Sermon preached on Romans 2:17-29 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/20/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Whose Praise is Not From Men But From God”
As we continue in our series in Romans today, remember again the context. At the end of chapter 1 we saw a sobering description of depravity. It described those who not only had become jaded to sin in their own life, but even approved of others doing those kinds of sins. Paul probably had in mind primarily the pagan Gentiles in chapter 1. Sadly, we’ve seen some of that very visibly in the most literal way the last couple of weeks. I’m referring to a number of politicians who’ve come essentially approving of homosexuality. Then in chapter 2, we saw a different group of people. A people that looked at that description of depravity in chapter 1, and proudly said that didn’t refer to them. Paul probably had especially in mind the Jews at that point. Two weeks ago we considered how such thinking of the Jews was futile. That to try to be right before God at any point by your own works, you are still damned. Well, it this idea that Paul continues to flush out today. Now, he turns in verse 17 and specifically calls the Jews by name. He addresses now head on in the clearest ways the Jewish boasting that actually reveals their hypocrisy. A hypocrisy that leaves them under condemnation. Of course, we are not talking about every Jew, when we read this. Many Jews have humbly come to Jesus Christ, acknowledging their need for grace and forgiveness. This does not apply to them. On the other hand, there are many so-called Christians who are not Jewish, but can find this description quite fitting for them. So, this passage though addressed to the Jews is something we should all use in self-examination today.
Let’s begin then today by first examining the state of Jewish hypocrisy described here. Well, to appreciate their hypocrisy, we need to realize their frame of mind. You see, what we find in verses 17-20 is Jewish pride. Pride is often a component of hypocrisy. You truly think yourself to be one thing, but then do another. That’s Paul’s description of this Jewish hypocrisy here. It doesn’t say that they are intentionally trying to deceive anyone. It’s that they are convinced they really are so good and privileged. But Paul reveals their misplaced pride.
So, look at their pride, beginning at verse 17. They rest in the law, verse 17. In other words, they think they are at peace with the law’s demands, so they find rest in it. This is essentially acknowledging how they trust in their law keeping. Then it goes on to talk about how they boast in God. In other words, they go around telling the world how special they are to have such a good relationship with God. They probably liked to point out pridefully how God chose them as a nation, and how God drove out all the other nations in the past, etc. Then in verse 18 it talks about how they know his will. Well, this is very true. They had the Bible. The Bible reveals the will of God for man. Think of the verse like Micah 6:8 that tells God’s will for our lives: to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Indeed they did have God’s will revealed to them.
And then verse 18 goes on to show that they approve of things that are excellent. In other words, this is a contrast again to the depraved people of chapter 1. Last verse in chapter 1 described such people as those who approve of others’ sin. Here these Jews are not like that. They are good at acknowledging and approving what is technically right. The reason for this is also in verse 18. They’ve been instructed in the law. The Bible says that the Jews would have been taught the law by the priests and Levites. And they would also have been taught the law by their parents, think of Deuteronomy 6, for example.
Verse 19 then describes their confidence in all of this. They had confidence in their heritage and training, so that they saw themselves as having something to offer others. They saw themselves as a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, instructor of the foolish, teacher of babes. These are of course analogies. It’s not talking about physical blindness, and physical darkness. It’s talking of spiritual categories. Those like the Gentiles who do not know the ways of God, and blind and in darkness. Those without the knowledge and wisdom of God are the foolish. Those just learning about God are “babes” spiritually. Paul’s addressing these Jews who confidently felt they were in a place to lead such people.
Now it would be fair to note that in many ways this description of the Jews was quite correct. Theirs was a high place of privilege. Paul will acknowledge that later in chapter 3 when he talks about the value of the Jew’s circumcision. And again in chapter 9 when he talks about the rich spiritual heritage of the Jews. The Jews had in fact known God’s will. They had received teaching on the truth. That’s what verse 20 concludes with. They’d have the embodiment of knowledge and truth with the law. God had in fact reached out to them and revealed himself and taught them. They had the covenants and the Bible. They had so many blessings, indeed. The problem was not that they had this high place of spiritual privilege. The problem was what they did with it.
You see on the one hand, they took great pride in this. We noted some of the keywords here that described this. They rested in the law. They boasted in God. They had confidence in their abilities to lead others. They were very puffed up by their privilege. Well, if they had understood this privilege correctly, they should not have been puffed up, but humbled. They should have humbly realized that they hadn’t done anything to deserve such privilege. Rather, their hypocrisy and failed self-appraisal comes out then with what follows in verses 21-23. What we find in verses 21-23 is a series of questions that get the Jew to do some self-reflection. Essentially the question is this: Do you practice what you preach? The questions are asked a bit rhetorically. The sense is that Paul’s saying that they are not. The people that want to teach others, need to teach themselves. The people that preach to others against certain sins, need to repent from those same sins as well: stealing, adultery, idolatry, etc. They had boasted in the law, but they broke the law. Do you see the point? It’s essentially hypocritical living. Blinded by pride, they think so highly of themselves, and so low of others, and don’t realize their own wickedness.
