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The question, “What does Paul mean in Romans 2:29,” was asked a few weeks ago by one of our church members. Actually, only the reference was written on a piece of paper and slipped to me on the DL. That’s my favorite way to receive questions because it means I simply get to go in and exegete a verse. I finally had the time available to get to this great question. What does Paul mean when he writes that a true Jew is one inwardly and not merely outwardly? In the same way, we can ask, “What does it mean that God’s people are His people because of what has happened inwardly and not merely outwardly?
Let’s look at the passage in question together. Keep in mind that this passage is set within its own context. Context is key when we think about the meaning of any passage and any verse in the Bible, or any other document or work or anthology or compilation. Verses 25-29 will be sufficient for us to understand what it means for one to be a true Jew. To see my notes on the book of Romans, click here.
For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.
We will examine this passage idea-by-idea and show the logical connections between each statement. Then, we will see, specifically, what it means to be part of the people of God because of what is inward rather than merely outward.
- Verse 25 explicitly clarifies that the outward sign being described is circumcision.
Circumcision was the outward sign that someone was legally a citizen of the nation of Israel and of Judah (the southern kingdom after the civil war described in 1 Kings 12:19 and the following permanent division). This was a sign given to Abraham (Genesis 17) and his descendants because God had chosen his family to be His own chosen nation on the earth. Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham, that the world would be blessed through his descendants (Genesis 12, 15). This promise is realized in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
When Paul states that it is only profitable if one practices the Law, he means full submission to the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy). He contrasts this by writing, “…but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” To break God’s Law is to be the object of God’s wrath and not a recipient of God’s promise. So, a Jew does not benefit from outward circumcision, the sign of the promise, if he or she does not live perfectly according to God’s Law.
- Verse 26 is a rhetorical question. Paul uses these often. The idea, here, is that if someone who is not a legal Jewish citizen keeps God’s Law, that person is a better Jew than one who is a Jew legally but does not keep God’s Law perfectly.
- Verse 27 is also a rhetorical question, which gets at the same idea. Those who are not legally Jews, if they are better at keeping God’s Law, are better qualified to sit as judges over those who are legal Jews but do not keep the Law.
- In verse 28, Paul answers his own rhetorical questions. Merely being a Jew legally, according to the outward sign of circumcision, does not make a person’s life honoring to God. Outward circumcision does not mean much if it is only outward and the person does not have a heart to follow God.
- In verse 29, Paul makes the statement, “But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
So, being a true Jew has to do with the desire one has from his or her heart to honor God with his or her life. Receiving an outward sign, thinking that we are the people of God because we are in church, have been baptized, have been circumcised, wear crosses, are pastors or deacons, are a legal citizen of one worldly nation or another, are politically conservative or liberal, identify as a member of a certain denomination or theological viewpoint, hold to a specific belief statement, or are fundamental KJV only (or something similar like Reformed ESV only), does not mean that someone is honoring to God.
Instead, circumcision of the heart is required to truly be honoring to God. Outward circumcision was meant to be a picture for us of the circumcision of the heart. Notice the wording of verse 29. Circumcision of the heart is “by” the Spirit and not by the letter. “The letter,” here refers again to the Law as described in verses 25, 26, and 27. So, it is not one’s forcing of him or herself by his or her own will to keep the Law of God or be religious that causes him or her to be changed into a God honoring person. In fact, before the circumcision of the heart, regeneration, one cannot honor God because he or she cannot keep the Law. That is the whole point of the Gospel. The circumcision of the heart is explicitly done by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit first changes a person’s heart. We refer to this as the doctrine of regeneration. Because of the person’s new heart, his or her will and desires are changed so that he or she now naturally seeks to be honoring to God in his or her actions and obedience to God’s Law.
So, we see, here, two doctrines that Paul will work out as we progress through the book of Romans. The first is the doctrine of conversion. The second is the doctrine of sanctification. Both of these are subcategories of the doctrine of salvation. Conversion is the moment that the Holy Spirit circumcises the heart of the elect person, causing that person to be able to see and follow sincerely after God. Sanctification is the process of the elect person growing in understanding and practice according to God’s Law following conversion. To be sanctified is to be set apart. Sanctification is the process of our being set apart from the world.
This is what Paul means when he differentiates between a Jew who is merely one outwardly and a Jew who is one inwardly. A true Jew has a regenerate heart and seeks to sincerely follow after God, becoming more obedient to God’s Law because his or her heart has been changed. The same can be said of the Christian. A Christian who is merely a Christian outwardly is no Christian at all. A Christian whose heart has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit alone is a true Christian and is able to live obediently to God because his or her heart has been changed. He or she is a Christian inwardly.
Paul also writes that the true Jew’s praise is not from men but from God. The person whose heart has been circumcised by the Holy Spirit in regeneration is not concerned with earning praise from or being accepted by people. His or her aim is simply to be honoring to God, the author and perfecter (or finisher) of our faith.
This realization has implications for the way that we live, do church, develop personal doctrinal beliefs, and even think about eschatology. Let’s keep digging together, and I am here to answer any questions as sincerely, honestly, and biblically as possible from our church members, those in our community, and anyone else who reads this blog. Thank you for letting me serve you in this way. Soli Deo Gloria.