Summary: Through this passage one can understand that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised and before the Law was given. Circumcision and legal obedience are not necessary conditions of justification
THE FATHER OF THE FAITHFUL
Paul has proven that Abraham was not justified nor forgiven on account of his good actions. But what was the nature of the Covenant made with Abraham? Was the promise made on the condition of faith, or on the condition of circumcision, which was the visible sign of the Covenant, or on the condition of Law-keeping?
Through this passage one can understand that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised and before the Law was given. Circumcision and legal obedience are not necessary conditions of justification (CIT). Justification is by faith which is seen in taking God at His word. Faith is simply being willing to receive God's Word for its carrying out.
I. Abraham's Faith Was Apart From Circumcision, 4: 9-12.
II. Abraham's Faith Was Apart From Law, 4: 13-15.
Verse 9 returns to Genesis15:6 to show that God's promise was received by Abraham before he was circumcised. "Is this blessing then upon the circumcised or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.'"
Here begins the apostles next argument. He has proven that Abraham was not justified because of his actions or works. Now he proves that circumcision is not the ground or condition for Abraham's acceptance either. It is admitted that Abraham was justified [had his sin acquitted, accounted for, or made not liable before God]. It was Abraham's faith which secured his acceptance as righteous. The question is, was he made right with God before or after his circumcision. If before, his justification certainly could not be on account of it.
To understand this passage we must understand the importance that the Jews attached to circumcision. To the Jew, a man who was not circumcised was quite literally not a Jew, no matter what his parentage was. If a Gentile accepted the Jewish belief he could not enter into it without baptism, sacrifice, and circumcision.
Starting in verse 10 Paul proceeds to show that Abraham was set right with God by faith before he was circumcised. "How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised:"
When was the statement in Genesis 15:6 made, while Abraham was circumcised or uncircumcised? It was certainly made before his circumcision. Circumcision is not described until Genesis 17: 22-27. This was many years later for Ishmael was thirteen years old (17:25) when they were circumcised together. God's call to childless Abraham when he was 75. The circumcision ceremony was introduced when he was 99. Thus at the time Abraham's faith was reckoned to him for righteousness, he was as uncircumcised as any Gentile. Thus circumcision could not be the grounds or necessary condition of his acceptance before God.
Verse 11 gives the meaning of circumcision for Abraham. "And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal [sign] of the righteousness of faith while uncircumcised that he (might) be the father of all those who believe while uncircumcised that righteousness (might) be reckoned [accounted] to them."
Abraham received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while still uncircumcised. Circumcision does not attain a right relationship before God (no more than baptism does).
Circumcision was a sign to others and a personal seal or certification for the Jews that they were God's special people. Circumcision of all Jewish boys set the Jewish people apart from the nations who worshiped other gods; thus it was a very important ceremony. God had given the command for this ceremony to Abraham (Genesis 17:9-14).
Circumcision was a sign of justifying faith and never intended to be a substitute for it. We are told that Abraham received "the sign of circumcision" meaning" the sign namely, circumcision. Being a sign it signifies or indicates a fact. The cutting away of the foreskin suggests and symbolizes the excision of the guilt and pollution of sin. Circumcision was also a seal. To Abraham it was a guarantee of the trustworthiness of God's promise.
Rituals did not earn any merit for Abraham. He had been blessed long before the circumcision ceremony was introduced. Abraham found favor with God by faith alone, before he was circumcised. Genesis 12:1-4 tells of God's call to Abraham when he was 75 years old. The circumcision ceremony was introduced when he was 99 (Genesis 17:1-14). Ceremonies and rituals serve as reminders of our faith, and they instruct new and younger believers. But we should not think that they give us any special merit before God. They are outward signs and seals that demonstrate inward belief and trust. The focus of our faith should be on Christ and His saving actions, not on our own actions.
Signs and seals are very valuable. But it is possible to overestimate their significance. In and by themselves these bloody signs of circumcision and Passover in the old dispensation or testament, and the unbloody ones of baptism and the Lord's Supper in the new, do not bring about justification or salvation. However, they do indeed signify and seal it in the manner already indicated. And is not that a source of comfort? The rainbow does not save mankind from being swallowed up by a flood, but it does signify and seal that God will never again drown the human race. The wedding ring does not bring married bliss, but what married person, who loves his (her) marriage partner, would ever think of doing away with the ring that means so much to him (her)? Indeed, signs and seals must not be underestimated. See Exodus 4: 24-26; Josh. 5: 1-12; 2 Kings 23:21-23; Acts 2:38-39; 1 Cor. 11:23f. They have great educational and psychological value. But neither should they be overrated!