True and False Circumcision - Romans 2:25-29

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. So if the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? And he who is physically uncircumcised, 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? 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 (Romans 2:25-29).

 

This study focuses upon the subject of circumcision and requires that we, first, lay a foundation before this passage will make sense to most of us. In order to do so, we are going to walk through the entire Bible to uncover the mandate and necessity of true circumcision. Admittedly, this religious rite is not a normal part of our life as Gentiles. Consequently, we do not give this practice much thought. In order for us to understand Paul’s message on circumcision in Romans 2:25-29, we will do an overview of this subject from the rest of the Bible. Understanding circumcision is a part of our having a comprehensive understanding the gospel.

 

As we approach this subject, let me remind us that we are in the first section of Romans, which deals with the condemnation of the human race by God. This underscores every person’s desperate need for the gospel. Beginning with Romans 2:17, Paul began to specifically address the Jew. In verses 17-24, he said, “You who are the Jew, who have the Law, why do you teach others the Law and do not follow it yourself?” In verse 25, Paul goes for the jugular. He pokes his finger into the apple of the eye of the Jew and addresses the one issue in the Law in which the Jew took the most pride. This is the practice of circumcision upon infant Jewish boys. Starting in verse 25, Paul will make a distinction between true and false circumcision.

 

A Biblical Survey of Circumcision

Circumcision was an integral part of the nation of Israel, starting with Abraham, the father of God’s chosen people (Genesis 17:11-14). It was required of every male Jewish boy that on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin of his male organ was to be cut as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant. This command was reinforced in the Mosaic Law, which declared, “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). This practice was intended to be a picture of what must happen to the heart, just like baptism is a picture of the reality of salvation. The foreskin was cut with a sharp knife, signifying that this person is to be set apart to God.

 

This pictured the reality that one must have his heart pierced and cut to the core by the sharp two-edged sword of the word of God. The heart must be set apart to God. It is a picture of the new birth, a picture of conversion. The physical circumcision is a picture of the spiritual circumcision that must take place in the life of every believer.

 

Circumcision in Deuteronomy

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reissued the Law a second time to a new generation that was poised to enter into the Promised Land after forty years of wilderness wanderings. The word “Deuteronomy” means ‘the second giving of the Law,’ or ‘the second Law-giving.’ The generation in the wilderness with Moses had received physical circumcision, but their hearts had not been circumcised by the Holy Spirit with the word of God. Moses said, “So circumcise your heart and stiffen your neck no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). In this verse, an uncircumcised heart meant that one was stiff-necked. To be stiff-necked pictured a stubborn ox that will not submit to a master. When the master tried to place the yoke around its neck, the ox hunched up its shoulders, so that his neck refused to receive the yoke. To be stiff-necked meant that the ox would not submit to the yoke of it master. The ox was resistant and refused humble itself. Simply put, he would not submit to the authority of his master.

 

In this passage, Moses said this wilderness generation is stiff-necked. They would not submit to the lordship of God over their lives. They refused to surrender their life to God. Instead, God said that they must circumcise their heart. They needed to have their heart pierced, which involves the painful conviction of sin. This excruciating piercing must accompany their entrance into the kingdom of God.

 

From this, we learn that no one giggles through the narrow gate. No one skips their way flippantly into the kingdom. All who come do so by mourning over the painful awareness of their sin. This, in turn, leads to rejoicing at the relief that is found in the grace of God.

 

The book of Deuteronomy is a series of sermons preached by Moses with multiple messages. In one of his later sermons, Moses expounded the sovereignty of God in this spiritual circumcision. This is something for which man is responsible, but only God can do. Moses said, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants to love the Lord your God with all your heart so that you may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6). This latter aspect referred to their children as they would come under the influence of the truth of the gospel. Three times in this one verse, Moses stressed the heart. If their heart was not circumcised, they remained spiritually dead. An unconverted heart had no spiritual life.

 

This was the necessity of heart circumcision. Without their heart being circumcised, they were separated from God and without spiritual life. This heart circumcision represented them being set apart to God, by the Holy Spirit, in the new birth.

 

Circumcision in Jeremiah

The prophet Jeremiah said, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). The prophet is not requiring an adult to perform the surgical procedure of physical circumcision on himself. He is talking about the real circumcision which is spiritual. In other words, it is not enough that they were circumcised as an infant. That is not going to gain anyone entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The unbeliever who is thickheaded and stiff-necked must circumcise their heart. Such spiritual surgery will remove the foreskin of their heart. That is to say, this procedure will remove their sinful resistance to God and refusal to submit to His authority over their lives. Spiritual circumcision will remove their unbelief and cause them to place their faith in God and His gospel.

