Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Faith of a Father- Rom. 4:9-12

Father’s day has taken on new meaning for me ever since my oldest (Audrey) came into the world. As I reflect on my relationship with my kids and what I hope to instill in them, I am reminded of what my own dad has passed down to me. How to take care of my dress shoes, my love for the San Antonio Spurs, appreciation for good Mexican food and Bluebell Ice Cream, commitment to excellence, cleanliness, punctuality, and my type A personality can all be, at least in some ways, traced back to my dad. All of these behaviors or character traits were inherited, in some degree, from what is witnessed in my father’s life. The same will be true (for better or worse), in the lives of my own children (I apologize in advance J).

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Some of the more important things that I picked up from my dad include attending church, getting involved in ministry, prayer, and serving others. These more fruitful characteristics have served me well and have helped shape me into the father that I am today. In fact, I hope to instill these more redemptive habits in the lives of my own children. However while these activities are great practices to endorse, there is at least one characteristic that is even more important to model before others (especially those who look up to us)—Faith.

The brave new world in which Paul was writing was not unlike our own. In it, people are more infatuated with what they can see and behaviors they can measure in some tangible way. However, when it comes to the most important relationship of all—one’s relationship with God—it is not so much about what someone can do, but about the faith that they have. This teaching is clearly witnessed in Paul’s discussion on one very important father—Abraham. When it came to the Jewish people’s appreciation for this figure, every day was Father’s Day. That said, when Paul is finished discussing Abraham and how/when he entered into a relationship with God we will soon learn that it is not just the Jews that should celebrate this Old Testament figure. The faith that was witnessed in his life is the greatest of all characteristics that any father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, leader, teacher, etc. can model before the world.

a) The Inquiry is Made-4:9-10b

Now that Paul has made it clear that his understanding of salvation and justification is not unlike what the Old Testament teaches (see 4:1-8), the question becomes “is this blessing intended for the Jews only?” After all, Paul was appealing to uniquely Jewish authorities (Abraham and the Old Testament) in order to support his position. Jewish reader’s/listeners in Paul’s day might be tempted to believe that God’s program of justification left no room for the Gentiles in the audience. Paul addresses this theory by floating a question that is posed by an imaginary conversation partner—“Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised?...” (4:9a). This particular variation of this inquiry appeals to one distinguishing feature of the Jewish people—male circumcision. 

Remember, as per the discussion Paul gave earlier (particularly in Romans 2:28-29), circumcision is defined as an outward symbol of the relationship the Jews were supposed to be have with God.

Romans 2:28-29-“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, not is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise it not from me, but from God.”

The relationship the Jews were intended to maintain with God (a spiritual and holy relationship) was illustrated in this very physical way of setting oneself apart. However, people in Paul’s day were becoming more concerned about the outward sign than they were about the relationship that it was supposed to signify. This is why Paul goes to great lengths to remind everyone listening that physical marks are not enough to save—one must place his/her faith in Christ to be justified before God.

Therefore, the question that Paul asks here is probably the very same question that was on the minds of many Jews—“Is God’s program of salvation through faith the same for both Jew and Gentile—circumcised and uncircumcised?”

Interestingly, Paul gives an answer immediately after the first iteration of the question is posed when he says “…for we say ‘Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness’…” (4:9b). If what was said in 4:3 is correct—“Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”—then that alone should settle this issue. If these references are true, then faith, not circumcision, saves. This would mean that justification is available to all—circumcised and uncircumcised alike. However, this does not appear to satisfy the hypothetical inquirer. 

Paul’s imaginary conversation partner asks “how then was it credited?”  (4:10a). I mean, God can’t just give this kind of a gift to people without having done something to earn it. It just doesn’t work that way (at least not according to the traditional/legalistic way of thinking). Something must be DONE in order to be justified—something more than mere trust.

This insatiable search for the “how” of justification and a corresponding “work” for salvation is evident today. In fact, the greatness of God’s grace is a stumbling block for many in our works-based system. We educate ourselves to get a good job. We do a job to receive pay. We please our boss so that we might eventually get promoted. We land a promotion to better provide for our family. We better provide for our family in order that they might be successful and maybe get an education. Then the process continues on and on and on. However. Paul has been throwing this popular paradigm out the window by suggesting that a relationship with God is not dependent on one’s works or what is done. It is a gift that is truly radical and totally against our natural way of thinking.

Therefore, believing that he’s found a work that can be connected to how God’s people relate to him, the hypothetical conversation partner asks “while he was circumcised or uncircumcised?” In other words, was Abraham justified before or after he was circumcised? If Abraham was circumcised before he was justified, one might be able to make the case that his actions had a part in saving him—his circumcision produced or affected his relationship with God in some way/shape/or form.

