Paul’s purpose in this chapter is to underline the need of the Jewish people (along with the rest of the world) for the gift of righteousness, which God gives freely to those who trust Christ (Romans 3:20,28; 1:16-17). Both Gentiles and Jews are under the dominion of sin (Romans 3:9), and in need of a salvation that God is ready to give to all those who put their trust in his Son.
Now in these verses (Romans 2:25–29), the way Paul underlines this need that Jewish people have is to show that Gentiles are actually becoming the true Jews and will even stand in judgment over the Jews at the judgment day. This was a staggering thought to Paul and his fellow Jews — that Gentiles could be counted as Jews who inherit God’s promises to Israel, while natural-born Jews are judged and perish.
How Can This Be?
Paul’s argument is remarkable and is full of rich truth for us today. There are implications in this text for us that are breathtaking. Let’s quickly get into Paul’s flow of thought and then broaden our horizon to another passage of Scripture that will help us understand this one even better.
“The aim of the law is to bring our heart and God together in a relationship of love and obedience.”
Amazingly, he says in verse 26 that the uncircumcised man (the Gentile) will be regarded by God as a circumcised man (a true Jew) if he “keeps the requirements of law.” “So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” So it isn’t circumcision that makes you a true Jew, it is keeping the requirements of the law — that is, it is understanding what the law was really all about and being changed by it in the heart and living out God’s purpose for man taught in it (see 1 Corinthians 7:19).
Then in verse 27, even more amazingly, Paul says that the Gentiles will be a living indictment of the disobedient Jews at the judgment day if the Gentiles “keep the law.” “And he who is physically uncircumcised [Gentile, if he keeps the law, will he not judge you who, though having the letter of the law and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?”
So in both verses 26 and 27, Paul pictures some Gentiles really being part of God’s people and being saved from judgment, while some natural-born Jews are judged and perish at the judgment day. This underlines the need of Jews not to presume upon their privileged place as Jews. They are sinners like everyone else and liable to judgment.
How Can Some Jews Not Be Jews?
Now, again, how can this be? How can Paul say that natural-born Jews may not really be Jews, and Gentiles, even without being circumcised, may really be Jews? Because if this is true, then you and I today may actually become true Jews and part of God’s chosen people with all the privileges promised to the children of Abraham. Paul knows this is a staggering thought for the Jews and Gentiles of his day and so he gives some supporting explanation in verses 28–29.
But before I show you his argument, I want to make sure you are with me and that you see this truth in at least one other place in the New Testament, namely, the truth that Gentiles actually become part of God’s chosen people Israel. The clearest place to see this is in Ephesians 2:11–19:
Remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision,” which is performed in the flesh by human hands — [Note: The Jews are the “so-called circumcision.” This is the same point as in Romans 2:25: they are Jews, but not true Jews] — remember that you were at that time separate from Christ [the Jewish Messiah], excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.
So you can see how Paul thinks in this regard. In relation to Christ, Gentiles really do become part of the “commonwealth of Israel” (verse 12). They become “true Jews.”
But how does Paul explain and defend this in Romans 2:28–29? What makes these two verses so remarkable is that they are given as the explanation of how Gentiles become true Jews by “keeping the requirements of the law” (verse 26) and “fulfilling the law” (verse 27, more literal than “keeping” the law). Verse 26 says that an uncircumcised Gentile will be regarded as truly circumcised “if he keeps the law.” And verse 27 says that the uncircumcised Gentile will judge transgressors of the law “if he fulfills the law.”
Then comes the explanation for how such “law-keeping” or “law-fulfilling” makes a person a Jew. He answers in 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; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
This is amazing. The reason it’s amazing is that what Paul is trying to show is why law-keeping — law-fulfilling — makes one a true Jew, and his answer is all about internal change, not external activity. He says, in essence, that law-keeping or law-fulfilling makes you a true Jew because it is not mainly an external thing, but an internal thing. It has to do mainly with the sense of the heart and not the seeing of the letter. It has to do mainly with praise that comes from God in secret, not the praise of man in public (see Matthew 6:4,6,18). That is what the law is really all about. Otherwise, the argument doesn’t work.
