The Value of Circumcision
“For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.”- Romans 2:25
Lest anyone think that Paul pulls any punches in his argument that his Jewish contemporaries had no advantage before God because they were Jews, the Apostle in today’s passage calls into question the key symbol of Jewish identity—circumcision. First-century Jews disagreed on many things, and Jews in some sects even denied that Jews in other sects could be saved. One belief that united them, however, was the centrality of circumcision in salvation. This mark was a matter of national identity and pride. Jews of all stripes believed that one could not be acceptable to the Lord without it, and those Jews who had it reversed for the sake of acceptance in the dominant Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire were viewed as traitors to Israel. More significantly, many first-century Jews had come to believe that no one who was circumcised would ever go to hell even if he failed to keep God’s other commandments.
Paul’s countrymen thought that circumcision resulted in justification, thereby giving circumcision a significance it was never supposed to bear. The Apostle runs with this view in Romans 2:25–29 to confirm the fact that external conformity to the law of God cannot help anyone. Trusting that circumcision puts one in the Lord’s good graces is a false trust if obedience to His other statutes do not follow. Mere circumcision in the flesh—if one hopes in it for salvation—is of no help before our Creator unless one does all the other commandments as well. Even worse, it is a curse. Circumcision, if one makes it the basis for his justification—God’s declaration of righteousness—actually becomes uncircumcision when not joined with flawless keeping of the Mosaic law. To become uncircumcision is to be put outside the covenant. It is to be grouped with the pagan Gentiles, who could not be saved while they remained pagan Gentiles. John Calvin comments on today’s passage that if a righteous status “be expected from circumcision, it is on this condition, that he who is circumcised, must serve God wholly and perfectly. Circumcision then requires perfection.”
Under the old covenant, Gentiles—“the uncircumcision”—were without God and the hope of redemption. They were exposed only to His wrath (Eph. 2:11–12). Yet it was not their failure to be physically circumcised that put the Gentiles there but their transgression of God’s moral law. Circumcised Jews who look to circumcision for their place before the Lord are in the same boat because they do not obey His moral law perfectly either.
Most of us are unlikely to think that we will automatically make it to heaven if we have been circumcised. However, professing Christians are prone to think they are right before God because they go to church, and they might believe that their children are guaranteed a place in heaven as long as they are raised in a Christian home. We cannot trust in any of these things. None of us is saved unless personal trust in Christ resides in our hearts.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 7:19