I highly recommend reading ‘Romans Chapter 2: Part 1‘ and ‘Part 2‘ if you haven’t already. Part 1 covers the Scriptural definition of a ‘circumcised heart’ that Paul mentions in Romans 2:29, and how it is “not new” in the “New” Testament. Part 2 explains how the Roman believers who kept the Law of Moses (which Paul does not condemn) were being taught the Law by those who were not practicing what they preached (which Paul does condemn, for it dishonors God).
That leads us full circle back to verses 28 & 29 ~
Romans 2:28-29 28For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
These verses (or just parts of them) have been “plucked out” of the chapter and touted as proof that the apostle Paul taught against the Law of Moses, and especially circumcision. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and is very apparent if one reads the whole letter in context without cherry-picking a verse here or part of a sentence there.
Even so, Romans 2:29 is still misquoted as a “proof verse“ that the Law of Moses, and more specifically ‘circumcision of the flesh’, is no longer binding to God’s set-apart people. When Paul says in verse 29 that “circumcision of the heart is by the Spirit and not by the letter”, mainstream theology argues that this ‘must mean’ that Paul is declaring that the letter of the Law is no longer valid (even though it doesn’t say that). It teaches that since he has described a second kind of circumcision, “by the Spirit”, then Paul ‘must be insinuating’ that this replaces the commandment of God regarding circumcision of the flesh, “in the letter” (even though it doesn’t say that). This argument rests on the “assumption“ that there is only one of two options available to us; it is either circumcision of the heart or circumcision of the flesh, but not both. This dogma that only one circumcision can or must exist at one time is a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy is when one argues that there are only two possible and mutually exclusive alternatives, when in fact there are other alternatives; or the categories are not in fact mutually exclusive.
As shown in Part 1, Circumcision of the Heart, Paul is not introducing some new doctrine to take the place of another doctrine, as today’s teachers would have us believe. Paul (the eminent scholar of his day) is quoting the Law of Moses and the Prophets (see verses directly below). He is preaching a very old doctrine; that circumcision of the heart is by the Spirit, secret and hidden, which only God sees.
These Roman believers, along with many of the religious leaders of the day, were only concerned about circumcision of the flesh that man sees which is outward and in obedience to the letter of the Law. Paul is reminding them (and us) in this second chapter of Romans what it actually means to have a circumcised heart, and what that looks like in practice; i.e. doing what the Law requires shows that the Law is written on our hearts, see Practice What You Preach. When Paul says “in the Spirit and not in the letter” he is not saying that the “letter” is done away with, all he’s saying to these ‘believers’ is that “it is the Spirit that circumcises the heart and not the letter”; it is just a statement of fact, that’s all. He’s reminding these ‘believers’ in Rome (and us) that which they had forgotten, that is, the difference between the two.
The actual point Paul is making for us in verses 28 and 29 is in reference to the prior 20 verses. A circumcised heart in practice is doing what the Law requires which shows we have God’s Laws written on our hearts, verses 14 and 15 of Romans 2. If they are written on our hearts we will want to obey/keep His Laws from our “circumcised heart”, out of love. The inward desire of obedience from the ‘heart and soul’ is what God sees. The outward “appearance of obedience” that man sees can be deceptive. Any man can be circumcised in the flesh, but that does not mean he truly loves God and is faithful from his heart. Paul is telling us that it is the heart that matters most. Not having a circumcised heart is walking in stubbornness after our own ways and desires. It has always been the will of God that his people are to have a circumcised heart ~
What does the text say?
Deuteronomy 10:12-16 12And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with “all your heart and with all your soul”, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn;
Deuteronomy 11:22 For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the LORD your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him.
Deuteronomy 19:9 provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the LORD your God and by walking ever in his ways—
Joshua 22:5 Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, to love the LORD your God, and to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments and to cling to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.
1 Samuel 13:14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you.”
1 Samuel 16:7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
Psalm 37:30-31 30The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice. 31The law of his God is in his heart; his steps do not slip.
Psalm 40:8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
Psalm 119:10-11 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.
Psalm 119:34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.
Psalm 119:69 The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts;
Psalm 119:111-112 111Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. 112I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end. (see Forever means Forever)
Isaiah 51:7 “Listen to me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their reviling’s.
Jeremiah 3:15 “‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
Psalm 119:66 Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.
Romans 2:20 having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth (see What is Truth)
Jeremiah 9:24-26 24but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.” 25“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh— 26Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” [*this is an End-Times event*]
Jeremiah 11:8 Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but everyone walked in the stubbornness of his evil heart. Therefore, I brought upon them all the words of this covenant, which I commanded them to do, but they did not.”
John 7:16-19 16So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. 17If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. 18The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. 19Has not Moses given you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law.”
- Psalm 40:8 I delight to do your will O my God; your law is within my heart.”
John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
John 14:21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.
Acts 13:22 And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, I have found in David, the son of Jesse, a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’
- Psalm 40:8 (a Psalm of David ) I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
Ephesians 6:5 not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart,
Hebrews 3:7,8,12 7Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,“Today, if you hear his voice, 8do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,… 12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
1 John 2:3-6 And by this we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
1 John 5:2-3 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
2 John 1:6 And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it;
Revelation 2:23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.
Now that we know the ‘circumcised heart’ that Paul has described in Romans chapter 2 has always been the true sign of those that have chosen to serve the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, we can address why Paul is bringing it to their (and our) attention.
Paul is fighting the same battle here that he does in the vast majority of his letters. He is fighting against the influence of the ‘Circumcision Party’ on new believers who are coming to faith but were not brought up in the knowledge and truth of God’s Laws. The ‘Circumcision Party’ taught that one could not be saved unless he was first circumcised in the flesh. This “salvation/justification by works” doctrine is what Paul combats against in a lot of his letters; that is circumcision for justification, which is a man-made tradition/doctrine. The Law of God given through Moses does not teach this. The Law of Moses never states that obeying it will save you or justify you before God (please read Galatians Pt2 The Curse “OF” the Law and Justification vs Righteousness).
