Exposition of Romans 2:28-29, Seek this: heart touched by Spirit

One of the fascinating things about professional football is that on Monday morning the great performances and the poor ones are first presented as matters of physical reality — touchdowns scored or fumbles — and then attributed to something inside the athletes. We may hear that our team played like they did not care or that a certain star showed tremendous heart.

Why is this so? Because we know from experience that what is true on the inside determines what is seen on the outside.

(ESV) Romans 2:28-29

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.

While Romans 2:28 is fairly clear as it stands, some grammar helps us understand it better. The sentence breaks into two clauses — each stated negatively — whose subjects are Jew and circumcision. The first clause represents the Jewish view during the first century: circumcision identifies the Jews, those assured of heaven.

James Dunn presents the reasoning of that day:

Even though it was known that other peoples practiced circumcision . . . circumcision was nevertheless recognized to be a rite which marked out the Jews . . . . This can only be a reflection of the high evaluation placed on circumcision by the Jews themselves in defining their national and religious distinctiveness.[1]

To the correctness of the Jews’ belief Paul very clearly says, “No!” To understand why, we must first notice that one word is repeated: “outwardly . . . outward” (2:28). The underlying Greek word was used in 1:19 for those things God made plain to all humanity. To put the religious concept of circumcision into our time, imagine that all a man had to do to get to heaven was have a simple surgical operation and recover for two or three days. Does that make sense as a way to be acquitted of guilt before God? Not only is the idea ridiculous on its face, it makes no provision whatever for women. That is a rather significant omission. (Smile)

Douglas Moo explains the literary relationship of verse 28 to verse 29: “Paul argues by means of a contrast, with two denials in v. 28 being matched by two assertions in v. 29.”[2] The true Jew is the one changed inwardly. The true circumcision is the one of the heart done by the Spirit.

The word “inwardly” (“a Jew is one inwardly” 2:29) translates a Greek phrase that means “in the hidden place or in secret.”[3] That is exactly how the same phrase was used by Jesus for giving in secret (Matt. 6:4) and praying in secret (Matt. 6:6). So, a deeper way of looking at one contrast between 2:28 and 2:29 is that it compares what is in the open (fleshly circumcision; 2:28) with what is in secret (the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit; 2:29).

Dunn does the best job of presenting the contrasts in 2:28-29, and his Greek phrases will be presented in English for the sake of comprehension:

in the open in the flesh by the letter (from man)

in secret of the heart by the Spirit (from God)

Dunn skillfully observes:

As the summation of his indictment of the Jewish [opponent], this is what constitutes Paul’s critique of his own native religion: it puts too much stress on the outward and visible, on the physical kinship and ritual and in consequence treats the law superficially. What makes the true Jew, the Jew whom God praises, is precisely that which can never be measured in physical, visible and ritual terms — it is something hidden, of the heart, by the Spirit.[4]

Looking more broadly at Paul’s theology in all his letters, Pauline scholar Herman Ridderbos says, “For Paul, even when he speaks of being a Jew in the heart and the Spirit, faith in Christ and his gift of grace are all-important, and therefore natural descent from Abraham is no longer a determinative factor for belonging to the people of God.”[5]

God sees in secret.

Grant Osborne points the way for application of this lesson: “The message is just as important for our day as it was for Paul’s. It is just as easy today to center on the external (church attendance, activity or external piety) rather than on one’s relationship to God.”[6]

What are some possible reasons that both the first-century Jews and some of us today focus on external things rather than our relationship to God?

God has a word for those who are just going through the motions: “You will sow but not reap; you will press olives but not anoint yourself with oil; and you will tread grapes but not drink the wine” (Micah 6:15, HCSB).

But for those who seek God with a whole heart, he says: “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19). Let your actions show you belong in the latter group.

Copyright 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1988) 120.

[2] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1996) 173.

[3] BDAG-3, kruptos, hidden, q.v.

[4] Dunn, Romans, 124.

[5] Herman Ridderbos, Paul, Trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) 334-335.

[6] Grant R. Osborne, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004) 78-79.