(We are continuing a series of articles commenting on Paul’s epistle to the Romans. We pray that they will be a blessing to you. Editor)
Hard Questions—In verses 21-23 the apostle asks some hard questions. Let each soul that has been wont to pride himself upon the correctness of his life answer these questions for himself. It is easy and natural for a man to pride himself upon his “morality.” Men who are not Christians comfort themselves with the thought that they live “moral” lives, and that therefore they are as well off as though they were Christians. Let all such know that there is no morality except conformity to the law of God. Everything that is in any respect below the standard of that law is immorality. Knowing this, let them see if they have perfectly kept that law.
“Dost Thou Steal?” Most people will say, “No; I am honest in all my dealing.” Very well, but let us not decide the case offhand. Let us examine the Scripture. It says, “The law is spiritual.” (Romans 7:14) “The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) No matter how correct we are in our outward acts, if in spirit or thought we have transgressed, we are guilty. The Lord looks at the heart, instead of the outward appearance. (1 Samuel 16:7)
Again, it is just as wrong to steal from God as to steal from man; have you given God his due? Have you dealt in a perfectly honest way with him? Hear what he says: “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse; for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.” (Malachi 3:8, 9) Does this mean you? Have you rendered to God that which is his due in tithes and offerings? If not, what will you answer when the word of inspiration asks, “Thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?” (Romans 2:21)
“The Law is Spiritual”—In the fifth chapter of Matthew the Saviour has set forth the spirituality of the law. He says that unless our righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we can not enter the kingdom of heaven. What was their righteousness? He said to them, “Ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matthew 23:28)
Therefore, unless we are righteous inwardly, we are nothing. God desires “truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 51:6) Following on in the fifth chapter of Matthew, the Saviour shows that one may break the sixth commandment, which says, “Thou shalt not kill,” by the utterance of a single word. He also shows that we may break the seventh commandment which says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” by a look and a thought. The same principle of course applies to all the commandments. This being the case, it becomes one to be very careful about saying that he has perfectly kept the law.
Some have said that the Ten Commandments are a very low standard, and that a man might keep them all and still not be worthy of admission into respectable society. Such know nothing about the law. As a matter of fact, a man may break all the commandments, and still figure as a shining light in the “best society.”
The Name of God Blasphemed—“The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.” (Romans 2:24) Who has done this? The one who teaches the law, and who says that one who teaches the law and who says that one should not take the name of the Lord in vain. When David sinned in the case of Uriah’s wife, God said to him, “By this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme.” (2 Samuel 12:14) That is, he was a professed follower of the Lord, and by his violation of the law of the Lord he had given unbelievers a chance to say, “There, that is a specimen of Christianity.”
Who is there that can say that as a professed follower of the Lord he has always correctly represented the truth? Who is there that must not admit to himself and God that either by his words or actions he has very often misrepresented the truth which he professed? Who is there that has not by his failures, either in teaching or acting, given people a miserably inadequate idea of what true godliness is?
In short, who is there that must not say “Yes” to the apostle’s question, “Through breaking the law, dishonorest thou God?” And since thus the name of God is blasphemed through professed Christians, who is there that can declare himself guiltless before God’s law?
In these verses we have had some sharp questions to those who are “called Jews,” that is, who profess to be followers of the Lord. Mere form and profession do not constitute one a proper teacher of the truth of God. He who does not exhibit in his life the power of that which he professes, is only a detriment to the cause. In the verses now before us we have a brief but explicit statement concerning circumcision and uncircumcision.
Circumcision and Uncircumcision—Romans 2:25-29
For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Romans 2:25-29)
Definition of Terms—The two terms “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” are here used not only to indicate the rite and the absence of it, but also to designate two classes of people. “The uncircumcision” evidently refers to those who were called Gentiles, those who worshiped other gods. This use of the terms is very plain in the following passage: “But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (For he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.” (Galatians 2:7-9) Here we find that the terms “uncircumcision,” “Gentiles,” and “heathen,” all refer to the same people.
