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.

What Paul does here is remind his Jewish readers of the historical timeline. Abraham was circumcised when his son Ishmael was thirteen years old; Abraham was ninety-nine years old. That is recorded in Genesis 17.

But if you turn back to Genesis 15, at least fourteen years earlier, we read in verse 6: “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness.”

In other words, God justified Abraham by faith. So, if you do the math, Abraham was made right with God some fourteen years before he was circumcised.

This is Paul’s argument here in Romans 4:11: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.”

Beloved, this was stunning news: Abraham was right with God years before he was circumcised. Circumcision was the physical sign of the covenant God gave Abraham and his descendants, and Abraham received that mark long after he was counted righteous, or right, before God.

Here is what is happening. By the time Paul is writing this, the Jewish people had forgotten the purpose of the sign and become enamored with the sign itself. The rabbis were teaching that circumcision would save someone from God’s judgment. A Jewish commentary called the Midrash records that “God swore to Abraham that no one who was circumcised should be sent to hell.”[1]

You might remember the confusion over this issue of circumcision that nearly divided the early church in Jerusalem. In our Wisdom Journey through the book of Acts, in chapter 15, we watched the debate as to whether new Gentile believers had to be circumcised. A council was convened, and the correct decision was made to allow Gentiles to become full members of the church without being circumcised.

So, if righteousness was not gained by circumcision, what was its purpose? Why did God demand this of Abraham and his descendants back in the Old Testament dispensation?

Paul answers that question in the first part of verse 11: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith.” Note those two words: circumcision was a sign and a seal.

A sign points to something more important than the sign itself! If you have been traveling home all day, and you are tired and hungry, you are going to be happy to see that road sign that tells you your hometown is just twenty miles away. You are not going to pull over and park by that sign; you are not going to go hug that sign. That sign simply points to the truth that home is just ahead.

The Jewish people had forgotten that this sign of circumcision pointed to the fact that God had chosen to establish His covenant with them. It was the sign of their covenant and that home, the promised land, was just ahead.

Let me illustrate it another way. My wedding ring is a sign that I am married! I belong to somebody else. Now I am not in love with my ring—I do not talk to my ring. If I do, you need to call somebody to come help me. If I lose my ring, that does not mean I am no longer married. Likewise, circumcision was a sign that Abraham belonged to God; but a person today can belong to God with or without circumcision.

The question for Paul here in verses 9 through 12 is this: Did circumcision save Abraham? And the answer to that is absolutely no!

Paul also describes circumcision as a seal. A seal, pressed into clay or wax, was attached to documents to authenticate them. That seal on your passport today is a declaration of your citizenship.

Circumcision was given as a physical seal, communicating that the Jewish people were citizens of the Jewish nation. What they failed to understand was that having a physical seal did not guarantee a spiritual relationship with God. That came by faith alone.

By the way, we followers of Christ today in this New Testament dispensation have been given a spiritual seal of our faith. Paul writes in Ephesians 1:13, “When you . . . believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”

So, here is the rather stunning point Paul makes in Romans 4:11-12: Abraham was actually right with God long before he was circumcised. And Abraham is now the representative—the father, so to speak—“of all who believe,” all who “also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”

Nobody is right with God by means of circumcision or any other religious ritual. It is by faith alone.

Just think about Abraham’s faith in God’s word. He never saw the complete fulfillment of God’s promise in his lifetime. Abraham never owned any land in what is modern-day Israel, except for that little field with the cave in which he buried Sarah, his wife.

Abraham also believed in Jesus the Messiah without ever seeing Him in person. We do not know how much God revealed to Abraham concerning Jesus Christ, but Paul writes this in Galatians 3:8:

God [who] would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

And certainly, as the Messiah descended from Abraham, Jesus is indeed the greatest blessing to the entire world.

Today, all who believe in Christ are spiritual sons and daughters of Abraham—not because of any physical mark, but because of spiritual life, created in us by the Spirit of God, who has sealed us until the day of final redemption.

[1] John MacArthur, Romans 1-8, New Testament Commentary, vol. 15 (Moody Publishers, 1991), 160.

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