Life Theology

What does it mean to be a true Jew? (Part 1)

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? (Romans 2:25-26)

In this section, Paul gets to the epicenter of Jewish law-keeping.  He begins with “For,” showing that what he is going to say is connected to what he has just said in the preceding verses.  Paul just finished writing that the Jews’ lack of honoring God in obeying the law they claim leads to justification causes the Gentiles to blaspheme the name of God.  Now he says, “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.”  In Galatians 5:3, Paul writes, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”  A Jew who boasts in the fact that he is circumcised and hence a part of God’s covenant people because of that circumcision, must keep the entire law, without sin, in order to be justified before God.  Paul tells the reader, “Circumcision is the thing for you, if you can be a perfect law-keeper.  But once you make one mistake, circumcision might as well be uncircumcision.”

In light of 3:1-2, where Paul says that being circumcised has some benefit, Paul must be saying here that circumcision alone is not enough to shield anyone from God’s wrath.  In other words, circumcision is not enough to give someone a right relationship with God.

If a Jew reads this passage, they will be utterly disgusted because the word “uncircumcised” means “having the foreskin” or in a broader sense, simply “Gentile.”  Paul practically calls Jews who do not keep the entire law “Gentiles” and that obviously would greatly offend any first century Jew who did not follow Christ.

Paul’s logic goes like this in verse 26: “So, if a man who is uncircumcised [that is, a Gentile] keeps the precepts of the law [is obedient to God’s commandments], will not his uncircumcision [his status as a non-covenant Gentile] be regarded as circumcision [a covenant-member of God’s people]?”  Doug Moo, in his commentary on Romans, argues (as he did in 2:6-11) that Paul is setting forth the requirements of salvation apart from the gospel, that is, perfect obedience and total disobedience.  Moo (p. 171) writes, “We…conclude that Paul is again here citing God’s standard of judgment apart from the gospel as a means of erasing the distinction at this point between Jew and Gentile. 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 Gentiles: disobedience brings condemnation; obedience brings salvation.”

Moo’s argument is compelling and he may be right.  But it is hard for me to get over the fact that Paul does not seem to be speaking in hypothetical terms or in alternate universe scenarios (that is, a universe apart from the gospel).  Paul is laying the groundwork, as it appears to me, for what it means to be a true Jew and what it means to be a true Gentile.  As we shall see in verses 28-29, a true Jew (namely, a born-again person) is one who has had his heart transformed by the Spirit; a true Gentile is one who is left untransformed.