Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
The Christian life is a wonderful life. It is not a negative life; “Don’t do this! Don’t do that! Don’t go there! Don’t swallow that! Don’t . . . don’t . . . don’t . . .” but it’s not merely a positive life. It is a blessed life. It is the sort of life that fame and money and huge houses with swimming pools and limousines in the long drive and triple garage could not provide. They could not do it for Robin Williams – one of the most famous Hollywood stars – who had all that stuff, but who took his own life this week. What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but he loses his soul? It was buried by his darkness. He was a stranger to this blessedness. You thought that if you came to this church you’d end up with a troubled conscience and a list of new things you shouldn’t do. I am telling you that this Christian message is all about blessedness, real, lasting, deep, strong happiness.
Paul talks about it here in the 2nd and 3rd words of our text. You see the phrase “ . . . this blessedness . . .” Not any blessedness, my little blessedness, and her little blessedness, and his blessedness, but “this blessedness” that this mighty letter explains, the blessedness that Abraham knew 4,000 years ago and king David, 3,000 years ago, and it’s still going strong, and millions are still experiencing it today because it’s the real thing. It has stood the test of time. It is authentic blessedness, the gift of God. Don’t go looking for anything else. Nothing can compare to this. If you reject this blessedness then all that confronts you is fake blessedness, 2nd best blessedness, dissatisfying blessedness that’s wed to all the restless craving for entertainment and drink and drugs and relationships that everybody else is running after because they’re rejecting the blessedness that God gives to those who ask him for it. Don’t be like them. Be like Abraham and David who were blessed men. Be like more than fifty women who sit around you today in this congregation who are all blessed women.
This blessedness comes from the message of the gospel. Of course, first it tells us the bad news that we are all sinners, but amazingly that God has loved us, and this God sent his Son to this world. The Lord Jesus Christ didn’t live like us. He wasn’t selfish and greedy and full of self pity. He loved God with all his heart, and he loved his neighbour exactly as he loved himself. He didn’t just talk about the importance of loving people and loving the Lord, he actually did that. He had time for everyone; he healed everyone who was brought to him; he had time to teach women who had fallen into sin and he also taught vast gatherings of men on a day out away from work. He willingly became the sacrifice that made atonement for sin. They are forgiven because Jesus became the Lamb of God who took them away. And God has done this, he has credited to our account that good and lovely life of Jesus in all its humility and kindness and self-denial. His righteous life is actually credited to us, and the great debt of our sin is credited to Jesus. and his death on the cross.
Do you understand? You can imagine the blessedness you’d feel at a time of very deep debt if Dad said to you, “Son, here is my credit card, and here is my pin number. Take whatever you need from my account to cover your debts. Son, don’t be shy. I am sincere about this. I want you to help yourself to all I have. It’s for you. Of my fulness you can receive. You can’t outspend me. You make sure you cover your debt till not a penny remains!” That is what our Father has done. He is holy, and he demands that we live a righteous life, but we have nothing to offer him except our unrighteousness, but he has provided infinite and eternal righteousness for us, to be credited to us, to cover us for ever and ever, a righteousness with which God is completely satisfied. If God is satisfied with it then you can be satisfied with it too.
You say to me, “Do you mean that if I believe in Jesus Christ . . . if I trust in him as my Lord and Saviour, turn from my sins in repentance and ask God to save me for Jesus’ sake that he will not only completely pardon me for all my sins, my past sins, my present sins and my future sins, but he will reckon to my account the loving, kind and good life of Jesus – that that righteousness will be credited to me for ever and ever?” Yes! Exactly that. There was a great hymn writer called Charles Wesley and one of his most famous hymns begins with this question, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?” And in one of the last verses he says this:
No condemnation now I dread; Jesus and all in him is mine;
Alive in him, my living head, and clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold shall I stand before the throne and claim the crown through Christ my own.
