Circumcision of the Heart

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

- Romans 2:28–29

Most of us reading this devotional are probably not ethnically Jewish, so it is difficult for us to appreciate the confrontational nature of Paul’s argument that the Jews are no better off than Gentiles before God’s heavenly court. To claim that Jews sinned from time to time is one thing, but to say that they failed to keep the commandments unto justification is quite another. Most of the Apostle’s contemporaries did not think perfection was required to be seen as righteous before the Lord; rather, they believed sincerity was enough, that they could be found righteous in God’s sight as long as they tried to obey Him. Moreover, they could always fall back on circumcision and other ritual observances that were believed to cover a multitude of sins and even to guarantee one a place in heaven.

Now, these Jews were correct that the Bible talks about a practical righteousness that does not require perfect obedience to God’s law. Individuals who believe the Lord and make a good-faith attempt to keep His commandments, repenting when they fall short, are rightly called blameless and upright in Scripture (Gen. 6:9; Job 1:1). The problem, however, is confusing a general conformity to our Creator’s rules with the righteousness He demands for justification. Throughout the Old Testament, we always see that even the best righteousness human beings can produce is insufficient for peace with God. He alone can provide what we need—without our cooperation. He saved His people from Egypt before giving them His law (Ex. 20:1–21). Even those Israelites who led generally upright lives needed His atonement (Isa. 53). The Jews were never to base their standing before the Lord on their own works of obedience; instead, they were to thank Him for His work in their lives, repent as the Mosaic law pointed out their sins, and look for Him to provide the robe of righteousness needed to be just in His sight (Isa. 61:10; Jer. 23:6; Zech. 3:1–5).

In sum, Jews who rightly understood their own Scriptures knew that Spirit-wrought faith and Spirit-wrought faith alone was the means by which God declares that people are sufficiently righteous to be citizens of heaven. A heart cut out from the world to love and trust the Lord is the kind of cutting that makes one truly circumcised, not a mere mark in the flesh with a knife. And this heart circumcision, Paul said to the astonishment of first-century Jews, is possible without physical circumcision. Romans 2:28–29 introduces this possibility, without yet proclaiming that it becomes a reality only in Christ.

Coram Deo

Circumcision per se is not bad. For Paul it was indifferent to one’s place in the kingdom—that is, until the Judaizers insisted that circumcision is required for salvation. To so insist was to go too far and to confuse the blamelessness we should display as a fruit of faith with the righteousness that God demands for justification. But only those with a circumcised heart are righteous in God’s sight, and that means trusting in nothing but God through faith in Christ alone.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 30:1–10
Jeremiah 4:4
Matthew 15:21–28
Galatians 5:6

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