Romans (XIV)

ROMANS 2:17-29

(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 10/7/01 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)


Please turn in your Bibles to Romans chapter 2. Let's read verse 17 through the end of the chapter:

Romans 2: (17) Behold, you are called a Jew, and rest in the Law, and boast in God, (18) and know the will, and approve the things excelling, being instructed out of the Law, (19) and persuading yourself to be a guide of blind ones, a light to those in darkness, (20) an instructor of foolish ones, a teacher of infants, having the form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law. (21) Then the [one] teaching another, do you not teach yourself? The [one] preaching not to steal, do you steal? (22) The [one] saying not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? The [one] detesting the idols, do you rob temples? (23) [You] who boast in Law, do you dishonor God through transgression of the Law? (24) For the name of God is blasphemed among the nations through you, even as it has been written: (25) For indeed circumcision profits if you practice [the] Law, but if you are a transgressor of Law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. (26) If, then, the uncircumcision keeps the ordinances of the Law, [will] not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? (27) And will [not] the uncircumcision by nature [by] completing the Law judge you, the [one who] through letter and circumcision [becomes] transgressor of Law? (28) For he is not a Jew that [is one] outwardly, nor [is] circumcision that outwardly in flesh; (29) but he [is] a Jew that [is one] inwardly, and circumcision [is] of heart, in spirit, not in letter; of whom the praise [is] not from men, but from God.

This is the seventh paragraph in Paul's letter to the Romans. It is specifically addressed to the Jews. The first thing Paul does is to give a description of the Jewish way. This is in verses 17 through 20, and it is all one sentence. I'd like to go over each of the points Paul makes in this sentence.

First, Paul says that they are called a Jew. The Hebrew word for "Jew" is yay-hoo-DEE, meaning "a YAY-hoo-dite," someone who is of YAY-hoo. Now who is YAY-hoo? YAY-hoo means "Jehovah is he." So the Jews were the people of God. So when Paul says that they are called a Jew, it means that they are called the people of God, or they call THEMSELVES the people of God.

Second, Paul says that they rest in the Law. The Jews were given God's Law as a hard and fast rule. The command was that everyone should keep the Law, and the threat was that those who did not keep the entire Law perfectly were under the curse of God. Only those who had a perfect righteousness were in God's favor. This was to show them that could NOT rest in their law-keeping as something that would gain or maintain favor with God. But what did the majority of the Jews do? They perverted God's Law to make IT their source of rest. Instead of fleeing to and resting in the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the Messiah, which the sacrifices represented, they used the Law as a way of gaining a righteousness of their own. Their Law-keeping became their ground of hope and rest. They were at ease with themselves when they tried their best to keep the Law.

Third, Paul says that they boast in God. Now there IS a good kind of boasting in God, if that boasting is in the cross of Christ. But this is not talking about this kind of boasting. It is talking about their boast that they were the people of God and had God with them, as opposed to the Gentiles, who were ignorant of God. It was arrogance and pride over the privileges that God had given this nation. But what was their boast REALLY in? Well, as we have seen before, whatever one thinks makes the difference between salvation and damnation is what one boasts in. What did the lost Jews think made the difference between salvation and damnation? Their LAW-KEEPING. Even their offering sacrifices - which pointed to the fact that salvation must be based on the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of the Messiah and not based on themselves in any way to any degree - even in offering these sacrifices they used their work in offering these sacrifices as a ground of acceptance before God. They totally perverted the gospel of salvation conditioned on the work of the coming Messiah and made it into a false gospel of salvation conditioned on the sinner.

Fourth, Paul says that they know the will. "The will" is talking about God's revealed will by way of command. The Jews had the Law of God, the revealed will of God, right in front of them. They knew it. It was preached. Their society revolved around it.

Fifth, Paul says that they approve the things excelling. The Jews, who knew the Law, knew what God approved of and disapproved of. And they outwardly approved of what God approved of. They outwardly approved of morality and disapproved of immorality. Yet, as we see later on, they were found to be hypocrites.

Sixth, Paul says that they are instructed out of the Law. Their knowing God's revealed will and approving what is good came from their education in the Law. The Jews were not ignorant of God's Holy Law. Their synagogues taught the Law. Children were instructed in the Law from very early childhood. They knew right from wrong.

