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Romans 4:11 and 12 makes the point that circumcision is only valid if it truly testifies of an inner righteousness. Such righteousness cannot be obtained through the Old Covenant, but only through the New Covenant. Faith is what imputed righteousness to Abraham; hence, his circumcision was a valid and true testimony, an outward sign of an inward righteousness.
Abraham preceded Moses and the Old Covenant, even though he was the first to receive the sign of the circumcision. Yet that circumcision did not justify Abraham, nor did it make him righteous. It was a matter of obedience AFTER he had already been justified by faith.
So also with Moses and all others. How were they justified? They were all justified only on account of their faith. No one was ever justified by their works. There was nothing wrong with committing one's self to follow the Law, as long as it was understood that it was their prior faith that had justified them. It was only when men came to depend upon their own decision, their own will, their own self-discipline, their own fleshly ability to perform their good intentions, that their justification came to depend upon the works of the Law.
They should have understood that the Law was given many weeks after they left Egypt. In other words, Passover (faith in the blood of the Lamb) came first, and only later were they given the Law at Sinai on the day that was later celebrated as Pentecost. Passover justifies us; Pentecost teaches us obedience by the leading of the Spirit.
Judaism does not understand this, and that is their downfall to this day. Judaism is of the opinion that if they can just be zealous enough in keeping the Law, that God will view them with favor, give them grace, and justify them in the Divine Court--that is, rule in their favor. Paul refutes this, saying in Romans 4:14,
14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified.
Judaism is of the opinion that those "who are of the Law are heirs." Paul insists that to be an heir (of the promise), one must be of faith. To put it another way, being an heir is not about being of Moses, but being of Abraham. Moses has his place, as does the Law, but to make him the justifier is to misplace him in the divine plan.
15 For the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
Some interpret Paul's statement to mean that God gets angry any time someone tries to be obedient to the Law. But that is not what Paul meant. The Law brings "wrath," not because we are obedient, but because we are all disobedient (i.e., sinners). The Law cannot be happy with any man in his sin.
But our justification is based on Passover, apart from the Law given at Pentecost. It is purely by faith--even before we have begun to learn obedience. We get righteous standing up front, even before our character has been changed by the Holy Spirit's leading and guidance. So Paul takes the basic axiom of truth, "where there is no law, neither is there violation," and applies it to the feast of Passover. Since Passover took place prior to the giving of the Law, our righteousness is faith-based, apart from the Law, and hence, we are not charged with the violation of the Law (sin).
16 For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
His point here is to show the universal application of grace. This contrasts with the Judaistic view that they alone were the heirs of the promise, on the grounds that they were given the Law. Their view was that other people were inferior in their ability to understand the Law. Hence, they said,the ethnos only had to follow the so-called "Noahide Laws" of Gen. 9:1-7, for that was the extent of their spiritual capacity.
Paul contradicts that, showing that any man can be an heir of God through Christ. One does not have to be a genealogical descendant of Abraham. Faith makes one a "son of Abraham."
Romans 4:17 is not translated properly in the NASB, so I will quote from The Emphatic Diaglott:
17 as it has been written, "A Father of Many Nations [ethnos] I have constituted thee"--in the presence of that God whom he believed, who makes alive the dead, and calls things not in being, as though existing.
The first part of verse 17 quotes from Gen. 17:5. This was the promise to Abraham, that he would be a father of many ethnos. This has been fulfilled on many levels, but Paul brings this up as proof that the promise applies even to the nations that had not received the Law and to those who were not genealogically descended from Abraham.
In other words, the idea of a "chosen people" is applicable to any man who follows Abraham's example of faith, regardless of genealogy. The terms "father" and "son" have greater meaning than just in a genealogical sense. There were children of wisdom, children of light, children of the devil, and the sons of thunder. So also are there children of Abraham, if they follow the example of Abraham's faith.
The last half of verse 17 above is Paul's definition of logizomai, "to impute, reckon, account." When God gave this promise to Abraham, he had only one son, Ishmael (Gen. 16:16), born to him at the age of 86. Abraham was 99 years old when God gave him this promise (Gen. 17:1). And because we read later (Gen. 21:12) that "through Isaac shall your descendants be named," we know that the promise was to be fulfilled through Isaac, not through Ishmael.
18 in hope against hope he believed, in order that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, "So shall your descendants be."
The promise came before Isaac was even born, and long before Abraham had become the father ofmany nations. In other words, God was calling what was not as though it were. This is the nature of imputed righteousness. We obtain the promise of righteousness by faith up front long before we are actually made righteous. He imputes righteousness to us in the same manner as He did with Abraham. And this is illustrated by the fact that He imputed many nations to Abraham long before the fact.
19 And without becoming weak in faith, he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform.
The promise seemed impossible to fulfill, and Abraham was fully aware of the condition of his own body and that of Sarah. But Abraham "laughed" with joy at the promise, as we read in Gen. 17:17,
17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, "Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?
Many have the impression that Abraham laughed as if God were telling a joke. They think Abraham did not really believe it. But Abraham DID believe it. He laughed because of the irony of the situation. Is it not just like God to make it first impossible, and then to go ahead and do it? We can understand such laughter, because we ourselves have seen God work in such ways in our own lives. Believe me, we spend much time laughing when we share the things that God has done.