“So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 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.”
Let me begin this morning not with our text, but with the intention of Christian preaching. I have said often enough that I wish to strengthen your trust in the Scriptures and in fact more than a trust – I hope to encourage in all of us a sense that we have a resting place in the Bible but that her texts are not treated with the respect they deserve if we only use them to support some human philosophical tradition, to support some structure of human reason that may even be good and decent in itself, but which ultimately leads us away from the revealed truth of the Holy Scriptures. Robert E. Cushman, who taught theology at Duke Divinity School from 1945 – 1958, wrote an essay showing how Rudolph Bultmann’s project of demythologizing Scripture was spoiled from the beginning because Bultmann’s faith was in modernity not the doctrines of the Church. At least Bultmann was honest enough to make that clear; he wrote that he believed the Gospel of Christ was unforgivable on two counts: first, the Gospel’s teaching concerning redemption is, he said, “conceptually obsolete for the scientific world-view.” Secondly that the Gospel message in the New Testament “conceives man as subject to the direct intrusion of supernatural power” while modern man understand himself to be “essentially a unity” capable of both “self-mastery” and “mastery over nature.” Cushman’s excellent response is thoroughly analytical and ends by asserting that Bultmann finally eliminates Jesus from history and Cushman ends by asserting Nicene orthodoxy and quoting John 1:14 – “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth…” Bultmann wanted to rescue Christian preaching from insignificance, but he ended up abandoning Christ to ideology. He was not the first and he will not be the last to do so.
Now let’s look to our text and begin by asking the question, to whom is Paul speaking in chapter 2? If you imagine that you are in a synagogue in Rome hearing a sermon, the bulk of chapter 1 with its condemnation of idolatry, creature worship and homosexuality, leveled mainly against Roman Gentiles, would have been welcomed with a rousing chorus of amens and heads nodding in assent – a strong sense of like-mindedness between the preacher and the congregation. But in the midst of all those amens Paul proceeds to pull the rug out from under them:
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”
And with that, Paul wipes the smiles right off their faces and it is easy to see them in one’s mind’s eye staring back at him in puzzlement and anger as they sense that Paul has betrayed them. He selects one fellow in the congregation as his interlocutor and that fellow talks back to Paul:
“We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”
Paul shoots back to his interlocutor:
“Do you suppose, my good man – you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself – that you will escape the judgment of God?”
Then Paul unloads on the fellow and the whole synagogue:
“Well of course that is exactly what you suppose because you think you have special favor with God, favor that will permit God to overlook your sins. And why? Why would God overlook these sins in your life and yet condemn the exact sins in the Gentile – I know! Because you are a Jew and you know that you are a Jew because you possess the Law and you have circumcision – and that makes you a Jew. So you think! But according to the Gospel of Christ all that means is you are a Jew who shall be condemned for his own sins just like the Gentile you despise. And why will you be condemned – because the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob shows no partiality.”
Paul demonstrates his knowledge and his skill in using a well-known rhetorical device in antiquity with his imaginary interlocutor in Romans. There was abundant use of the straw man, especially among the Roman moralists and Hellenized Jews. But Paul is not erecting a straw man, his interlocutor is a representative Jew, and in fact he may even be seen in the figure of Paul himself prior to his conversion to Christ. But Paul is hardly finished with his criticism of the Jew, and so he brings forth what to the Jew would be an absurdity:
“For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves…”
St. Paul presents the witness of righteous Gentiles who, by nature, do what the law of righteousness requires. Why is this absurd to the Jew? Because from their point-of-view a people must first have the law before they can possibly “do what the law requires.” They are neither circumcised nor do they possess the written law and yet Paul says they are righteous before God. This raises two questions. Whose law is Paul talking about? And which Gentile?
First let’s deal with the identity of the law. There have been many folk in the past who have understood this law – which some Gentiles have obeyed – to be what they call “natural law.” That would be the natural law written on the heart of every man whether Jew or Gentile. But there is no such thing as natural law in chapter 1 or 2 of Romans; even though Paul used the language of Stoicism he never asserts the god or the natural law of the Stoics or Aristotle or Cicero. Paul is not declaring the wonders of the unmoved mover; he is proclaiming the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Yes, Paul plunders the Egyptians, but only because he needs straw to make bricks. He most emphatically is not attempting to convert Romans first to Stoicism’s god and appropriate civic behavior and then to Christ. No, the law that St. Paul cites throughout Romans is the Law of Righteousness and finally the Law of Christ. I do not see any good evidence that St. Paul believed anything like natural law even existed.
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves…”
He is not asserting that there are Gentiles who are reasonable and naturally obey the natural law that is written on their hearts and that is equivalent to obeying the Law of Righteousness; he is rather asserting that there have been Gentiles who have behaved in a manner to reveal the Law of Righteousness is fulfilled in their very lives.
So who are the Gentiles who “by nature do what the law requires,” realizing that no natural law could fulfill the law of righteousness? I can think of only two sets of Gentiles who do the works of the law in such a way that they are deemed righteous: first of all the Gentiles in the Old Testament who found favor with God. Take, for example Ruth, the Moabite, who ends up, by a very complicated manner, marrying Boaz, a wealthy Jew in Bethlehem. The Book of Ruth presents her from the beginning as the very shape and form of godly righteousness and loyalty and yet she is not a Jew. Furthermore, Ruth and Boaz had a son they named Obed, who happens to turn out to be the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David, thus placing Ruth among David’s ancestors. Moreover that places Ruth, a non-Jew, in the very linage of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are other Gentiles, of course, like Melchizedek, or the whole people of Nineveh, or Rahab the Harlot of Jericho, but the most obvious other Gentile that Paul is referring to would be the Gentile Christian who had been baptized and infused with heavenly virtues and whose nature has thus been renewed. This plays out wholly at the end of chapter 2 where Paul finally pronounced a complete revision of what it means to be a Jew.
“So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 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.”
Paul asserts flat-out that the Jews have misplaced their confidence. Circumcision and possessing the written law will make no difference in the end; they will not save anyone who is a transgressor of the law. This would not only shock Paul’s Jewish interlocutor; the very idea that the uncircumcised may keep the law is complete nonsense. Circumcision, from a Jewish point-of-view, is step number one of obedience to the law of righteousness and to speak of obedience without circumcision is pointless. In order to get as close as we can to the mind of Paul and to be true to the text we have to resist flip interpretations like Paul is spiritualizing circumcision by interpreting it to mean circumcision of the heart. He is doing no such thing. He is asserting that circumcision of the heart is the real matter, that it has always been the real matter, and that it is only possible through the Spirit. Circumcision of the heart is not a human achievement in keeping the law; it is the gift of God. And this is where he redefines what it means to be a Jew:
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”
What the Jew considered doing the righteousness of the law St. Paul considered sin. The Jew rested in the law on the level of the ceremonial and outward, public deed. But there is a true Jew who does fulfill the law of righteous and his circumcision is of the heart. This circumcision of the heart, which is effected by the work of the Holy Spirit, renews man’s life and enables him to live the law of righteousness. It is only later in Romans 8:2 that Paul lays before the Romans the end game of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension and Pentecost, that is…
“in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
These who fulfill the requirements of the law of righteous in themselves, those said to walk according to the Holy Spirit, are the true Jews, and thus there is a new covenant that God has made in his righteous judgment. Paul will finally draw all this together in Colossians 2:11:
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ…”
Having declared that God has established a new covenant people and now declaring them to be the true Jew, when in fact they are not Jews, we are left with three questions: How does one become part of the new covenant? And how is the righteous of God achieved? And what now of the Jew according to the flesh? We will open up these questions over the next few weeks.