Paul here, addressing the readers, poses a very important question. Having already proven that Abraham was accounted righteous in times preceding the Law, thereby showing that it was not the Law which imputed righteousness; here he asks rhetorically if this grace of God, this righteousness imputed by the Lord, was attained through works of circumcision, or if it is possible for one who is uncircumcised to also receive it. He then immediately answers his own question with another question.
I’ve often heard that the best way to present a valid point isn’t by asserting your own opinion, but rather to pose a question that could make one consider a topic from a different perspective. And this we see Paul do exactly here. “Can the uncircumcised who walk in faith be righteous?” was the initial question that he asks. In so doing, he affirms something that all reading would have acknowledged, that Abraham was considered righteous due to his faith, not some adherence to the Law which hadn’t yet been given. “Well, when he believed and it was accounted to him for righteousness, was he circumcised or uncircumcised?” he goes on to ask. Then, he answers this question by stating that Abraham was, in fact, uncircumcised when this righteousness was accounted to him. This is such a strong, valid point that he is here making to the believers as well as to the Jews who declared themselves righteous because they had Abraham as their father, because they had the Law, and because they were of the circumcision.
See, what Paul was explaining to them, more reminding them actually, was that the sign of circumcision was given to Abraham as a seal of the faith that he had been walking in already. The Jews, well educated in the Torah, would have recognized that Abraham was seventy-five years of age when he left Haram, thus beginning his walk of faith in the Lord (Genesis 12:4); and yet he was ninety-nine when he received the sign of the circumcision (Genesis 17:24). Thus, during that entire span of (at least) twenty-four years, he was righteous before God, even though he was uncircumcised.
This is so important because it shows that he was not made righteous through the circumcision, but rather through his faith, of which circumcision was merely a sign. Further, it shows him to be the father not merely of the Jews, but also of the uncircumcised believers (the Gentiles). As his circumcision made him the father of the Jews, so also his righteousness in the Lord before the circumcision made him the father of of the uncircumcised believers as well. As we learn from Isaac and Ishmael, it is not the children in the flesh who are the heirs; but the children according to the faith and the promise. If it were merely that the flesh produced heirs, then Ishmael would have been the primary heir, being the firstborn of the flesh. Rather, Isaac becomes the heir because it was he who was born of the promise. Remembering that the Jews proclaimed their righteousness based on the physical bloodline of the nation Israel running through their veins and the physical circumcision which they had received, it was such a strong notion for Paul to account that the things of the flesh were of no profit for the people, but rather the faith of the promise.
Then, Paul goes on to bring into account something that many wish to overlook. Remembering that the Jews had received the Law but were unable to keep it because they had not the faith, thus not the power of the Holy Spirit or the cleansing of the Lord to assist them to growth in holiness; Paul states “That righteousness may be imputed to them also.” What so many wish to overlook is this word, “imputed.” This word translates “reckoned” or “rendered.” This is not a mere legal standing, it is not a “ticket to the kingdom.” Rather, it shows that God’s righteousness is actually rendered to mankind; it is given to us. It is a righteousness that actually transforms us; both externally (as we see in the circumcision) and internally (as we see Paul multiple times reference the “circumcision of the heart). This transformation is the grace of God empowering us to attain the true righteousness of God. It is the power to obey and the knowledge of what to obey; all with the proper motivation, which is the glory of the Lord. Paul writes incessantly about “works,” both dead works (those whose motivation is vainglory and pride) and living works (those whose works are motivated by the love of the Lord).
Consider this, consider that Abraham was considered to have been righteous beginning at the age of seventy-five. Is that to say that he had no knowledge of the Lord or belief in the Lord prior to that point? By no means, but it was at that point that he, through faith, obeyed the Lord’s command to leave Haram. He may very well have acknowledged the Lord before that, but it wasn’t until he displayed that faith and trust in the Lord that he was considered righteous. Look at Paul’s life in itself. He describes this perfect life of trust when he shows what all he “suffered for the Lord’s name.” (Acts 9:16). It was through the grace of God that he was freed from his previous ignorance and wickedness, however, it was through his work for the kingdom that his true faith was displayed.
