“. . . and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” – Romans 2:29

 

Are you living an up and down unstable Christian life? Do you feel pulled in two different directions when it comes to following God or following less than godly ways? Do you frequently feel as though you’ve run out of spiritual steam? If any of these questions are answered in the affirmative, this teaching on the circumcision of the heart will be of interest to you. Read what  the Apostle Paul was inspired to write in one of his letters:

Colossians 2:11-13 – 11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,

In Colossians Paul states the Christian is “complete in Him” (Col. 2:10). Now he is moved by the Spirit to detail further what the Perfect Life is not based on. Relying on mere outward ritual is a threat to the Perfect Life. The Perfect Life of spiritual maturity is not attained or based on mere outward performance of ritual. Some at Colosse were evidently claiming that spiritual maturity and acceptability to God was based on keeping outward rituals like circumcision. One commentary accurately states, “If someone claims to be super-spiritual because of meticulous adherence to some religious practice that believer is to be reminded that new life comes in the power of the Spirit and solely on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross ([Colossians] 2:13–15).”[1] You do not need to be circumcised to be saved. You do not need to be baptized to be saved. All you need to do to be saved is to accept by faith the good news of the gospel that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead. Saving faith by nature is repentant; it turns away from sin; it  does not continue to live in sin. But that is a product of your salvation not a work to earn your salvation. In faith you turn from your sins to God through faith in Jesus Christ and God then forgives your sins and gives you spiritual life by the indwelling regenerative work of the Holy Spirit.

The value of ritual is its use as a symbolic shadow of something related to Christ and our relationship to Him. Circumcision was a badge of identification for the Jew. It represented the mark of belonging to God. It symbolized being set apart to God and was introduced by God to Abraham (Genesis 17). But the outward ritual of circumcision was never meant to be a superficial mark that didn’t include the heart condition of the one circumcised. Circumcision was always to indicate a heart stance toward God. Abraham was circumcised after God stated he was counted righteous because of his belief in God (cf. Gen. 15:6). The history of Israel indicates that there was a tendency to rely on the outward ritual of circumcision separate from a heartfelt trust in God. Circumcision was always meant to symbolize more than a mere outward sign.

The prophet Jeremiah was inspired by God to point to this deeper meaning of circumcision when he wrote:

Jeremiah 4:4 – Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your hearts, You men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, Lest My fury come forth like fire, And burn so that no one can quench it, Because of the evil of your doings.”

Through Jeremiah God reminded the wayward sinful people that outward ritual separated from heart decision was meaningless and deserving of God’s judgment. Why? Because they may have been outwardly circumcised but their hearts were still full of evil and it showed in their “doings.” Through Jeremiah God exhorted, “take away the foreskins of your hearts.”  Circumcision symbolized something to do with the heart.

This is what Paul was inspired to clarify to the Jewish believers in the church. The early church had to deal with transitional questions related to Judaism and the church (cf. Acts 11 and 15). How much of Judaism was to be adhered to by those in the church of Christ? Some, (known as Judaizers) were saying that salvation in Christ must include a requirement of being physically circumcised as well as adopting and adhering to other Jewish rituals and laws. But the New Testament clearly disagrees with this. Circumcision and ritual served their purpose in pointing people prophetically to Christ. The church is now to be a coming together of Jew and non-Jew gentles in Christ (Eph. 2:11ff.). The gospel is by God’s grace alone and does not include additional works (Eph. 2:1-10; Galatians 1-3). You do not need to be circumcised to be acceptable before God. You do not need any other ritual to be right with God. All you need is saving faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and LORD.

Paul was inspired by God to warn against tacking on to the gospel religious rituals and works. The Jewish rituals of sacrifice and the law were only a “shadow” of Christ (2:17). These were meant to point us to Christ (Gal. 3:24) He speaks to Jewish believers in Jesus concerning the place and true deepest meaning of circumcision when he writes:

Romans 2:28-29 – For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; 29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.

