The Place of Circumcision
“If a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.”- Romans 2:26–27
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament—one of our most important historical sources for understanding first-century Judaism—indicates that the Jews of the time made circumcision into something it was never supposed to be. The Judaizers’ insistence that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1) shows the Jewish tendency to make physical circumcision a meritorious work that guarantees eternal life. However, while the Old Testament presents circumcision as a sign of obedience and therefore evidence of trust in God’s promises (Gen. 17), it never presents circumcision as the effectual means of obtaining righteousness before the Lord. Paul picks this up in Romans 4, where he notes that Abraham was declared righteous—justified—before he was circumcised in the flesh.
Furthermore, while the Bible never absolutely separates covenantal signs such as circumcision from the realities they signify, it does tell us that it is more important to have what the signs signify than to have the signs themselves. The prophets, for example, did not condemn Gentiles because they were uncircumcised in the flesh, but because they were uncircumcised in the heart and failed to worship Yahweh and obey His moral statutes (Lev. 18; Obad. 10–18; Nah. 1–3). Regarding the Israelites themselves, the prophets always exhorted the covenant people to be circumcised in heart and not the flesh alone (Deut. 10:12–22).
Consequently, the Apostle Paul’s teaching that it is possible to be reckoned as circumcised—set apart to the Lord as His special people—without actually being marked in the flesh makes perfect sense even if many other first-century Jews would have found it unacceptable (Rom. 2:26–27). Since circumcision was not given in creation to all of humanity for all time and since heartfelt obedience and love for the Lord has always been more important to Him than external signs, certainly those who obey God’s moral law are acceptable to Him even though they are physically uncircumcised. Logically, then, our Creator rejects those who are physically circumcised but break His other commandments.
As we conclude our study today, let us not forget that Paul speaks theoretically in today’s passage. He teaches elsewhere that sinners cannot be justified by their law-keeping, so Gentiles who keep God’s law with the perfection required for justification do not exist (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10–14). There did exist, however, individuals who trusted in externals for their salvation, and they needed to be convinced that mere external rites help no one.
Many Jews in Paul’s day had a deficient understanding of covenant that reduced their relationship with God to mere externals. This is the tendency of fallen sinners, namely, to think that they are right with the Lord as long as they perform the right rituals or render perfunctory outward obedience. We should never think that we are immune from this temptation. The heart is what is most important to God, so let us put our hearts into our service to Him.
Passages for Further Study
1 Samuel 16:7