Seventh, Paul says that the Jews persuade themselves to be a guide of blind ones, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of foolish ones, and a teacher of infants, having the form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law. The Jews, being instructed in the Law of God, thought of themselves as those who could convey the truth to those who were ignorant of the truth. Notice that Paul says that they PERSUADE THEMSELVES that they are teachers of the truth. It doesn't say that they are ACTUALLY teachers of the truth. Paul is talking about an arrogant confidence that they had the truth and that they could proselytize by what they thought was the truth.

But isn't God's Law the truth? So if they were teaching God's Law to those who were ignorant of God's Law, weren't they ACTUALLY teaching the truth? No they were not. Paul says that they had a FORM of knowledge and of the truth. The Greek word for "form" is mor-PHO-sis, which means "appearance." This word is only used in two Scripture passages. Let's turn to the other passage to show without a doubt what "form" means. The passage is 2 Timothy 3:5:

2 Timothy 3: (5) having a form of godliness, but denying the power of it; even turn away from these.

Do these people have TRUE godliness? No, they just had a FORM of it - an APPEARANCE of godliness. So the Jews had a FORM of knowledge and truth, but they did not actually HAVE knowledge and truth.

So if they were not teaching the truth and still teaching the Law, what were they teaching? They were teaching the Law as a way of GAINING or MAINTAINING favor with God. The Law, in and of itself, is truth. God's revealed will by way of command is something that all of us need to strive to obey. But they were not just teaching the law. If they were truly teaching the Law, then they would also be teaching that everyone who does not continue in all things that are written in the Law, to do them, are under God's curse, as Deuteronomy 27:26 says. And if they were teaching that, then they would certainly not be teaching that law-keeping is a way of gaining or maintaining favor with God. If they were truly teaching that, then they and those they were teaching would not be running to the Law for rest and relief. They would be running to a righteousness that is totally outside of themselves. They would realize that in order for them to have favor with God, there must be a perfect mediator who would charge his own righteousness to them. But they didn't teach the truth. They were not a guide of blind ones, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of foolish ones, a teacher of infants. In fact, when they proselytized, they made their proselytes twice as much children of hell than they were, because the proselytes then believed that they were converted by their obedience to the Law and could keep their salvation by their continued obedience to the Law. Instead of being guides to blind ones, they were blind leaders of the blind. They were darkness teaching darkness. They were foolish ones teaching foolish ones. Both the teacher and the proselyte were dead in their sins. Does this remind you of the self-righteous religionists of our day, especially those who come in the name of Christ?

Back to Romans 2. Paul now goes on to expose the lost Jews as hypocrites. Let's read verses 21 through 24 again:

Romans 2: (21) Then the [one] teaching another, do you not teach yourself? The [one] preaching not to steal, do you steal? (22) The [one] saying not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? The [one] detesting the idols, do you rob temples? (23) [You] who boast in Law, do you dishonor God through transgression of the Law? (24) For the name of God is blasphemed among the nations through you, even as it has been written:

Right after Paul gets through saying that these Jews convince themselves that they are teachers, he asks a rhetorical question and says that they who claim to teach the Law to the ignorant haven't even taught themselves. He then goes on by asking a series of rhetorical questions that show that the Jews do not practice what they preach. They tell others not to steal, but they themselves steal. They tell others not to commit adultery, but they themselves commit adultery. They tell others not to commit idolatry, but they themselves commit idolatry. Just a brief comment on the phrase "rob temples": The Greek word behind this phrase is used only once in the Bible. It comes from the word for "temple" and the word for "despoil." So it does not necessarily just mean stealing from temples. I believe it has a much broader meaning that encompasses any profaning of holy things. Idolatry does not just mean bowing oneself down to an image. It also includes worshiping God in a way that He did not command or using the holy things of God in a way that He did not command.

