Verses 9-12 continue Paul’s treatment of Abraham. But whereas verses 1-8 argued that he was justified by faith rather than works, verses 9-12 shift the focus to the topic of the identity of the children of Abraham. We always need to remember that the apostle is dealing with warring church in Rome, divided along the fault line of Jew and Gentile. Thus in the process of healing it is crucial for Paul to demonstrate that not only are both groups justified before God in exactly the same way (by faith) but that both have Abraham for their father.
Verse 9 addresses the issue of who may receive the blessing – Jews only or also Gentiles? Paul was undoubtedly aware of the fact that some Jewish leaders considered blessedness to be only for the circumcised Jew. It is difficult for most of us to comprehend the importance that the ancient Jew placed on circumcision. It was so vital in their understanding that it divided the world into two segments – Jews and everybody else. As the Jew saw it, circumcision had a direct relationship to salvation.
Such beliefs were so strong in Judaism that many Jewish converts carried them over into Christianity. The whole set of beliefs raised two questions that Paul will have to answer in verses 9-12:
- What about Abraham? Wasn’t he blessed because of his circumcision?
- What about the Gentiles? Are they even candidates for God’s blessing if they don’t become Jews through circumcision?
The apostle answers the first of those questions in verses 9-11. His point of departure is to reiterate that Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness (verse 9). That may be true, Paul’s Jewish audience reasoned, but God accepted his faith only because he had been circumcised. Not so, Paul asserts. He received the blessing before he was circumcised. That is not difficult to prove since Genesis 15:6 declared the patriarch to be justified by faith even though the circumcision command did not come until Genesis 17, fourteen years later.
So, it is clear to see that God blessed Abraham prior to his circumcision. The Lord later gave him the rite of circumcision as a “sign” that he had indeed been blessed of God and as a “seal” that his experience was genuine (Romans 4:11).
That conclusion allows the apostle to address the question about the Gentiles. The fact that Abraham was blessed before he was circumcised makes him the “father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (verse 11). In short, Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be accepted by God or to become full members of the church.
But what about those already circumcised? What is their status? Paul addresses that question in verse 12. His answer is mere outward circumcision avails nothing. Rather they must have the same faith as the uncircumcised patriarch when he received God’s blessing. But if they have that faith, then Abraham is their father also (cf. Galatians 3:28, 29). The upshot of Paul’s argument is that Abraham is the father of both believing Jews and believing Gentiles, that in Christ both groups are one.
Making it plain in Romans 4:13 that the blessing to Abraham came through faith rather than the law, Paul next demonstrates in verses 14 and 15 why it could never be the product of law. Verse 14 begins the presentation with the affirmation that if the blessing comes through the law, the promise has reached a dead end; it is “nullified” and faith is made of none effect. Why? Because “the Law brings about wrath” (verse 15 NASB).
In order to grasp Paul’s argument, we need to remember that he is addressing legalistic Jews who believed they could obtain God’s promise through law-keeping. He is telling them that such a path offers no hope. Why? Watch his logic;
- It is true that they have God’s law.
- But it is also true that they have all transgressed its requirements (see Romans 2:1-29; Romans 3:1-20, 23).
- Consequently, they face the penalty for transgression.
- Therefore, if they don’t get help through accepting God’s grace by their faith, they are certainly without hope.
Faith, Paul has argued, is the only way to hope since the function of the law is to point out one’s sin (verse 20) and the reward of sin is wrath (Romans 4:15). At that point in his presentation he reverts to the function of the law as a detector of sin: “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (verse 15).
Along with Paul, we can thank God for the hope of the gospel and that it unites all people since all are saved in exactly the same way – by grace through faith in God’s gift made possible on Calvary. The truth of verses 9-15 is that we are all on the flat land before the cross. All who have faith are God’s children no matter what their pedigree or their past life. The formula for acceptance into God’s family is not faith + circumcision or faith + baptism or faith + any other activity, but faith alone. The faith God “credits” to the believer’s account. Such is the radical good news of justification by faith according to the apostle Paul.
By the end of verse 15 the apostle has demonstrated his two main points: that Abraham was justified by faith alone without works and that justification is open to both Jews and Gentiles, since Abraham “is the father of us all” (verse 16). In verses 17-22 he continues to embellish his themes. And he concludes his presentation in verses 23-25 by noting that God’s commendation of Abraham was not only for his benefit (verse 23) but also for his first readers and the rest of us (verse 24) who face the challenge of how to relate to God’s promise.
The apostle closes chapter 4 with a gospel statement certifying that Christ was “Put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (verse 25). The function of that statement in it context is to certify that the promises made to Abraham have been realized through the death and resurrection of Christ.