26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law,
will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?
27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you
who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.
28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly,
nor is circumcision outward and physical.
29 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.
In these five verses on circumcision we find precursors of Paul’s unfolding teaching about the priority of a heart commitment over ritual, the relationship between faith and obedience, and the way to obtain right standing before God. For the first time in Romans we also find a reference, albeit indirect, to Christians. And we encounter the epistle’s first use of the important biblical concept of reckoning, translated by ESV as “regarded” (see boldface above).
Interpretation is again a major challenge, however. For that reason I must divide the passage into two messages, this one confined to the first two verses.Background of Jewish thinking
In verse 25 Paul continues his dialogue with a representative Jew (“you”). It will be helpful to specify who this person is, and Richard Longenecker obliges. He says the person likely should not be considered to represent Judaism in general but rather a typical Jew in Paul’s day. He is “most likely some type of proud and censorious, but entirely inconsistent, Jew who viewed himself as a moral teacher of pagan Gentiles, but who caused the name of God to be dishonored among those same Gentiles because he himself failed to live up to the moral standards of the Mosaic law.”
Paul knows that this Jew has certain assumptions about circumcision. For openers, every male had to be circumcised as a requirement of the covenant God established with Abraham (Genesis 17:9–14). To deal with Jews’ resistance to the gospel, Paul must object to any requirement they would impose beyond a proper faith response. Circumcision—not the act itself but Jews’ view of it—remained a big stumbling block, therefore.
By Paul’s day Jews spoke of circumcision as guaranteeing escape from God’s wrath. A rabbinic midrash on Exodus claimed that “no person who is circumcised will go down to Gehenna [hell].” Everett Harrison remarks, “Circumcision was to Jewry what baptism is to those who maintain baptismal regeneration. In dividing men into two classes, circumcised and uncircumcised, the Jews were in effect indicating those who were saved and those who were not.”Gentile obedience shames Jews
Paul concedes that physical circumcision has value, likely referring to its rightful obedience to God’s command under the covenant and its promise of the covenant’s blessings. But he adds a qualifier—“if you obey the law” (verse 25a). Even if the Jew agrees with Paul on this point, he would see the qualifier as a redundancy. In his mind circumcision is obedience.
However, Paul’s qualifier implies something the Jew would never agree with, and Paul makes it explicit. He goes on to say that if the Jew breaks the law, his circumcision becomes uncircumcision. This would make the Jew no better than a Gentile—a shocking thought to this Jew. As Joseph Fitzmyer puts it, “Paul’s bold declaration, equating a good pagan with a circumcised Jew, would have been an abomination to Pharisaic ears.”
Paul shows the representative Jew the logical conclusion of his position. If you think your acceptance by God depends on your obedience, then it is also true that a Gentile could obey God’s commands and have the same outcome as you. God would then reckon the Gentile’s uncircumcision to be your circumcision (verse 26).
Douglas Moo explains that “Paul is not pointing the way to salvation but is showing Jews that their position, despite their covenant privileges, is essentially no different from that of the Gentiles: disobedience brings condemnation; obedience brings salvation.”
Longenecker points out that Paul only goes so far as to contemplate “the possibility that Gentiles might keep the law, but never actually say that they have, that they could, or that they would want to.” His purpose is to use this possibility of Gentile obedience to shame Jews. On this theme see also 2:14.
To make his point, Paul employs for the first time in Romans the verb to reckon. Here, for the sake of his argument, Paul supposes that on the basis of Gentiles’ obedience God reckons them circumcised—in Jews’ thinking, justified. In chapter 4 God reckons people justified on the basis of their faith.Paul’s radical claim
Can anyone meet this requirement of obedience for salvation? No, as Paul explains in chapter 3 and elsewhere. But what Paul does suggest here has “revolutionary implications,” Moo says. Although circumcision was commanded in the law, Paul’s assumption that people who are not circumcised can do the law “looks toward a new understanding of what the covenant is and what God requires of his people.”
Moo sees Paul pointing to the beginning of a new stage in salvation history, one that brings people into relationship with God through faith and the indwelling of the Spirit. Only in this sense, as Paul will unfold later in this epistle, is it possible for a person to perfectly keep the law.
How might Christians “keep the law”? Paul would have in mind such new-covenant revelations as the believer’s enablement by grace to be obedient from the heart (6:17), to have fulfilled (through Christ’s work and by the Spirit) the righteous requirement of the law (8:4), to do the will of God through the renewed mind (12:2), and to fulfill the law through love (13:8). Christians do not obey the OT law; they now fulfill “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).Alternative view: Gentile Christians
Paul clearly alludes to Christians in verse 29, but does he do so in verse 26 where the reference is to an uncircumcised man who keeps the precepts of the law? Charles Cranfield and Colin Kruse think so. Kruse bases his preference for this view on the promises of Jeremiah 31:33 and the subsequent verses that speak of “those on whose hearts the law has been written by the Spirit according to the promise of the new covenant.”
Cranfield regards the expression “keeps the precepts of the law” to be not a perfect fulfillment of the law’s demands, “but a grateful and humble faith in God and the life turned in the direction of obedience which is its fruit. We take it he has in mind the Gentile Christians.”
Fitzmyer joins Moo in not thinking Paul refers to Gentile Christians. Longenecker considers the passage to be about Jews’ failure, not Christians, but he sees Paul’s underlying message of not relying on external forms or outward appearance as applying to Christians.Faith versus works
One consideration Moo brings to this passage warrants particular attention. Those who see in verse 26 a reference to Christians must think that Paul implies the uncircumcised man who keeps the precepts of the (Mosaic) law does so with an attitude of faith. Rejecting that idea, Moo says Paul maintains a crucial distinction in all his writings between faith and doing the works of the law. He reasons that Paul would not so closely blend together faith and works.
Moo says, “Paul views any mixing, any synergism, of faith and works as damaging to the grace of God.” He highlights especially 4:1–5 (see my exposition of 4:1–3 and 4:4–5). Other passages pertaining to the relationship between faith and obedience include 1:5, 10:16–18, and 15:18.Foretelling the gospel
Finally, without dismissing what is said above, we can note a degree of compatibility between these two views: (1) Paul looks toward a new stage in salvation history but in this verse stops short of naming Christians, as Moo is inclined to think; or (2) Paul now speaks of Gentile Christians. Both find expression later on in this epistle as the bedrock of Paul’s gospel. The issue is how early in his argument Paul brings each to the fore. On that decision, I would go with Moo.
At this stage of redemptive history God has opened the door of salvation for large numbers of Gentiles to obtain rebirth into God’s family through trust in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. In the remaining verses of this passage Paul speaks of people who undergo a vital transformation of the human heart. These people certainly do appear to be Christians.