All the laws, sacrifices, ceremonies and rituals of Judaism, the entire Old Testament point to Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:7). There was and is great blessing in the Old Testament types and symbols that God used to point us prophetically to Christ (Rom. 3:1-2). There is rich revelation and understanding to be gained by a study of the Old Testament. Indeed, one cannot truly grasp and understand the New Testament without studying the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed. The New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. The best commentary on the Old Testament is the New Testament. And therefore, when we want to understand the most significant aspects of Old Testament rituals, we need to look at them through the illumination of the New Testament.

The Circumcision of the Heart

Beyond identification as one belonging to God Paul tells us in Colossians that circumcision had a deeper spiritual meaning. Circumcision symbolizes through the removal of the foreskin the removal of the flesh or sinful nature from the heart. The flesh is to be cut away so that it is no longer our source of guidance and strength. The “flesh” in scripture represents the sinful nature. The sinful nature is sinful because it centers on self (me, myself and I). The sinful nature centers on self because of pride. In the Garden of Eden Eve and Adam sinned because they discarded trust in God and His word for self-reliance and self-promotion (Gen. 3). The serpent’s temptation involved bringing God’s word into question (Gen. 3:1-3, contradicting God’s word (3:4), and tempting with the idea that by disobeying God, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). As soon as they chose to disobey God in pursuit of becoming “like God,” the fleshy sinful nature was born.

One of John Wesley’s most noted and most used sermons was entitled The Circumcision of the Heart. It is the seventeenth sermon in the popular set of Rev. N. Burwash’s Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons.[2]In this message Wesley defines circumcision of the heart as:

That “circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter;” — that the distinguishing mark of a true follower of Christ, of one who is in a state of acceptance with God, is not either outward circumcision, or baptism, or any other outward form, but a right state of soul, a mind and spirit renewed after the image of Him that created it; — is one of those important truths that can only be spiritually discerned. And this the Apostle himself intimates in the next words, — “Whose praise is not of men, but of God.” As if he had said, “Expect not, whoever thou art, who thus followest thy great Master, that the world, the men who follow him not, will say, ’Well done, good and faithful servant!’ Know that the circumcision of the heart, the seal of thy calling, is foolishness with the world. Be content to wait for thy applause till the day of thy Lord’s appearing. In that day shalt thou have praise of God, in the great assembly of men and angels.”

To be more particular: Circumcision of heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity. . . . At the same time we are convinced, that we are not sufficient of ourselves to help ourselves; that, without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing but add sin to sin; that it is He alone who worketh in us by his almighty power, either to will or do that which is good; it being as impossible for us even to think a good thought, without the supernatural assistance of his Spirit, as to create ourselves, or to renew our whole souls in righteousness and true holiness.[3]

The circumcision of the heart is a removal hindrances to holiness by God in the heart of one fully surrendered to Him.

What is the circumcision of the heart? Before we look at the particular statements by Paul in our passage we need to understand a few things about Circumcision. Physical circumcision was a rite of identification performed the eighth day after birth (Lev. 12:3). What we should consider is that birth preceded circumcision. Similarly, circumcision of the heart may precede the new birth. Some people accept the Lord in a way that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is concurrent with conversion. At other times the baptism with the Holy Spirit is more of a subsequent work. The baptism with the Holy Spirit is a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer (compare John 20:22 with Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4). This is a work that involves two aspects heart purifying and empowering. In Acts 2 we see the empowering aspect of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 15:8-9 we see the purifying aspect of the baptism with the Holy Spirit as described by Peter.

Circumcision represents something done to a very private part of a person. Similarly, God wants to do a deep work that affects even the most private and personal areas of our lives. God wants us to surrender every part of ourselves to Him. He wants us to withhold nothing from Him. Circumcision, therefore, is a very apt choice of God to illustrate this desire of His. And this deep and personal work God desires is revealed as we look at the inspired words of Paul in this section.

But a circumcision was also something that was celebrated. As we look at what Paul says about circumcision of the heart let us receive the work of God in our hearts by faith and hen celebrate what God is doing and will do by faith in us.

