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 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 [of 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.
In most Bible classes on Romans that I have attended, this passage was skipped. I mean, it makes no sense if you’re not familiar with the OT background. Paul assumes that his readers are as familiar with the “Spirit” passage in the OT as Church of Christ members are familiar with their baptism passages. The Second Temple period Jews prayed daily for God to outpour his Spirit as promised in the Law and the Prophets.
[see note below]
And if you are part of a denomination that has a weak understanding of the Spirit and the OT, and that teaches that Judaism was a religion of externals and not the heart, then this passage really is nonsensical. Paul is saying that circumcision of the heart is more important than physical circumcision, even though physical circumcision goes back to Abraham and was insisted on by God in the OT. Is he disagreeing with Moses?
No, he’s agreeing with Moses! “Circumcision of the heart” is a concept that goes back to the Torah itself —
(Deut. 10:15-16 ESV) 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
Notice God’s logic. I the God of the Universe love you and chose (elected) the nation of Israel. Therefore, you must circumcise your heart — that is, get your hearts right with God. Don’t be stubborn. Love God as he has loved you.
(Deut. 10:12-13 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
God wanted his commands obeyed, but he wanted them obeyed out of love — and not a superficial love. He wanted all of Israel’s heart! And he referred to obedience coming out of a loving heart as a “circumcised” heart. Circumcision was the mark of God’s covenant with Abraham, and God expected Israel to be just as marked by their love for God as by their physical circumcision.
Recall that Deu 28-29 are blessings and curses for obedience and disobedience. Deu 30 explains that God will relent and restore the fortunes of Israel even if they disobey and suffer Exile, provided Israel repents.
When Israel is in Exile, if they return to God not merely in obedience but with all their hearts and souls, God will restore them.
(Deut. 30:1-3 ESV) “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”
And then there is this remarkable promise —
(Deut. 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Which comes first? God’s changing of our hearts or our changing of our hearts?
Now, in typical Jewish fashion, God says that if you return to me with all your heart, then I’ll change your heart (circumcise your heart) so that “you will love” me “with all your heart.” So which comes first? Does Israel repent in love first? Or does God change their hearts first? Well, Moses seems to want it both ways.
This tension between free will and God’s influence on our hearts appears many times in the scriptures and seems not to have bothered the Jews — but it’s a big problem for a lot of Westerners. We just aren’t willing to think that way.
(Phil. 2:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The power brakes metaphor for the Spirit
Paul seems to have studied his Torah well. He wants it both ways, too. So here’s how I see it — it’s not about which came first. Rather, it’s like power brakes. Many years ago, I owned a Dodge Aspen — the very make and model that put Chrysler into bankruptcy. I was driving on a 6-lane road (Skyland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa, headed west) toward an intersection with a 6-lane US Highway (US 82/McFarland Boulevard). And my engine cut off. And I was headed downhill toward heavy crossing traffic and a red traffic light.
So I hit the brakes — and nothing happened — because I had power brakes and, with the engine off, there was no power assistance. And so I hit the brakes harder. And the car kept going. I thought I was going to die.
Well, eventually I got the car stopped and had to be towed. So here’s the question: When you have power brakes, which are universal nowadays but not when I was in school, and you push on the brake pedal, is the car stopped by you? or by the immense power of the car engine? How much do you contribute to the friction against the brake pads that stops the car? Which comes first — your pressure on the brake or the power assist from the engine?
Just so, when God assists one of his children through the Spirit, we have free will, and we imagine that we have the power to obey and even to work our own salvation. We do have to press the brake. But the power that actually brings about the result is from God.
It’s simultaneous, and we are plainly inadequate to the task by ourselves. But we do have to decide to press the brake, even though our mere will power does nothing to stop the car.
[For young readers, Dan Fogelberg was the romantic song writer of the later 1970s. No marriage was complete without a Fogelberg song. The Leader of the Band and Same Auld Lang Syne remain two of the all-time great pop songs. This song is not his. Music is by Gustav Holtz, famous for his classical suite The Planets. Lyrics are by 19th Century poet Christina Rosetti. Fogelberg arranged and sang. I found the song thanks to Ben Witherington.
In The Bleak Midwinter
In the bleak mid-winter, the frosty wind did moan
The earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone
Snow had fallen softly, snow on snow on snow
In the bleak mid-winter, oh so long ago
Our God, heaven cannot hold Him nor the earth sustain
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign
In the bleak mid-winter a stable place sufficed
For the Lord almighty, Jesus Christ
Oh what can I give Him, woeful as I am
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb
If I were a wiseman, oh I would do my part
Yet, what can I give Him — I will give my heart
Oh what can I give Him — I will give my heart]