 

If a person does not have their heart circumcised, notice the second half of verse four. God says, “Or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds” (Jeremiah 4:4). The foreskin of one’s heart is what caused one to live a sinful, rebellious life. The heart must be cut with deep conviction of sin. The only two-edged sword sharp enough to penetrate the thick foreskin of their rebellion against God is the word of God. This is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12). When it comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is an invincible weapon in the hand of the one who wields it.

 

The prophet Jeremiah says that the imperative of knowing God must be the real experience of every heart. God spoke through Jeremiah, “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’” (Jeremiah 9:23-24). The priority is upon the heart being turned to God.

 

Jeremiah then resumed his discussion on circumcision. He wrote, “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘that I will punish all who are circumcised and yet uncircumcised’” (Jeremiah 9:25). This refers to those who are physically circumcised, but who are not spiritually circumcised. A Jew could have been physically circumcised, but it is counted for nothing if he was not spiritually circumcised. Days are coming when God will punish those who are circumcised, yet uncircumcised.

 

It is exactly the same today, with those who have been baptized, but who have not been spiritually baptized. You can be baptized in water, but not be a true believer. Having the physical ceremony brings no redemptive reality to a person’s life. One must have the spiritual circumcision of the new birth.

  

In the end, this divine punishment will come, “for all the nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised of heart” (Jeremiah 9:26). All the Gentile nations are uncircumcised, both physically and spiritually. This is a double uncircumcision. On the other hand, Israel is circumcised physically, but uncircumcised spiritually in the heart. That means, they are physically circumcised, but spiritually unregenerate. They are in the commonwealth of Israel, but not in the spiritual kingdom of God. They have participated in the ritual in their body, but have never had the reality in their heart.

 

Circumcision in Ezekiel

God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, “When you brought in foreigners uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh” (Ezekiel 44:7). A distinction is made between the Gentiles, who were the foreigners, who had not been circumcised either physically or spiritually. The prophet recorded, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘No foreigner uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh…shall enter My sanctuary’” (verse 9).

 

In order to come into the presence of God in the sanctuary, one must be a true worshiper of God. Such a person must have a heart that has been circumcised, meaning it must be cut, convicted, and converted. Every person who would worship God must have a heart that has been pierced by the word of God. This spiritual surgery would bring a person into submission to the Lord so that he will no longer be stiff-necked of heart.

 

Circumcision in Acts

In Acts 7, Stephen preached that incredible sermon before the Sanhedrin, comprised of the seventy Jewish leaders and the high priest of the nation Israel. Stephen gave an extraordinary walk through the spiritual history of Israel, where he came to the summation of his sermon. In verse 51, he addressed the unbelieving, unregenerate leaders of the nation of Israel, when they were in spiritual apostasy. In their recent past, they had crucified their Messiah in rank unbelief. Stephen said to them, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (Acts 7:51). He pointed back to everything we previously examined in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel about being uncircumcised. Tragically, the nation Israel had a longstanding history of being circumcised, yet being uncircumcised. There had always been a believing remnant within the nation, but the rest of the nation remained uncircumcised of heart.

 

Circumcision in Galatians

Galatians 6:15 is a key verse in which Paul said emphatically, “For neither is circumcision anything nor uncircumcision.” This means, there is no saving value whatsoever in physical circumcision. The apostle continued, “but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). This is to say, the only thing that matters before God is that a person is born again and becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus. Paul talks elsewhere about becoming this new creation. He writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). To become a “new creature” is a metaphorical expression for the new birth.

 

In the New Testament, we continue to see these terms of circumcision and uncircumcision that were introduced in the New Testament. False teachers known as Judaizers had come into the churches in Galatia after Paul left this region on his first missionary journey. These false workers of evil were trying to put unbelievers and believers back under the Mosaic Law. They were telling people that in order to enter into the kingdom of God, they must be circumcised. Paul began his epistle to the Galatians saying that this teaching is another gospel. He said, let these false teachers be anathema, or perish eternally in hell. He concludes by telling the believers to forget circumcision and uncircumcision. All that matters is that they are a new creature in Christ Jesus.

 

Circumcision in Ephesians

This subject of spiritual circumcision resurfaces again in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The apostle said, “Therefore 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 hand” (Ephesians 2:11). The Jews looked down their long, self-righteous noses at the Gentiles. They called them uncircumcised, meaning unclean.

