Herman Hoeksema was the first editor of the Standard Bearer.
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Romans 2:28, 29
The question which the apostle is answering in the context is the question whether a man can be righteous before God because of his religion. He is talking no more to man in general as in the beginning of the chapter, but he is addressing religious people. He is addressing the religious man. He is addressing the church member, even though it is the church member of the Old Testament, the Jew. He is taking away his religion, his piety, his religious good works, as the basis of righteousness before God. This is the general thought of the context from verse 17 to the end of the chapter.
That man cannot be righteous by works, that the heathen cannot be righteous by works—that was plain. But now if a man is religious, cannot this be the basis of his righteousness before God?
Remember, the apostle is not addressing only the Jew, but he is addressing the religious people of that day. Therefore, he is addressing you and me. He is answering the question whether church membership and all that stands connected with it can be the basis of our righteousness before God.
The apostle answers: if our religion is to be the basis of our righteousness, it must be one hundred percent perfect. If circumcision, which was the heart of the Old Testament religion, considered as a work, is to be the basis of my righteousness before God; if baptism, considered as a work, is to be the basis of our righteousness, then it is necessary to keep perfectly the law. For, the apostle writes in the immediate context, “circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.” This is so emphatically true that if one who is not circumcised in the flesh, if a Gentile, keeps the righteousness of the law, his uncircumcision shall be counted for circumcision, and he shall judge the Jew, who by the letter and circumcision transgresses the law.
The reason for what he has said in the context, the apostle gives in the text. Your religion, your baptism, your church membership, your piety, your religious activities cannot serve as your righteousness before God. “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: but he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.”
According to the context, the text emphasizes that if your religious righteousness is to be perfect before God, as a work, you must be able to circumcise your own heart. And you must be perfect in your inward heart. Hence the apostle shows us here the impossibility of religious work-righteousness.
Such a Righteousness Must Have Praise of God
The apostle says, “He is a Jew, whose praise is not of men, but of God.” We would say, “He is a Christian, whose praise is not of men, but of God.” This means three things. In the first place, objectively it means that God praises us. To praise is to judge, to approve, and then to tell the one so judged and approved of that approval. God judges perfectly. He also judges thoroughly.
The apostle says that the man who would be righteous by his religion must not have his praise of men. Man cannot praise. When man praises anyone, it does not signify that the man so praised is righteous. Man praises according to the standard of man. His praise is sinful with regard to the motive. Mere sinful man praises from various motives. Not only is the praise of man sinful, but it is also external. Man can only praise what is external, he can only praise what he can see. Man cannot judge, and, therefore, he cannot praise, motives. For these reasons, man’s praise is meaningless as a criterion of righteousness.
Even a certificate of the church does not mean anything with respect to your righteousness before God. When the consistory gives you a certificate of membership and writes on it that you are sound in doctrine and in walk, you do not receive a passport into heaven. Also the consistory praises what it sees.
Your praise must be according to God. But God judges perfectly. God approves only what is one hundred percent perfect. He does not approve anything which is not one hundred percent perfect. As God judges perfectly, so He judges thoroughly. That is, He judges according to the inmost root of the heart. What must our service be, to be one hundred percent perfect, so that it can be acceptable to God? It must be one hundred percent according to the will of God, and it must be one hundred percent from the heart. Your praise must be of God.
In the second place, the phrase means that you do not seek anything but the praise of God. It means that in all your religious activity your only motive is to get the praise of God. Your motive must not be to get the praise of men. It is your one hundred percent desire that God praise you. From this, all our religious activity must spring, to be according to God.
In the third place, that one’s praise must be of God means that God judges because of what a man is and does. Therefore, one whose praise is of God, and who is righteous because of his religious activity, is one who has the word and the testimony of God that he is righteous before God. You must have the testimony of God, through the Spirit, that you are righteous because of your religious activities.
But this is impossible. We would read this word this way: “He is not a Christian, who is one outwardly, neither is that baptism, which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Christian, whose praise is of God.” If this is the case, we can have no moment’s peace. There is no righteousness in being baptized, in going to church, in being a Christian, in being pious. If our work must have the praise of God, and if all that is not one hundred percent perfect before God cannot enter into the judgment, then I am lost.
Such a Righteousness Must Proceed from a Perfect, Circumcised Heart
For what is the case: If I am to be righteous, I must have a circumcised heart. If circumcision is to be the basis of our righteousness before God, I must have a circumcised heart, and I must circumcise it. Circumcision is not that which one performs in the flesh. If that were the case, if circumcision merely meant the cutting of the flesh, then the Jew could say, “Yes, I am circumcised.” The Jew could say, “I circumcise all my children, and I did it.” If this could be the basis of righteousness, the Jew could become righteous. The apostle says, however, that this is not what circumcision is.
This is also true of baptism. If baptism is merely that we bring our babies to church and sprinkle a little water on them, we could say, “I baptize and am righteous.”
