Of course you’ve heard the aphorism which makes up the title, right? With the right timing, there are few limits to what you can accomplish. But that little saying stuck in my mind as I read today’s passage in completely different context.
It’s really difficult to overstate how important circumcision was to the Jews of the 1st century (and to today’s Jews who take the Torah seriously). It was the mark of being God’s people. The very idea that the Lord would accept someone as one of his “people” without being circumcised would literally never have occurred to a Jew. And the notion that these uncircumcised Gentiles could be accepted before the Almighty on a level equal with the Jews? You can practically visualize them foaming at the mouth. Even Jewish believers, who'd supposedly been saved by faith in Yeshua as Messiah, had some real trouble with this, which is why we had the first major controversy which led to the first official church council which authoritatively settled the issue.
Paul is making the argument that we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, apart from any works of the law. Jews revered Abraham and considered him their father, both physically and spiritually. Therefore he takes pains to show from vss. 1-5 that Abraham’s—the father of the Jews, considered to be probably one of the most righteous men who ever lived—relationship with the Lord was not based on his performance at all but solely based on that he believed God’s promises: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
But what about circumcision? The Lord told Abraham to have himself and his household circumcised, and he obeyed. Didn’t it mean anything at all? Was Paul completely discounting it?
Paul answered that question with another (clarifying) question, and that’s where today’s title comes in. When was Abraham considered righteous before God? This encounter in which Abraham is declared righteous is in Genesis chapter 15. When was circumcision instituted? In chapter 17.
This is the pattern, and this is so important for us to understand. It is vital. Abraham was declared righteous before God, and then Abraham demonstrated this obedience through the rite of circumcision.
Faith/justification/salvation/adoption comes first, then comes demonstrated obedience. This is what I was talking about when we discussed your position versus your condition in Christ.
In vss. 13-15 Paul expands his point on the all-important timing issue: God’s promises came first, then the Law. Once again we see the pattern, both for the Old Covenant believer and for the modern one: First come God’s promises and our faith in him, then comes demonstrated obedience. We’re saved first, then we demonstrate that we’re his children by obeying him. We're saved by grace through faith for the purpose of good works.
Abraham was justified/declared righteous long before he was circumcised, and several hundred years before the Law of Moses was given. Therefore he’s the spiritual father of all who believe. If you’re Jewish and you believe in the Messiah, then Abraham is both your physical “father” and your spiritual father. If you’re a believing Gentile (which is most of us), then Abraham is your spiritual father.
I really want to hammer this home, because if you get this point, it’ll clear up so much confusion on a host of issues, and it’ll guard you against error and heresy and false teaching: First comes salvation by grace through faith, then comes demonstrated obedience. Keep that simple statement in mind, and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble.
Father God, I certainly believe in you, but I really need to follow Abraham’s example and demonstrate obedience like he did: promptly and decisively. By your grace.