David … speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” 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. Romans 4.6-12.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul is tackling a big question. What has God done, what is God doing, to put right this world of his that has gone so badly wrong? The answer, says Paul, is that he has formed a family to which he has bound himself by covenant love, and salvation lies in becoming a member of that family. But what sort of family is it and how do you join it? The Jews had no difficulty in answering that, but part of Paul’s purpose in writing this letter is to prove to them that they are completely wrong.
The Jews’ answer was that the family God has formed is the family of the Jews and that you enter it by circumcision and committing yourself to observe the Law. But in Romans 4, Paul turns the spotlight on Abraham, whom the Jews acknowledge to be the father of the Jewish people, and quite simply shows that Abraham became the father of the Jewish people before he was circumcised and before there was any Law for him to commit himself to. Circumcision, Paul insists, was a sign of the covenant already entered into by God with Abraham, not the basis of it. God enters the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 but the rite of circumcision is not introduced until Genesis 17. No … Abraham, though childless and with a wife who was infertile, became the father of God’s new family by his simple act of believing God’s promise that his offspring would be as the stars in the night sky. “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15.6).
So, do you have to be circumcised to become a member of God’s new family — the family who will inherit the earth? No, says Paul … all you need to do is believe as Abraham believed. All you need to do is put your trust in what God has done and what God has promised. That is how you enter the family. It is a “household of faith” (Galations 6.10).
But is it now a gentile household or family, then, not a Jewish one? Not at all, says Paul, it is a family of Jews and gentiles, the circumcised and the uncircumcised. But the basis of membership is no different for the circumcised, for circumcision counts for nothing without the faith on which family membership depends.
And what exactly is it that someone must believe, put their faith in, to be regarded by God as “righteous” and to find themselves a member of his family? Paul will spell that out in Romans 9 and 11 and what he will say is that it is faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus because in and through Jesus and his death on the cross God renewed the very covenant he had once made with Abraham.
At the end of the day, salvation is a family affair — it is my becoming a child of God by putting my faith in God’s covenant love and promises, just as Abraham did. And it is, thank God, “apart from works”. It does not rest on my behaviour, my performance, my achievements, my devotion or my piety — though I sometimes seem to act as if it does. Help me, Lord, never to forget it.