N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 11 (Circumcision of the heart, Part 5)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.

Rom 2:25-29, Part 5 [JFG]

(Rom. 2:25-29 ESV)  25 For circumcision [the mark of a Jews] indeed is of value if you obey the law [Torah], but if you break the law [Torah], your circumcision becomes uncircumcision [of the heart under Deu 10:16 and 30:6].  

26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law [Torah], will not his [physical] uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision [or the heart]?  27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code [Torah] and circumcision but break the law [Torah].

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 [merely knowing Torah rather than obeying Torah]. His praise is not from man but from God.

Jeremiah, the Spirit, and the New Covenant [JFG]

While Ezekiel was speaking for God to the Jews in Babylon, Jeremiah remained behind in Jerusalem, prophesying for God to the king. (Anyone who longs for the gift of prophecy needs to read what Ezekiel and Jeremiah went through for God.)

Like Ezekiel, Jeremiah has much to say about the end of Exile, but he does not speak much in terms of God’s Spirit. Rather, he focuses on the hearts of the people, clearly influenced by Deuteronomy’s insistence that Israel not be “stubborn” and circumcise their own hearts to love God with all their hearts (Deu 10:16).

(Jer. 4:4 ESV) 4 “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” 

(Jer. 9:25-26 ESV)  25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh — 26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.” 

It’s easy to see where Paul gets the notion that circumcision of the heart is more important than circumcision of the flesh.

God promises, through Jeremiah, to personally change the hearts of his people, as promised in Deu 30:6 —

(Jer. 24:7 ESV)  7 I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. 

(Jer. 31:31-34 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

(Jer. 32:38-41 ESV)  38 And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.  40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.  41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.

The language is speaking clearly of a “new covenant” that will be characterized by a direct operation on the hearts of God’s people. That’s the whole point! If God’s teaching through a written document were sufficient, then the people had the Torah — and yet they utterly failed to have circumcised hearts. Yes, the Torah was God’s word, but people are too broken to love God with all their hearts without divine help.

The Jer 31 and 32 passages are where we get the term “New Testament.” “New Covenant” is a better translation. In fact, Jeremiah is not referring to the written text per se. He’s referring to  the new covenant — the relationship God establishes through Jesus — which is described in the writings of the NT.

Jesus and the NT writers refer to the “new covenant” directly or by allusion several times, but we don’t pick up on these because few have read Jeremiah or realized just how important to the NT writers Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy is.

For example, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said,

(Lk. 22:20 ESV)  20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

(1 Cor. 11:25 ESV)  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Jesus is plainly announcing that God is entering into a new covenant by means of his crucifixion, but it’s not just any covenant — it’s the one prophesied by Jeremiah, the central feature of which is God himself changing the hearts of his people.

Jer 31:31 ff is a central text to the book of Hebrews, which quotes the text in full in Heb 8   — the longest OT quotation in the NT. The writer focuses on the newness of the new covenant, concluding,

(Heb. 10:14 NIV)  14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. 

We are “perfect forever” in God’s eyes, but we are also in the process of “being made holy.” “Being made holy” is in the passive voice. It’s God himself working in us, through his Spirit, by direct operation, to change our hearts — as promised by Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah and confirmed by Jesus.

All these OT prophecies culminate when Paul writes,

(Rom. 7:6 ESV)  6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. 

There are subtleties here that we’ll get to, but for our present purposes, taking into account only what we’ve learned from Moses and the prophets, we easily see that Paul is — at least — contrasting Deu 10:16: circumcise your own hearts — with Deu 30:6: God will circumcise your hearts. The biggest difference between the “way of the written code” and the “way of the Spirit” is God the Spirit working in our hearts by direct operation to make us, as Jeremiah says, obedient to God’s laws, trusting, and faithful.

Now, in the traditional Church of Christ sermon or Bible class, this passage is taken as an encouragement to self-help. The “Spirit” only acts through the word, defined as the Bible. Therefore, we ourselves read the Bible, and then we obey. This is different from the Jewish system, where they read the OT and obeyed — but not from the heart. We’re better because we obey from the heart.

And this is pretty much exactly backwards. Obedience from the heart has always been required, and you only miss that point if you’ve never bothered to read any of the OT. It’s written on nearly every page! You just have to be open to the teaching that is there. (Ironically, this view of the Jews is heavily influenced by 19th Century anti-Semitic German liberal theology and yet taught by the Churches of Christ as conservative theology!!)

The point isn’t whether to obey from the heart but that God himself, by his Spirit, will change our hearts so that we can do it. And — if you read in historical context — those who tried to obey on their own, with no help from God, failed so miserably that they descended into idolatry and were destroyed by the hand of God, exercised through the Babylonian Empire.

And it happened a second time! Shortly after the time of Jesus, those Jews who rejected Jesus and so failed to receive the Spirit, found that the hand of the Lord again destroyed the Temple because of the disobedience of most of God’s elect nation. They remained stubborn, their hearts were not transformed from stone to flesh, and they missed the very Spirit they’d been praying to receive for 500 years!

But it wasn’t for lack of Bible study, a failure to attend synagogue each week, or a lack of prayer. Nearly all of them would put contemporary Christian to shame for how their lives were filled with prayer, Bible study, and participation in their faith community. And they really believed in God and wanted to obey. Indeed, many would be thrilled at today’s preaching on “precision obedience.” The Second Temple period Jews were all for precision obedience.

But their hearts were too hard to submit to the teachings of Jesus. They made an idol out of nationalism and the desire to be independent politically. They could not imagine a Kingdom that was different in kind from the kingdom of David. Indeed, rather than letting God bring the Kingdom, they wanted to bring the Kingdom themselves by the power of the sword. They rebelled against Rome to force God to bring the Kingdom on their own timing and of their own preferred kind.

And God treated this as idolatry — as wicked as the idolatry that led to the Babylonian Captivity — with the same curses from the Torah visited on God’s chosen people.

So I worry about those who want to wage war to bring the Millennium. And I worry about those who think the U.S., as a “Christian nation,” is supposed to go to war for God. We are ignoring our Bibles and our history.


(2 Cor. 10:3-7 ESV)  3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.  4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.  5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,  6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.  7 Look at what is before your eyes. If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we.

But I digress …

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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