Just what was the profit of circumcision, we are not told in this chapter. The statement of the fact was enough for this place, for the only point in the mind of the writer was to show what circumcision is, and who are the really circumcised. A great deal depends upon these few verses. They should be studied carefully, because upon them depends the proper understanding of a large portion of the prophecies of the Old Testament.
If these verses had received the consideration that they ought to have by professed Bible students, there would never have been any “Anglo-Israel” theory, and the unprofitable and misleading suppositions about the return of the Jews to Jerusalem before the coming of the Lord would never have been made.
What is Circumcision?—This question is answered in plain language in Romans 4:11, where the apostle, speaking of Abraham, the first one who was circumcised, says: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised.” To the question, “What is circumcision?” the answer must therefore be, The sign of circumcision is a seal of righteousness by faith.
When Circumcision is Made Uncircumcision— This being the case, it is evident that where there was no righteousness, the sign of circumcision was worthless. So the apostle says, “If thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.” As in the previous verses we learned that the form without the fact amounts to nothing, so here we are told that the sign without the substance is of no account. It is very easy for a poor man to put out a sign advertising boots and shoes; but to fill the shop with goods requires capital. If he has the sign, but has no boots and shoes, he is worse off than if he had no sign.
The Mistake of the Jews—The Jews made a mistake of supposing that the sign was sufficient. They finally came to hold the idea that the sign would bring the reality, just as many professed Christians in these days suppose that the performance of certain rites will make them members of the body of Christ. But circumcision of the flesh alone could represent no righteousness, but sin. (See Galatians 5:19-21.) As a matter of fact, many of those whom they despised as “uncircumcised” were thus in reality “circumcised,” while they themselves were not.
Circumcision of the Heart—Real circumcision is a matter of the heart, that is, of the inner life, and not at all of the flesh. The apostle plainly declares that what is outward in the flesh is not circumcision, that is, which consists only in outward form; but “circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter.” This is stated as a general truth.
This was not a new departure in the days of Paul, but was the case from the beginning. In Deuteronomy 30:6 we read the words of Moses to the children of Israel: “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” All true Jews recognized that true circumcision was only of the heart, for Stephen addressed those who rejected the truth as “stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears.” (Acts 7:51)
Righteousness in the Heart—The psalmist says, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 2:6) Mere outward righteousness is nothing. (See Matthew 5:20; 23:27, 28.) It is with the heart that man believeth unto righteousness. (Romans 10:10) When Moses, at the command of the Lord, rehearsed the law to Israel, he said: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 6) There can be no righteousness that is not the real life. Therefore, since circumcision is but a sign of righteousness, it is evident that there can be no real circumcision except circumcision of the heart.
Circumcised by the Spirit—“For we know that the law is spiritual.” (Romans 7:14) That is, it is the nature of the Holy Spirit, for the word of God is the sword of the Spirit of God that can put the law of God into the heart of man. Therefore true circumcision is the work of the Holy Spirit. Stephen called the wicked Jews uncircumcised, because, said he, “Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 7:51) It seems evident, therefore, that, although the word “spirit” in Romans 2:29 is not spelled with a capital “S,” it refers to the Holy Spirit and not merely to the spirit of man. (Of course in the Greek there is nothing to indicate any difference, just as in English the word is spelled the same whether it refers to the Spirit of God or the spirit of man).
If we remember that circumcision was given as the seal of righteousness by faith, and that the inheritance promised to Abraham and his seed was through the righteousness of the law (Romans 4:11, 13), we shall see that circumcision was the pledge of the inheritance. The apostle also says that we obtain the inheritance in Christ “in whom also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession.” (Ephesians 1:10-13) The possession promised to Abraham and to his seed was assured only through the Spirit of righteousness; therefore, from the very beginning there was no real circumcision that was not of the Spirit.
Circumcision through Christ—“Ye are complete in [Christ], which is the head of all principality and power; in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” (Colossians 2:8-11) Circumcision must have meant as much when first given as it ever did. Therefore from the very beginning it meant righteousness through Christ alone. This is sufficiently shown in the fact that circumcision was given to Abraham as the seal of the righteousness which he had by faith, and that “he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
Who Are the “Circumcision”?—This question is answered in Philippians 3:3: “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” And this is but saying in other words what we have in our text, “Circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Nobody therefore was ever really circumcised who did not believe and rejoice in Christ Jesus. That is the reason why Stephen called the unbelieving Jews “uncircumcised.”
