People of God: Heart Circumcision and Gentiles

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God commanded that Israelite males should be circumcised as a mark of their inclusion in the covenant that was made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This command was never rescinded. As a characteristic of Jewish people, it has been perpetuated to the present day.

In the Torah, however, Moses clearly implied that external circumcision was not a sufficient condition for enjoying the covenant blessings. Early in Deuteronomy he addressed the stubbornness of the Israelites by instructing them to circumcise their hearts (Deut. 10:16). Later in the book he spoke of a time when the nation of Israel would fall under the judgment of God, be driven into exile, and then be regathered into the land. At that time, he said, God would circumcise the heart of the entire nation to love the Lord God (Deut. 30:6). The circumcised heart of Deuteronomy appears to correspond to Ezekiel’s “new heart” or “heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26) as well as the law written on the heart (Jer. 31:33).

All of these passages are focusing upon an inward change or transformation that accompanies repentance and results in devotion and obedience to God. This inward change is something that God Himself will work. According to the prophetic passages, God will someday accomplish this inward change within the entire nation of Israel. What would eventually be done for the nation, however, could be worked in the individual heart at any period of salvation history. This change is almost certainly the same thing that Jesus calls being “born from above” (John 3:3), and that Paul refers to as the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).

If indeed the circumcision of the heart is equivalent to regeneration, then every saved individual of every era has experienced it. Regeneration has never been restricted to one particular people or nation. It has been God’s gift given to all those who believe (I am not attempting to address the logical order of precedence between regeneration and faith, but simply pointing out that the class of those who have believed is identical to the class of those who have been regenerated).

In other words, many who were not circumcised physically have, nevertheless, experienced the circumcision of the heart. Every pre-Abrahamic believer would have been externally uncircumcised but internally circumcised. In fact, for some time Abraham himself would have been in this position. No Israelite woman was circumcised physically, but any who were regenerated would have experienced the circumcision of the heart. Gentile believers such as Barzillai and Naaman were not outwardly circumcised, but their hearts were.

Circumcision of the heart conferred spiritual benefits, but it did not bring Gentile believers under the specific promises that were made to national Israel. For an Israelite, physical circumcision was still part of obedience, a sign of the covenant without which the covenant blessings could not be expected. Internal circumcision could not be made to substitute for external circumcision, any more than external circumcision could substitute for internal circumcision.

Internal circumcision was necessary even for those who were outwardly circumcised. Paul’s point in Romans 2:25 is that even those who were formally within Israel might as well be uncircumcised if they were unregenerate. The lack of inward circumcision would debar them from experiencing the blessings of the nation. On the other hand, Gentiles who experienced regeneration could, in a very proper sense, be spoken of as circumcised, for they really were inwardly circumcised.

When Paul wrote as if regeneration constitutes a kind of circumcision, he was saying nothing new. Both circumcisions were included in the message of the Old Testament from Moses onward. Since both were in play throughout the Old Testament, neither could be made to serve in the place of the other. This is the point from which Paul was extrapolating in his discussion at the end of Romans 2. He was not suggesting that believing Gentiles became Jews, but that a believing Gentile shared the inward circumcision. In the same way, he is not was not arguing that external circumcision was a matter of indifference for Jewishness, but rather that external circumcision alone was not a sufficient condition for entering into the covenant blessings. As in the Old Testament, neither form of circumcision could substitute for the other.

Paul’s point in Philippians 3 was much the same. Without inward circumcision, the outward act was merely so much mutilation, certainly nothing in which to take pride. On the other hand, those who truly believed on God through Christ (i.e., worshipped God in the spirit and rejoiced in Jesus Christ) enjoyed a true though inward circumcision. They were genuinely regenerated. This inward circumcision did not and does not transform Gentiles into Jews, but it is something that both Israelites and Gentiles must experience if they are going to enjoy God’s blessing.

God promised a circumcision of the heart to the entire nation of Israel, and some day He will keep that promise. Some day the entire nation will receive a new heart, a heart of flesh. Some day, all Israel will have God’s law written on their hearts. Some day, all Israel will be saved. What is promised to the nation as a nation, however, is presently available to any individual. It always has been. God wants people to be born again, and His Spirit performs this transformation upon all who believe (again, I am not addressing the relative order of these events). All believers are regenerated. All believers experience inner circumcision. In this sense, even Gentiles who believe may be reckoned among “the circumcision,” i.e., those who have experience repentance and inner transformation.

We Sing the Glorious Conquest
John Ellerton (1826-1893)

We sing the glorious conquest
Before Damascus gate,
When Saul, the Church’s spoiler,
Came breathing threats and hate;
The ravening wolf rushed forward
Full early for the prey;
But lo! the Shepherd met him,
And bound him fast to-day.

Oh, glory most excelling
That smote across his path!
Oh, light that pierced and blinded
The zealot in his wrath!
Oh, voice that spake within him
The calm, reproving word!
Oh, love that sought and held him
The bondman of his Lord!

O Wisdom ordering all things
In order strong and sweet,
What nobler spoil was ever
Cast at the Victor’s feet?
What wiser master-builder
E’er wrought at Thine employ
Than he, till now so furious
Thy building to destroy?

Lord, teach Thy Church the lesson,
Still in her darkest hour
Of weakness and of danger,
To trust Thy hidden power:
Thy grace by ways mysterious
The wrath of man can bind,
And in Thy boldest foeman
Thy chosen saint can find.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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TylerR's picture


This was a very wonderful article. I remember reading through the entire Pentateuch as a single unit for Seminary, and when I came across Deut 10:16 I was stunned. I literally nodded my head and grinned. A regenerate heart, in any dispensation, will result in loving obedience to His commandments. 

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. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons, and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven (Deut 10:15-22)

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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