Ultimately, these three questions all ask the same thing—“is salvation reserved for those who have been circumcised—i.e. the good Jews who have kept the Law and done what it prescribes? Or, is it available to others as well—the uncircumcised?” The answer to this seems to be riding on when Abraham was circumcised. 

b) The Explanation is Given-4:10b-12

Paul puts this whole thing to rest by satisfying the tension with a quick answer and corresponding explanation. In the second part of verse 10 he says, “Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised…” (4:10c). Abraham was circumcised AFTER he was saved. This puts to rest any notion that his circumcision played any effective role in his justification or establishing his special relationship with God.

The Genesis account proves this. Abraham is initially called of God in chapter 12 and obeys. Later, in chapter 15, the promises to Abraham are reiterated. It is not until well after Ishmael is born (13 years) in chapter 17 that the signs of the covenant are provided. This includes a statement of Abraham and his servant’s circumcision.

Genesis 17:23-24-“Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him. Now Abraham was ninety-nine year old when he was circumcised…”

In other words, Abraham had been called, had obeyed, and was following the Lord well before he was circumcised.

Paul explains what this all means in verse 11 of Romans 4 when he says “and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised,…” (4:11a). This statement is important for several reasons. First, it establishes the nature of circumcision. As was argued in chapter 2, Paul reminds all reading this that circumcision is merely a “sign.” Second, this verse explains that circumcision in Jewish life is a “seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised.” In other words, it demonstrates outwardly the inner and spiritual transaction that has already taken place.

Circumcision was a label that identified the justified, not the means by which people were justified and given a relationship with God.

Had Abraham been saved through circumcision, then only the Jews could call him father. But because Abraham is justified by faith and not by exclusive works and/or traditions, he can be called “the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might credited to them,…” (4:11b). If Jew or Gentile has faith in God, he or she can call Abraham their spiritual example. Abraham, in other words, is the spiritual mentor for all who believe and are justified by faith.

Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had father Abraham, I am one of them and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!!!

But what of the Jewish people? Are we not told that Abraham was the father of a nation that would eventually be called Israel? Surely Abraham’s legacy is Jewish in some ways! This is true, for, as Paul continues “and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised” (4:12). God did call Abraham to begin a tradition of circumcision and to be patriarch of the Jewish people. However, only those who “follow in the steps of the faith of…Abraham” are his true children. After all, Abraham had faith before he had the tradition and outward signs.  

So What?

Given the inquiry made and the explanation given in this passage, the readers of Romans walk away with some very important lessons concerning salvation via justification. First, salvation is by faith, not by corresponding symbols like circumcision. Though we do not associate circumcision with salvation in the protestant world today, many make the mistake of imbuing baptism with salvific powers. Whether one is talking about circumcision or baptism, we must not confuse confirming acts that evidence salvation after the fact (circumcision, baptism, spiritual gifts, etc.) with the means by which salvation is bestowed. Second, if Abraham was saved before he was circumcised, this means that he is a spiritual father-like example to all who are saved—Jew and Gentile alike. He is an example in faith for all the redeemed given the way in which he was justified before God (by faith alone) and he is an example in faith to the Jews given the way this was symbolized (through his circumcision). Third, given that Abraham is spiritual patriarch to all today, there is at least one lesson that we can learn from him given what this passage says—a lesson that fathers should especially commit themselves to and pass down to their children. This lesson is faith.

More than the outward practices of the faithful (attending church, participating in projects, etc.), your kids, my kids, and those who look up to any one of us need to know that we are men and women of faith—faith that believes God when it doesn’t make sense (just like Abraham believed that God would make of him a great nation in spite of being old and childless with a barren wife), faith that obeys God even when things are uncertain (as when Abraham followed God’s instructions and left his homeland to a new country), and faith that is willing to sacrifice everything for the Lord (just as Abraham showed willingness to sacrifice Isaac on the altar).

Thankfully, my dad has demonstrated this kind of faith throughout his lifespan. Dad placed his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as a young person, and has exercised faith in spite of great difficulty since. When his health failed during a bout with cancer and he was being treated with chemo, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant, his faith kept him sane and his hope in Jesus kept him strong. When the company he adores and for which he has worked for over 30 years nearly collapsed and everything was especially precarious, Dad’s faith in the Lord Jesus gave him confidence that no matter what happened, he would be taken care of. My prayer for myself is that a similar example and legacy of faith might be passed down to my own children. I hope you have a similar prayer for yourself and those around you this Father’s day. 

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