Paul uses the examples of stealing, adultery, and idolatry because the Jews were well-known for such things. And by giving these examples, he is comparing them to his description of the Gentiles in Romans 1:29-31. He is showing them that they are no better than the Gentiles. He then goes on to mention from the Jews' own scriptures that God's name is blasphemed among the heathen. The LITV says that Isaiah 52:5 is the verse to which Paul is referring, and I disagree. Isaiah 52:5 says that God's name was continually despised, but it mentions nothing about God's name being despised among the heathen because of the conduct of the Jews. It is more likely that Paul is referring to Ezekiel 36:20 and 21. Let's turn to Ezekiel 36 and read verses 16 through 21:

Ezekiel 36: (16) And the Word of Jehovah was to me, saying, (17) Son of man, [when] the house of Israel dwelt on their land, they even defiled it by their ways and by their doings. As the defilement of woman's impurity, their way was before Me. (18) So I poured out My fury on them, because of the blood that they had poured out on the land, and for their idols [by which] they defiled it. (19) And I scattered them among the nations, and they were sown among the lands; I judged them by their way and by their doings. (20) And when they entered into the nations, there where they went, they even profaned My holy name, by saying to them, These [are] the people of Jehovah, and they are gone out of His land. (21) But I had pity for My holy name which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations, there where they went.

God's name was profaned among the heathen because of the wickedness of the Jews. The heathen would look at the Jews, who were so proud of the Law that God had given them, and see that the Jews were doing those things that were forbidden in the Law. The Jews were committing the same kinds of acts that the heathen were committing. Thus, the heathen would blaspheme God by saying that God is just like their gods, and the Jewish religion is just like their religion, and God's people are just a bunch of hypocrites. We hear this today from the heathen as well, don't we? God's name is being profaned among the heathen because the heathen look at the works of all those who profess to come in the name of Christ and see that these so-called "Christians" are a bunch of hypocrites. Thus, they pronounce a blanket condemnation on all Christianity and of the true God of true Christianity.

Let's go back to Romans 2 and read verses 25 through 29:

Romans 2: (25) For indeed circumcision profits if you practice [the] Law, but if you are a transgressor of Law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. (26) If, then, the uncircumcision keeps the ordinances of the Law, [will] not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? (27) And will [not] the uncircumcision by nature [by] completing the Law judge you, the [one who] through letter and circumcision [becomes] transgressor of Law? (28) For he is not a Jew that [is one] outwardly, nor [is] circumcision that outwardly in flesh; (29) but he [is] a Jew that [is one] inwardly, and circumcision [is] of heart, in spirit, not in letter; of whom the praise [is] not from men, but from God.

Paul goes into circumcision, which was the outward mark of being a Jew. The lost Jews thought that their circumcision automatically brought them into the kingdom. However, the Holy Spirit through Paul says that circumcision only profits if they have perfect righteousness. That means that one is a TRUE child of God, a TRUE member of God's kingdom, when they have a perfect righteousness. He goes on to say that if one is a TRANSGRESSOR of the law, which means breaking the Law in any way, in any part, then their circumcision becomes uncircumcision. This is a profound statement to the Jews. These Jews, who boasted in their circumcision that they were the people of God, were being told by God through Paul in this passage, that if they did not continue in all things of the Law to do them perfectly, their circumcision was actually UNCIRCUMCISION! This mark that was supposed to distinguish them as the people of God actually became a mark that they were UNCIRCUMCISED, which means that they were no more the true people of God than the HEATHEN! Paul was basically calling them HEATHEN here! It's no wonder Paul was hated by the lost Jews. He had brought their self-righteous tower down in a pile of rubble. He totally demolished their ground of acceptance before God.

And he goes on. In verses 26 and 27, he gives a hypothetical situation in which someone who is an uncircumcised heathen keeps the Law perfectly. He says that in this situation, the heathen's uncircumcision is actually counted for circumcision! Yet another slam into the tower of self-righteousness. He's saying that those despised heathen, if they kept the law perfectly, they would have been justified without having been circumcised! And not only this, he says that the hypothetical perfect Gentile, although he is uncircumcised, would judge and condemn the circumcised Jew who did not meet up to God's standard.