It is a hymn redolent with assurance; No condemnation at all . . .Jesus and all in him is mine . . .he is my living head and I am clothed in his divine righteousness. When I die and stand before God I will be bold. I will claim the crown of righteousness from him. It will be mine not because of what I have done but because of what he has done – Christ my own. Now that is the language of blessedness understood and blessedness asked for and blessedness received as a free gift from God, given to us because God loves us and has freely given it to us because it has been paid for by the Son of God. That is the blessedness that we as a Christian congregation want everybody to have, all of you who are not yet Christians and all who live in this town. This blessedness can be yours. About two thousand new students will arrive here next month, and though we hope they will do well academically, and will form lasting friendships and get good jobs what we want most of all for them is that they get from God this blessedness. There is no human reason why they should not. Ask the Lord sincerely for it, and he will give it. No one has ever asked God in sincerity, “Please forgive my sins and clothe me with the righteousness of your Son. Pardon me and justify me,” and God has then refused to answer. There has not been one, person, even the most hypocritical, mean, cruel and selfish person who has prayed with a little bit of faith – not great faith only – “God be merciful to me a sinner,” and he kept praying it and he failed to know that God had answered him. He had the inner witness in his soul and spirit that God had heard him. This great blessedness was his, the blessedness that Abraham had had, and his wife, and king David had had, and Paul the apostle who wrote this letter, and even many of us have had it. What blessedness! So in this passage before us Paul wants to make the universality of this blessedness of forgiveness and righteousness clearly understood by everybody.
Paul wants every believer to understand something about this glorious truth of justification. We are not going to end up being professors of theology somewhere, but he wants us to be understanders of the Bible’s teaching on justification. It’s so important, isn’t it? Some rudimentary understanding of justification is really necessary for you in order to have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. If you really imagine that you have the capacity to save yourself you will never cry for the free grace that is offered in Jesus Christ. Paul knows you need to know the truth about what it means to be saved by grace through faith. Justified; declared righteous by God, by his grace, receiving that righteousness of Christ by faith in order to participate in that salvation which he has planned for all his people.
It’s important for forgiveness, it’s also important for our assurance. There are some believers who for various reasons: some of them personality reasons, some of them theological reasons, struggle with assurance. They have a hard time perhaps feeling the certainty and the enduring character of God’s love for them. They have a hard time coming to grips with this fact – that God will never let them go. There’s nothing in them that God will later discover that displeases him that God will let go of his grip of grace. They need the faith of Abraham. They need to be reminded that Christ is the ground of their hope. There’s nothing in them that could make them lovable to God. His love for them comes out of his own heart. It’s constant, it’s pure. He knew everything about us from the beginning, he has seen the real ‘facebook’ of our lives, behind the image and photos that we project on line, and yet he has loved us still. There’s nothing that he will ever discover about us that he didn’t already know. And as we trust in Jesus Christ, there’s nothing that can ever distance us from his love. We need to know that assuring truth of his declaring us righteous by grace through faith. It’s absolutely essential if we’re going to be truly and rightly assured.
The truth of having the righteousness of Christ credited to us is also essential for discipleship. How can we encourage our brothers and sisters to go on in love and good deeds if we don’t know how God saves us, if we don’t know how God declares us righteous? How can we encourage a brother or a sister who’s struggling with assurance. How can we help someone know how to come into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ? You see, understanding justification is important for discipleship, too. So how does Paul go about this?
