The Spritual Jew: An Exegetical Dialog On Romans 2

With all this talk about Israel recently I thought it would be a good idea to hone in on some of the particular passages from which the differing opinions gain their steam. We're going to have to get a bit more involved in the texts we appeal to if we want to make any progress. I figure Romans 2:26-29 comes up as much as any passage when talking about Israel, and it's the one that initially challenged my old view some time ago, so it's where I'll set up camp for now.

In the last verse of the chapter Paul says that "he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter..." Now what exactly does this mean? Is Paul actually suggesting that a Christian Gentile could appropriately be called a "Jew"? Or is his discussion here restricted to actual ethnic Jews, those who are saved and those who are not? Or still, is this all just a hypothetical "straw man" that he builds up only to tear down later? Attempting to answer all of this and come out with a clean exegesis of Romans 2 is the purpose of this post. I invite any and all to contribute in the comments.

An introductory word is necessary: It must be assumed that, if indeed the term "Jew" and its equivalents were applied to Gentiles by Paul or any other of the NT writers, it wasn't at all meant to infer that there are now no such things as actual ethnic Jews, that in Christ people no longer hold distinctive qualities such as race and gender. That would be absurd! It would be only natural to take it as speaking of citizenship; that through Christ Gentile believers become a part of the spiritual commonwealth of Israel, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. This must be clearly maintained if we are to have sensible dialog on these important passages.

Now for Romans 2: There’s a contrast made consistently throughout this passage between unsaved ethnic Israel and believing Gentiles, between the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised”. Since the beginning of the chapter Paul has been advancing an argument against non-messianic Judaism, focusing in particular on the civil law and its fundamental inability to produce Torah-faithfulness within the nation. This is the whole point of the series of rhetorical questions to the self-proclaimed “Jew” in vv. 17-24.

In as early as vv. 14-15, however, he introduces another party into the discussion, a party who, though they are physically uncircumcised and do not possess the law, are actually bearing fruit to God and thus (this is more implicit in v. 15 and 29, but it becomes abundantly clear in chs. 5-8) stand as a testimony that He has renewed the covenant, writing His law on the hearts of His people by the power of the Spirit (cf., Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:26). This contrast between the unfruitful Jew and the fruitful Gentile resounds in vv. 25-29. The Jew, though he is physically circumcised, still remains a breaker of the law (v. 25); but the Gentile, though he is physically uncircumcised, astoundingly keeps the heart-level requirement of the law (vv. 26-27).

It’s important to note that the singular “Jew” who is the subject of this polemic stands for unsaved Israel corporately; it isn’t aimed at an individual. This becomes clear as Paul moves into ch. 3, where he refers back to the same singular noun with the pronouns “them”, “us” and “we”. The reason that's important is because it makes it clear that this isn’t a wholesale old covenant vs. new covenant contrast, as if no one could be counted right under the old covenant, or as if they were included within God's family by a different means than in the new. The example of Abraham in ch. 4 obviously negates such a conclusion. (Incidentally, 3:25-26 gives the key to reconciling the tension of the old covenant’s weakness and inability to justify with the fact that there was a faithful remnant prior to the Christ event.) But Paul is definitely saying that the old covenant was imperfect, that the nation of Israel could not be redeemed and the cosmos could not be restored through dry-road adherence to the “written code”. He makes it abundantly clear that God needed to act on Israel’s behalf. Thus the contrast is between “law” and “grace”, between the impotency of Israel’s civil ordinances and the power of the Spirit to produce true law-keepers.

Now, with all of the above in mind, especially the Jew/Gentile contrast of vv.25-27, notice the “for” that Paul begins v. 28 with. That conjunction links the argument he has been mounting in the previous three verses with the conclusion he draws in the next two. So then, the “Jew who is one inwardly” must be referring to the same company that has been the positive side of the contrast consistently throughout the chapter, namely uncircumcised Gentiles. This is confirmed once more by what Paul goes on to say in 3:1 (“what advantage then has the Jew?”); because ethnic Israel’s position of honor wouldn’t even be called into question if the contrasted subjects of 2:28-29 were both of Jewish decent, as many suggest.