We find the result of their hypocrisy in verses 23 and 24. They dishonor God it says. That dishonor is flushed out in verse 24. Their actions result in God’s name being slandered by the Gentiles. Verse 24 quotes the Old Testament when it talks about how Israel’s Babylonian captivity brought a similar dishonoring to God. Here that idea is applied to the current situation. When someone boasts so much of following God, when someone brags so much as being careful to do just what God says, and then that person steals, commits adultery, and robs pagan temples, what might outsiders think of that person’s God? Obviously, people could come to the wrong conclusion that their God approves of these things. That their religion and their God must not have a problem with these things, if these supposed followers do these evil things. Do you see Paul’s point here? People would say, why would I want to follow a God like that? That’s what the unbelieving world was doing when they saw Jews boast so proudly in their God and in their law and in their circumcision, but then turn around and commit such sins. Such religious hypocrisy isn’t usually received well by the world, back then, or today.
Paul then begins to further assess this Jewish hypocrisy under the subject of circumcision. This now is our second point, to consider circumcision and its importance. Remember, that this was the very outward way a Jew identified themselves as a Jew. This was their outward badge of honor to lay claim to their religious heritage. All the pride we’ve already mentioned came together in this sense of identity – the Jews are the circumcised of the Lord. And so I’m referring to Paul’s discussion here beginning in verse 25. Of course, circumcision in general was a biblical thing. The problem was not that Jews had been getting circumcised. God had commanded the Jews to be circumcised in Genesis 17. God in fact said it was to be the sign of the covenant. And so the problem was not that they saw circumcision in this way – as a sign and symbol of their special relationship with God. Like if you are married, you probably wear a wedding ring. And that wedding ring you keep on and are proud of because it represents as a symbol that covenant relationship you are in with your spouse.
Paul says instead that the problem was that people rejoiced in the outward sign, but did not live out what it signified. It signified the covenant relationship. It reflected that they were a people to whom God have given his blessings and his law. They were to live out the terms of the covenant. But Paul’s saying that if you have the outward sign of the covenant, i.e. circumcision, but don’t follow the covenant, then your outward sign is worthless. That’s what he’s getting at in verse 25, “Circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” And so he puts it in the reverse in 25. If an uncircumcised actually keeps the law, then he’s counted as good as circumcised. He kept the substance of it. Such a person will then rightly condemn the circumcised person, per verse 27. They’ll be condemned by the uncircumcised man, who kept the substance of the law, when the Jew had both the written law and the outward sign, but still didn’t keep it.
Again, you could use the marriage analogy with wedding rings. Imagine there are two couples who were married. One wore wedding rings, and the other did not. If the couple that wore wedding rings constantly lived in marital unfaithfulness, and the other couple that didn’t wear wedding rings was perfectly faithful, who would you commend? The ring only has value as you look to be faithful to the covenant! If you wear the rings but are unfaithful, why bother with the rings? How could you put any pride in the rings? They would be only a sign of your hypocrisy.
This would be somewhat akin to the false teaching of baptismal regeneration – people who believe actual act of being baptized that regenerates you. Or this would also be similar to people today that overemphasize the role of baptism in a Christian’s salvation. For Christians, baptism is the new covenant equivalent of circumcision. Circumcision marked you out and initiated you into the Mosaic covenant. Baptism marks you out and initiates you into the visible New Testament church. In the Old Testament, you ought to be circumcised. In the New Testament, you ought to be baptized. However, if you get baptized, don’t put your trust in your baptism. Circumcision and baptism are signs of what should be then realized in your faith and life. That you trust in God. That you look to him to save you. For the Christian, that you have specifically placed your faith in Jesus Christ, and have turned from a life of sin and rebellion, and are looking to follow Jesus. If you get baptized, but don’t believe in Jesus and aren’t looking to obey him, then you should not find any hope in your baptism.
And so hopefully these examples help to flush out the problem that many Jews were having at Paul’s day. What Paul then does here is to help people see what’s the real issue. It’s not about the externals, ultimately. It’s about the internals. This is then our third point, to consider what is true “Jewishness.” Look at verses 28-29. “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” Paul likes to get to the heart. What a Jew in Scripture represents is so very important. It’s about that list of privileges we had mentioned at the start. The Jews are God’s chosen people who have a special covenant relationship with God. They know God’s will via his revelation. Revelation that’s been recorded in the Bible. But Paul’s point now is that being a Jew is not an outward thing. What makes you really a Jew is something deeper than outward circumcision. It’s got to start in the heart. Related to this, it means that it’s not even an ethnic thing. Being a Jew is something more than all that. It’s about being in a saving relationship to God, and that is ultimately seen by looking at someone’s heart, not on their flesh.
So just notice the contrasts. Verse 28 contrasts with verse 29. Something outward and fleshly, versus something inward and of the heart. Physical circumcision versus heart circumcision. Then another comparison is verse 29 between the Spirit and the letter. A true Jew rests in the fact that he has received the Holy Spirit in his heart, not resting in comfort just that he has verbally received the letter of God’s written law. Please don’t misunderstand this point. It’s not that the outward things are bad. We’ve said God required them to be circumcised under the old covenant. There were many things that outwardly identified Israel as Israel, like all the kosher food laws. Those were fine at that time. But if all you had were the externals and missed the heart set apart for God, then you weren’t really a Jew at all. If you have the externals along with a changed heart, then the externals can help to show that to those around you. But if you have only externals, then you are either a fake, or you are confused and have a misplaced hope.