1. WHO GETS THIS BLESSEDNESS?
Some people were restricting it. They were saying this; “It is only for the Jews. It is just for those people who have been circumcised. That’s the key to getting this blessedness; getting circumcised.” You understand what circumcision is? It is something that seems as far removed from this wonderful eternal state of blessedness as you could possibly imagine – as far as clay tablets are from an Apple tablet. Circumcision is the cutting off of the foreskin. What would you or I say to someone who told us with a serious face that the secret of real eternal happiness was getting circumcised? Our faces would drop. We’d say, “You cannot be serious!” And anyway the act would be impossible for half the human race. They would protest – “What about us women? Then how do we get this blessedness? It’s all right for you men!” You see Paul raising this question in verse 9, “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” I know of a minister named Ray Stedman and one day the doorbell of his Manse was rung and at the door was a young man who was on the fringes of the congregation. “Oh, come in,” Ray said to him, “How can I help you?” The man looked at him and plucked up courage and then said, “I wonder could you circumcise me?” Ray’s face registered a little surprise, but he controlled himself and then asked the man why he wanted this operation. This new Christian had been reading the Bible earnestly but without a lot of understanding. He could see in the Old Testament that circumcision had an important place, and you know how many ill-taught young Christians think they must be “open to all that God wants to give them” – I think that that is the phrase they use – and so he thought circumcision should be the next step in the progression of the Christian life. My friend had the sense to go to this very passage of Scripture and show what Paul says here in answering this question, “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for . . .” us Gentiles, us non-Jews, us uncircumcised men?
Do you see Paul’s answer? We all believe that Abraham had it. Yes? He’d certainly got blessedness! He had been justified and blessed. His “faith was credited to him as righteousness” (v.9). When did this happen? If you want to be a millionaire you have to answer that question. There are four options. A. When Abraham believed God and set out from Ur of the Chaldees? B. When he showed mega-faith and offered Isaac his son on the altar? C. When he was circumcised? D. When Isaac was finally born? Four possible answers and you alone have to give on. No asking the audience to push the button. You are on your own. No phone a friend in 30 seconds. You are on your own. When was Abraham’s faith credited to him as righteousness? Paul grills us in verse 10, “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before?” Take your time. You pause; the studio audience are as quiet as mice, and you say, “I don’t think it could have been all those years after he left Ur when Isaac was finally born . . . and again it doesn’t say that Abraham needed mega-faith – “I won’t spare my only son;” it commends ordinary faith – in order to be declared righteousness. So it is either after he was circumcised or before.” Pause. “So what is your final answer? This is worth a million pounds. Are you going to go on being a pauper or have wonderful lasting treasure? Final answer . . . after he was circumcised or before, when was he justified?” You take a deep breath and you say, “It was not after he was circumcised. It was before he was circumcised. It was when he believed that he was declared righteous.” “Final answer?” “Yes, it was when Abraham believed God that his faith in God was credited to him as righteousness.” Long pause. “Correct answer. You have won a million pounds.”
Do you understand the significance of this? Abraham’s justification is declared in chapter 15 of Genesis. His circumcision is described later in chapter 17. The gap between his justification and his circumcision was certainly 14 years, though the rabbinic tradition declared that it was 29 years. In other words it was much earlier that this blessing came to him – it was before he was circumcised this glorious eternal weight of blessing . . . pardon for all his sins and being justified by divine imputed righteousness . . . had been given by God to Abraham. He believed in God and he was thus blessed; he was uncircumcised when he got it. He did not first display mega faith. He did not say, “Seeing’s believing! And when I and my aged wife hold in our arms a baby boy then I’ll believe that you are the all powerful and all loving God. Not before!” No. It was not like that. God spoke to him in Ur and he believed God and off he went! The same God is speaking to you tonight. He is saying to you, “My Son is Jesus of Nazareth. My Son preached as no man has ever preached. My Son lived a blameless, holy, beautiful life. My Son became the Lamb of God. He bore the guilt and condemnation of my wrath against sin in his own body on the tree. You can trust in him. Believe in him. Launch into eternity pleading his great name.” That is what God is saying to you, the same God who spoke to Abraham. He operates by the same identical principles. Believe him. Believe in him. Show the obedience of faith today.
2. WHAT’S THE POINT OF CIRCUMCISION?
Circumcision is not like a henna, that is, a temporary tattoo on your body. You get a crush on a personality – Ursin Bolt – or on a symbol – the Welsh dragon – and you get it inscribed on your body. Within a week you regret your folly, but you assure yourself that a henna is not indelible; it’s not there permanently. It fades and in six months there will be no trace of it – much to your relief. Circumcision is not like that. A man could not be “uncircumcised” by re-attaching the foreskin. Once done, the act marked out a man, separated him, forever. He was not a Midianite, or an Egyptian, or an Assyrian, or a Greek. Circumcision announced that this man was a Jew of the family of Abraham.