Aside from denying that the true "Jew" here is actually a Gentile, however, some still maintain the old Lutheran notion that the Gentile who fulfills the law in this passage is merely a hypothetical rhetorical device, and that such a thing is in fact impossible. In this way they feel justified in avoiding Paul's point. The real problem with this view is that it stems from an over-generalization of what Paul's point really is in this section of the letter, reducing the many-sided argument of 1:18-3:20 to one line: "all have sinnned".

But it's extremely doubtful that Paul is just being "hypothetical" here about something that is in fact "impossible", for many reasons, the greatest of which is that he insists in this very passage that it is possible, "in the Spirit" (v. 29), when a renewed people have "the works of the law written in their hearts" (v. 15), just as Jeremiah and the other prophets foretold (Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26). Though it isn't his main focus, the weight of Paul's argument here rests on the fact that there actually is a renewed company who are carrying forth God’s redemptive purpose in the power of the Spirit. He isn't just interested in saying that all have sinned. If that was the case he could have proved that in much fewer words. But in support his overall goal of placing Israel in the same boat with unsaved Gentiles (together in need of an outside agent of redemption), he argues that being in the covenant is not a matter of possessing Torah but rather of inward transformation by the Spirit. When one is transformed by the Spirit, he fulfills Torah.

It's important to grasp the nuances of Paul's terse language here, because this is the foundation upon which the rest of his discourse stands. The apostle is polemically redefining what it means to be a member of Israel, the covenant people of God, and his point is that membership within the covenant is not decided by ones external Jewishness, by being a natural descendant of Abraham, but rather it is decided by the inward renewal of the Spirit. Thus he is paving the way for where he intends go in chapters 4-8, with all his talk of Abraham's children being a people of faith marked out for redemption by the Spirit and not by the flesh.

The fact that Paul doesn't elaborate on that point in more detail here in no way suggests that it isn't true. Rather it simply means that he has a greater argument at this juncture which he doesn't want to get sidetracked from. Later on, in the midst of an extended contrast making exactly the same point as 2:25-29, he declares triumphantly, having laid the foundation of what the advanced redemption of the Messiah means in chaps. 5-6, that through the Messiah God has made it possible that "the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh (like unsaved Israel in 7:5-25) but according to the Spirit" (8:3-4). Through Jesus’ sacrifice and vindication by God, all those “in him” are delivered, both from the power of sin which held them captive and therein from the futility of trying to overcome sin through their unrenewed effort. In contrast to the past (very personally portrayed in 7:7-25), they are now, through his redemptive act and by the power of the Spirit, those who fulfill Torah (8:1-17). They are thus the “first fruits” of an entire restored created order (8:18-23).

Structurally speaking, this all makes perfect sense. In offering 7:7-25 as the first side of an extended contrast, and 8:1-17 as the second, Paul is able to bring to climax the theme he began developing in 2:25-29 but could not treat in detail there. Such a reading also comports with what follows in chapters 9-11, seeing in those chapters an expansion of the cord struck in 3:1-8. Just as the question “what is the advantage of being a Jew?” is the natural response to what Paul said of the believing Gentile being a “Jew inwardly”, and his response is a balanced though incomplete answer to that question (note that, speaking of Israel’s advantage in 3:2, he says “first of all”, implying that there is more to come), so 9-11 comprises the complete response to the same question, which would naturally again arise after his filled-in presentation of what the distinguishing marks of this new covenant community are in chapters 5-8.

Now, it's beyond argument to say that Gentiles stand on the positive side of Paul's contrast in 2:26-27. This considered, as well as all of the above, it seems hard to avoid granting Gentiles the title of "Jew" in 2:28-29. Still, I'm sure many will contest this, so let the dialog begin!