 

There is a note of intentional sarcasm here. Paul called the circumcised Jews, “so-called ‘Circumcision.’” They had been physically circumcised, but they had not had the real circumcision. They only had the circumcision of their flesh, which did not count for anything in their eternal relationship with God. They must have the circumcision of their heart in order to enter in the kingdom of heaven.

 

Paul says this “so-called ‘Circumcision,’” is “performed in the flesh by human hands.” He dismissively said that this surgical procedure is not the real circumcision. Instead, the circumcision that put one in a position of acceptance with God is not performed in the flesh by human hands. Rather, it is performed in the heart by the Spirit of God.

 

Circumcision in Philippians

In the book of Philippians, Paul again addressed the Judaizers who came into the church and tried to put those in the church already converted back under the Mosaic Law. They taught that they must work their way into the kingdom. He described these false teachers in a three-fold manner. The apostle wrote, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (Philippians 3:2). Paul calls these false teachers “dogs” because they are unclean. In this day, dogs roamed the streets of Middle Eastern cities, going from one heap of rubbish to the next, spreading disease and filth, as they ate the leftover scraps. They visited the dunghills and ate their own filth. Paul calls these false teachers “dogs,” because they are unclean, spreading their false teaching that one must to be circumcised to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. These “evil workers” are the “false circumcision,” referring to the same group of false teachers. They are the ones who are spreading the damning heresy of the false circumcision.

 

Paul makes the clear distinction between these unbelievers and those who are true believers. “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” (Philippians 3:3). When Paul refers to them as being “in the flesh,” he makes an intentional allusion to their practice of cutting the male organ. By stark contrast, Paul said that we put no confidence in the flesh.

 

There was a time in Paul’s pre-conversion life when he did put confidence in the flesh. He confided, “I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more” (Philippians 3:4). He expounded a litany of reasons why he once placed confidence in his flesh. The number one reason why he trusted in his own efforts to give him a right standing before God was that he was so properly brought up as an Israelite, even being circumcised on the eighth day. Though he had been circumcised in the flesh, there came a time in his life in which he no longer trusted in such external symbols of religion. He realized that these physical rituals meant nothing in regard to finding acceptance with God. He came to understand that what is most important was for God to perform spiritual surgery upon his heart. He must have his old heart cut to the core. His old flesh must be removed, and God must give him a new heart. God must put His Spirit within him and cause him to obey His word.

 

Circumcision in Colossians 

This golden thread of truth concerning the need for spiritual circumcision runs through the entire Bible. This would be so easy for us, who are non-Jews, to be reading our Bible and hydroplane over this teaching without realizing the full impact of what Paul was saying. In the book of Colossians, we see the apostle address a mixture of Old Testament and New Testament teachings that was trying to put the believers back under the Law. False teachers had come into the church and were imposing a mixture of humanistic philosophy (Colossians 2:8), Jewish legalism (2:16), bodily asceticism (2:18,21), and subjective mysticism. Each aspect was a foul, polluted stream that flowed into one dirty river, known as the Colossian heresy.

 

Paul confronts this heresy head-on. He wrote, “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” (2:11). If you are a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, He circumcised you with invisible hands. Here, we see that the need for your heart to be circumcised is not merely an Old Testament teaching. This truth is still applicable to us in the New Testament. The invisible hand of God must bring the piercing to the heart. There must be “the removal of the body of the flesh” (verse 11). Here, “flesh” refers not to physical flesh, but to a person’s sinful flesh. The only way for this old man to be removed is by the spiritual circumcision that was performed by Christ in the new birth.

 

This open heart surgery occurred on the day of Pentecost, “When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). This word “pierced” (katonusso) means that one would take a butcher knife and thrust it into the heart of another. Anyone who has ever been saved has had the sharp instrumentality of the word of God fillet them. They have been cut to the core of their being, bringing them under conviction of sin. They feel their desperate need for the grace of God in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ. This is all a deep work of God in the unbelieving heart.

 

Circumcision in the Day

Admittedly, there are countless people who do not trust in circumcision for their salvation. But they trust in other religious rituals. They rely upon their water baptism to give them a right standing before God. They put confidence in their coming to the Lord’s Table. They rely upon other religious activities that are a part of the New Testament church. They look to walking forward down the center aisle of the church. They rest in joining the church.

 

Let us be clear, there is no salvation in these physical acts. There is no baptismal regeneration. It is only a picture of what the Spirit must do. Even the Lord’s Supper is but a picture of the reality of our drinking the blood and eating the flesh of the Lord Jesus Christ in saving faith. All that matters is the heart.

