10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.
11 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,
12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
[Adding the three uses of reckoning (“counted” ESV, Greek logizomai) in this passage, we have now seen eight of the 11 total uses of the word in this chapter.]
Paul had to address circumcision, because for the Jews it was a very important “work.” The Mosaic Law required that every male be circumcised on the eighth day as a requirement for membership in the covenant community. Those who refused the ritual were excluded from Hebrew society and considered outsiders. We can readily see why many Jews in Paul’s day, even some who were drawn to Christ, regarded circumcision as necessary not only for being a Jew but also for salvation. As Charles Swindoll says, “Many reasoned that if refusing circumcision condemned a man, then circumcision must save him.”Abraham’s faith came first
To make his point that righteousness is by faith alone and not works, Paul astutely draws attention to the timing of Abraham’s circumcision. God reckoned Abraham righteous at the time he believed God’s promise that he would have a son. His circumcision came much later—at least 14 years and maybe as many as 29 years. This was well after he was already declared righteous and hundreds of years before God gave the Mosaic Law.
God’s purpose, Paul reasons in verses 11 and 12, was to make Abraham the father of faith for both Gentiles and Jews. God reckons righteousness to Gentiles who believe without being circumcised, as Abraham did. God also reckons righteousness to Jews, not because they are circumcised but because they exercise the same faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised.
In sum, righteousness is universally available—not by ritual or any other human effort but by faith alone.Sign and seal
In verse 11 Paul speaks of circumcision as a sign that served as a seal of the righteousness he was given by faith. To the Jews circumcision was a sign of their membership in the Mosaic covenant, and it set them apart from the Gentile nations. But consider this: only the Philistines among the ancient Near East peoples did not practice circumcision, so the ritual from a physical standpoint had no special meaning. For the Jews circumcision had value only as a religious symbol; it signified and confirmed their membership in the covenant community.
A sign and a seal point to or signify something beyond them; they are not the thing itself. Circumcision was a sign of faith in the same sense that the rainbow was a sign of God’s deliverance from the flood (Genesis 9). The rainbow reminded people of the deliverance; it was not the deliverance itself. Even more so in the case of Abraham, his circumcision signified the reality of the faith he had years before the ritual.
A seal can also confirm and authenticate a reality beyond itself. In 1 Corinthians 9:2 Paul speaks of the Corinthian believers as the “seal” of his apostleship; their belief and growth in Christ authenticated his ministry. In like manner, Abraham’s circumcision confirmed his status as righteous by faith. As Douglas Moo points out, it “added nothing materially to that transaction; it simply signified and confirmed it.” He adds, “Jews who follow their biblical paradigm will place the proper value on their circumcision: as a mark of a relationship they enjoy with the Lord through their faith rather than as a visa that will automatically insure their entrance into heaven.”Baptism and communion in the New Covenant
The same principle applies to these New Covenant rituals. Swindoll warns people today who undergo baptism and observe communion that these rites are meaningless apart from a heart relationship with God. “One cannot be saved through the rite of baptism, nor must one be baptized in order to be saved. It’s intended as the Lord’s ‘notary seal’ on a new believer’s participation in the new covenant.” It is an outward symbol of inward faith.