What is circumcision, really? Well, I know in the physical sense what it is, but why circumcision? Why does such a primitive physical mutilation retain its spiritual significance into the twenty-first century? This is the sort of thing that anthropologists study, but it’s also the sort of thing that Paul grappled with.
In today’s New Testament lesson (Romans 4:1-12), Paul demonstrates how Abraham is the father of all—not just of the circumcised but also of the uncircumcised. For Paul, circumcision was a physical manifestation of everything that distinguished a Jewish man from a Greek man. It represented the gap between the cultures, ancestries, and religions. Part of what set Paul apart was his circumcision, yet he’s willing to all but discard its significance for the sake of the gospel.
Paul writes, “We say that 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 circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” In light of the gospel, Paul now recognizes that the one thing that he bore as a sign of his chosenness—of his relationship with the God of his ancestors—was just that: a sign. It was a seal of something that God had already done on his behalf. It was not a means of obtaining righteousness; it was a declaration of a righteousness already given to him. In other words, Paul accepted a God-first principle that we still embrace as Christians.
God first; we second. That’s how the gospel works. God doesn’t wait on us to make the first move. He isn’t holding back his love in order to distribute it to those who merit it. God doesn’t bestow grace upon the godly and withhold it from the wicked. God pours his reconciling love onto the whole world. Then, we must do something with it. One way our primitive spiritual ancestors responded to God’s grace was with circumcision. Nowadays, we might respond by wearing a cross around our neck or by coming up to the front of church during an altar call or simply by smiling quietly to ourselves because we know God loves us. But if we think that God is waiting on us to make the first move—if he’s waiting for our spiritual circumcision before inviting us into his fellowship—then we’ll never understand the beauty of God’s love. God acts first. He sends down his love, shares with us his mercy, and then we respond.