 

The point we must take from this is that God is after your heart. If the heart is right, the life will be right with God. If the heart is wrong, the life will be wrong with Him. Solomon says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Jesus commanded us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength” (Mark 12:30). Throughout the day, as we are thinking about our walk with the Lord, we must remember that our spiritual life begins with our heart. Afterward, it proceeds to the exterior behavior of one’s life. Certainly, the outward sanctions of our lives are important. But it is only genuine if there is the reality of a circumcised heart behind it.

 

With this as an introduction, let us now come to our passage in Romans 2. I have three headings to help us study these verses. In verse 25 is the circumcised. In verses 26-27 is the uncircumcised. And in verses 28-29 is the true circumcision.

 

I. The Circumcised (2:25)

 

First, Paul addressed the Jew who has been physically circumcised. The apostle said, “For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law” (verse 25). The only way the Jew can rightly practice the Law is to have a new heart. And the only way to have a new heart is to be spiritually circumcised. Circumcision is of value only if it is a sign that pictures the reality of a heart that has been rent asunder. When a person has undergone a heart circumcision, they will practice the Law. They will not practice it perfectly, but they will practice it habitually, because you have a new heart.

 

Paul continues, “But if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision” (verse 25). This means, physical circumcision is of no value. If a person’s heart has not been changed and there is no life change, then to be circumcised has no value. It is as though you are uncircumcised before God. That is the argument that Paul is making.

 

II. The Uncircumcised (2:26-27)

 

Paul next addresses those who are the uncircumcised, which are the Gentiles: “If the uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (verse 26).  The only way for the Gentile to keep the requirements of the Law is to have experienced a spiritual circumcision that gives him a new heart in the new birth. He will keep the requirements of the Law, not perfectly, but habitually and continually in a new lifestyle that loves God and lives in obedience to His word. The argument is though he has never been physically circumcised, he has experienced the spiritual reality of what circumcision pictures. It is as though he is circumcised, because he has received the real circumcision, which is in the heart.

 

The apostle continues, “And he who is physically uncircumcised, 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?” (verse 27). This refers to the Gentile, who was never physically circumcised, but will judge the one who has been circumcised. This is because the former has received the true circumcision of the heart. The one who is spiritually circumcised “keeps the Law.” This is in the present tense. The idea is an ongoing, daily life pattern of obeying the moral requirements of the Law from the heart. The answer to that rhetorical question is yes. His manner of life will judge the unregenerate Jew. In reality, it is God who judges. This Gentile is standing with God in this judgment. The manner of his circumcised heart and his new life stands as a judgment against those who have received a physical circumcision, but have never had a spiritual circumcision.

 

III. The True Circumcision (2:28-29)

 

Paul concludes this section by addressing the true circumcision in verses 28-29. This truth should be clear to the believers in Rome. “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh” (verse 28). This circumcision is referring not to what is “outward”, but to true spiritual circumcision of the heart. Being made right with God is not found in the outward circumcision of the flesh, but of the heart. A true Jew is not a Jew with only a physical circumcision, but one who has been spiritually circumcised. Verse 28 reveals what true circumcision is not.

 

The following verse explains what it is the true circumcision. The negative denial is found in verse 28, namely what it is not. Now, the positive assertion is found in verse 29, that is, what it is. There can be no misunderstanding in what Paul says. “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” (verse 29). This refers to a true, completed, authentic Jew. “The letter” refers to all the different requirements of the Law that one must keep externally by his own self will. True circumcision must be performed by the Spirit, not by human hands.

 

Paul then concludes, “and his praise is not from men, but from God” (verse 29). If one is a Jew, he is going to receive applause from other Jews, who have also been physically circumcised. But what matters is not the praise that is from men, but from God. There is a pun taking place here, because the word “Jew” (Ioudaios) means ‘praise,’ which is derived from the tribe of Judah. True praise from God can only come for a true Jew.

 

Have You Received the True Circumcision?

As we bring this study to conclusion, the important question for you is: Have you been circumcised by the Spirit? Have you experienced the true circumcision? You must be inwardly circumcised in order to find acceptance with God. The good news is that God is not requiring you to undergo a physical circumcision, but a spiritual one. This surgical procedure is a biblical metaphor for the regeneration of the soul that produces conversion. Regeneration is God’s part. Conversion is man’s part. It is the heads and tails of the same coin. The rest of the New Testament will give us a distinction in the order of salvation, but here, with spiritual circumcision, it is all that matters.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.