Unlike a tattoo circumcision had a private function. It testified to the man himself and his parents when he was a baby. Every time he undressed or urinated it was a reminder to him. No matter where he went, no matter how far he traveled from Jerusalem, now matter how deeply he drank at pagan fountains, there was that private and personal reminder that he was a son of Abraham.
Paul tells us that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision” (v.11). Circumcision was a sign to the circumcised that they did not belong to the people who worshipped the gods of the Egyptians, or the Romans, or the Babylonians. They worshipped the God who had met Abraham in Ur and had called him to do his will. So circumcision continually reminded a man of his spiritual obligations. Suppose a descendant of Abraham wanted to commit adultery with a pagan woman. Even in that act, the mark he bore on the organ of reproduction would remind him of his sin. In the most private and personal moments of life, he would be reminded whose he was and to whom he belonged. It was a sign that they belonged to the God of the Ten Commandments. No wonder the Jews valued circumcision so highly. It was a sign God had given them to remind them that they were his people.
What is a sign? It is something that points the way to something else. I drive to Aberystwyth for the first time in my life and I get to Builth Wells and there I find on a signpost the place name ‘Aberystwyth’ and that I have just over 40 miles to travel. I know that the sign is not Aberystwyth; it only directs me to Aberystwyth. That doesn’t render the sign without value. I am on the right road. What a relief to the stranger coming to the mountains for the first time. That is where I want to go. The sign has real value although it is only a sign, not the object signified. It is encouraging me to keep going, “Keep on! Keep on!” the sign is saying. One good true message, unwavering, constant. How many people coming here for the first time have been relieved to see in Builth the sign ‘Aberystwyth.’ In the same way, circumcision was a physical sign given to the Jews to point them to God. It was a divine reminder that they belonged to God, were the special recipients of his blessings, and would one day give account to him.
But circumcision is more than a sign. It is also a seal. A seal authenticates the truth or reality of something else. I have the trust deeds of ‘Tanygraig.’ The deeds confirm my ownership of that house. They bear a seal imposed on red wax which we call ‘sealing wax.’ That particular seal seals the deeds as genuine and real. The seal is an outward visible reality of what is a true state and condition. In exactly that sense, circumcision was a seal that God was living and God was a covenant keeping God. He was a God who kept his word. He had indeed told Abraham that he had a land prepared for him and his seed, and that the old patriarch would have a child, Isaac. The sign of circumcision confirmed those promises of God to Abraham and to his line.
Circumcision has now gone. It was part of the paraphernalia of the old covenant, but during the first decades of the early church the confused converted Jews were quite prone to require Gentile converts to get circumcised. They taught and were teaching Christians that they could not really receive the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ without being circumcised, without obeying the mosaic ceremonial law, without becoming, as it were, good practicing Jews. Now that’s not a surmise on my part. Have you noticed the striking words that commence Acts, chapter 15. There was an enormous controversy threatening to tear apart the early church and it began in Jerusalem and then it spread to Antioch of the Gentiles. It was eventually settled through the apostles and the elders holding a church council and writing letters including their deliberations to all the Christian congregations. The first verse of Acts 15 reads, “Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and began teaching the brethren unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Paul was confronted with that question throughout his ministry. Converted Jews were saying, “Look, justification by grace is true, but it’s only true for those who have been circumcised, those who have taken on board God’s requirement of Genesis 17. It’s in the Bible. You have to accept it to please God and get the blessing.”