First, Circumcision of the heart is something we experience in our relationship to Jesus. Paul says, “in Him” (2:11a). This points us to our relationship with Jesus which is based on God’s grace and trust in Christ as our Savior and Lord (John 1:16-17; Eph. 2:8-9). It refers to an abiding relationship with Jesus (John 15). It starts and ends with Jesus.

 Second, Circumcision of the heart is a work of God in us. Paul refers to it as, “you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” (2:11b). This is not something done with human hands; it is not a work by us on our selves. It is a work of God in us (e.g. Phil. 2:13). This is a work of God on our heart. And if it is a work of God it involves receiving it by faith. Our part is to cooperate with God. He is the surgeon, we are the patient. The patient merely needs to present themselves for the surgery. We simply have to come to Him in faith surrendering to Him to do His work in us.

Third, Circumcision of the heart is putting off the flesh. Paul then says, “by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh . . .” (2:11c). As we have said the flesh refers to our sinful nature which is bundle of self-centeredness: selfishness, self-reliance, self-satisfaction, self-exaltation, self-promotion, self-serving, and lust. “Putting off” (ἀπέκδυσις – apĕkdusis, ap-ek´-doo-sis) means to divest, put off, renounce. The idea involves the disarming of an enemy who is then led off in the victor’s procession. It involves undressing.

Prior to this circumcision of the flesh we wore our flesh; it was what we were known by, like a uniform. The flesh was worn like a uniform that represents a team, company or some other group we belong to. And like a team, company or group, we did things in a certain way; in this case, the ways of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). But by the circumcision of the flesh we put off or throw aside the uniform of the flesh and put on the uniform of those who live by the Spirit.

What enemy is disarmed here? “the body of the sins of the flesh.” The flesh! How is it disarmed? “by the circumcision of Christ.” The Christian is still tempted by the sinful flesh nature. But the sinful flesh nature is disarmed in Christ. Jesus has cut it off from its supply of blood. Our sinful nature is something we will need to be aware of our entire lives. But through the circumcision of Christ it is defeated and can only follow in our victory procession as a conquered foe.

We appropriate this circumcision of the flesh by faith and conquer it in the Spirit. We put it off in that we don’t wear it. The control and influence of the flesh is broken. It may still entice us. But it only has power as we yield to it. Instead we by faith must yield to the Spirit (e.g. Romans 6). Instead we invite Jesus to clothe Himself with us and we too submit to and surrender to Jesus; we put Him on.

Fourth, Circumcision of the heart is about Christlikeness. Paul refers to, “by the circumcision of Christ” (2:11d) This circumcision is particularly “the circumcision of Christ.” Jesus does this circumcision to us as we present ourselves to Him in faith. And the nature of this circumcision takes on the nature of its Author, Jesus. It is His circumcision. God’s plan is for us to be like Jesus (Rom. 8:29; cf. also 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).

Fifth, Circumcision of the heart  involves dying to self and rising to new life by faith in God’s working. Paul finally says we are, “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (2:12-13). We identify with Christ’s death in our baptism. Jesus died on the cross. We who come to Him willfully die to self. This is God’s purpose for us (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:14-15). We do this by faith. And we are raised to newness of life with Jesus by faith (e.g. Rom. 6:4). Our faith is in “the working of God.” We surrender to Him and trust in Him to do the work in us. God is real. He really does make a difference. He really will circumcise your heart of you present yourself to Him and trust Him to do it. The proof of this is in Jesus’ own resurrection. If God raised Jesus from the dead, He will circumcise our hearts and subdue the flesh in our lives too.

And all of this results in a glorious life and freedom from slavery to trespasses. “Trespasses” (παράπτωμα – paraptōma, par-ap´-to-mah) refer to a false step, blunder, “a lapse from uprightness, a sin, a moral trespass, misdeed, is translated ‘fall.’” [4] Prior to conversion we are out of step with God. Earlier in Colossians Paul stated our need to be reconciled because we were out of sync with God (1:20). Here Paul points to the wobbly walk we have apart from Christ. We walk wobbly because we walk with a heavy burden of sin.  This existence is characteristic of the one who is, “being dead in your trespasses.” This is the person who needs to be born of the Spirit; born again; saved from their sin. And God provides by grace a way for this person to be forgiven heir trespasses; the cross (2:14).

