Dr. Robert R. Seyda



The Apostle Paul had written the Corinthians earlier about this matter of allowing ceremony to take precedent over covenant. Apparently, there were questions as to what role circumcision played in confirming a new believer’s status in the church. He told them: “If a man was already circumcised when God chose him, he should not negate his being circumcised. If a man was without circumcision when God chose him, he should not be circumcised. It is not important if anyone is circumcised or not. What is important is obeying God’s commands.1 In fact, Paul explained to the Philippians: “We are the ones who have the true circumcision – we who worship God through His Spirit. We don’t trust in ourselves or anything we can do. We take pride only in Christ Jesus.2 And to the Colossians Paul wrote: “In Christ, you had a different kind of circumcision, one that was not done by human hands. That is, you were made free from the power of your sinful self. That is the kind of circumcision Christ does.3 Paul was not coming up with a new doctrine just for the believers in Rome. It applied to believers everywhere.

Chrysostom makes this observation: “Look how clever Paul is. He does not say that the uncircumcision overcomes circumcision (for that would have angered the Jews who read his letter) but that the uncircumcision has become circumcision. Next, he asks what circumcision really is, and he says that it is well-doing, whereas uncircumcision is evil-doing. Having moved the uncircumcised who does good deeds over to the circumcised and having pushed the circumcised man who leads a corrupt life into the ranks of the uncircumcised, Paul states his preference for the physically uncircumcised.4

This may sound somewhat like a riddle, but Chrysostom was pointing out that Gentiles who became believers and obeyed the teachings of Christ should not be required to undergo circumcision to be accepted by the Jews as being qualified to claim eternal life. Likewise, the Jews could not count on their being circumcised as a guarantee of eternal life even though as believers they were not obeying the teachings of Christ. In other words, circumcision as a ceremony was being overrated by the Jews as being a substitute for keeping the covenant Jesus made with all those who believe in Him.

Another early church scholar of the same era offers this commentary: “The visible, needs the invisible but not the other way around, because the visible is an image of the invisible, while the invisible is the reality itself. Thus, the circumcision of the flesh needs the circumcision of the heart but not vice versa, because the reality does not need the image.… If circumcision has no value by itself, why was it instituted? First, in order to distinguish the people of God from among the Gentiles. This is why when they were alone in the desert they were not circumcised. Or perhaps so that their bodies might be identified in battle. The reason why they were marked in that part of the body was first so that they would not be disfigured in a part of the body which was open to public view, and second, because the promise of grace would make this part of the body honorable through chastity.5

Reformer John Calvin offers his insight: “This is a very strong argument. Everything is below its purpose and subordinate to it. Circumcision looks to the law, and must therefore be inferior to it: it is then a greater thing to keep the law than circumcision, which was for its sake instituted. It hence follows, that the uncircumcised [Gentile], provided he keeps the law, far excels the Jew with his barren and unprofitable circumcision, if he be a transgressor of the law: and though he is by nature polluted, he shall yet be so sanctified by keeping the law, that circumcision shall be attributed to him though he is still uncircumcised… It must be added that if any Gentile could be found who kept the law, his righteousness would be of more value without circumcision than the circumcision of the Jew without righteousness.6

Albert Barnes has this to say: “Shall his being uncircumcised be any barrier in the way of his acceptance with God? The word rendered ‘be counted,’ is what is commonly rendered ‘to reckon, to impute’; and its use here shows that the Scripture use of the word is not to transfer, or to charge with what is not deserved, or not true. It means simply that a man shall be treated as if it were so; that this lack of circumcision shall be no bar to acceptance. There is nothing set over to his account; nothing transferred; nothing reckoned different from what it is. God judges things as they are; and as the man, though uncircumcised, who keeps the Law, ought to be treated as if he had been circumcised, so he who believes in Christ agreeably to the divine promise, and trusts to His merits alone for salvation, ought to be treated as if he were himself righteous, God judges the thing as it is, and treats people as it is proper to treat them, as being pardoned and accepted through His Son.”7

Henry Alford states that it is plain to see that Paul is speaking here of the moral requirements because the very first demand of the ceremonial requirement was to be circumcised in order to be considered a genuine Jew. Of course, for the Jews to accept this would have been impossible, and no doubt Paul took that as a reality. All Paul was trying to do, says Alford, was to show that circumcision, the sign of the covenant of the Law, was subordinate to the keeping of the Law itself. In such cases then, if the Law was not kept it would exclude anyone from being seen as truly Jewish even if they were circumcised. So, following the Law was the key. Therefore, if a non-Jew kept the Law to perfection, should they not then be considered even more Jewish than the Jew, who was circumcised, but who was not keeping the Law?8

