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."