“Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Rm 2:25-29)
In verse 25, Paul introduced circumcision into his argument, which was the most sensitive issue between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians at that time. Some Jewish Christians insisted that Gentile Christians must also be circumcised to truly become God’s people.
It seems demanding from a modern standpoint, but it was understandable then because circumcision was considered to be the most important marker of God’s covenant with his people at that time. It was a part of the Jews’ identity.
When God made a covenant with Abraham, God said to him, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you… My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen 17:10-14)
All the Israelites and Jews zealously kept this law. To the Jews, circumcision was the clearest mark that showed that they belonged to God’s covenant. So, it was kind of natural for them to emphasize circumcision to the Gentiles.
The problem is that even though they were all circumcised, they failed to live out its meaning. That’s why Paul rebuked them. Paul didn’t criticize circumcision itself or deny its importance. What Paul was really concerned about was that the circumcised people did not live like God’s people.
Then, what’s the meaning of circumcision in the Bible? Let me introduce some Bible verses that show the meaning of circumcision.
God says in Jeremiah 4:4,
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jr 4:4)
Deuteronomy 10:16 says,
“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” (Dt 10:16)
Deuteronomy 30:6 says,
“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Dt 30:6)
As the verses above imply, the real meaning of circumcision is to cut the thick and hardened skin of our hearts. It’s to give our entire hearts to God. It’s to demolish all areas of our hearts that are hardened against God and to choose to belong to Him with softened hearts. We shouldn’t have anything between God and us. It’s to love God with all our hearts and with all our souls.
If the skin of our hearts is thick, we can’t hear God's voice or experience His presence. That's why God said, "Circumcise your hearts.” Physical circumcision, which is visible, is just a symbol of the circumcision of our hearts, which is invisible.
The problem was that the Israelites circumcised their flesh but not their hearts. They were seemingly the people of God's covenant, but their hearts were stubborn and they continued to turn away from God.
Even though they were physically circumcised, they failed to love God with all their hearts and obey His commands. As Jesus said, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mt 15:8)
That’s what Paul really intended. He said, “Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.” (Rom 2:25)
What Paul’s saying here is that one’s appearance is not important. What really matters is that we actually obey God’s commands to love Him within our hearts and love our neighbors. And, this fact gives us an important lesson.
Just as physical circumcision didn’t prove one’s genuine faith, outward religious acts do not guarantee salvation because salvation comes only through genuine faith in God, not by works.
Sad to say, we see many Christians who seem good outwardly, but actually have lost their faith in God. They go to church, give offerings and even do many jobs in the church, so they seem like good Christians, but there’s no God in their daily lives. They are called ‘Sunday Christians,’ which means they act like Christians only on Sundays.
They are also called cultural Christians, meaning they are familiar with the culture of Christianity, because they have grown up in church or in a Christian family, but don’t really have faith in God.
Just as circumcision itself doesn’t really prove that one belongs to God, the fact that we live in a Christian culture doesn’t guarantee our salvation.
What I’m worried about is that it is quite possible to put our faith in church membership, belonging to the visible people of God, for our salvation. It is possible to trust in Christianity, rather than in Christ. It happens in the church. There is an intellectual understanding and grasp of the gospel, but no internal transformation.
This makes the church into a religious cushion for people who think they are Christians, but in fact are insecure about their acceptance before God. Every Sunday, people gather to be reassured that they are all right, which they are not.
We need to listen carefully to what Paul says,
“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code…” (Rm 2:28-29)
We should keep in mind that God is more interested in our hearts than our outward appearance. He knows our hearts well, and we can’t hide anything from Him. We can pretend to be good Christians at church, but God sees our hearts.
Jesus calls us to not be just a part of the crowd, but to be disciples. For that, we must circumcise our hearts, turn back to God, and belong to Him. If we decide to give our love to God from within our hearts, He himself will touch our hearts and mend them.