And Paul knows that that ‘Christian circumcision’ movement was going to hit the congregation in Rome too and so he raises the question: Does one have to be a Jew in order to be justified? And the main thing that he wants to get across in our text is simply this: free justification is God’s gift for everyone who simply believes, whether Jew or Gentile. Being declared righteous is received by faith, it’s apart from circumcision. It’s for everyone who trusts in Christ. It’s not for the Jews only. The great binding word to us today is what Paul told the Christians in Galatia – who were in danger of becoming a ‘Jesuit’ sect of Judaism, adding the life and death and teaching of Jesus to their old covenant attitudes and practices – just like Pharisaism or the teaching of the Sadducees had become mere branches of Judaism. These are the striking words I am referring to. Paul told them this, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gals. 6:15). The sign and seal of circumcision in the shadow-lands of the old covenant pointed to the bright shining reality of men and women of the new covenant becoming new creations in the light of the person and finished work of the Son of God, and the regenerating work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Nothing else is needed. Nothing else was required. Are you trusting in him alone? If any man is ‘circumcised’ he is a new creation? No. Not at all. If a man or woman is in Christ then he or she is a justified new creation.
I am saying to you that circumcision pointed forward to the reality of regeneration, of the cutting away of the stony heart, and the gift of the new heart. Circumcision pointed forward to putting to death the deeds of the flesh – in other words, to mortification – and encouraging the life of the Spirit of God, becoming more and more a new creation in Christ Jesus. That is its fulfillment. The sign did not point forward to another sign. It pointed forward to the reality of being a new creation in Jesus Christ. So the great question is this; have you been sealed by the Holy Spirit coming into your life? Is the Spirit of God in your heart? Has he regenerated you and made you a new creation? He is the seal of the righteousness which you had by faith when you as an unbeliever trusted in him. So whenever you come to me with your doubts and queries about the Christian faith telling me you are unsure whether you are really a Christian I don’t begin by asking you have you been circumcised or have you been baptized. Those are outward signs.
Rather I say, “Here is God’s word the Bible. Now the Bible helps us to find out if we are Christians in two ways. First it tells us what we are to believe about God and about the way of salvation.” Then I ask if you believe in God the Creator, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit, and that Jesus Christ is the Redeemer, that he lived a blameless life and died to make atonement for our sins, and that you have entrusted yourself to him alone for salvation. Is your trust is in him? When you meet God when you die and he asks why he should let you into his holy happy presence for ever then your reply is that it is for Jesus’ sake. He is your only hope and the only reason why God should receive you into his glory. That is what the Bible teaches. Do you believe that? Then secondly the Bible teaches us that men and women who are new creations have a certain lifestyle. They keep the commandments of God – not perfectly but they would keep them perfectly. They seek by the strength of the indwelling Spirit to live by the Sermon on the Mount and by Romans 12 and by Ephesians 5 and 6 and the great moral teaching of the Bible. They want to be the kind of husbands and wives and parents and workmen and bosses and preachers that the Bible describes. They display some moral integrity and affection and sincerity and godliness and kindness.
You see it here in our text. Abraham is “is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (v.12). You understand? They are not merely circumcised, and they not only talk the talk – “Abraham is our father” – they also walk the walk. The live as Abraham lived, trusting God. When God says “Go!” they go, and when God says “Don’t!” they don’t! This is the proof that they are really trusting in God and have been justified through their faith alone. It changes them. Romans chapters 1 through 11 is followed by Romans 12 through 16. Christian living follows Christian believing. Are you seeking to live like that? And are you believing what the Bible teaches? Those are the questions I ask in order to help you to know whether you are a Christian – a new creation – or not. And you have to do the same, every time you take the Lord’s Supper you examine yourself, you confess your sins again and you thank God for the blood of Jesus Christ, your only hope.
3. WHAT IS TO BE OUR ATTITUDE TO THE O.T. SAINTS?
How then are we New Testament Christians to regard Old Testament believers? We are not to think of them as worshipping anyone else other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were saved by his grace in hope of the Messiah who one day would come and so be a blessing to all the nations of the world – the seed of Abraham. They preach to us; they encourage us and also they warn us. Their psalms of praise are on our lips too, “The Lord’s my Shepherd. I’ll not want. He makes me down to lie in pastures green.” We sing that because we flood Psalm 23 with all we know of the Good Shepherd from the Lord Jesus. We worship the same God of holiness and mercy. So our heroes are such men as Daniel, and Nehemiah, and Isaiah, and Elijah, and Moses, and Abraham, and Enoch.
