N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 8 (Circumcision of the heart, Part 2)


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 2 [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.

In the last post, we barely began considering the OT passages that teach what Paul says in Rom 2:25-29, that is, that true circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit.

Now, if you’re familiar with the flow of Romans, then you should see that in this passage is the foundation for the first several verses of chapter 8, which begins with a discussion of the importance of the possession of the Spirit. In writing both chapter 2 and chapter 8, Paul assumes that his readers know what the OT says about the Spirit, circumcision of the heart, and the new covenant. But few modern readers do; rather, we assume that Romans is a self-contained explanation of entirely new principles, rather than building on centuries of revelation. 

Circumcision of the heart [JFG]

As we covered in yesterday’s post, Moses promises in Deu 30:6 that if the Israelites would repent after rebelling against God, God would not only forgive them, he would circumcise their hearts. Deu 10:16 tells the Israelites to circumcise their own hearts, but in Deu 30:6 God says that he will do this for them.

Quite obviously he is not saying that he will do this exclusively through the word. They would have already had the word — and the word would have proved insufficient. More precisely, they would have proved that their fallen, broken natures made them insufficient. They would rebel against God and be in Exile despite having the word. Merely having God’s instructions in writing hardly suffices. Indeed, the assumption that underlies this entire series of passages (and we’ve barely begun to consider them) is that the Torah — God’s own word — is not enough because it’s weakened by our flesh. We are too broken and weak to circumcise our own hearts and obey as we must. God has to help us respond to his law in obedience.

The command for the Jews to circumcise their own hearts — to love God with all their hearts and souls and be no longer stubborn — is repeated by Jeremiah shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. God’s prophet cries out this warning —

(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.”

The Jews were physically circumcised, but God was about to impose on them the curses of Deu 28-29 and send them into Exile. They desperately needed changed hearts.

The outpouring of the Spirit in Isaiah [JFG]

The prophets understood that God would circumcise the hearts of his people by the Spirit. This idea is revealed in a series of prophecies, largely found in the Major Prophets. We begin with Isaiah —

(Isa. 32:14-17 ESV) 14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks;  15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.  16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.  17 And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. 

God’s Spirit is often spoken of as water — like rain but even moreso for a desert people. The Spirit would be “poured” as water is poured from a pitcher. It would not be a mere sprinkling for a few prophets and kings, but will be given in abundance.

(Isa. 44:3-4 ESV)  3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.  4 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.

The promise of the Spirit is not to a single generation but to a future generation and to the offspring of that generation. There is no doctrine of Cessationism (the supposed end of the Spirit’s work at the end of the apostolic age) in the OT. Indeed, the OT specifically rejects such thinking as the Jews had once had God living among them through the Temple and the Spirit in the prophets, and God took that away. The promise from God is that, at the end of Exile, he’ll never take the Spirit away again!

Again, remember that the Promised Land contained a great deal of desert. When it rained, plants would spring up and blossom almost immediately and grass would pop up from the scorched earth as quickly as the water fell from the sky. To a desert people, God was promising a quick and dramatic change. It may be years in being fulfilled, but when God pours out his Spirit, it will be sudden and powerful.

(Isa. 59:20-21 ESV)  20 “And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD.  21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.”

Again, Isaiah denies any suggestion that the Spirit’s work in the new covenant will be for a single generation — and this is as serious a promise as God’s promises to Abraham and in the Torah.

Oswalt comments —

But what is the connection between this thought and the preceding verses? It gives the intended outcome of God’s defeat of the power of sin. Why does God take up arms against Israel’s (and our) inability to do righteousness? Why does his rûaḥ rage against all ungodliness (v. 19)? Is it merely to destroy whatever is at enmity with him? Or is it merely to redeem his own from the grasp of sin? The answer is surely neither. He wants to make unclean Israel clean in order that his Spirit may take up residence there (cf. 32:15–19; 44:3–5).

But is that residence an end in itself? No, that residence is in order to realize God’s revelatory purposes. Israel is called to be God’s servant to the world, in order that all the world may be drawn to the mountain of the house of the Lord (2:2–3). In order for that purpose to be realized, Israel’s sin must be forgiven, but it must also be defeated. Israel’s character must be like God’s in order that out of the clean mouth of her life the breath of God may pronounce the Word of God to the waiting world. When this takes place, the glory of the Lord will have risen in Israel and all the nations will come to the brightness of that rising (60:1–3).

This is what the entire section (chs. 56–59) has been about. A nation that depends on its birthright as the elect people of God while nurturing its idols and its rituals will never realize God’s purpose for it in the world. Yet the people seem helpless before the power of sin. But the arm of God that defeated the guilt of sin can and will defeat the power of sin as well in order that the earlier promises of God’s Spirit may be realized in the people for the sake of the world.

John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 531–532.

This sounds exactly like NT Wright’s new book — from 1998. It’s amazing what the OT has to teach us if we’ll only take the trouble to study it.

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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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