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. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. – Romans 4:9-12 ESV
The “blessing” Paul refers to is the one mentioned in the previous two verses, where he quoted directly from Psalm 32:1-2: “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” This blessing includes the forgiveness of sin because of the atonement or payment for those sins by another, leaving the one forgiven with no guilt or further remnants of that sin. Paul says that remarkable blessing is not just reserved for the Jews, those he refers to as “the circumcised.” Because the blessing is available to all through faith, just as Abraham’s righteous standing was made possible by his faith. Paul makes it clear that the point at which God declared Abraham righteous was long before he had been given the command by God to institute the right of circumcision among his people. “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11 ESV). In other words, Abraham’s right standing before God had nothing to do with circumcision. But circumcision had everything to do with his right standing before God. It was to be a symbol of his unique relationship with God that was based on his faith in God. Being circumcised did not make anyone right with God, any more than being baptized makes someone right with God. Both were intended to be outward signs of something that had taken place inwardly. The Jews had turned circumcision into the source of their righteousness, when God had intended it as the sign of their righteousness. Circumcision for God without faith in God was worthless. It meant nothing. Paul stated this truth earlier when he wrote: “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:29 ESV). Over in the book of Jeremiah, God prophetically declared, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh…all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart” (Jeremiah 9:25, 26 ESV).
Paul tells us that God declared Abraham righteous prior to the covenant of circumcision because He intended Abraham to be the father of all who believe “without being circumcised.” The righteousness God was looking for was to based on faith, not works; belief, not obedience to a command. It was not a righteousness that could be earned. It was not a standard to be lived up to. It was to be “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” In plain language, it was to be a work of God, not man. It was to provided by God, not man. So that no man could boast or brag.
Back in the book of Jeremiah, we read the words of God as He pleads with His people to return to Him. “Plow up the hard ground of your hearts! Do not waste your good seed among thorns. O people of Judah and Jerusalem, surrender your pride and power. Change your hearts before the Lord, or my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins” (Jeremiah 4:3-4 NLT). The people of Judah were guilty of unbelief. They had failed to trust God and believe His promises concerning them. They had gone after other gods. They had made alliances with other nations. They had broken His commands and lived in the false security of their status as God’s chosen people. But what God was calling them to do was impossible for them. They would not be able to surrender their pride and power. They would not have what it was going to take to change their hearts. And God’s punishment was going to come. The would experience His wrath against their sin and rebellion. But God would not annihilate them. He would preserve them. And while He would allow them to fall to their enemies and experience 70 years in captivity, He would also restore them to their land and reestablish them as a people. Why? Because He had made a promise to Abraham. God had told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). He had also promised, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7 ESV). But in the book of Galatians Paul makes a clarifying interpretation to these passages. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16 ESV). In other words, God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham was going to be fulfilled through one of his descendants – specifically, Jesus. God made His promise to Abraham long before He gave the law to the people of Israel. And so Paul concludes: “The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18 NLT).
Our righteousness is made possible by faith in the promise of God, just as it was for Abraham. I am not made right with God by trying to live up to God’s standards. I am made right with Him when I recognize my complete inability to meet His criteria for righteousness and place my faith in His plan for my salvation: His Son’s death, burial and resurrection. He died to pay the penalty for my sins. He rose again to prove that His sacrifice was acceptable to God. He took on my sin and gave me His righteousness. All men are made right with God through faith in His Son. And when we place our faith in God’s plan of salvation, we walk in the footsteps of faith laid down by Abraham all those years ago. The righteous shall live by faith.