The argument says: “Gentile, you can be truly circumcised to God and belong to him as a true Jew, if you fulfill the law!” “Really?” says the Gentile, “How so?” And Paul answers, “Because being truly circumcised and being a true Jew is a matter of the heart and happens by the Spirit.” Now, that answer only makes sense if “fulfilling the law” means experiencing this heart change by the Spirit, and then living in sync with that inner change.
So the point is that a person is a true Jew — a true part of God’s redeemed people — if he fulfills the law, that is, if his heart is circumcised by the Spirit to love God. Deuteronomy 30:6 promised, “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, so that you may live.” That’s what Paul is talking about here, and you don’t have to be a natural-born Jew, he says, for it to happen to you. But it wasn’t happening for many Jews and it was happening for some Gentiles. Why?
Draw a Picture
Let me try a picture to see if I can make this plain for the children, and then maybe the adults will get it too.
At the top of the picture is God. You can’t see God, so we will just write the word G-o-d. At the bottom of the picture there is a heart — our heart. In the middle between God and us there is the Law — picture a book, the Bible. Now the ultimate aim of the law is to bring our heart and God together in a personal relationship of love and trust and obedience, not just an acquaintance like you might have with the store clerk or the mailman, but a deep and personal love relationship and fellowship.
“Seek and cherish the work of the Spirit of God in your life to make you a true Jew.”
But this was not happening for the very people of the Book. Most of the Jews were reading the law and learning the law and summing it up in lists of regulations and doing most of them. And in all this, Paul has said, they were transgressing the Law and their circumcision was useless and didn’t help them at all (verse 25).
Why? Because something is missing from the picture. What’s missing? Tell me on the basis of verse 29 alone: “He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” What is missing is the Spirit.
How shall we draw the Spirit? He is invisible. Let’s use arrows. Draw an arrow from the law in the middle down to the heart. The Spirit takes the law and writes it on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:27) so that we love it and it becomes part of us, rather than being merely an external pressure from the outside.
Then draw another arrow from the heart up through the law to God. The Spirit not only takes the law through our eyes into our hearts; it also takes us through the law into God. And that’s the ultimate goal of the law: a personal relationship of love with the living God through his word.
Without the Spirit we either reject the law of God out of hand, or we change it into something we can manage. And in either case we lose, and the law condemns us: you can become a transgressor of the law by rejecting it or by trying to keep it in your own strength. Paul calls the law minus the Spirit: “letter.” And he says in another place, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). So let’s put two summary equations in the corner of our picture:
Law minus Spirit = (1) external religious ritual (like circumcision); (2) the need for the praise of man to keep you going (3); death, because the law becomes mere “letter,” and that kills.
Law plus Spirit = (1) internal circumcision of the heart; (2) satisfaction in the praise of God, even if no man approves you; (3) life, because the Spirit unites us to God in love.
Now what’s the point of all this? The main point I want you get this morning is this: Seek and cherish the work of the Spirit of God in your life to make you a true Jew. Our salvation hangs on this — the work of the Spirit: (1) circumcising our heart to love the Lord (Deuteronomy 30:6); (2) writing the law of God on our heart (Jeremiah 31:33); (3) freeing us from our need for the praise of man (Romans 2:29). All of this is what Christ obtained for us when he shed his blood to seal the new covenant (Luke 20:22; Hebrews 13:20).
But still someone may say, “Is it really important that we think this way about our salvation? Can’t I just be a simple Christian, and not worry about being a Jew, or a descendant of Abraham, or circumcised in heart?
