We left off with St. Paul’s observation that the Gentiles blasphemed God’s name because of the behavior of God’s people. In this passage, he goes on to show the root cause of the discrepancy between the holy name by which God’s people were called, and unholy lives which disgraced that calling. The root cause was the lack of personal regeneration. As Jesus told Nicodemus, a man must be born again. To take the larger argument of Romans, not all Israel are Israel. We may (and we must) extend this to say that not all Christians are Christians.
“For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:25-29)
Summary of the Text
What good is circumcision? Who needs it? Paul says that circumcision does profit a Jew, if he keeps the rest of the law (v. 25). Circumcision is obedience to the Torah at the doorway (Dt. 11:20), but if disobedience is pervasive through the rest of the house, then God treats the sign of allegiance at the doorway as though it were the opposite (v. 25). And what happens when you flip this around? If an uncircumcised person keeps the righteousness of the moral law (remember, he is not keeping Torah because he is uncircumcised), then won’t God place him in the ranks of the honorary circumcised (v. 26)? Not only so, but the uncircumcised in this position will be in a position to judge the person who “by letter” and “by circumcision” transgresses the law (v. 27). This person could either be the pagan Gentiles of v. 14, or the baptized Gentiles in the church at Rome—Paul’s argument works either way. Why does it work this way? Paul then says that a man is not a true Jew who is simply one outwardly, and that true circumcision is not a matter of what is done to the flesh (v. 28). A true Jew is a Jew on the inside, and true circumcision is a matter of the heart and spirit, not the letter (v. 29) The praise for such a man is not from men, but from God (v. 29).
Torah and the Righteousness of the Law
The distinction between the Torah and what might be called the essence of the law is a very important one if we are to understand Romans. We have noted it before and we have to make a note of it again here. Paul clearly distinguishes between formal law-keeping and essential law-keeping—but this is not possible if we say that his only interest has to do with the relationship of the old Torah and the new gospel. Paul insists here that an uncircumcised person by nature can nevertheless keep the essential law, what he identifies as the “righteousness of the law.”
Counted or Reckoned
A similar thing must be said about a very crucial word here, one that is essential to a right understanding of Romans. It occurs in our passage here, and that word is logidzomai. It is the kind of word that is remarkably flexible—it was rendered as “thinkest” in 2:3, but it occurs here as “counted” (2:26). Elsewhere in Romans it is translated as “reckon” (4:4), “account” (8:36), or most famously “impute” (4:6). We will muddy everything if we understand this word as any kind of infusion. We will not do a great deal with this now, but it will be very important later—so mark this spot.
Outward and Inward
Sin creates rebellious dualisms. God created us so that our spirit, soul, and body would all live in harmonious union. But rebellion against Him fractured this harmony, and made it possible for an individual to be one man on the outside and a completely different man on the inside. This was not what we were created for, but our sin made hypocrisy possible. But that is not our concern in this message now—the basic problem of hypocrisy was addressed earlier.
Here is a different problem. Some Christians, discovering that there ought not to be this inside/outside divide, have falsely concluded that there is no such thing as an inside/outside divide. But this is saying, ultimately, that hypocrisy is impossible. However, Paul is blunt here. He knew men who were Jews on the outside, but he did not consider them to be Jews on the inside. What needed to occur in order for them to be Jews on the inside? Paul says that it amounted to heart circumcision, in the spirit and not in the letter (v. 29). As it was, their outside testified against their inside (v. 27). By the letter and by their circumcision they transgressed.
A Quick Caution
This is the great contribution of historic evangelicalism—teaching the absolute necessity of the new birth. Do not confuse this with the accretions of pop evangelicalism, or certain traditions within evangelicalism, which seeks to put that new birth in a can, prepackaging it for the upcoming revival meetings, prescribing just what it looks like in every instance—going forward, signing the card, that kind of thing. But the Spirit moves as He pleases. Reformation and revival is not a commodity.
How Does It All Translate?
Does this warning at the end of Romans 2 translate over to Christians? Can we say that “he is not a Christian who is one outwardly, neither is baptism that which is outward in the flesh”? Can we say he is a Christian who is “one inwardly,” and baptism is “of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.” Of course we can, and we must.
Paul here is spelling out the root causes of the great Jewish failure. The Jews hadnot kept the law in truth, even though they were circumcised—precisely because they had not obeyed the law by receiving the circumcision of the heart (Dt. 10:16;30: 6; Jer. 4:4). This doctrine of the new birth is not an innovation of Paul’s—God required it in the Old Testament times as well. And Paul elsewhere tells the covenanted Christians that they were capable of failing in just the same way that the Jews had (Rom. 11: 20-21;1 Cor. 10: 6), and for the same reasons (2 Cor. 13:5). A brief glance at church history shows us the wisdom of this warning, as well as a moment’s reflection on our own circumstances. A man, if he wants to see the kingdom of God, must be born again. Is this your desire? Then look to Christ—Christ on the cross, Christ in heaven, Christ in the Word, Christ in the water, Christ in the bread and wine. But always this is looking through, not staring at.