The Sign and Seal of Righteousness
“He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well” (v. 11).- Romans 4:11–12
To sum up much of Paul’s message in Romans, we could say that he preaches one problem, one solution, and one way to benefit from that solution. First, the world has one problem—Jews and Gentiles alike have broken God’s commandments and are children of wrath (Rom. 1:18–3:20). Second, there is only one solution to this problem—since there is only one God, there is only one way of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, namely, the person and work of Jesus Christ (3:21–31). Finally, there is only one way for Jews and Gentiles to benefit from this solution—by trusting in Christ alone to save us from sin and judgment (chap. 4).
That there is one problem, one solution, and one way to benefit from that solution was not itself objectionable to most first-century Jews. However, they defined those three realities differently than Paul did. The problem, they said, was limited to Gentile sinners, who could be freed from sin by becoming Jews, which entailed taking on the yoke of the Mosaic law. We have seen how Paul decisively blames Jews no less than the Gentiles for the problem of sin (2:1–3:20), and in today’s passage the Apostle shows that God’s solution has never been to justify sinners by putting them under the commandments. Building on Romans 4:1–10, Paul argues from the chronology of Abraham’s life. Abraham did not enjoy our Creator’s legal declaration of righteousness as a result of keeping His law. Justification for Abraham occurred before he had received circumcision, the quintessential mark of Jewish identity and faithful obedience to the law of God. Circumcision did not make Abraham more right in the sight of the Lord; rather, God saw him as righteous before giving him the sign of circumcision. If Abraham, the father of the Jews, could be justified while he was a Gentile, surely Gentiles who never become Jews can be justified without circumcision (vv. 11–12).
Still, circumcision had value for Abraham. Abraham’s circumcision was a sign and seal “of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (v. 11). Circumcision signified the reality that Abraham had been cut out from the world and its reliance on false gods and incorporated into the kingdom of the one true God by faith alone, but circumcision itself was not the reality. The patriarch possessed the reality of faith before he was circumcised. Abraham’s circumcision was also a seal, an authenticating mark of confirmation that the Lord would keep His promise to justify Abraham by his faith and cut him out from those who in Adam are destined for destruction.
Under the new covenant, baptism signifies and seals our separation from the world unto the Lord (Col. 2:8–15). Like circumcision, baptism is not faith or justification, but it points beyond itself to justification for those who believe. Moreover, like circumcision, the value of baptism is not tied to the moment it is administered. The most important thing about baptism is that we possess the reality it signifies, not whether we receive it before or after coming to saving faith.
Passages for Further Study
1 Peter 3:21–22