The Meaning of Circumcision—We have not space to go into this question in detail, but the above texts put us on the track. A careful study of the chapters in Genesis which speak of God’s covenant with Abraham will also help to clear up the matter.
We learn in Genesis 15 that God made a covenant with Abraham on the basis of his faith. The sixteenth chapter tells how Abraham listened to the voice of his wife instead of the voice of the Lord, and sought to work out the promise of God through the flesh and made a failure. His son was to be born of the Spirit, and not after the flesh. (See Galatians 4:22, 23, 28, 29.)
Then the seventeenth chapter shows the revival of Abraham’s faith, and the renewal of the covenant, with circumcision as the seal. A portion of flesh was cut off to indicate that he was to have no confidence in the flesh, but was to expect righteousness and the inheritance only through the Spirit of God. The descendants of Abraham would thus have a continual reminder of his mistake and would be admonished to trust the Lord and not themselves.
But they perverted this sign. They regarded it as indicating that they were better than other people, instead of looking upon it as an evidence that “the flesh profiteth nothing.” But the fact that the Jews perverted and misunderstood the sign does not destroy its original meaning.
Who Are Jews?—We have seen in a quotation from the second chapter of Galatians that the term “uncircumcised” refers to those who do not know the Lord, or who are “without God in the world.” (See Ephesians 2:11, 12.) The Jews are “the circumcision.” But only those who rejoice in Christ Jesus are the circumcision, who have no confidence in the flesh. Therefore the real Jews are none other than [believing] Christians. “He is a Jew, which is one inwardly.” There never was a real Jew in the sight of God who was not a believer in Christ. And every true believer in Christ is a Jew in the Bible sense of the term. Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, rejoiced in Christ. (See John 8:56.)
A Mark of Separation—Many have entertained the notion that circumcision was given as a distinguishing mark between the Jews and the Gentiles. The fallacy of this idea is sufficiently shown by a study of the giving of circumcision, and by the statement of the apostle Paul of what it really signified. Others suppose that it was given to keep the Jews separate, so that the genealogy of Christ could be ascertained. This also is simply an unfounded guess. Christ was to come from the tribe of Judah, but as all the tribes were circumcised, it is evident that circumcision could not by any means preserve his genealogy. Moreover, circumcision in the flesh never did make any separation between the Jews and the Gentiles.
It did not keep Israel from idolatry, and it did not keep them from joining the heathen in their idolatrous practices. Whenever the Jews forgot God, they mingled with the heathen, and there was no difference between them and the Gentiles. Circumcision did not separate them.
Still further, God did not wish the Jews to be separated from the Gentiles in the sense that they were to have no dealings with them. The object of his calling out the Jews from Egypt was that they should carry the gospel to the heathen. He did wish them to be separate in character, but outward circumcision could never effect this.
Moses said to the Lord, “Wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? So shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth.” (Exodus 33:16) The presence of the Lord in the heart of men will separate them from all others, although they live in the same house and eat at the same table. But if Christ is not in the heart of a man, he is not separated from the world, though he may have been circumcised and may live a hermit.
Literal and Spiritual Seed—Much of the confusion that has existed in regard to Israel has arisen through a misunderstanding of these terms. People suppose that to say that only those who are spiritual are really Jews is to deny the literalness of the seed and of the promise. But “spiritual” is not opposed to “literal.” That which is spiritual is literal, and real. Christ is spiritual, but he is the real, literal Seed. God is spiritual, and is Spirit, yet he is not a figurative Being, but a real, literal God. So the inheritance of which we are heirs in Christ, is a spiritual inheritance, yet it is real.
To say that only those who are spiritual constitute the true Israel is not to modify or turn aside the Scriptures, or to weaken in any way the directness and force of the promise, because the promise of God is only to those who have faith in Christ. “For the promise that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” (Romans 4:13) “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)
(To be continued)
(This article was taken from a series of articles printed in The Signs of the Times from October, 1895 through September, 1896. Some editing has been done for this publication. Editor)