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Commentary On Romans by Jean Calvin

Romans 2:25-29

25. For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.

25. Nam circumcisio quidem prodest, si Legem observes; quod si transgressor Legis fueris, circumcisio tua in præputium versa est.

26. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?

26. Si ergo præputium justitias Legis servaverit, nonne præputium ejus pro circumcisione consebitur?

27. And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?

27. Et judicabit quod ex natura est præputium (si Legem servaverit) te qui per literam et circumcisionem transgressor es Legis?

28. For he is not a Jew which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh:

28. Non enim qui est in aperto Iudæus est; ne quæ in aperto est circumcisio in carne, ea est circumcisio:

29. 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.

29. Sed qui est in occulto Iudæus; et circumcisio cordis in spiritu non litera; cujus laus non ex hominibus est sed ex Deo.

25. For circumcision indeed profits, etc. He dissipates by anticipation what the Jews might have objected in opposition to him in the defense of their own cause: for since circumcision was a symbol of the Lord's covenant, by which he had chosen Abraham and his seed as his peculiar people, they seemed not to have gloried in vain; but as they neglected what the sign signified, and regarded only the outward form, he gives this answer -- That they had no reason to lay claim to any thing on account of the bare sign. The true character of circumcision was a spiritual promise, which required faith: the Jews neglected both, the promise as well as faith. Then foolish was their confidence. Hence it is, that he omits to state here the main use of circumcision, and proceeds to expose their gross error, as he does in his Epistle to the Galatians. And this ought to be carefully noticed; for if he were explaining the whole character and design of circumcision, it would have been inconsistent in him not to have made mention of grace and free promise: but in both instances he spoke according to what the subject he had in hand required, and therefore he only discussed that part which was controverted.

They thought that circumcision was of itself sufficient for the purpose of obtaining righteousness. Hence, speaking according to such an opinion, he gives this reply -- That if this benefit be expected from circumcision, it is on this condition, that he who is circumcised, must serve God wholly and perfectly. Circumcision then requires perfection. The same may be also said of our baptism: when any one confidently relies on the water of baptism alone, and thinks that he is justified, as though he had obtained holiness by that ordinance itself, the end of baptism must be adduced as an objection; which is, that the Lord thereby calls us to holiness of life: the grace and promise, which baptism testifies (testificatur) and seals, (obsignat,) need not in this case to be mentioned; for our business is with those who, being satisfied with the empty shadow of baptism, care not for nor consider what is material (solidum -- substantial) in it. And this very thing you may observe in Paul -- that when he speaks to the faithful of signs, apart from controversy, he connects them with the efficacy and fulfillment of the promises which belong to them; but when he contends with the absurd and unskillful interpreters of signs, he omits all mention of the proper and true character of signs, and directs his whole discourse against their perverted interpretation.

Now many, seeing that Paul brings forward circumcision rather than any other part of the law, suppose that he takes away justification only from ceremonies: but the matter is far otherwise; for it always happens, that those who dare to set up their own merits against the righteousness of God, glory more in outward observances than in real goodness; for no one, who is seriously touched and moved by the fear of God, will ever dare to raise up his eyes to heaven, since the more he strives after true righteousness, the clearer he sees how far he is from it. But as to the Pharisees, who were satisfied with imitating holiness by an outward disguise, it is no wonder that they so easily deluded themselves. Hence Paul, after having left the Jews nothing, but this poor subterfuge of being justified by circumcision, does now also take from them even this empty pretense.

26. If then the uncircumcision, etc. This is a very strong argument. Every thing is below its end and subordinate to it. Circumcision looks to the law, and must therefore be inferior to it: it is then a greater thing to keep the law than circumcision, which was for its sake instituted. It hence follows, that the uncircumcised, provided he keeps the law, far excels the Jew with his barren and unprofitable circumcision, if he be a transgressor of the law: and though he is by nature polluted, he shall yet be so sanctified by keeping the law, that uncircumcision shall be imputed to him for circumcision. The word uncircumcision, is to be taken in its proper sense in the second clause; but in the first, figuratively, for the Gentiles, the thing for the persons.

It must be added -- that no one ought anxiously to inquire what observers of the law are those of which Paul speaks here, inasmuch no such can be found; for he simply intended to lay down a supposed case -- that if any Gentile could be found who kept the law, his righteousness would be of more value without circumcision, than the circumcision of the Jew without righteousness. And hence I refer what follows, And what is by nature uncircumcision shall judge thee, etc., not to persons, but to the case that is supposed, according to what is said of the Queen of the south, that she shall come, etc., (Matthew 12:42,) and of the men of Nineveh, that they shall rise up in judgment, etc., (Luke 11:32) For the very words of Paul lead us to this view -- |The Gentile,| he says, |being a keeper of the law, shall judge thee who art a transgressor, though he is uncircumcised, and thou hast the literal circumcision.|

27. By the letter and circumcision, etc. A construction which means a literal circumcision. He does not mean that they violated the law, because they had the literal circumcision; but because they continued, though they had the outward rite, to neglect the spiritual worship of God, even piety, justice, judgment, and truth, which are the chief matters of the law.

28. For a Jew is not he, etc. The meaning is, that a real Jew is not to be ascertained, either by natural descent, or by profession, or by an external symbol; that the circumcision which constitutes a Jew, does not consist in an outward sign only, but that both are inward. And what he subjoins with regard to true circumcision, is taken from various passages of Scripture, and even from its general teaching; for the people are everywhere commanded to circumcise their hearts, and it is what the Lord promises to do. The fore-skin was cut off, not indeed as the small corruption of one part, but as that of the whole nature. Circumcision then signified the mortification of the whole flesh.

29. What he then adds, in the spirit, not in the letter, understand thus: He calls the outward rite, without piety, the letter, and the spiritual design of this rite, the spirit; for the whole importance of signs and rites depends on what is designed; when the end in view is not regarded, the letter alone remains, which in itself is useless. And the reason for this mode of speaking is this, -- where the voice of God sounds, all that he commands, except it be received by men in sincerity of heart, will remain in the letter, that is, in the dead writing; but when it penetrates into the heart, it is in a manner transformed into spirit. And there is an allusion to the difference between the old and the new covenant, which Jeremiah points out in Jeremiah 31:33; where the Lord declares that his covenant would be firm and permanent when engraven on the inward parts. Paul had also the same thing in view in another place, (2 Corinthians 3:6,) where he compares the law with the gospel, and calls the former |the letter,| which is not only dead but killeth; and the latter he signalizes with the title of |spirit.| But extremly gross has been the folly of those who have deduced a double meaning from the |letter,| and allegories from the |spirit.|

Whose praise is not from men, etc. As men fix their eyes only on those things which are visible, he denies that we ought to be satisfied with what is commendable in the estimation of men, who are often deceived by outward splendor; but that we ought to be satisfied with the all-seeing eyes of God, from which the deepest secrets of the heart are not hid. He thus again summons hypocrites, who soothe themselves with false opinions, to the tribunal of God.

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