“For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (Romans 2:25-29 ESV)
Do you have a favorite sports team? If so, do you have and wear any shirts, hats or other clothing with your team’s logo? My favorite football team is the University of Oklahoma Sooners (I don’t watch or follow professional football) and my favorite Major League Baseball team is the Boston Red Sox. In Oklahoma, folks are serious about their college football teams and the intrastate rivalry between the OU Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys is very real. It is so real, I’ve actually seen couples plan their weddings around the game schedule: “There’s no point in planning our wedding on a game day. If we do, Dod (or maybe the groom) won’t be there.”
But, one of the signs of a true fan is team loyalty even during those seasons when the team is not doing very well. I’m very familiar with that feeling, being a Red Sox fan. I remember quite well when I was much younger and my Dad, who was from Boston, would watch the Red Sox play and he kept hoping they would win a World Series Championship. The Red Sox suffered through what was called “the curse of the Bambino.” They won the national championship, The World Series, in 1903, 1912, 1915, 1916 and 1918 but then traded Babe Ruth (The Bambino) to the New York Yankees and their winning streak suddenly stopped. Even though they had many, many great seasons after that trade and many, many great players, including the legendary Ted Williams who had a .406 batting average in 1941 and the last MLB player to ever post a +400 average for the season, the Red Sox just could not seem to snag another championship… but that didn’t change my Dad’s loyalty. He remained a very loyal Red Sox fan until his death, in 1990.
Though my Dad passed away, his desire to see a Red Sox Championship was passed on to his sons to carry on and carry on, we did. We held our breath in 2004 just hoping that the Red Sox could defeat their long time rivals, the New York Yankees, but hope was quickly fading in what had been a miracle, turn-around season. The Red Sox were behind in the American League Championship Series 3-0, 3 games to none in a 7 game series. One more loss and the season would be over. That’s why I said we were holding our breath. Nobody has EVER come back from a 3-0 game deficit to win the ALCS, much less against the Yankees, but the impossible was just beginning. Not only did they win game 4, they went on to sweep the remaining games and win the ALCS and then they went on to win the World Series. After 86 years of struggle, the Red Sox won the World Series Championship in 2004, 2007, 2013 and in 2018.
Just how loyal am I to my team? Well, I’m still a fan even though they are having one of their worst seasons ever. They have the second worst win/loss record in all of Major League Baseball, right now. Only one team has a worse record, the Pittsburgh Pirates. But, I’m still wearing my Red Sox jersey and my favorite COVID protective face mask is emblazoned with the Red Sox iconic “B”.
So, what. What’s my point? The last few weeks I’ve been talking about how obedience is essential to faith and the hallmark of being a Christ follower – a Christian. Last week, I specifically mentioned how we must not just “wear Christ, but we must bear Christ” before a doubting world. Paul ends his arguments in Chapter 2 with the insistence that the historical and cultural hallmark of being a Jew, physical circumcision, is not the defining characteristic. Obedience, or spiritual circumcision, is! This week, I want to focus on how the outward signs of Christianity like baptism, church membership and regular attendance, religious jewelry or clothing, or even Bible reading or Bible quotes posted to our social media accounts are simply not sufficient to ensure our eternal security with God. God is not moved or influenced by your willingness to post or repost a religious quote, meme, photo or prayer to your social media account. He is looking at how you and I live out His commands on a daily basis in words, actions, thoughts and intent and not what evangelistic t-shirt we wear, how many memes we post to Facebook or even how many “perfect attendance” pins we have from Sunday School.
One way to illustrate this is to paraphrase Paul’s argument using these Christian signs we often claim and cling to for spiritual assurance in place of Paul’s argument regarding Jewish circumcision: “So what if you have been baptized? So what if you are a church member? This only counts for anything if there has been a real change in your life, if your heart has been truly affected. Don’t you know that you are not a Christian if you are only one externally, that real Christianity is not about having confidence in external things? No, a Christian is someone who is a Christian inside; what matters is inner baptism, a heart-membership of God’s people. And this is a supernatural work, not a human one.” (Tim Keller in Romans 1-7 for You) Many Christians tend to think right belief, or completing a specific religious rite or ritual, or even membership in the right group is sufficient, it isn’t. Some even think that opposing a specific cultural practice like abortion, supporting a specific political position or voting for a specific party or candidate is evidence of one’s love of God or personal righteousness, it isn’t. God’s not impressed or moved by your voting habits, opposition stance against or even support of some cultural belief or trend if the rest of your life is one of disobedience to His commands and indifference towards Him.
