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 of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.
When one reads a passage like this it’s enough to make one’s eyes glaze over – the mention of Jews and circumcision jars our sensibilities; it’s Old Testament and it’s just not something decent people talk about, especially in public, and anyway what has circumcision to do with Christians?
However I’m reminded that Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training. We learn that Romans is written by Paul to Christians to show that God is righteous (3:10) and all His judgements are righteous (1:32, 2:5).
Looking for markers as to the context of chapter 2 it’s not hard to see it’s aimed directly at Jews; yet it’s applicable to non-Jews as well. It commences by knocking the fundamental plank from under a Jew’s self-righteousness – being Jewish does not save. In the verses at hand, that final and thought-to-be most secure tenure on the grace of God – circumcision – an outward mark of being ‘chosen’ is in purview. But Paul puts a stop to any thought that this can secure righteousness.
Salvation begins with the heart and the transformation is spiritual. This chapter puts paid to the view that what I am or what I have done; here in relation to law demonstrated in circumcision – can lead to righteousness.
The effort of humans is for naught – being and doing something cannot justify a person. These verses are a salient reminder that God does not judge based on outward appearances; our defence before God will fail if it’s about what I have done, or who my ancestors are or what law I keep; He judges the heart. Furthermore, one cannot be born a Christian, whatever rank your parents might hold in some church!
So how am I saved since Scripture says our heart is sinful and very wicked (Jeremiah 19:9)? We cannot stop at verse 29 – we must move on to chapter 3 to find this out. And here we find the solution: we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28). We are saved if we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ who has borne out punishment for our sin. Praise be the Lord.