Who Is a True Jew?
The main point that I want to make from this text this morning is that God will regard you as a Jew — that is, will count you, though you be a Gentile, as a member of his chosen people — if you keep the requirements of the law, that is, if you fulfill the law. I base it mainly on verse 26: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” In other words, a Gentile (that’s what is meant by “the uncircumcised man”) who fulfills the requirements of the law will be counted as a true Jew — a true member of God’s chosen people, Israel. Now, there are at least three urgent questions you may ask about this main point.
I thought the point of this unit (Romans 2) was to show that the Jews are under sin and in need of the gospel of justification by faith (Romans 3:9). Why does Paul make a point about Gentiles becoming Jews? It seems out of place. How does this fit into his overall purpose to show that all are under sin?
How does the promise that Gentiles will be regarded as true Jews, if we keep the requirements of the law, fit together with the promise that we are justified not by works of the law but by faith (Romans 3:28)? Does this promise in Romans 2:26 really come true for anybody? Or is it hypothetical? Is this really Christian experience — to fulfill the requirements of the law and so be counted as a true Jew?
Why does it matter if I am counted as a Jew or not? I don’t get up in the morning wishing I were a Jew. Why would you even think of preaching a sermon that has such a foreign notion as its main point? This is not a felt need. Who wants to be a true Jew anyway? And why would they want that?
Now that is the way I want to build this message — by answering those three questions, one at a time.
Questions — Possible Objections
First of all, if the point of Romans 2 is to show that the Jews are under sin and in need of the gospel (Romans 3:9), why does Paul make a point in verse 26 about Gentiles becoming Jews? It seems out of place. How does this fit into his overall purpose to show that all are under sin?
“You will enter eternal life if you fulfill the true intention of the law.”
Notice verse 25 and its connection with verse 26: “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.” Now that is what we expect in this section: a word to Jews. What’s the point of verse 25? The point is that external marks of election and privilege — external marks of being a Jew — are really of no value at all if the person who has those marks lives a life of transgressing the law. In other words, if you reject the real message of the law of God and have a rebellious heart against God, then external rituals, such as circumcision, will not do you any good. You will not be right with God.
So Paul is supporting the point from verses 17–24 that the Jewish people in general in his day were not teaching themselves the real meaning of the law (verse 21), and were transgressing it at its core. And having the external marks of the covenant, like circumcision, was of no value at all to keep them from judgment. They are under sin and in need of the gift of God’s righteousness just as we Gentiles are.
Now the connection with verse 26. Paul draws out a lesson for the Gentiles: “So [= therefore] if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” In other words, if your failure to fulfill the law means that your circumcision is of no value (verse 25), then it follows that the crucial thing is not externals like circumcision, but a true grasp of what the law was really teaching about the heart and about faith and about the obedience that comes from faith (see last week’s message). And if that is what really matters, then Gentiles — the uncircumcised — who grasp the real meaning of the law and have their hearts changed by the Spirit and live out the obedience of faith (see Romans 1:5; 16:26), they will, in reality, be the true Jews.
Gentile Conversions Leading to Jewish Conversions
Why make this point? Because it underlines at least two things Paul wants to say to his Jewish kinsmen to help prepare them for the gospel.
If outsiders, like the Gentiles, are really inheriting the promises given to the Jews while the Jews aren’t, it shows how badly the Jews misunderstood their own law. As verse 21 says, they did not teach themselves. They stumbled over the real message of faith, and turned the law into a catalog of external performances. If the Gentiles can become Jews and inherit the promises, then the Jews really missed it. They put external reality, like circumcision, where internal reality, like faith, should have been (see Romans 9:32).
If outsiders, like the Gentiles, are really taking the place of natural-born Israelites in the kingdom of God, then this shows how badly the Jewish people need to be saved. They are not just seen to be lost, because everyone else is lost; their lostness is even more clear, because those who are less likely candidates than themselves are being saved and taking their own place at the table of salvation, while Jews are missing out.
So my answer to the first question is: Paul brings up the issue of Gentiles becoming Jews to help the Jews see that they really have misread their Bibles and really do need salvation by grace through faith, the same as the Gentiles who are inheriting the very promises they thought belonged only to Jews.
The second question might be: If your main point is that God will regard Gentiles as Jews if they keep the requirements of the law, how does that fit together with the promise that we are justified not by works of the Law but by faith (Romans 3:28)? Does this promise in verse 26 really come true for anybody, or is it hypothetical? Is this really Christian experience — to fulfill the requirements of the Law and so be counted as a true Jew?
Keep in mind the verse that we are focusing on verse 26: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” I take this to mean that, if you keep the law as it was really meant to be kept, then, even if you are a Gentile, you will be reckoned by God to be a part of his true chosen people, which includes inheriting eternal life. That is, you will enter eternal life if you fulfill the true intention of the law (see Romans 2:7).
“Keeping the requirements of the law is a free gift of the Spirit.”
Now let me give two responses to the question of whether this is a Christian experience and how it fits with justification by faith alone. Let’s start with the immediate context and then go to Romans 8.
In verse 27, Paul repeats the truth that the one who is “physically uncircumcised” will be in a position of judging, not of being judged, at the last day, “if he keeps [literally: fulfills] the law.” Then verse 28 starts with the word “for” to show that Paul is giving some support for what he has just said, namely, that Gentiles who fulfills the law will be counted as true Jews and will be in the position of judges, not of being judged, at the last day.