The ‘Circumcision Party’, and the hierarchy in Judea in general, had been teaching this doctrine/tradition of ‘works-based salvation’ for a long time when Jesus and his disciples appeared on the scene. Contrary to the Law of Moses, the ‘Circumcision Party’ taught that any proselyte who wanted to convert to their religion had to first be physically circumcised in order to be saved. This man-made tradition had to be done before any scriptural or doctrinal teachings could begin. The religious leader’s foremost concerns were the outward appearances that they could display to show off their piety.
Again, the Law of Moses does not teach this.
Jesus, the Jerusalem council and Paul railed against this over and over again.
What does the text say?
Matthew 15:3,6 3He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? 6So, for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.
Acts 15:1 But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
The ‘Circumcision Party’ put aside the Law of God in order to be seen doing their own man-made traditions. They preached circumcision for salvation (Acts 15:1) and justification (Galatians 5:4), which the Law of Moses does not teach. Circumcision is ‘a sign’ of covenant and it is declared by God as an everlasting sign ~
Genesis 17:10,11,13 10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you… 13So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. [Romans 4:16 ~> Gal 3:7 ~> Gal 3:29 ~> Genesis 17:9-14; ~> John 8:39; ~> Acts 21:20-24; see Zealous for the Law]
The ‘Circumcision Party’ obeyed just enough of the Law of Moses to appear outwardly obedient in order to be seen by men. And as we all know, outward appearances can be deceiving, but God sees the heart. These religious leaders (just like the Roman believers in Chapter 2) were preaching Moses but not literally practicing what they preached.
That’s why Jesus tells us ~
Matthew 23:1-3 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice”.
When the teachers in Jesus’ day sat in Moses seat they could only read and quote from Moses. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, is emphatically commanding us to “do and observe” whatever is said from Moses’ seat. That is what the text says, literally “do and observe whatever “they tell you” from the Seat of Moses. However, he also says do not do the “works they do. For they preach (Moses), but do not practice” (Paul says the same thing, see Practice What You Preach). Some teachers and leaders of Jesus’ day were wolves in sheep’s clothing; the outward appearance of obeying God with their own man-made doctrines/traditions but inwardly disobeying the Law of God, just as Paul is preaching to these Romans. He is telling them (and us) to not appear outwardly pious for the praise of men, but to show God that you are inwardly pious and thereby getting praise from Him.
In the eyes of God, the pretense of obeying the letter of the Law is worthless unless we do it with a circumcised heart, by the Spirit. ~
Isaiah 29:13 And the LORD said “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
This is quoted by the Son of God from Isaiah which context is that of disobeying God’s Law. That is, lip service to God in order to be seen by men, without a circumcised heart ~
Mathew 5:8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Today’s theology teaches that we are not required to “literally” keep the letter of the Law of God given through Moses. So I ask, can we “literally” blaspheme God, murder, slander, steal, not love God with all of heart, or commit immoral sexual acts? This cannot be the meaning of Paul’s frequent references to the ‘letter’ and the ‘spirit’. If it was, then why does he repeatedly tell us in his letters that those who do such things will not see the kingdom of God? The ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of the law uphold each other. You cannot break the law literally without first breaking it spiritually, from the heart.
In Romans 2:29 Paul is stating a fact; circumcision of the heart is ‘by the Spirit’. Paul is not stating that the ‘Spiritual’ circumcision overthrows or replaces the ‘Physical’; he never states that in any of his letters. Mainstream theology “assumes” this; this is called ‘Eisegesis‘, reading into the text your own ideas.
Paul is simply stating a truth: the circumcised heart is by the Spirit, which is the sign of a ‘real Jew’. Man cannot see this, only God can. As the Scriptures prove in my blog Circumcision of the Heart, this has been a requirement of God for His set-apart people since He gave us His Laws at Sinai. ‘That‘ is what Paul is reiterating to these Romans (and us).
The doctrines of the Pharisees in Israel at the time of Christ and the apostles had become ostentatious and self-serving. They did their own traditions/works to be seen by men. Paul, a former Pharisee, knew of these errors and is condemning them for breaking the Law of God, even though they were circumcised in the flesh.
Romans 2:27-29 27Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
Do you see how Paul is praising those who keep the Law in verse 27? He tells these Roman believers who are ‘breaking the Law’ that they will be condemned by those who ‘keep the Law’.
As Part 2, Practice What You Preach showed, Paul is very much ‘Pro-Law-of-Moses’. As I have said over and over in my blogs, the Law does not justify or save, however, it is God’s set-apart Instructions for His set-apart people; Paul is again telling us to keep the Law just like he did (You yourself also live in observance of the Law ~ James speaking to Paul).
Read verse 27 again out loud; ‘he who keeps the Law will condemn you who break the Law’. In the Greek “keeps the Law” is Present Tense and “will condemn” is in the Future Tense!
How on earth was the Law done away with if Paul is declaring to those who ‘keep it’ and those who ‘will be condemned for breaking it’ in the Present and Future Tenses???
Final Thought: What is Paul’s very next comment on circumcision of the flesh after discussing circumcision of the heart? ~
- Romans 3:1-2 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way.
What did Paul just say?
The Apostle Paul said, “What is the value of circumcision? Much in every way.” Does that really sound like Paul is vehemently opposed to circumcision???
- For further study of Paul’s teachings, as well as the original Greek, please see the blog posts at the bottom of this page. Be a Berean, and test Paul’s doctrines to the “Scriptures”. Please ‘share’ this study, and thank you for your time!