“We say, ‘Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 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 ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also walk in the steps of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Righteousness. Renewed, rectified communion. A way of standing upright and steady before God. This happens through faith. Sure, circumcision played an important role for Abraham. It was a sign, a seal of that which was truly valuable. For Abraham and the Israelites, circumcision wasn’t the thing, but simply the thing that points to the thing. It was the alarm clock that awakens and alerts to what’s really going on. When a letter is closed with a seal, the seal itself is not what is meant to capture our hearts, but the words contained within. The actual foundation of the renewed, rectified communion between Abraham (and therefore all God’s people) and God was always something deeper, something that lay underneath all the signs and seals.
Paul’s word for this is faith. Faith is what is underneath all the signs and seals. Faith is our truest way of communing with God, of standing upright and steady before him. Let’s not mistake faith for an ability to arrive at correct doctrinal conclusions and opinions, important though that is. In the New Testament’s original Greek, the word for faith is the same word for belief and trust. When these three English words jump off the page at us, we’re actually seeing just one word. In popular parlance, to believe is to subscribe to one opinion/idea/perspective or another; belief is something that happens in the mind.
But this only scratches the surface of the faith that places God and Abraham in renewed, rectified communion with one another. Faith is the trust that exists at the deepest part of our humanity, that which entrusts ourselves to our creator. Faith is the deep, abiding knowledge that we and God belong unconditionally to each other. According to Paul here in Romans 4, that existed before circumcision, before any sign or seal.
Like Abraham and circumcision, we have our own ways of dressing up our faith. It’s good to give structure to faith, to map things out. Circumcision may not mean to us what it meant to Abraham and the ancient Israelites, but it would be a good idea to reflect from time to time on what symbols and practices we use as a sign of faith, but not as the source of faith. What might we see if we peel back these layers of religious signs and seals and shed a light on the faith underneath it all? To walk in the steps of the ancestral faith is to discover, or rediscover, the trust that exists at the deepest part of our humanity, that which entrusts itself to our creator.
As Paul invites a church made up of both Jews and Gentiles to exist as one singular body of Christ, he doesn’t draw attention to the signs and seals of one group of people, but to that which lay underneath the signs and seals of every human – faith – that deep, abiding knowledge that we and God belong unconditionally to each other.