Legalistic churches write complex and lengthy belief statements and detailed codes of conduct. Members are encouraged to place their hope in adhering to those beliefs, following a prescribed process or ritual then practicing their stated ethical standards as evidence of being “right” and more holy than the “liberals” who have abandoned those standards. Churches who focus on feelings and spiritual power tend to emphasize miracles, emotion and supernatural works of God. Members are encouraged to place their hope in seeking these “expressions” of God’s authority and presence and evidence of them in one’s personal or spiritual life as assurance of God’s salvation and blessings on them. Liturgical churches most often focus on the rituals, traditions, and the rigid observance of them to assuage a member’s guilt while flooding the senses with “symbols” of God to offset the emptiness of their personal confession and repentance. Don’t misunderstand me, all of these things are good, powerful, beautiful and wonderful expressions of worship, but only when they are accompanied by a humble and contrite (truly repentant) heart.
“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15 ESV)
But when truly humble and contrite people come before God in worship then God leads them into His Word to discover correct belief and proper conduct but not so they become prideful and more “right” than their “liberal” and enlightened neighbors but so they will see the effects sin has had on their lives and begin to seek holy obedience. God will begin to reveal His power and display it in ways completely unexpected that will fully engage their emotions but He never displays His power in their lives to boost their glory and pride, but ONLY for His personal glory and holy purposes. God will draw them into beautiful expressions of worship that can be seen and experienced through rituals and traditions that fully engage their senses as He reveals His holiness, glory and power in the midst of their mundane lives. But the real presence of our Holy God will NEVER draw them towards pride and self-glory, only away from it and towards Him.
Now, I want to take you back a few weeks and remind you of Paul’s statement regarding God and how He shows no favoritism or partiality. In truth, Paul has been setting up the Jews for a theological “slap in the face” and he’s about to deliver it… oh, and you should probably brace yourself. This might hurt. He’s not letting us off the hook, either. Like the Jews, many theologically and culturally conservative folks tend to gloss right over that statement about God not showing partiality. I’m not sure if we intentionally ignore it or just assume it doesn’t mean us. So, let me state this very clearly… God doesn’t show partiality. He doesn’t show partiality or favor to any group, any ethnicity, any social status, any political alliance or party, any nation, ANYBODY! He doesn’t show it to the Jews and He doesn’t show it to Evangelicals, Catholics, Pentecostals or Southern Baptists or to you, or me. He doesn’t show partiality to anyone, period. And that’s good! No, it really is. It means we are all on equal footing before this Holy God.
The Jews assumed that because they were His covenant people then God would favor them. Pauls says circumcision (the Jews outward sign of their covenant relationship with God) only counts when it is coupled with keeping the covenant. It’s not enough to claim to be a part of the covenant people while ignoring the part about keeping the covenant. By the way, Jesus said the same goes for those claiming to be His followers. Don’t believe me? Check this out…
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)
Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord…” only the one who does the Father’s will, who keeps this New Covenant. Above, I said that God’s refusal to show partiality is a good thing and it is. Not only does it put us on equal footing before a Holy God, it also puts us all in the same boat… the one called “personal righteousness” and it’s leaking, a lot, and about to sink. In our focal passage, Paul points out that circumcision without obedience to God’s covenant is the same as uncircumcision. No difference. Same leaky boat. Then he goes on to say that someone without physical circumcision but who strives to keep the covenant (or the law/commandments) of God is showing evidence of true, spiritual circumcision. Circumcision of the heart.
What exactly does that mean? It means that we keep looking at the wrong gauge to determine someone’s faith. We keep looking at those visible, outward, distinctly human measurements to determine a person’s worth and spirituality. We keep looking at which team logo they are wearing, but those are really poor measurements of a person or their spiritual condition. We are a poor judge of the heart. We make the same mistake the prophet Samuel made as he evaluated Jesse’s sons to identify which one would be the next king of Israel (see 1 Samuel 16). Would it be the tall, handsome one? No. Then it must be this one? No. That one? No. Then who? Nobody is left. Oh, there’s one left. The youngest who is still out working and tending the sheep. Surely, not that one? Yes, that one!
