SERMON FOR MAY 31, 1998 FROM ROMANS 2:28-29

 

                This morning, we come to the last two verses of Romans chapter two.  In the chapter, Paul has repeatedly stated that superficial, external religious practices, even if they are orthodox and doctrinally correct, will not protect people from the wrath of God.  What God requires is obedience.  Verse 13 says, “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.”  In this section Paul repeatedly stresses that God requires obedience from His people.  Last week, we saw that those people who claimed to be God’s people or who were associated with God by their religious practices and yet did not obey God caused God’s name to be dishonored before the watching world.

          This week, we move to verses 28-29.  In these verses Paul begins to get to the heart of the matter as it relates to obedience.  In the first 27 verses of this chapter Paul stresses the NECESSITY of obedience to God.  As he concludes the chapter here, he gives his first hint as to the how God equips people to obey Him?  Since God requires obedience from His covenant people, how can they obey Him? Paul deals with this in depth later on in the letter, but he highlights it here.  In verses 25-27, Paul has been saying that circumcision alone, if not accompanied by obedience, will never protect a person from God’s wrath. Let’s read verses 28-29 as he finishes his thought.  “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.  Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.” 

          There is so much to be said about these verses, but before we begin we need to develop a biblical understanding of circumcision if we are to more deeply appreciate what Paul is saying here.  The Jews did not have a very deep understanding of circumcision and so they reduced it to being purely external--only a symbol.  They did not understand that God intended there to be a strong connection between circumcision and obedience.  They made no connection between the two.  They saw circumcision as only an external mark which guaranteed that they were part of the covenant people of God and therefore immune from His wrath.  Obedience had been completely removed from circumcision.  Its easy for us to think there was no connection between circumcision and obedience.  We see the connection between what Paul refers to as “circumcision of the heart” which we will discuss later, but there was also a strong link in God’s mind between physical circumcision in the Old Covenant and obedience. 

          The link is found in the essence of the Abrahamic covenant.  In Genesis 15, God promises Abraham that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and that He will give him and his descendants the promised land.   When Abraham asks the Lord how he will know that he will gain possession of the land, God binds himself to his word through a covenant ceremony.  He has Abraham get a three year old heifer, a goat and a ram and a dove and a young pigeon.  All but the birds he cut in half and separated the halves, leaving a narrow walkway in the middle.  God passed between the halves of the carcasses.  This is deeply significant.

          What that meant within the Ancient Near Eastern culture was that God was placing himself under an oath.  What God was saying to Abraham when He passed between the carcasses was, “May it be done to me as has been done to these animals if I do not keep my oath and pledge.”  Or, “may what happened to these animals happened to me if I do not keep my covenant with you.”  This is an incredible thing for the omnipotent Lord of the universe to submit himself to, but he does it to reassure Abraham that He will deliver on His covenant promise.   

          Two chapters later in God’s second covenant with Abraham, God tells Abraham the sign that he (Abraham) will be loyal and faithful to God is for him to circumcised along with all the other males with Him.  This was to be the mark or sign of the covenant.  Circumcision, within the context was the way God chose for Abraham to pledge himself to be obedient to God. Old Testament scholar Ron Youngblood highlights this.  He says, when Abraham submitted to circumcision it   was his way of communicating, “If I am not loyal in faith and obedience to the Lord, may the sword of the Lord cut off me and my offspring as I have cut off my foreskin.” Do you hear the connection between circumcision and obedience there? He binds himself in a way which in some way parallels the way God binds Himself to the covenant. The circumcision was intended by God to serve as a graphic and frequent reminder for the Jews of the penalty for not keeping the covenant oath.  They would lose the land.  It was an external mark, but it signified an internal commitment to obey.  It was a symbol of total consecration to God.