Later, Charles Hodge lays it out this way: “It was there taught that everything depends upon obedience to the law. God will judge every man according to his works. If a Jew, though circumcised, breaks the law, he shall be condemned; and if a Gentile, though uncircumcised, keeps the law, he shall be justified. The one proposition flows from the other; for if circumcision is in itself nothing, its presence cannot protect the guilty; its absence cannot invalidate the claims of the righteous.9

Charles Spurgeon preached: “If this principle were fully recognized everywhere, it would certainly put an end to all that notion of sacramentarianism10 which some men hold. It is not the outward, not the external, not the form and ceremony; it is the inward work of the Spirit; it is holiness and change of heart. Let none of us ever fall into the gross error of those who imagine that there is attached to certain ceremonies a certain degree of grace. It is not so. He is not a Christian which is one outwardly, he is a Christian who is one inwardly.11

Another Reformation scholar sees it this way: “The comparison of Romans 8:4 shows the apostle’s meaning. He refers to those many Gentiles converted to the Gospel who, all uncircumcised as they are, nevertheless fulfill the law in virtue of the Spirit of Christ, and thus become the true Israel, the Israel of God.12 Paul expresses himself in abstract terms, because here he has to do only with the principle, and not with the means by which it is realized. The future will be counted, transports us to the hour of judgment, when God, in order to declare a man righteous, will demand that he be so in reality.13

In one well-known British Bible commentary we read this exposition: “The case here put is, we think, such as that of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48), who, though outside the external pale of God’s covenant, yet having come to the knowledge of the truths contained in it, do manifest the grace of the covenant without the seal of it, and exemplify the character and walk of Abraham’s children, though not called by the name of Abraham. Thus, this is but another way of announcing that God was about to show the insufficiency of the mere badge of the Abrahamic covenant, by calling from among the Gentiles a seed of Abraham that had never received the seal of circumcision.14

H. A. Ironside notes this: “To trust in circumcision, the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, while walking in so carnal a manner, was but deceiving themselves. Ordinances do not profit if that of which the ordinance speaks is neglected. The uncircumcised Gentile, if he walk before God in righteousness, will be accounted as circumcised, whereas the covenant-mark on the flesh of a Jew will only add to his condemnation if he lives in opposition to the law. It is reality that counts with God. The true Jew (and ‘Jew’ is a contraction of ‘Judah,’ meaning, ‘Praise’) is not one who is such by natural birth alone, or by outward conformity to ritual, but one who is circumcised in heart, who has judged his sinfulness in the sight of the Lord, and who now seeks to walk in accordance with the revealed will of God. ‘Whose praise (note the play on the word Jew) is not of man but of God.’1516

Jewish scholar David Stern has this to say: “On the one hand, circumcision, taken as symbolic of being Jewish but recalling the covenant with Abraham in particular, is indeed of value, as explained in 3:1–2, 9: 4–5, 11:11–32 — but only if you do what Torah says. But if you are a transgressor of Torah, your circumcision has become uncircumcision! You have thrown away everything your Jewishness stands for. By despising God and His Law you have cut yourself off from His promises and from His people, spiritually, even though biological and cultural attachments remain. The reality behind the symbol has departed. On the other hand, if an uncircumcised man, a Gentile, keeps the righteous requirements of the Torah,… his physical uncircumcision will be counted as spiritual circumcision, ‘circumcision of the heart’ (v. 29; the imagery comes from Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6; Jeremiah 9:24–25 (25–26); compare Acts 7:51). He will then become an heir to promises of the covenant with Abraham (this theme is resumed in Chapter 4; also in Gal. 3: 6–29).17

What a loud message this is today for those who depend on ceremonial rites, rituals, ordinances, or sacraments provided by the church as a substitute for knowing Christ Jesus as their personal Savior, and accepting Him as their Lord by following His teachings.

1 1 Corinthians 7:18-19

2 Philippians 3:3

3 Colossians 2:11

4 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans, loc. cit.

5 Pelagius: On Romans, loc. cit.

6 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

7 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Henry Alford: On Romans, op. cit, loc. cit., p. 21

9 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc, cit., p. 99

10 Sacramentarianism is defined as: “The doctrine that the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist as only symbols, and not the actual physical, body and blood of Jesus.” However, it is clear that Spurgeon is using this in the reverse sense of those who do regard the sacraments as the body and blood of Christ that impart grace to the recipient.

11 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit. loc. cit.

12 See Galatians 6:16

13 Francis Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc, cit.

14 Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Old and New Testaments, by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co., Vol. 6., 1871

15 Cf. Galatians 5:6

16 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

17 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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