The minister of a large Church of Christ asks, upon reading Romans 4:10-11, whether baptism, like circumcision in this passage, is a “sign” and “seal” of righteousness which we have by faith even before we are baptized.
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Some Jews in Paul’s day valued circumcision so highly that they expected God to bless them merely because they had undergone this physical ordinance. Others expected God’s favor because they were Abraham’s descendants, a fact of which their circumcision always reminded them. Paul’s point here is that God declared Abraham righteous by faith many years before he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision, so that Abraham’s justification is indeed a model for people of all nations and not only for Jews.
Abraham received God’s verdict of acquital — he was declared “right” in God’s sight — because he relied on and trusted in God, not because he was a Jewish patriarch, and certainly not because he was circumcised. God declared Abraham justified by faith (Gen. 15:6), Paul notes, years before he instituted the divine ordinance of circumcision (Gen. 17). Seen at its best, circumcision SEALED or stamped a Jewish man as one who trusted in God alone, and it SIGN-i-fied that a Jewish man was righteous by faith. Circumcision was thus a “sign” and “seal” of the man’s right standing (“righteousness”) before God, based on his trust in the Almighty (Rom. 4:9-12).
Were Paul living today, and should he hear some Christians rely on their baptism for their standing with God, I have no doubt he would respond much as he did concerning circumcision. God does not declare anyone righteous today because she or he receives baptism. Gospel baptism is a visible, physical declaration of one’s invisible heart-faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It SEALS that faith and SIGNals to the world that one is a believer. The baptized person may always look back on his or her baptism and say, “I am a believer. I have been baptized.”
Abraham believed God’s seemingly impossible promise that he and Sarah would have a son, and God imputed Abraham’s trust as righteousness. Like Abraham, we also believe God’s seemingly impossible promise — that he forgives our sins and brings us near to himself for Jesus Christ’s sake — and our faith is also put down on the divine record as righteousness (Rom. 4:23-25).