Wild Branches Grafted into the Olive Tree
I think the way I will answer that question is to take you to Romans 11 and simply walk with you through one more text and let you decide how important you think this is. In Romans 11:17–25, Paul compares the true Israel to a cultivated olive tree with natural branches, and the Gentile world to a wild olive tree with wild olive branches. I will make a few comments as we read starting at verse 17:
“Consider the kindness and severity of God and remain in his kindness.”
But if some of the branches [some Jews by birth] were broken off, and you, being a wild olive [Gentiles], were grafted in among them [became true Jews, or the true circumcision, as Paul says in Romans 2:26–29] and became partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree [the root of the olive tree is the covenant God made with Abraham and his true descendants, and to become a partaker of this root is to become a beneficiary of salvation, the promise made to Abraham and his descendants that he would be their God and they would be his people; if you are grafted in — if you become a part of true Israel — that’s yours], do not be arrogant [you Gentiles] toward the branches [the natural Jews]; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you [oh how easily we get this turned around, thinking that Christianity is the mother and Judaism is the dependent daughter, when in fact, Judaism is the mother and Christianity is the dependent daughter. Our life, our hope, our salvation is sustained only by God’s commitment to the covenants he has made with Israel — “the root supports you,” not vice versa]. You will say then [you Gentiles], “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief [so we see that faith is what makes you a Jew or not, which, in view of Romans 2:26–27, means the essence of law — keeping it in faith], but you stand by your faith [you have a part in this rich root of the promise of God to be your God if you believe in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as Paul said in Galatians 3:7, “It is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham” — you stand only by faith; that’s the essence of being a true Jew and part of the Israel of God]. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches [Jews have been broken off and condemned for unbelief], he will not spare you either [you can be as deceived as they were about being a true Jew if you try to cling to this tree without the Spirit changing your heart]. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell [Jews who were not true Jews, uncircumcised in heart], severity, but to you [Gentiles who have the Spirit of God and faith in Christ], God’s kindness, if you continue in his kindness [that is, continue in faith by the power of the Spirit]; otherwise you also will be cut off [oh how many professing Christians there are whose attachment to the tree of life is simply external and ritualistic, without the work of the Spirit circumcising their hearts to love God]. And they [the broken-off branches of the Jews] also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery — so that you will not be wise in your own estimation — that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and so [thus] all Israel will be saved.
Is it important for you to be a true Jew? All of God’s saving blessings come to the world through the rich root of the olive tree, the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be their God. There is no salvation outside Israel. Paul wrote these things to the Gentile church in Rome for a reason; and I preach them to you for a reason. I want you to be grafted into the olive tree and to remain firm by faith and drink of the rich root of God’s promises and be saved. So consider the kindness and severity of God (Romans 11:20) and remain in his kindness.
Other Relevant Texts to Be Studied
Genesis 17:25: “And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son.”
Leviticus 26:40: “If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against me, and also in their acting with hostility against me — I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies — or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also my covenant with Isaac, and my covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land.”
Deuteronomy 10:14: “Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it. Yet on your fathers did the Lord set his affection to love them, and he chose their descendants after them, even you above all peoples, as it is this day. So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer. For the Loed your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality nor take a bribe.”
Jeremiah 4:4: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds.
Jeremiah 9:23: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,’ declares the Lord. ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised — Egypt and Judah, and Edom and the sons of Ammon, and Moab and all those inhabiting the desert who clip the hair on their temples; for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart.”
Matthew 8:10: “Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. ‘I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Matthew 15:22: “And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and implored him, saying, ‘Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.’ But he answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and began to bow down before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’ And he answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she said, ‘Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed at once.”
Romans 9:6: “But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: ‘Through Isaac your descendants will be named.’ That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.”
First Corinthians 7:19: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.”
Galatians 5:6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.”
Galatians 6:15: “For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
Philippians 3:1: “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
Colossians 2:11: “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.”
Revelation 3:9: “Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie — I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you.”
Revelation 2:9: “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich), and the blasphemy by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.