This concept is especially important in our generation. This righteousness that is rendered to us, this transformation, is both internal and external. So many who consider this righteousness, this grace, as merely a declaration, a label that we can wear externally, completely fall short and miss the point. It’s a cliche that I so often hear, and yet is fully true; God’s grace is given to us to free us from sin, not so we can freely sin. It is not given to us so that we can continue in our ways exempt from the repercussions of our sin, but rather so that we can free ourselves form that bondage and walk in righteousness. Our works will not warrant us this salvation, but if we are truly being saved, works will necessarily be manifest in our lives; however, for the right intentions, with the correct motivation. We will never boast in our philanthropy, however, that doesn’t mean that we don’t give. Rather, we give anonymously, never seeking our own glory. We give because we love our neighbor, because we love our brothers and sisters. We see each living person as an icon of Christ and at that point we are truly able to understand Jesus’ teaching that “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to Me.” If each person is truly an icon of Christ, if we fully love each person as Christ loves us, then we would never seek to judge, or to set up lines of division, but instead we would fully devote to help, to care for one another.
So often in Scripture, we are warned that God will “render to each according to their deeds.” And yet, so often we gloss over that. I’ve actually heard someone say that “thankfully God won’t give to each of us according to our deeds,” and yet Scripture warns that He will do exactly that. Scripture warns that if we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven; it warns that we should avoid avarice, lest we, like Ananias and Sapphira be stricken down in our lies; it warns how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom. It warns that whoever doesn’t care for the needy, the hungry, the poor will be “cast out into the lake of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But, to counter each of those warnings is the promise of the blessings to come if we abide in the Lord. If we love Him, trust in Him to provide (have faith in Him), if we abide in His commands; then “all things work for those who love God and seek Him;” and we know that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1). Once we turn in faith fully to the Lord, then we are empowered to cast off those fleshly urgings and longings and to truly walk in the Spirit, to allow the healing to begin. When Paul admonishes us that we should “constantly evaluate to see that we are walking in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5), this is such a huge part of it. If we are not growing in holiness, then what are we growing in? Are we growing in holiness, receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit, walking in faith as “God’s co-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9), or are we growing in worldliness, in the spirit of the age, in the wisdom of men and the ways of the flesh?
I pray that, for each of us, the answer to that question is the former, not the latter. Mark the Ascetic teaches us that when we read Holy Scripture, we should apply all that we read to ourselves, not to others. In so doing, consider this statement from Jesus; “You shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16). So when we look to our own lives, what does the fruit that we are producing say about us? Are we being faithful? Are we loving our neighbor? Are we placing our wants over others’ needs? Are we forgiving others, regardless of their transgressions? Or, are we wearing the grace of God like a badge absolving us of any personal accountability? Are we content with proclaiming that “I’m not perfect, just forgiven?” Consider this; how many of our prayers extend beyond our own little “bubble,” our own circle of friends and acquaintances, and how many of our prayers become action? It’s so much easier to tell someone “I’ll pray for you” than to actually help them, to actually give, to actually sacrifice our time and energy to do what is necessary to help them. Yet, look at the model that we were given. Jesus didn’t just pray for us, He sacrificed Himself to save us. What are we willing to sacrifice to help one another? “Whosoever believes in Me will do the works that I do, and even greater works than these” (John 14:12). We must never believe that our works can save us, but we must equally never believe that works should not be a part of our salvation. The doctor can prescribe the medicine and tell us exactly what we need to do; we must be willing to get the medicine, to take it, to follow the healing that is prescribed to us. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, have you ever considered why He commanded that? It was the first step in his healing, Jesus sought to help him overcome his greed, his attachment to material things. The ruler refused the treatment and went away sorrowful, still enchained to the world.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family. Christ is in our midst.