For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But 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. – Romans 2:25-29 ESV
In this chapter, Paul has been dealing primarily with the Jews, those who had been chosen by God, commanded to keep His law and enjoyed a unique and privileged relationship with Him. They believed themselves to be spiritually superior and safe from God’s judgment, because they belonged to Him. But Paul, in his ongoing exposition of the “gospel of God,” is making it clear that the kind of righteousness God demands is impossible for both the Jew and the Gentile to provide. Even though the Jews did enjoy a one-of-a-kind relationship with God, they were no better off when it came to righteousness than their non-Jewish neighbors. Paul even accused them of passing judgment on the Gentiles, while practicing the very same sins. It wasn’t enough to have and to know the law, you had to keep it. Paul said it was “the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13 ESV). In other words, those who wanted to be made right with God were going to have to keep His law perfectly and completely. Paul’s accusations against his own people were anything but mild. “While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law” (Romans 2:21-23 ESV).
Circumcision, the physical, outward sign of the covenant between the people of Israel and God, was to be a constant reminder and a permanent mark of their status as God’s people. But circumcision was not enough. They still had to obey Him. They were still required to be faithful and worship Him alone. Later on, when God gave the law to Moses, the people had a non-negotiable, unarguable outline of God’s righteous expectations. And Paul said, “circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25 ESV). Being a Jew was directly tied to being obedient to God. The privilege of being God’s chosen people came with a heavy responsibility. It was not enough to have a mark on your body, an external sign of ownership. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, not is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:28-29 ESV).
All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words of God spoken to the people of Israel. “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 10:15-16 ESV). They were guilty of disobedience and unfaithfulness. While Moses had been on the mountain top receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had been busy worshiping the golden calf down in the valley. In his anger and disappointment, Moses had broken the original tablets, and was forced to return to the mountain to receive a second set. And in spite of their actions, God made His expectations clear. “And 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?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13 ESV). God demanded obedience. He required faithfulness – from the heart. The problem with man has always been an inner one, not an outer one. Our sinfulness flows from within. Jesus Himself had said, “It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you” (Mark 7:20-23 NLT).
Circumcision is a matter of the heart. It has always been about the heart. And Paul makes it clear that the kind of heart that God is looking for is only available through a work of the Spirit, not the efforts of men. Keeping the law, as long as it was done through outward effort would fail, because man’s heart was inherently evil and unfaithful. The prophet, Jeremiah, had strong words from the Lord for the people of Judah. They had been repeatedly unfaithful and unable to keep the law of God. And that was not going to change. God told them, “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil” (Jeremiah 13:23 NLT). They had a heart problem. They were incapable of remaining faithful to God or refraining from sin against God.
So Paul wanted his readers to know that all men, whether Jews or Gentiles, stood before God as guilty. It wasn’t a matter of spiritual status or knowledge of God and His ways. It was about obedience, faithfulness, and perfect righteousness – something man was incapable of pulling off on his own. Paul was simply supporting his primary premise that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. The righteousness God demanded and expected was only available through faith in His Son. The kind of heart change required to remain faithful to God was only made possible through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. All men need the gospel.