When we read in the text that circumcision is not in the letter, the meaning is that it is not by the law. The letter is the law. The law had power to circumcise all children. The law was obeyed. The apostle is not speaking to those who were indifferent. He is speaking to the faithful Jew; he is addressing the religious Jew, who kept the law. All were circumcised by the letter of the law. But the apostle says that this is not what circumcision is.
So there is a baptism by the letter. There is an ordinance of baptism which is kept by the church. If this could be our righteousness before God, all would be righteous. But the apostle says that this is not true.
Circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter. This is circumcision. Circumcision was a sign. The negative testimony of circumcision was that a mancould not bring forth children of God. The negative testimony of circumcision was that if God did not perform an operation upon the generations of Abraham, Abraham could not bring forth God’s children.
Positively, circumcision was a sign by which God testified, and Abraham accepted, that God by a wonder of His grace would make of Abraham’s children, children of God. Circumcision was a picture of the cutting away of sin.
Now the apostle speaks of circumcision of the heart. The heart is the center of our existence from a spiritual point of view. Our willing, our thinking, our desiring, is from the heart. As the heart is, so we are. If our heart is corrupt, our thinking is corrupt, our willing is corrupt, our desiring is corrupt. If the heart is good, if the heart is circumcised, the man has been circumcised and sanctified.
This is baptism also. Baptism is a sign. It is a sign of the same thing. There is no essential difference between circumcision and baptism. The only difference is that circumcision looked forward to Christ, while baptism looks at Christ as He has come into the world and made atonement. The Old Testament people of God must be circumcised to bring forth the Christ. But as soon as the Seed has been brought forth, it stands to reason that the sign is changed. When Christ has come and atonement has been made, there can be no more circumcision, but baptism. But both mean the same thing.
Now then, if circumcision and baptism must be the basis of our righteousness as a work, all we do is perform the outward rite. We can never circumcise the heart. We can never baptize into Christ. If it is true that circumcision is a circumcision of the heart, and if baptism is a baptism of the heart, and if it is not our work but the work of God, then we can never bring circumcision or baptism before God as work-righteousness. The apostle means to say: “It is impossible for anyone to say, ‘I am a Jew, I am circumcised,’ or, ‘I am a Christian, I am baptized, I observe all that stands connected with the church and, therefore, I am righteous.’ Your religion must go!”
Certainly, the circumcised Jew was justified, but not as long as he looked upon his circumcision as a work. For his circumcision testified of the righteousness which is by faith in Christ Jesus. As long as we look upon baptism as a work, it can never justify us. For we are not righteous. As it is with circumcision and baptism, so it is with all our works. Our religion can never be the basis of our righteousness before God.
Such a Righteousness Must Be Characterized by a Perfect Walk
For what does the apostle say? “He is not a Jew, which is one outwardly.” All who look upon the Jews as really being the Jews are condemned here. The Jews are not Jews. What is an outward Jew, that is, a Jew in appearance? An outward Jew is one who was born of Abraham, who looked like a Jew, who was circumcised on the eighth day, who was brought up in the knowledge of the law, and who observed all the religious rites.
So it is with a Christian in appearance. A Christian in appearance is one who is born of believing parents, is baptized, is instructed in the word, and is faithful in all his religious obligations. He is not one whom the consistory must run after to come to catechism. That is not even a Christian in appearance.
The apostle says, “He is not a Jew, he is not a Christian, that is one outwardly.” Do not turn that around. The apostle does not say: “He is a Jew, who is not circumcised.” He does not say: “He is a Christian, who is not baptized.” A Christian will do these things. He will go to church and to catechism; he will observe his religious obligations. He wants to go to church. He likes to go there. He will sing praise to God and listen to His Word.
But the apostle means to say that all that you see of a Jew and of a Christian does not constitute a Jew or a Christian. The reason is that all these outward things are possible to be accomplished by the outward flesh.
He is a Jew and he is a Christian who is one inwardly. He is a Jew and he is a Christian who is one in the hidden things of the heart. This hidden life of the heart will then become manifest in all his life as the spiritual background. Therefore, if you want to make your religion the basis of your righteousness before God, you must be able to say that in whatever you do you are motivated one hundred percent by the love of God.
What is the conclusion? What is your conclusion? What is my conclusion? What is our conclusion, if we review our religion? This: away with our religion as the basis of righteousness! Away with our piety! There is not one here who, on that basis, would dare to stand before God and say, “Lord, I have been religious; on the basis of my work, make me righteous.” There is nothing left. There is no righteousness with us. This is the conclusion.
Then the way opens for what the apostle means to teach. Only as we cast away all our own works is there room for the preaching of the apostle. The heart of this preaching is this: the righteous shall live by faith. When we stand in judgment (and we do, we stand in judgment now; this judgment will be revealed, but we stand in judgment now) and confess that all our righteousness is but filthy rags, God will speak to us and say that our sins are forgiven. The impossible possibility has happened: the unrighteous has become righteous.
I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.