(Rom 3:29-31 ESV) 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one– who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
Verses 29-31 demonstrate that the issue at hand is how the Gentiles can be saved and yet not be bound by the Law of Moses. But if this is so, what is the point of the Law? And Paul begins with his conclusion: “We uphold the law.”
Now, there’s something of a pun here. The Jews used “law” to refer both the Law of Moses and to the first five books of the First Testament. Hence, God’s covenant with Abraham is, in one sense, a part of the law. It’s in Genesis, the first book of the Law. He means much more than that when he declares that he upholds the law, but that is part of what he means. The “law” is not just the 613 commands. It’s also the story of the Exodus. It’s also God’s covenant with Abraham. It all matters.
(Rom 4:1-3 ESV) What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
In chapter 3, Paul proclaimed,
(Rom 3:28 NET) 28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.
How does this happen? Well, how was Abraham saved? He was found righteous due to his faith. What could be more consistent with the Law?
Paul then turns to Psalm 32, written by David, for further proof —
(Rom 4:4-8 ESV) 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
David was not speaking of a new covenant but the covenant he was under at the time — the Abrahamic/Mosaic/Davidic covenants to be very precise. And around 1010 BC, David declared that it was possible to be in a relationship with God in which sin was not counted at all.
Paul then returns to Abraham to make a point —
(Rom 4:9-12 ESV) Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 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 father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
God entered into covenant with Abraham and counted his faith as righteousness before Abraham was circumcised. Therefore, circumcision is not a condition of receiving grace through faith.
Rather, circumcision was a “seal” of righteousness. “Seal” (semeion) is borrowed from —
(Gen 17:11 ESV) 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.
N.T. Wright comments,
The stress of the paragraph thus falls not so much on the method or timing of Abraham’s justification, important though that is, but on what follows from it: that uncircumcised believers are every bit as “justified” as Abraham was (v. 11b). Indeed, vv. 11b–12 seem to imply almost that uncircumcised believers are the more obvious children of Abraham and that it is circumcised ones who come in on their coattails–and even then, Paul underlines, not on the basis of their circumcision, but on the basis of their following in the footsteps of Abraham’s “uncircumcised faith” (v. 12b).
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians (vol. 10 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), n.p.
(Rom 4:13-14 ESV) For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
Paul next repeats his assertion in the negative form to emphasize the necessity of righteousness through faith. In so saying, he explicitly includes in that promise the “offspring” of Abraham — the Jews. Indeed, he says in v. 14, if the Jews were saved by the Law of Moses, the Abrahamic promise is void. But it’s not void, and so the Jews could not have been saved by keeping the Law.
(Rom 4:23-25 ESV) 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Paul concludes the chapter by stating that the promise of salvation through faith is not just for Abraham for all who believe in the God who resurrected Jesus.
In short, implicit in all Paul’s argument is the sufficiency of faith to save the Jews from Abraham until Jesus. The Law was not sufficient, but God provided grace through faith for the Jews. And God now has invited the Gentiles to join in his salvation by the same means: through faith.
Abraham’s covenant was not annulled by the Law, but rather continued under the Law to provide salvation when the Law alone could not.