A house divided against itself cannot stand. Jesus understood that (cf. Matt 12:25). So also did the apostle Paul but we’ll get to that in a moment. The problem is that much of the rest of God’s people don’t seem to get this so easily. Division among Christians has always been a threat to the church living up to it’s true calling.
I don’t know about you but I was taught that unity could only be based on the truth which is correct if properly understood. This notion that unity was based exclusively upon the truth actually meant that unity was based upon the understanding of truth my church heritage held on to. But that is not what the apostle Paul said.
So what is the truth upon which unity between Christians can emerge? Answer: Justification by faith.
Every believer is justified by faith rather than works of the law (cf. Rom 3:24, 28). However, the discussion of justification by faith in Romans spills over into chapter four and that is where things become really important.
In chapter four Paul deals directly with the problem that threatens to divide Jewish and Gentile Christians. Certain Jewish believers were apparently insisting that a person was justified based on works, namely circumcision, which is why Paul is raising the issue (4:2-3). Paul’s response is to point them back to the story of Abraham who was justified by faith (“credited as righteousness”) rather than by works. This is what these Jewish believers have failed to grasp. They have been taught to focus on Abraham’s piety as the basis for his relationship with God (Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 260) and thus have believed that justification comes by works.
The problem is that they have misread their own scripture. So Paul asks in vv. 10-12:
Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received circumcision as a sign, 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 then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Paul is very clear: Abraham was justified before he received circumcision and was thus justified by faith, becoming the father of all who follow in his example of faith.
Why is this so important? As already noted, certain Jewish believers were appealing to Abraham’s circumcision as the “works” by which a person is justified. So what is circumcision? Paul describes it as “a sign, a seal of righteousness” (v. 11). The word sphragis (“seal”) is also used in 1 Cor 9:2 and 2 Tim 2:19 and means an “outward sign” (Cranfield, Romans, 88). Thus it serves as a mark functioning as a “confirmation” (Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 126). Therefore the “seal of circumcision” that Paul speaks of is that outward marker which identifies those who belong to Israel.
The Problem is that Paul’s Jewish opponents have taken circumcision to another level in which they are using the physical marker as the basis from which they determine who belongs to God and God’s people. Paul’s insists that this is wrong since all are justified by faith which is to be recognized as part of God’s family (see N.T. Wright, Justification, 220). Does any of this sound familiar?
Christians have all sorts of markers. In Ephesians 1:13, the Holy Spirit is mentioned as that which marks those who belong to Christ just as circumcision marked those who belonged to Israel (this passage employs the verbal form of sphragis). According to the conversion narratives in Acts, the Holy Spirit is received with baptism. So baptism and the Holy Spirit become the way of identifying a believer(s). This is why in Paul inquires about baptism when he learns that the “twelve” mentioned in Acts 19:1-6 have not received the Holy Spirit. Yet, if we take what Paul is saying in Romans four seriously, then just like seal of circumcision, we cannot use baptism and the Holy Spirit – more particularly, our understanding of baptism and the Holy Spirit – to define who belongs to Christ and his church. That is because people belong to God, in Christ, on the basis of their justification by faith.
This opens up new possibilities. Rather than using the doctrine of baptism and doctrine of the Holy Spirit to exclude, we must include on the basis of professed faith in Christ. This does not mean that submitting to Christ in baptism and receiving the Spirit are optional matters nor does is mean that baptism and reception of the Spirit are not essential to salvation, since we are talking about justification which is only a part or step in the process towards salvation. What it does mean is that we can begin to recognize all who profess faith in Christ as our fellow believers, our family, the family of God. We can do this regardless of where we might differ in our understanding of baptism and the Holy Spirit. And that opens up all sorts of opportunities to cooperatively work as a united body of believers for sake of God’s mission and glory.
Here is the sermon “Can It Really Be By Faith” from Romans 4:1-12 that I preached this past Sunday before the Columbia Church of Christ.