You must be born again – Romans 2:17-29.
If you have read a mystery novel, or watched a mystery drama on television (for example, one of Agatha Christie’s works), you know that they are all filled with misdirection and red herrings. The author tries his/her best to convince you that someone other than the perpetrator of the crime is the guilty one. Until then end, when new information is suddenly given and the identity of the real thief/killer/criminal is revealed, you are generally being led on a wild goose chase. You have a lot of circumstantial evidence that several of the characters are guilty, but in the end, most of this evidence fails to convict.
In the spiritual realm, there is also a lot of confusion, and often it is about who is saved and who is not. And a lot of time this is because there has been misdirection from those who are perceived to be the spiritual leaders in the culture, whether they are preachers behind a pulpit or talk-radio hosts behind a microphone or TV show hosts behind a camera or academics behind a lectern.
In our text, the apostle Paul addresses the misinformation disseminated among his Jewish brethren as to the matter of salvation. As we have seen, there was this idea that as long as you retained your Jewish identity, salvation was a lock. As long as you had the law (13) you were fine. Though verses 1-16 do not directly address the Jews, it is almost certain Paul had them primarily in mind. Now, in verses 17-29, he addresses them directly. His basic accusation is that they maintained misplaced confidence in the wrong things. Though you could say that he is accusing them of hypocrisy (and he is), yet the more basic problem was this problem of misplaced confidence. Their hypocrisy didn’t bother them precisely because of this more fundamental problem.
We need to remember the apostle’s overall strategy here. He is aiming at the conclusion of 3:23 – “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul knows that the gospel is not going to be interesting or arresting unless one is convinced that he or she needs to be saved. Now if you think that by virtue of your physical and national identity that you are saved, then the gospel is not going to appear relevant at all. But that was the problem with most Jews in Paul’s day – and he understood this because this is exactly where he once stood. His aim then in these verses is to show them that they are exposed to the judgment of God and therefore in as much need of salvation as anyone else.
His point in verses 1-16 has been general: having the law and knowing what is right is not enough to save you from the coming judgment. Now he applies this general truth specifically to his Jewish brethren in very pointed ways. He exposes the things in which they had placed their confidence as being unable to support such confidence. Having the law and circumcision were not enough. Just being a loyal Jew was not enough. Something more had to take place – there had to be a change of heart.
You could say that what Paul is doing here in chapter 2 is what our Lord did to Nicodemus in John 3. When Nicodemus came to Jesus to put his questions to him, our Lord responded very directly: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). Nicodemus didn’t understand, precisely because he too had placed confidence in all the wrong things. The necessity of the new birth was totally foreign to him and he didn’t even have the theological background to make it plausible or intelligible. Nevertheless, our Lord kept coming back to it: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). Nicodemus needed to see that he had to be radically changed from within by the Holy Spirit, and that until this happened all the very real privileges he had as a Jew – the law, God’s covenant with Abraham, circumcision – were not enough to guarantee entrance into the kingdom of God. And notice that our Lord preaches the necessity of the new birth before he preaches his work of redemption in dying for the lost and the necessity of faith in the Son of God (see verses 14-21).
This is what Paul is doing here. He is showing us how he preached to his Jewish audience. He preached that unless they were born again, all the spiritual privileges they enjoyed were not enough to save them. Paul will sum it up in verses 28-29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 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.” Until you see that you need to be radically changed from within, that there is something terribly wrong with you, and that nothing merely external is going to save you, you will not see your need for salvation and the gospel. So this point had to be made.
Now I think this point is just as relevant for today’s audience, whether you are a Jew or not. You don’t have to be a Jew to fall into this trap, into thinking that you are okay when you are not. There are plenty of people who truly think they are okay spiritually, that they will go to heaven when they die, when in reality their confidence is misplaced and their hope is false. What’s more, the very things the Jews had confidence in mirror the types of things people today have confidence in, especially those who are nominally connected with the church.
There are three things Paul focuses on as being foundations for false hope, things that may appear as evidences of salvation when they are not. They had to do with (1) who they were, (2) what they knew, and (3) what they did. We will look at these three things in turn as we go through verses 17-24, and then see the reason why they are false hopes as we turn our attention to verses 25-29.
Who they were – a matter of misplaced identity
Paul begins by saying, “But if you call yourself a Jew” (17). This beings a complicated “if-then” statement, the “if” part in verses 17-20 and the “then” part in verses 21-24. But the point I want to make here is that the Jews gloried in their status as such. They thought that if they remained loyal to their heritage, then they were okay. In other words, the fact that they were connected to Abraham was evidence that they were saved, as long as they did not overtly reject that attachment.
Of course, we must not go overboard here. There were many privileges that belonged to the Jews as such. The very fact that Paul says that the gospel is the gospel to the Jew first (1:17) is evidence of that. The Jews are God’s covenant people, and Paul will go on to say in 3:1-2 that the Jews have many spiritual advantages: “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Then in chapter 11 he will go on to say that even though many Jews had rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ, yet God had not and would not give up on them: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (11:2). And when I look at Jewish history down to the present time, it seems to me that Paul’s words are true: God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.
