25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 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. (Romans 2:25-29; ESV)
Possession of the law is like circumcision. Both the law and circumcision are elements that made the Jews distinct from the nations. But neither of these aspects that set the Jews apart as being in a special relationship with God are of any value if the law of God is not kept. Possession of the law does not spare one from God’s wrath. Circumcision also does not spare one from God’s wrath.
One becomes like an uncircumcised Gentile in breaking the law of Moses. This means that you are not a member of God’s people and not in a special relationship with God. When the Jews did not obey God’s law, they were no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. In verse 26 Paul points out that the Gentiles are becoming the people of God by keeping God’s law. Though uncircumcised (out of a relationship with God and not God’s people), they are coming into a relationship with God and are part of God’s people by keeping God’s law. Those who do not keep God’s law are excluded.
Further, the Gentiles condemn those who are circumcised. Why? Paul already drew upon that point earlier. The Gentiles condemn those who are Jews because the Jews had the law and were hearers of the law, but did not obey it. The Gentiles did not have the law of Moses but they are obeying God. Thus, the Gentiles are condemning the Jews. The Jews had the advantages but have not done what the Gentiles have done, that is, seek after and obey God.
Verse 28 contains some serious and contemplative words for Israel. You are not a Jew outwardly. Nothing about being the people of God is outward. A person is not a Jew by being circumcised or by being possessors of the law of Moses through being born of Jewish parents. These must have been startling words to the Jews who heard the apostle Paul, a former Pharisee and Jew himself. The name “Jew” and the attribute of circumcision belong to the people whose hearts are cut for God, not whose bodies are cut for God. Those who carry the covenant marks of circumcision on their hearts are the people of God, not those who carry the covenant marks of circumcision on their body. Ezekiel prophesied that this is what God’s people would look like:
And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. (Ezekiel 36:26-27; NLT)
A Jew is someone whose heart is right with God. The outward marks does not put one into a covenant relationship with God. Further, circumcision is the change of heart that is produced, not the cutting of the body. The person with the changed heart is the one who seeks the praise from God, not from people.