Let me give you another analogy. Imagine that you are sick and need medicine. And imagine that you have two bottles full of a liquid. One is unmarked but contains the medicine you need. The other is marked as saying it’s the medicine you need, but contains only a placebo. Which has the power to heal you? Well, of course, only the unmarked bottle that actually contains the medicine. The point is that the outward labels are meaningless, and actually destructive, if they have a label that isn’t true for what’s inside. That’s like the Jew who’s outwardly circumcised, but not really a true follower of God in his heart. Of course on a side note, you see there is a value of label. Not very helpful to have the medicine in an unmarked bottle. Believers ought to be marked visibly and hold themselves out as such to the world, as followers of God.
The result of this true Jewishness is found at the end of verse 29. The person receives praise, not from man, but from God. If someone is truly following God from the heart, then they will be praised by God. God will acknowledge him as his own. For the man whose heart is circumcised to God, he has a great reward from God in store. We should see this statement in contrast to the rest of the passage. The hypocritical Jew was praising himself. The watching Gentile slandered God in return. But the true Jew receives praise from God.
What Paul is setting us up for is something that he will keep developing in this letter. It’s what he says in Romans 9:6, “They are not all Israel who are of Israel.” In other words, Paul will be flushing out that some who are ethnically Jewish, are not actually Jews. And some who are not ethnically Jewish, are actually Jews. It’s the concept of the true Israel. He’ll talk about that in Romans 11 how some Gentiles are being grafted into the true Israel, even as some ethnic Jews are being ripped off of this true Israel. What this means is that the end of this chapter should speak to us who are Gentiles. That though not ethnically Jewish, we can have what’s described here for the truly Jewish. We can have the rich heritage of being God’s own people. This is our identity, if our hearts are circumcised to the Lord.
Interestingly, that’s a promise God made long ago. He promised all the way back in Deuteronomy 30:6 that he would one day circumcise the hearts of his people. That was a promise particularly given to the Jewish nation, but we realize in the New Testament, that it had a wider significance than just for them – read Ephesians 2 and 3 for example. If we have believed in Jesus Christ, then that means God has circumcised our hearts. If we’ve heard the call of the gospel and put our trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, then that means God has circumcised your heart. You should then go and be baptized as an outward sign of it, but recognize his inward work in you. If you believe in Jesus, you have his Spirit inside you, even as you heard the outward letter of God’s Word preached to you. As Christians then, we now are the embodiment of what’s said in verse 29. We are Jews, inwardly! That’s why Paul says elsewhere that we are sons of Abraham!
So then, as those circumcised of heart by God, I urge you all to live a life of humility. We have not been saved by our works. God has saved us, even through the gift of faith. Let us boast not in our own works. Let us not boast in our outward privileges. Let us boast in our weaknesses. Weaknesses that highlight God’s grace. That we would receive our praise not from men, but from God!
A last application for today is to call us all to some self-reflection. Though this passage is directed toward Jews back then, this issue they struggled with is ripe for application to the visible church today. So much is heard today by unbelievers that they disregard the Christian faith because there are so many hypocrites in the church. The visible church must be on guard against this. People can do all the outward things of Church, and still have hearts far from God. People can think themselves so holy, and preach about ethical change in our society in a way that leaves the gospel out of the message. This has not gone unnoticed by the unbelieving world.
I hear unbelievers point out all sorts of perceived hypocrisies. Sometimes the claimed hypocrisy is a false claim. Like unbelievers can think its hypocrisy for a Christian to denounce abortion but support capital punishment. I don’t think there’s hypocrisy there. Other times they can have some pretty pointed critiques, like when they point out how some in the visible church focus in so much on things like homosexuality, while seeming to turn a blind eye to adultery going on in their midst. Obviously that would be hypocrisy in that case.
The point I’m making here, is that the issue described here for some of these Jews could easily be found in many places of the broader visible church today. Paul’s questions are questions we ought to ask ourselves. Some might have thought they knew God all this time, and find they just were involved in external religion. If that is you, then may today be the day of repentance. Others might do some self reflection and find that there has been cases of hypocrisy in your own life; thinking or acting in a way that’s not consistent with the hope in your heart. If so, then may God’s Word compel you today to confess that before God and seek change.
We do this for our own well being, and also for our witness. This passage reminds us how our hypocrisy can turn people away from God. It shouldn’t – in that people need to realize they will follow Christ, not another Christian. And yet the danger is that we can misrepresent the gospel to people. That if in our pride we act like the gospel is about us living so much better than everyone else, and then we don’t do that. Let’s not misrepresent the gospel in hypocrisy. That it’s about the forgiveness of sins and God changing hearts. Let’s model the gospel by humbly pointing people to salvation in Jesus. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.