Now remember, this is a hypothetical situation that is used to make a point. Are there or were there any uncircumcised Gentiles who kept the law perfectly in their own conduct? No. So this hypothetical is an actual impossibility, just like verse 13, in which God states that the doers of the Law, meaning the PERFECT doers of the law, would be justified. This is an impossibility to prove a point. In the current hypothetical situation, Paul is proving the point that circumcision in and of itself, or being a Jew in and of itself, does not mean a thing. And he goes on to show this in the next two verses:

Romans 2: (28) For he is not a Jew (that is, a true child of God) that [is one] outwardly (that is, one who was outwardly part of the Jewish nation and who had the Law of God), nor [is] circumcision that outwardly in flesh (that is, the physical circumcision that all the boys in the nation of Israel received is not the true circumcision in which the person is made a child of God); (29) but he [is] a Jew that [is one] inwardly, and circumcision [is] of heart ...

That is, the TRUE Jew, who is the TRUE child of God, has nothing to do with OUTWARD circumcision; it has to do with INWARD circumcision, which is circumcision of the HEART. The outward sign of circumcision signified inward circumcision. Instead of seeing outward circumcision as something that pointed to an inward reality, the Jews took the outward sign of circumcision and made it into something in and of itself. They had made it into yet another rite by which they could boast that they were God's people, just like they used the other ordinances. But God makes it clear here that without the INWARD reality, the OUTWARD sign is of no value. But the OUTWARD sign IS of value if we see that it points to the inward reality. The outward sign is a cutting off of the foreskin of the male child. This points to the cutting off of the uncleanness of the heart. When the heart is circumcised, the heart goes from uncleanness to cleanness. Had the Jews really known the Law, they would have seen that circumcision did not just have outward significance. In Deuteronomy 10:16, God told Israel, "And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and you shall not harden your neck any more." In Deuteronomy 30:6, God told them, "And Jehovah your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love Jehovah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live." Even the Law showed that outward circumcision does not mean that one does not have a clean heart.

Paul goes on to say that this circumcision of the heart is in spirit, not in letter. Paul uses this kind of language in other passages. Let's look first at Romans 7:6:

Romans 7: (6) But now we have been set free from the Law, having died [to that] in which we were held, so as [for] us to serve in newness of spirit, and not [in] oldness of letter.

Now over to 2 Corinthians 3:6:

2 Corinthians 3: (6) who also made us able ministers of a new covenant, not of letter, but of Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive.

So Paul is contrasting the letter and the spirit. He is saying that we are not to serve God thinking that our outward obedience to the law recommends us to God; instead, we are to serve God in spirit, knowing that our law-keeping does not recommend us to God in any way but that the work of Christ alone is what recommends us to God. We strive to obey God's Law out of thankfulness and love, not out of legalism. And we don't just strive to obey the outward letter of the Law; we strive to obey even the heart application of the Law. For example, we do not just think that outward adultery is sin; we believe that to look at a woman to lust after her is sin, as Jesus said. When our hearts have been circumcised, we see the Law in a completely new light. We do not see it as a way to God. We see it as something that shows us that we cannot fulfill its demands ourselves and points us to Christ, who fulfilled the Law perfectly in our place and imputes that perfect righteousness to us. We see it as a rule of life for the believer, not to gain or maintain salvation, but as a response of love to the God who already counts us as completely righteous in Christ.

The last part of the sentence says, "of whom the praise is not from men, but from God." The word "from" can also be translated "of." This is what it all boils down to. If one believes that his law-keeping recommends him to God, his praise is to himself and to other law-keepers. He boasts in his law-keeping. He believes that his law-keeping is what makes the difference between salvation and damnation. He believes in salvation conditioned on the sinner. But when one believes that there is nothing he does that recommends him to God, that it is something totally external to himself that is the ground of salvation, that it is the grace of God through the work of Christ that makes him to differ, then man is totally out of the equation as far as who gets the credit goes. God gets all the praise. If it is God who has chosen us from before the foundation of the world to be saved, not based on anything in us, but totally according to His own good pleasure, then it is God who gets all the praise. If it is the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ that makes the only difference between salvation and damnation, then it is God who gets all the praise. If it is the Holy Spirit alone who irresistibly works the circumcision of the heart, then it is God who gets all the praise. If it is God alone who preserves us and brings us to glory, then it is God who gets all the praise.

To God alone be all glory, all salvation, all honor, all praise, all dominion, all power, and all majesty forever and ever. Amen.


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