          What Paul is saying in this text is this:  Those truly in covenant with God have much more than a set of external, religious practices.  Remember, whenever you hear that word “covenant” think of relationship.  A covenant with God is much more than simply a commitment or legal agreement, it is a relationship.  When you enter into a covenant with God, you are entering into relationship with God.  What Paul does in 28-29 is to contrast a person who is genuinely in covenant with God with a person who only thinks they are because of some set of outward signs.  He brings out two points of contrasts between these two people.  The first contrast and the only one we will have time for this morning is this:  The one truly in covenant with God has been given a new heart which compels them to actively seek to obey God.  We see this in verse 28 and the first half of verse 29.  A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical.  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”

          Paul says the true “Jew,” those who are genuinely in covenant with God--true children of Abraham are those who have been changed internally.  This may sound like something that is exclusive to the New Testament to some of us.  That is, this idea of the need for internal change.  Some people think the difference between the people of God in the New Testament and the people of God in the Old Testament was that the Old Testament saints obey only externally while the New Testament saints obey from the heart.  That dichotomy between Old Testament believer (true believers) and New Testament saints is impossible to sustain from the Bible.  True, the New Testament people have a new and better covenant in many ways, but the obedience which honors God has always come from the heart.  That has never changed.

          Way back in Deuteronomy 10:16 God calls his people under Moses to, “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff necked any longer.”  God calls his people to change and he indicates that the change must come from their hearts.  When David sinned with Bathsheba and he prays that magnificent prayer of repentance in Psalm 51, he knows the ultimate source of his sin was not his body, but his heart. He prays, “Create in me a pure heart, O God and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”   David knew the key to maintaining a right relationship with God lay in his own heart.  In Jeremiah 4:4 God calls His people to repentance. He says, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because the evil you have done ...”  The reason the people had sinned was because their hearts were uncircumcised and God says the only thing which will prevent his wrath is if the people circumcise their hearts and thereby stop sinning.  There is a connection with God’s wrath and an uncircumcised heart.  So, when Paul in Romans two says, in context, that a changed heart alone will avert the wrath of God, he is simply echoing what Jeremiah has said.

          The difference between the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers is this; within the Old Covenant, God calls his people to circumcise their hearts. Within the New covenant, its NOT that God calls us to circumcise our hearts, but that He gives us a circumcised heart as a result of being in covenant with Him.  Its not an obligation of the New Covenant, its a GIFT of the New Covenant--its part and parcel of belonging to the New Covenant.  We see this in the Old Testament texts which look ahead to the blessings of the New Covenant in Christ. In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God says this of this promised New Covenant, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit n you;  I will removed from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws”.  This blessing means that those who have it will be inspired by God, motivated by God, given the desire by God to obey Him.  It is internal and it is a gift of God.  This certainly happened to Old Testament saints, but most would argue that it didn’t happen to the degree (in quantity, at least) as it does to those who come after Christ.  In Deuteronomy 30:6 Moses looks ahead to the New Covenant and says, “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” 

          In Romans two, Paul writes NOT looking ahead to this New Covenant blessing, but looking back on it because of what Christ has done and he says, “Circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.”

All those who are truly in covenant with God have been internally changed by God so that they are inclined to obey God.  Circumcision is internal, not external.  Its no longer just an external reminder of the penalty for violating the covenant oath, it is an internal change wrought by God through the Person of the Holy Spirit which compels us to obey God.  Paul says it this way in Philippians 3:3, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.”  Those who are true Jews, that is His chosen people are those whose hearts have been circumcised and who serve in the power and liberty of the Spirit, not in the enslavement of the flesh under the law.

Second Corinthians 3:6 says, “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

          Those who are in relationship to God have far more than an external agreement with God confirmed by external symbols.  They have been given a new heart--they are NEW CREATURES in Christ, supernaturally created in Christ Jesus to do good works.  This is the miracle of the New birth.  To put it in theological terms, this is what we call “regeneration.”  And Paul draws an unbreakable link between regeneration and obeying God.  There is a reason he does this, in light of the context.  Remember, he is speaking to people who think they are in a right relationship with God.  They think they are shielded from his wrath because they have a legal relationship with him. They are in a legal covenant with God which is sealed with external circumcision and which protects them from God’s wrath.  To those people who think they are justified before God, Paul stresses the absolute necessity of regeneration--a miraculous, internal change which will show itself in obedience.

          This is a pattern for us in the church today to follow.  To those people in the church who take great comfort for the idea that they have been “made right with God” or justified, but whose life does not show genuine, supernatural fruit, Paul would say they need to be confronted with the biblical truth of the reality of  regeneration and the obedience which flows from that.  That is, do they have “new heart” and if so, do they show proof of a new heart by a strong desire to obey and by obedience to God?  Part of the problem with much of evangelicalism is we stress justification by faith to the exclusion of regeneration.

