What is circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:25-29)?
Romans 2:25-29 – Circumcision of No Avail
25 For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. 26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? 27 And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? 28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
This section of Romans 2 is stressing the point that no forms, ordinances, or notions can profit, without the regenerating grace of God. In verse 29 we read “but he is a Jew who is one inwardly“. This is the same word that is used in Matthew 6:4 saying “that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” We cans see the contrast here which is between the external seal on the body and an internal change of the soul. Another illustration of this is given in 1 Peter 3:3-4 saying “Do not let your adornment be merely outward – arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel – rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.” So take notice, that it is not anything we do on the outside, whether we do anything for the outward glory or not, but it is the transformation that has happened on the inside that matters.
Next we go onto read “and circumcision is that of the heart,” Paul is discussing the role of the Old Testament Law as it relates to Christianity. He points out that Jewish circumcision is only an outward sign of being set apart to God. But if the heart is sinful then the physical circumcision is of no use. What profit is it if you are circumcised bodily but your heart is sinful. Instead of focusing on the external, Paul is trying to focus on the root of the problem, the heart. Just as Jesus taught throughout His ministry, it is what is in the heart that matters. Using circumcision as a metaphor, he says that only the Holy Spirit can purify a heart and set us apart to God. Physical circumcision will never make a person right, and the Law is not enough. It is the heart that must change, and Paul calls this the circumcision of the heart as it is referred to in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 10:16 “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and you shall not harden your neck anymore.”
Paul was a Jew and trained in the Law of Moses and knew was aware Deuteronomy 30 which talks about the Law and the blessing of returning to God and keeping the commandments of God. In Deuteronomy 30:6, the same words are quoted “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”
Physical circumcision was a sign of Israels covenant with God; circumcision of the heart therefore would indicate Israel being set apart to love God fully, inside and out. The Pharisees at the time of Jesus took pride in their heritage and were boastful in their circumcision. In Matthew 3:9 John the Baptist warns the Pharisees by saying “and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” The true children of Abraham are those who follow Abraham’s example of believing in God as it says in Genesis 15:6 “And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” Faith is what makes us a child of God. Those who believe in Christ can boldly declare that they are the children of Abraham as it says in Galatians 3:29 “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The next part of the verse says that “circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter;” This is an expression explaining further what Paul had just said. He is not meaning the Holy Spirit here, but that the work was to take place in the soul of a person, and not in the body only. It is to be an internal, spiritual work, and not merely an external service. And not in the letter means that it is not only according to the literal, external command.
The next part of the verse goes on to say “whose praise is not from men but from God” meaning that the object is not to secure the praise of human beings. One of the main characteristics of the Jews in the time of Christ was, a desire to secure honor among men and were extremely attentive in the performance of all duties of their religion. This was the result of the outward circumcision, but of those that have circumcised the heart, they are those who seek praise from God. As it says in 1 Samuel 16:7 “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” The praise of God are only on those who conform and has a transformation internally within the heart and not externally only to his requirements.
The teaching from these verses can be applied to each one of our lives and we can learn the following from the passage:
- The external rites of religion are much less important than the state of the heart
- The only value of the external rites is to promote the holiness of heart and life
- That the fact that we are born into a Christian family or a holy family will not save us, unless our hearts are transformed
- That the fact that we were dedicated to God in baptism will not save us, unless our hearts are transformed
- The fact that we profess our religion, however orthodox we are outwardly, will not save us unless our hearts are transformed
- That the estimate which people put on our piety/holiness is not the proper measure of our true character and standing, its what God thinks of us by looking at our hearts is what matters.