“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV)
What’s Paul’s point? What’s my point? Well, I think they are the same. Paul says that God isn’t looking at your ethnicity, your nationality, your gender, your background or even your religious history. He’s looking at your heart. Do you love God above all else, are you seeking to walk with Him, follow Him and obey Him? Are you striving to love others in the same way you love yourself? Are you seeking Him and trying to live in accordance with His Word, His Law and His Will? If you are, then you will find Him just like He promised and He will bless and reward your efforts. Unfortunately, we often try to make this a complicated, but it isn’t. It isn’t complicated, but it IS hard.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39 ESV)
Finally, the man who does these things will receive praise but not from men, from God. Therein lies the real issue. We tend to seek the praise of men and not the praise from God and that causes us to pursue the wrong goals, evaluate each other using the wrong measures, to be judgmental in that assessment and to show partiality or be prejudiced in our actions towards others. Be honest, if not with me then at least with God. I think we tend to downplay our own sin and emphasize the failures of others. I stated above that we are all in that same sinking boat. What I mean by that is that we are all guilty of sin in our daily lives and in various ways. We fail to live up to God’s standards and expectations, all the time.
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10 ESV)
If you doubt what I’m saying, then try a spiritual exercise with me. Get alone and get quiet before God. Remove the distractions, turn off the noise, and prepare to worship. Now, in that quiet place of worship and solitude, pray and ask God to reveal the sin that exists in your life. As you do so and if your heart and mind are truly focused on Him, the Spirit of God will begin to bring to your mind all of the ways in which you fail to live up to His desires and expectations for your life. I promise, the list will be much longer and much broader than you expected. Not only is this a very humbling process, it is very spiritually revealing and essential to the discipleship process. I called this an exercise, but I hope you realize that as He reveals that sin then it is essential that you confess, repent and address those areas of sin in your life.
Sin is deceptive and it often hides in plain sight, even in our own lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that everything we do is sinful or bad but Paul does say, “…For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23 ESV) Whatever Paul’s statement means, there’s little doubt that sin is much more pervasive than our culture likes to admit and, I think, even more than we like to admit. How did it manifest in Paul’s culture and the Roman church? I think this chapter gives us significant insight into this question. It seems obvious that Paul is addressing an issue that exists in the Roman church and it seems to be related to how the Jews are acting towards the Gentile believers and it appears to be related to showing partiality, favoritism or being prejudiced. To put this in plain terms, it seems apparent that the Jewish Christians are prejudiced towards the Gentile Christians and circumcision is at the heart of their prejudism.
We are in the midst of a similar cultural struggle and it is related to these same issues. Whether you agree or disagree with the level of prejudice that exists in American culture or not, people are hurting, fearful and too many have died, unnecessarily. The church cannot, must not stand idly by and do nothing because to do so is to ignore the commands of our Lord and the pain of our brothers in Christ. This is not the place to talk about the role of the media in this mess, but this is the place to talk about the church’s role in addressing it. We can stand aside and cast stones or we can roll up our sleeves and do something and love our brothers in the midst of their hurt. I’m not talking about confessing our part in the sins of the church’s past but I am talking about loving our brothers and walking with them in their present pain. These are issues that the church cannot ignore, especially if we are going to pursue obedience. The Jews wanted to divide the church with their prejudiced views, Paul sought to bring healing and unity. He didn’t seek the praise of men, he sought the praise of God. We must seek the same…
Do you seek the praise of men or do you seek the praise of God? What you seek will determine your personal goals, the direction your life takes and the steps required to get there. When you seek the praise of men then you are generally setting goals and moving in a direction that is in sinful and in opposition to God’s will. When you seek the praise of God then you are setting goals that seem foolish to others but will be moving towards God but in a direction that is in opposition to and away from your culture and from man’s will. That, my friends, is the path of righteousness and the path that will elicit the praise of God. So, which one will you choose?