But there is a further application to be made here. Paul refers to “the uncircumcision of your flesh.” Notice he states a twofold condition. He states of the Colossians, “And you, being dead in your trespasses . . .” That’s the first condition which needs salvation. He then uses the conjunction “and” to add a further condition. The “and” can refer to something concurrent or an addition, or it can refer to something that follows. Paul says, the second condition is, “and the uncircumcision of your flesh.” That is the second condition and that needs the circumcision of the heart. Sometimes these two aspects are dealt with concurrently or at the point of accepting Christ as Savior. But at other times there is a time lapse of time before the flesh recognized as an unwanted unreliable tenant and then is circumcised.

The flesh is like a tenant who crosses the line of boundaries. The flesh doesn’t stay in its place but barges into your living space. Like a rude boorish visitor who comes in and takes over like they own the place, eating your food, wearing your clothes, turning your TV to the channels it likes, and just taking over. The flesh is a pest and makes your life miserable once you accept Jesus into your life. Why? because your flesh intrudes on your every attempt at conversation with Jesus. When you want to go out with Jesus the flesh is an unwanted presence. When you want to celebrate with Jesus, the flesh crashes the party. You get sick and tired of the fleshes constant presence but he’s persistent and powerful and wont’ go away. You try to get rid of him but he just won’t leave you alone. The flesh can be an oppressive bully. Jesus can and will step in to free us from the bully flesh. He will help us to drop the flesh like a bad habit. He will help us to throw the flesh off like a smelly shirt. Jesus will circumcise our flesh away from us.

The flesh is also very deceptive. It influences us in subtle ways that hinder our walk with Jesus. The flesh tempts us to be self-confident. It tricks us into thinking we can do it ourselves in whatever we are doing, even good things for Jesus. This leads to let downs. At times we live an up and down existence as Christians. We walk wobbly as Christians. It’s as though we are still dead as we attempt to live right but in our own fleshly power. Life is a struggle living in the flesh in our own strength (e.g. Rom. 7:24). We are dragged down by trespasses, or stumbling and bumbling as Christians. When I was a kid I had a toy called a gyroscope. It was a round circular object inside another circular with a rod in it. Both spun independently of each other. You could spin it like a top and it made for a fun past time. You’d spin it and watch it to see how long it would last before it ran out of energy and toppled over. It was especially fun to watch it spin close to the edge of a table until it slowed down and fell crashing to the floor. My point is when we try to live as Christians in our own strength we are like that gyroscope. We may spin fast and perfectly at first, but eventually we will run out of energy and topple over into sin. We need to be energized by the Lord, by the Holy Spirit in particular. His energy does not dissipate. We, because we are humans, need regular re-fillings of the Spirit; that is true (e.g. the early church filled with the Spirit in Acts 2 and then again in 4:31). But the Holy Spirit is always ready to oblige us. Our flesh gets in the way of this. That is why it needs to be circumcised out of the way.

A Subsequent Work?

It should be mentioned that not everyone accepts the idea of the possibility of this circumcision of the flesh or baptism with the Holy Spirit as being a subsequent work to salvation. Not everyone accepts that a second work of God’s grace in the heart is a valid proposition in the Bible. They state that a person receives the Holy Spirit at conversion and that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is conversion. But there is good scriptural evidence to show the reality of a second work of God in the believer. The second work of God in the believer is also confirmed in the personal experiences of believers.[5]

Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the “Promise of My Father” which He described as “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). He breathed on the disciples and commanded them to “Receive the Holy Spirit” at the end of the gospel (John 20:22). This imperative of Jesus confirms the ones He spoke to were born again or had received the indwelling Holy Spirit prior to the empowerment Jesus was speaking about. Can there really be any realistic doubt that the disciples were not born again after the resurrection of Jesus at the end of the gospels?