However, I am interested in how this is mirrored in the church. Today there are a lot of people who think that just because they are connected in some fashion with the church that they have no need to worry about their salvation. In other words, their confidence is in their identity as a Christian. They think that because they have been baptized, or said a prayer, or signed a card, or walked an aisle, they are saved. These are all external things, just like being a Jew was a physical thing rather than a strictly spiritual reality.
Now I have no doubt that if you are a genuine Christian, you are saved. But the reality is that you can be outwardly connected to the church and be known as a Christian and yet not be saved. There is such a thing as a false professor – one who professes allegiance to Christ but who really is living only for themselves. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real advantages to being connected with the Christian church. But those advantages in and of themselves aren’t enough to guarantee salvation.
This is Paul’s point to the Corinthians: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness” (10:1-5). The apostle is clearly drawing an analogy between the experiences of Israel in the Exodus and the experiences of people in the church. Just because you enjoy many spiritual privileges does not guarantee you will saved: just as with Israel, even though they came through the Red Sea, yet “with most of them God was not pleased.”
Please understand that I am not saying a person can lose their salvation. The problem is not being saved and losing it, but thinking that you are saved when you are not. And that is more likely to happen if you are placing your confidence in merely external things, like baptism or participation in the Lord’s Supper, or being a member of a local Christian church or being known as a Christian in the community. These are all good things, but as we shall see, in and of themselves they are not enough.
What they knew – a matter of inadequate knowledge
The Jew had a treasure that no other nation up to that point possessed: the word of God. The psalmist put it this way: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules” (Ps. 147:19-20). Again, as Paul puts it in 3:2, the Jews had this incredible privilege in being entrusted with the oracles of God.
Because the Jew had the word of God, he was blessed to know who God was (correct theology) and he was blessed to know what God expected of him (correct ethics) and how to approach him (correct worship). Though the world around them was shrouded in spiritual darkness, the Jew was blessed with the light of God’s word. Every time they opened the word of God in the OT, they heard God speaking to them. They knew “his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law” (18). Their situation is described as in contrast to those who were blind, in darkness, foolish, and spiritually immature (19-20).
There is nothing bad about this. In fact, this is wonderful. However, as the apostle has already put it, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (13). Having the law is not enough. It is not even enough to be a student of the law. It is not enough to be a correct and proper interpreter of the law. It is not just explaining it that is important, it is not just valuing it that is important, rather it is putting it into practice in your life that is important. And they didn’t do this, which is the whole point of verses 21-24.
Now some have faulted Paul for painting an exaggerated picture of Jewish hypocrisy in this text. The claim is that the sins of theft and adultery and robbing temples were not known to be prevalent among the Jews. However, I choose to believe first-century Paul who was Jewish himself and who regularly engaged other Jews with this very argument, rather than twenty-first academics who piece together their understanding of first-century Jewish religious life from precious few fragments of evidence. Just thinking about modern church life, I don’t think this has to be an exaggeration. The fact of the matter is that it is a universal problem that knowing what you should do and must do does not always translate into doing it. And therein lies the problem, both ancient and modern.
If your confidence is in how much you know about the Bible, then your confidence is misplaced. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, the devil is a better theologian that you are – than any seminary professor is. He knows the Bible and can quote it from front to end. But that does not make him saved. Hell was made for him, and for all who follow in his footsteps. Beware of placing your confidence in mere intellectual understanding of Scripture. Though this is important and even necessary, it is not a sufficient evidence of saving faith.
What they did – a matter of incomplete works
All of Jewish life was centered around their religion. This used to be the way it was for the Western world as well, and to be frank, I wish it still was. There is something to be said for cultural structures that make religious belief plausible. Today, we life in a culture which is structured to make belief in God implausible.
But that was not the way it was in the first-century world, and especially in the Jewish world in which Paul lived and breathed. And that was true of the Jews to whom Paul addresses himself in these verses. And as such they continually engaged in religious works. Paul mentions some of them here: they were guides to the blind, lights to those in darkness, instructors of the foolish, and teachers of the spiritually immature (19-20). They taught others, preached against breaking God’s law, abhorred idols, and boasted in the law and in God (17, 21-23).
However, their religious life was incomplete. Though they did a lot of good things, they did not practice universal obedience. In other words, though they could be genuinely described as religious people, there were many places in their lives where genuine obedience was completely lacking. And this was shown in the fact that they failed to practice what they preached. Though they boasted in the law, they dishonored God by breaking that law (23-24).
Our Lord addressed this attitude in Matthew 15, when he was accused of breaking with tradition. He responded by saying that by keeping their tradition they were breaking the law. Now it is important to grasp the fact that this tradition was religious tradition and was connected with giving money and possessions to support God’s temple and his worship. Nevertheless, this religious tradition was used to hide a serious failure to obey God’s word. And so our Lord responds by saying, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mt. 15:7-9).
