Having sufficiently (hopefully) immersed ourselves in the story of Abraham, such that we have now heard and comprehended the crucial components of that story of covenant within its proper order, we can use that for purposes of an interaction with the fourth chapter of Romans. We can begin that interaction with the ninth verse, in possession of perhaps a new potential for enlightenment, now hearing this portion of Paul’s argument for Gentile justification (covenant standing) as the adjunct to all that has preceded it and as a preface to that which is the weighty subject matter of chapters nine through eleven. Reading then, we hear Paul asking his mixed congregation of hearers “Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision?” (4:9a). This “blessedness” is of a piece with the Abrahamic covenant (begun in chapter twelve of Genesis, with annexations over time and the course of the text). We do ourselves a tremendous disservice if we do not maintain our cognizance of this fact, along with the Abraham story, as we hear the answer to Paul’s rhetorical question, which is “For we say, ‘faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.’” (4:9b) Yes, ‘twas Abraham’s faith---his belief that engendered an unswerving loyalty to the covenant-making-and-keeping Creator God---that brought him into right standing (covenant) with God.
Keying in on the order of events, as Paul elevates the covenant marker of belief in Jesus over and against the Jewish covenant markers of the day, Paul, as if poking and prodding at his listeners for an answer that should be all too obvious to them, while also conveying just a little bit of shame on those that have insisted on the necessity of circumcision to be identified as a covenant person and so enjoy its benefits, asks “How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not?” (4:10a) Forcing his point, the answer comes forth as “No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised!” (4:10b) This, when read to the congregation by a tradent, would undoubtedly be read in such a way as to convey the singular importance of this point when it comes to dealing with this quite pressing and, for Paul, possibly church-and-kingdom-of-God limiting issue.
The next verse points up what Paul sees as something that presents an insurmountable contradiction for those that insist on circumcision (along with Sabbath-keeping and food laws, neither of which are anywhere near the Abraham story) as the means of entrance upon the covenant. He writes “And he received the sign of circumcision,” which we remember was to serve as a “reminder” of the fact of his right standing with God and the promises that had been made to him, “as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (4:11a). Now, even the most ardent defender of circumcision as a covenant marker would not be willing to insist that Abraham was not in covenant with God before being circumcised. Circumcision, Paul reiterates, was the sign of what God had already determined in regards to Abraham because of his belief. Thus, confirming his position in regards to Gentiles and what is required of them to become covenant people (to be justified), this order of events was neatly orchestrated by God “so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised” (4:11b). Why? “That they too could have righteousness credited to them” (4:11c). That is, that they too could, because of their faith, showing itself forth as an unswerving loyalty to the covenant and Creator God of Israel as manifested in Jesus the Messiah, attain the justification that was attained by Abraham, in advance and independent of circumcision. Belief was and is the key, and the prophetic insistence on God’s performance of a circumcision of the heart rings in our increasingly alert and sensitive ears.
While proposing all of these things, Paul is still sensitive to the position of those that are the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac, who have lived as the covenant people according to the dictates of the covenant as governed by the Mosaic law (and morphed over time into the shape that had been taken in the days of Jesus), Paul, and the early church, and who bear this particular covenant marker because of the ongoing faith of a covenant people. This sensitivity is well demonstrated in chapter nine, the precursor of which is to be partially found in this statement: “And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised” (4:12). There are no second-class citizens. Bearing the mark of circumcision does not mean that one does not walk the path of faith. Paul does not allow his hearers to lose sight of that fact that Abraham was faithful both before and after circumcision. Circumcision did not diminish faith. In fact, as we can see in the Abraham story, it was the faith by which Abraham was justified that eventually led to him being gifted with a reminder of that covenant---a unique, identifying mark.