So Paul here talks about Abraham and he says of him that “he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” (v.11). Abraham is my father also. Who’s got the right to truly call him “father?” Is this right given only to the Jews (which is what they were thinking and many still think)? Or can Gentiles like us call Abraham “father” as well? “He is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” Can the Gentiles call Abraham “father?” Yes, if they have the same Lord that Abraham had and their faith is in him alone and they have divine righteousness credited to them. Abraham is my father! It’s as simple as that. Since faith is the means of us being united to the Lord and becoming new creations – and faith alone – then it doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew or Gentile. As long as you have the same kind of faith Abraham had in Jehovah God, he is your spiritual father.
Then Paul turns to the case of the Jews who are getting very prickly hearing that uncircumcised Romans and Greeks are calling Abraham their father. Surely they alone have the right to call Abraham “father.” Paul does not say, “Of course!”. No. He says that Abraham can become their father only if they have the faith of Abraham, trusting in the Lord and doing what the Lord says, and the Lord says of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. You hear him!” So Paul says, “He is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (v.12) It is not enough to be circumcised. “Not only are circumcised” says Paul to these Jews. It’s not enough that you are circumcised, that there’s been the removal of the foreskin. That is not enough to become a new creation and enter heaven. You must walk in the footsteps of the same believing obedience in God that Abraham displayed. You Jews can indeed call Abraham your father, just as long as you share Abraham’s faith. The notable fact about Abraham—so far as Paul is concerned—is not his circumcision; it’s his faith in the Lord. If you need to copy something about Abraham, copy his faith. Then if you should want to be circumcised, maybe for some medical reason, then go ahead, it is a little operation that some males have and others don’t. It is as optional as Christian women deciding to have their ears pierced. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gals. 6:15).
So salvation is not a racial issue. It has nothing to do with who your parents are or where you were born or what kind of marks you have on your body. Those things don’t matter to God when it comes to salvation. In Christ there is no ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’; there is no ‘slave’ or ‘free man.’ We are one, but not in a merely humanitarian way but we are in Christ Jesus, joined to him and all the benefits of his salvation, all of us who believe. We are one in him. God has designed the church of Jesus Christ as the great “melting pot” where racial and ethnic distinctions are transcended by the gospel. God’s family is his children who have come to him by Christ and call him ‘Father’ the huge, multi-cultural household of God.
Who is the real Jew, then? The real Jew is the one who has the faith of Abraham which he had before he was circumcised. I ask you this, before he was circumcised, what was Abraham – a Jew or a Gentile? He was a Gentile who lived in Ur – an Urian! This is a truly shocking thought for an orthodox Jew. All his life he has thought the Gentiles must come to the Jews in order to find faith. Now Paul is saying that the Jews must follow in the footsteps of the uncircumcised Abraham! They have to put their trust in the Lord.
So Paul has laid down this great principle that the way to God is not through membership of any nation, and not through any human engineering, what men do to other men through laying on hands, or saying a formula, or pouring or sprinkling them with water, or immersing someone in it. What is essential is a new birth into a new family, and that shows itself in the faith which takes God at his word, and makes everything dependent, not on man’s achievement, but solely upon who Jesus Christ is and what he has achieved. In other words it is by God’s grace.
The best hope for our world is still Jesus Christ. When he is lifted up, all men—black and white, rich and poor—are drawn to him. Let us go from this place determined to lift up Jesus Christ. Lift him up, O people of God! Proclaim the good news that he is the Saviour! Open wide the doors of salvation! Let us do our part that the world may see Jesus as the Great Reconciler and the best hope for days to come.
17 August 2014 GEOFF THOMAS