In Acts Jesus clarified that the Promise of His Father and this power was linked to the Holy Spirit coming “upon you” (Acts 1:4-5, and 8). The fulfillment of this empowerment occurs in Acts 2 and was subsequent or after the conversion of the disciples. This empowerment is referred to as the baptism with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Acts 19:4-5). It is also described in terms of a purifying of the heart (Acts 15:8-9). And it is this last aspect of this subsequent work of God that is pertinent to the circumcision of the heart. The circumcision of the heart is God’s means to purify the heart. The heart needs to have spiritual surgery to cut away the flesh or sinful selfish nature of a person. It is the flesh that constantly contradicts and wars against the voice and will of the Holy Spirit. The flesh is like an obstinate aggravating unwanted entity that intrudes on the Holy Spirit’s conversations with us. The Spirit speaks to our heart but the flesh is there to intrude and contradict what the Spirit says. The flesh discourages us from obeying the Holy Spirit. The flesh must be surgically removed. The Holy Spirit is the surgeon. We need only present ourselves to Him for surgery to remove the flesh. That flesh, once removed, will grow back if we choose to feed it by following its tempting incitements. If we walk in the Spirit we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh and we will experience victory and an empowered life (e.g. Gal. 5:16).

The circumcision of the heart involves God providing us with a new aliveness where we live victoriously over the momentary lapses where we succumb to the enticing of the flesh. There always remains the potential or possibility of falling because we are never immune to temptations. And if we do sin, Jesus remains our Advocate (1 John 2:1f). But we can live victoriously in this life. Victory is the product of living “together with Him.” It is a life where we exalt in God’s forgiveness. God forgives all our sins at conversion. And He will even cleanse our hearts from our fleshly sinful nature as we walk with Him. That work is ongoing too. We will never in this life be free from the possibility of sinning. And in all likelihood there will be times when we sin. We will sense that within as any sin or fleshly behavior grieves the Holy Spirit. Therefore this is not sinless perfection. But it is a life of victory over fleshly lapses due to spiritual immaturity.

God created humanity in His image (Gen. 1:27). God’s plan and purpose for humanity is to be like Jesus (Rom. 8:29). The serpent tempted Eve with the prospect of becoming like God (Gen. 3:5).  The serpent took God’s holy plan of Christlikeness and warped it; desecrated it with a sinful selfish proud motivation. You can’t achieve God’s purposes by relying on the sinful nature; on the flesh (Gal. 3:1ff.). That is because the fleshy sinful nature is inherently sinful and at war with God (Rom. 8:7). The flesh is always warring and competing against God for control and rule. There can be only one Lord or Master in our heart and life. Therefore the heart needs to be circumcised and the flesh removed.

The flesh or sinful nature has a proclivity to proudly assert itself as “God.” The flesh is always trying to take the place of God. It is the flesh that wants us to rely on the Law or ritual so that it can say, “See what I have done. See what I have accomplished.” That is a religious mindset. That is the flesh. The gospel is all about what God has done in Christ. We relate to God on the basis of His grace and provision for us. The Perfect life involves loving God supremely because of what God has done for us. We love God supremely out of thanks. We love others sacrificially as a way to offer God an appreciative offering of our love for Him. We present ourselves in full surrender to God because we have been bought by Him (1 Cor. 6:19-20). We belong to God; He is Lord of our lives (Rom. 10:9-10).  I pray all of our hearts are sanctified and circumcised by God. I pray we all answer God’s call to holy living in the power of the Holy Spirit. Lord sanctify us in your truth, Your word is truth. In Jesus name. Amen!

 

[1]Wilson, Earle L. ; Deasley, Alex R. G. ; Callen, Barry L.: Galatians, Philippians, Colossians: A Commentary for Bible Students. Indianapolis, IN : Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007, S. 324

[2] Rev. N. Burwash, , Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons, ( Salem, Ohio: Schmul Publishers, 1967) pgs. 163-171.

[3] Wesley, J. (2000). The Works of John Wesley : Sermons (electronic ed.). Albany, OR: Ages Software.

[4]Vine, W. E. ; Unger, Merrill F. ; White, William: Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words. Nashville : T. Nelson, 1996, S. 2:223

[5] See for instance V. Raymond Edman’s They Found the Secret (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984).

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