The point is that it is not enough to be religious. It is not enough to do religious things. It is not enough to busy oneself with church-related events. Those are all good things. Those are sometimes necessary things. But they are not sufficient as evidence for saving faith.
Why these things are insufficient
The apostle now goes on to explain why the religious life of the Jews was not sufficient evidence of salvation, and why they desperately needed to be saved. This is what he does in verses 25-29. The first sentence in these verses summarizes his overall point: “For circumcision indeed is of value, if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.” The word “circumcision” points to the overall character of their religious life as centering on external acts. Circumcision was a good thing; it was ordained by God to be a sign of his covenant with Abraham and his children. But circumcision was an external, physical thing and if it wasn’t accompanied by a real change of heart and spiritual conversion, it was meaningless as a mark of true spirituality.
Sometimes this text is interpreted as Paul’s attempt to dispel Jewish legalistic attempts to gain salvation through works. Though I agree that you cannot be justified and saved through law-keeping, I don’t think that is Paul’s point here. I think his point is that despite all their religion they needed to be born again. Furthermore, the law by itself could never create that reality in them. So merely having the law, being circumcised, being a loyal Jew was no evidence that they were saved. Those things were all good, but more than all that, they needed to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit. As Murray put it, the obedience to the law here in verse 25 “cannot have in view the perfect fulfilment of the law on the basis of legalism. . . . That practicing of the law . . . which makes circumcision profitable is the fulfilment of the conditions of faith and obedience apart from which the claim to the promises and grace and privileges of the covenant was presumption and mockery.”
Here is the basic truth the apostle is trying to get across: external religious acts are incomplete without the corresponding spiritual reality to which they point. Circumcision is no different from uncircumcision if your life has not been transformed into a life of believing obedience to God’s word. You need more than the law to make that happen. You need to be saved. You need to be born again. You need the life-giving influence of the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, those who are uncircumcised (Gentiles) if their lives have been transformed so that they keep the law, and have the spiritual reality to which circumcision points, will condemn Jews who have this external connection to God’s law (26-27). Again, the apostle is not saying that Gentiles can win salvation by law-keeping. He is saying that Gentiles who keep the law through faith-inspired obedience show that they are really saved. Nor is he speaking hypothetically here: he is not saying that if a Gentile could keep the law perfectly, he would be saved and condemn the Jew who didn’t. Rather he is contrasting Spirit-inspired obedience to holding God’s word in a merely external and intellectual manner.
The proof for this point of view is verses 28-29. What is a true Jew? Paul began this part of the epistle in verse 17, by pointing out their boasting in the fact that they were Jews. Now he comes back and says that what marks a true Jew is not circumcision in the flesh. In other words, not external religious acts. Rather, “a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (29). In other words, the true evidence of saving faith is not an external connection to the people of God or the law of God, but real, inward, heart change – change which comes from the work of God’s Spirit within.
Does this have application to us today? Absolutely. Today there are plenty of people who rest in the fact that they are religious or spiritual people. They think they are saved and will go to heaven when they die. They point to religious activity in their life – to a baptism, to charitable works, to social programs they are involved in. Or they may point to their religious knowledge. They may know the Bible inside and out. They may be about to quote it and apply to various aspects of life. However, at the end of the day, it is all external. Their hearts have been left unchanged. They have no real love for Christ and no real desire to submit their lives to the obedience of God’s word. Repentance is an unknown experience for them. Like the Jew to whom Paul addressed himself in Romans 2, their religion is a religion which has left the heart unchanged. But we must be born again, and unless we are born again, we cannot see or experience the kingdom of heaven.
What is the evidence of that change? It is not what people think of you. At the end of the day, your confidence cannot come from the lips of men. It has to come from God. The orientation of the saved man or woman is towards God: “His praise is not from man but from God.” Though this doesn’t mean there aren’t moments when our hearts wander away from, yet our longing is toward God, to glorify him and to enjoy him forever. Even when we wander away, yet we plead with the psalmist, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (Ps. 119:176).
So the evidence of salvation is not how religious you are. The evidence is how changed you are, and whether or not your life is characterized by Spirit-birthed obedience to God’s word, which is what Paul is referring to when he talks about keeping and obeying the law. It is not so much about what we do, but about what God has done in us and does through us. The practical result of this teaching is not to look inward and to try to pull ourselves up by the boot-straps. The result, if we have not experienced this change, ought to be to convince us of our need of the grace of God, and to look to God, to Christ, who by virtue of his redemptive work gives us the Spirit who changes us.
 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT), Vol. 1, p. 85 (Eerdmans, 1968).
 Charles Hodge has a comment on this text that for many years I had hanging on my closet door. It goes like this: “If the heart be right in the sight of God, it matters little what judgment men may form of us; and, on the other hand, the approbation of men is a poor substitute for the favor of God.”