          A child grows up in a Christian home.  At some time, they say a prayer to receive Christ much of the time because they have been told hell is a bad place and they don’t want to go there.  The family crowds around the child and feels compelled to remind them, “Wasn’t that wonderful--now remember, you’re a Christian now--you are in--you will go to heaven when you die.”  That may sound like a positively wonderful scene to most of us, but if that is all that is done in this context, there is a MAJOR and perhaps decisive step left out.  Where is the part which tests for the fruit of repentance?  If that child is truly saved, they will show some fruit--some form of changed life.  If God has given them a new heart, made a new creature out of them, brought them from darkness to light, from death to life, don’t you think God will confirm that work with some form of increased obedience?  In very small children this is difficult, but even there, I am convinced God will confirm whether there has been a change by some sort of obedience.  Many today done even consider this.

          Let me tell you something, if this is the way it went with your kids--the external prayer was there, but there was no discernible heart change you have strong reason to suspect their so called conversion.  Pray for God to show you whether they are in the kingdom or whether they just went through an external religious rite.  If you don’t get strong confirmation, then go back to that child and speak of their need to have a new heart.  Our reaction to that may be, “But I don’t want to confuse them or to put them through the trauma of doubt.”  Isn’t it better to flood their lives with confusion and doubt than to have them walking around in self deception?  If God does a work in their life and gives them a new heart, that doubt and confusion will vanish in the light of His transforming work.

          We even do this with adults.  We go through an evangelistic tract with someone.  It goes something like this:  God loves you, but you will go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus’ free gift of eternal life.  Do you want to go to hell?”  They say, “No.”  We say, “Good, let’s pray.”  They pray to have Jesus come into their life.  They are “saved.”  We spend the next five months feeling compelled to remind them that God really has saved them and that what they did really did mean something to them.  The truth is, if they have been given a new heart, and brought from death to life, they will not need anyone to remind them of that fact.  You won’t be able to shut them up about it!!!  They won’t stop talking about it.  They are changed, they are different--they are a new creature with a new heart.  They won’t be able to sing “Amazing Grace” without choking up because that is what God has done for them.  “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”--That’s ME!!

          If you don’t stress the necessity of regeneration--having a new heart along with the wonder of justification--being made legally right with God, you will have a bunch of false converts who have prayed a prayer, claimed their status as being made right with God, but there will be no dynamic spiritual change in their life.  They are in for the most shocking surprise that could ever come upon a person the moment they die and meet Christ.  They will be looking into the face of a stranger who will say to them--”I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doer.”  Its instructive that Paul stresses the need for regeneration here in chapter two before he discusses justification in chapter four.  Most people in our culture need to hear about regeneration before we tell them about justification.  In evangelicalism today, we almost always reverse Paul’s order.  We talk about the wonder of being made right with God--being protected from God’s wrath before and sometimes to the complete exclusion of their need to repent and receive a new heart which will compel them to obey God.

          This tragedy is not simply confined to children in second or third generation homes or to those abstract people “out there” who are self deceived.  Let me ask you something?  Are you regenerated?  Do you have a new heart inclined to obey God?  Does your heart beat for God?  Or, has your Christian experience mostly been made up of external religious practices?  You may enjoy the practices, you may even be good at them, but they are not matched by obedience and a heartfelt desire for Him.  When you prayed to receive Christ, was there a difference in your life?  Or, are you one of those people who had to be reminded that you were a Christian to ward off what were perhaps significant doubts?  Do you have a passion for God, personally?  Do you love HIM?  Or do you merely love things that are connected to Him--going to church, serving in the church, singing choruses, listening to Christian music, being around people who don’t cuss or smoke?  Do you have a new heart and if so, what is the proof?

          Maybe you’re here this morning and you know you have never had this experience.  For you, its not a matter of having a false experience, you’ve never even gone through the motions of praying a prayer.  And you sense that if you were to die this afternoon, you would have no real assurance that you would not suffer God’s wrath for your sin.          Whether you’re a person who has had what you think might be a false conversion or if you’ve never met God or if there is some other issue related to this one, don’t leave this place with at least giving God a change to do a work in your heart.

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