And what he says in this support, especially verse 29, is very helpful for understanding how Gentiles are counted to be Jews if they fulfill the true meaning of the law. Verses 28–29: “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. . . .”
The point of verse 29 is that the Holy Spirit is the one who makes uncircumcised Gentiles into circumcised Jews, namely, by circumcising their hearts. Circumcision, Paul says, is, in essence, an internal change of heart, not an external change of the sexual organ. When he contrasts “letter” and “Spirit” (verse 29), he means that the Jews had been experiencing the law at the external level (“letter”). But, in fact, the law called for an internal change produced by the Spirit, even if the law itself couldn’t produce that change (see Romans 8:3).
Well, all of this shows that Paul has Christians in mind, because this is the way he talks about Christian conversion. For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:5–6, he says, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Letter of the Law — Spirit of the Law
In other words, behind this language of “letter” and “Spirit” is Paul’s whole understanding of the Christian life as an expression of the “new covenant.” In the promises of the new covenant, which Jesus bought with his own blood (Luke 22:20), God promises to take out the heart of stone and give us a new heart and put his Spirit within us and cause us to walk in his law. Listen to Ezekiel 36:37b: “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe my ordinances” (see also Ezekiel 11:19–20).
This promise shows that keeping the law and fulfilling the law is something that God promised when the Holy Spirit was given to his people in the fuller measure of the new covenant. So when verse 26 says, “If the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” we should understand this of the Christian Gentile who has been given the “Spirit” and has stopped treating the law as a dead “letter” that kills. Rather, the law now has become the expression of God’s good moral will for life that grows like fruit from a circumcised heart of faith that the Holy Spirit has brought about. In other words, keeping the requirements of the law is a free gift of the Spirit.
This is not legalism. This is not earning salvation. This is the obedience of faith which Paul, in Romans 1:5, said was the goal of all his ministry: “We have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake.” Keeping the requirements of the law means discovering that the law really teaches us to trust God’s grace and then live in a way that shows the reality of that trust by the power of God’s indwelling “Spirit,” not the powerless, dead “letter.”
The second response I have to the question (Is the keeping of the Law so as to be counted a true Jew really a Christian experience?) is to look at Romans 8:3–4: “For what the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, [the same idea as Romans 2:26–27], who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
This makes it clear that the idea of fulfilling the law is a Christian experience and that it really does happen, and that it happens in the lives of those who walk according to the Spirit. Christ died for us and purchased for us the new covenant blessings of the Spirit, and now he is at work in our lives enabling us to live out — not perfectly, but enough to show we trust him — the moral law of God.
So now we go back to Romans 2:26: “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” What this means is that Christ has died for us and has purchased for us the gift and power of the Holy Spirit the way the new covenant promised. The Spirit within us has freed us from the law as a dead “letter” (Romans 7:6), and has shown us that the law is really a call to trust a merciful and gracious God for the free gift of forgiveness and righteousness, and then to let his moral will guide the way we express our faith in life.
So, even though we are Gentiles and may not be physically circumcised, we fulfill the law and are regarded by God as true Jews on the basis of our faith, which is confirmed by our obedience to God’s moral law. And we know he is talking about God’s moral law and not the ceremonial law because circumcision is not included. And we know he is talking about sincere obedience, not sinless obedience because at the very heart of the new covenant is the blood of Christ which covers all our sins (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 8:12), which we wouldn’t need if we were made sinless at conversion.
Why Does It Matter?
Finally, someone might ask, Why does it matter whether or not I am counted as a Jew? I don’t get up in the morning wishing I were a Jew. Why would you even think of preaching a sermon that has such a foreign notion as its main point? Who wants to be a true Jew anyway? And why would they want that?
Since our time is up and I intend to pick it up here (next week)[/messages/who-is-a-true-jew-part-2], I will content myself with two short and very important reasons.
“At the very heart of the new covenant is the blood of Christ which covers all our sins.”
One is that God is at pains to explain to you that you are a true Jew. This is God’s word to you about who you are if you are a believer. To say that you are not interested in being a Jew is like saying you are not interested in knowing your true identity. Ever since the Fall, we are all like people who have gone through a horrific ordeal and have lost our memory. We are all plagued with amnesia. And we are wandering about in the world trying to figure out who we are.
One person knows who we are — God. He made us. He defines us. If we are ever going to know who we are in our essence, we will learn it from God or not at all. Therefore it is a great gift to us that he should tell us that an essential part of our identity is that we are true Jews if we fulfill the obedience of faith. Don’t reject God’s good gift because you can’t see the benefits of being a true Jew. That’s the first thing I would say: God is telling you who you are. Pay attention. Receive the gift. Don’t assume you know a better thing to be than what God says you are.
And finally, I would say, you ought to want to be a true Jew because “salvation belongs to the Jews” (John 4:22), and all the promises of God are yours if you are a true Jew (see Romans 11:17-18). What a great thing it is to be able to go to the whole Bible, Old and New Testament, and know that “this is my book.” I am a Jew. These are my promises. This is my story. This is my Messiah. This is my God (Jeremiah 31:33). You can say that today — Jew or Gentile — if you will trust in the all-satisfying mercy of God in Christ Jesus and repent of your sins.
Here is where I will pick it up next week. I want you to revel in this. All I have been able to do today is lay some foundations. Next week we will step back and get the bigger picture of why it is so thrilling to be a true Jew.