What Does it Mean to Circumcise Your Heart, and HOW Can It Be done? #160
Hello friends and happy Saturday to you! Today I have absolutely nothing interesting to share in the opener, so let’s jump right down to business – no weather talk, no philosophy jokes – nothing. Today’s Bible readings include Deuteronomy 10, our focus passage, as well as Psalms 94, Isaiah 38 and Revelation 8. The reason why we aren’t doing Revelation as our focus today is because we are entering into a few chapters of the book where I don’t really understand what is going on fully. There are many explanations, theories and possibilities, but I am not confident enough in them at this point to actually do a podcast episode on them. As a sort of aside, I can say that preachers, writers and teachers who have a very confident and detailed (and dogmatic!) belief about precisely what Revelation is teaching kind of scare me. Sometimes I fear their confidence is more like overconfidence. Revelation requires quite a bit of humility in order to handle it properly. Or you can just be a wus like me and skip the chapter!
We all know what circumcision is, right? If you don’t know, then pause the podcast and ask your mom and dad. Ok, I’m sort of kidding. Circumcision is the removal of part of the tip of the male sex organ. I promise that I will endeavor to never use that phrase on the podcast ever again. Anyway, that’s what circumcision is, and it was the sign that God gave to Abraham for all males in Israel to do, in order to demonstrate that they were children of God’s promise and covenant with Abraham. Knowing what circumcision is makes the command in Deuteronomy 10 to have circumcised hearts a little perplexing at first. Is God telling us to cut off a little piece of the tip of our hearts? Let’s read the passage and find out!
Ok, good news. I did not see anything in Deuteronomy 10 that indicated that we have to cut off pieces of our hearts in order to please God…at least not physically. So – what is going on there? Well, I’m glad you asked! We can get great insight to this question from Paul in Romans 2:
27 A man who is physically uncircumcised, but who keeps the law, will judge you who are a lawbreaker in spite of having the letter of the law and circumcision. 28 For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29 On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—by the Spirit, not the letter. That person’s praise is not from people but from God.
And then we can go to friend of the podcast John Piper to further elucidate this answer for us.
But how does Paul explain and defend this in Romans 2:28–29? What makes these two verses so remarkable is that they are given as the explanation of how Gentiles become true Jews by “keeping the requirements of the law” (verse 26) and “fulfilling the law” (verse 27, more literal than “keeping” the law). Verse 26 says that an uncircumcised Gentile will be regarded as truly circumcised “if he keeps the law.” And verse 27 says that the uncircumcised Gentile will judge transgressors of the law “if he fulfills the law.”
Then comes the explanation for how such “Law-keeping” or “Law-fulfilling” makes a person a Jew. He answers, 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 which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
This is amazing. The reason it’s amazing is that what Paul is trying to show is why Law-keeping—Law-fulfilling—makes one a true Jew, and his answer is all about internal change, not external activity. He says, in essence, that Law-keeping or Law-fulfilling makes you a true Jew because it is not mainly an external thing, but an internal thing. It has to do mainly with the sense of the heart and not the seeing of the letter. It has to do mainly with praise that comes from God in secret, not the praise of man in public (see Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). That is what the Law is really all about. Otherwise the argument doesn’t work.
The argument says: “Gentile, you can be truly circumcised to God and belong to him as a true Jew, if you fulfill the Law!” “Really?” says the Gentile, “How so?” And Paul answers, “Because being truly circumcised and being a true Jew is a matter of the heart and happens by the Spirit.” Now, that answer only makes sense if “fulfilling the law” means experiencing this heart-change by the Spirit, and then living in sync with that inner change.
So the point is that a person is a true Jew—a true part of God’s redeemed people—if he fulfills the Law, that is, if his heart is circumcised by the Spirit to love God. Deuteronomy 30:6 promised, “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.” That’s what Paul is talking about here, and you don’t have to be a natural-born Jew, he says, for it to happen to you.
But it wasn’t happening for many Jews and it was happening for some Gentiles. Why?
Let me try a picture to see if I can make this plain for the children, and then maybe the adults will get it too.
At the top of the picture is God. You can’t see God, so we will just write the word G-o-d. At the bottom of the picture there is a heart—our heart. In the middle between God and us there is the Law—picture a book, the Bible. Now the ultimate aim of the Law is to bring our heart and God together in a personal relationship of love and trust and obedience, not just an acquaintance like you might have with the store clerk or the mailman. But a deep and personal love relationship and fellowship.
But this was not happening for the very people of the Book. Most of the Jews were reading the Law and learning the Law and summing it up in lists of regulations and doing most of them. And in all this, Paul has said, they were transgressing the Law, and their circumcision was useless and didn’t help them at all (verse 25).
Why? Because something is missing from the picture. What’s missing? Tell me on the basis of verse 29 alone. “He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” What is missing is the Spirit.
How shall we draw the Spirit? He is invisible. Let’s use arrows. Draw an arrow from the Law in the middle down to the heart. The Spirit takes the Law and writes it on the heart (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:27) so that we love it and it becomes part of us, rather than being merely an external pressure from the outside.
Then draw another arrow from the heart up through the Law to God. The Spirit not only takes the Law through our eyes into our hearts; it also takes us through the Law into God. And that’s the ultimate goal of the Law: a personal relationship of love with the living God through his Word.
Without the Spirit we either reject the Law of God out of hand, or we change it into something we can manage. And in either case we lose, and the Law condemns us: you can become a transgressor of the law by rejecting it or by trying to keep it in your own strength. Paul calls the law minus the Spirit: “letter.” And he says in another place, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
So let’s put two summary equations in the corner of our picture. Law minus Spirit = 1) external religious ritual (like circumcision) 2) the need for the praise of man to keep you going 3) death, because the Law becomes mere “letter,” and that kills
Law plus Spirit = 1) internal circumcision of the heart 2) satisfaction in the praise of God, even if no man approves you 3) life, because the Spirit unites us to God in love
Now what’s the point of all this? The main point I want you get this morning is this: Seek and cherish the work of the Spirit of God in your life to make you a true Jew. Our salvation hangs on this—the work of the Spirit
1) circumcising our heart to love the Lord (Deuteronomy 30:6) 2) writing the Law of God on our heart (Jeremiah 31:33) 3) freeing us from our need for the praise of man (Romans 2:29)
All of this is what Christ obtained for us when he shed his blood to seal the new covenant (Luke 20:22; Hebrews 13:20).
John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1990–1999) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).