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Holiness Texts: Romans 2:29

This series of posts highlights the primary Scripture texts cited by John Wesley and his earliest followers in defense and explanation of the doctrine of Christian Perfection. These are posted (as always) for information and possible discussion. It is not assumed that because Wesley or his followers said a certain thing, everyone else is somehow obligated to agree. The Scriptures are quoted below from the New American Standard Version of the Bible. They are followed by comments from Wesley himself, as well as some of his early followers: John Fletcher, Adam Clarke and Joseph Benson.

An introduction to this series is here:
The Holiness Texts of John Wesley. Links to the other posts in this series may be found on the Wesleyan Theology Page or on the Bible Studies page, listed as “The Holiness Texts of John Wesley.”

"But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God." (Romans 2:29 NASB).

John Wesley said:

But he is a Jew — That is, one of God’s people. Who is one inwardly — In the secret recesses of his soul. And the acceptable circumcision is that of the heart — Referring to Deut. xxx, 6; the putting away all inward impurity. This is seated in the spirit, the inmost soul, renewed by the Spirit of God. And not in the letter — Not in the external ceremony. Whose praise is not from men, but from God — The only searcher of the heart.

Explanatory Notes on the New Testament: Romans 2:29

EDITOR'S NOTE: The quotations that follow are from John Wesley’s Sermon #17 “the Circumcision of the Heart,” which takes Romans 2:29 as its text. So, I’ve pulled out some quotes, but it's a little hard to know what to include and what to leave out. One could consider all of Sermon # 17 as a commentary on Romans 2:29, since (as I say) this is the text of the sermon. The reader might want to remember also, that John Wesley added footnotes to this sermon when he put it into
A Plain Account of Christian Perfection — noting several expressions that he later came to feel went too far in their claims.

"It is the melancholy remark of an excellent man, that he who now preaches the most essential duties of Christianity, runs the hazard of being esteemed, by a great part of his hearers, 'a setter forth of new doctrines.' Most men have so lived away the substance of that religion, the profession whereof they still retain, that no sooner are any of those truths proposed which difference the Spirit of Christ from the spirit of the world, than they cry out, 'Thou bringest strange things to our ears; we would know what these things mean:' — Though he is only preaching to them 'Jesus and the resurrection,' with the necessary consequence of it, — If Christ be risen, ye ought then to die unto the world, and to live wholly unto God.

"A hard saying this to the natural man, who is alive unto the world, and dead unto God; and one that he will not readily be persuaded to receive as the truth of God, unless it be so qualified in the interpretation, as to have neither use nor significancy left. He ‘receiveth not the’ words ‘of the Spirit of God,’ taken in their plain and obvious meaning; ‘they are foolishness unto him: Neither’ indeed ‘can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned:’ — They are perceivable only by that spiritual sense, which in him was never yet awakened; for want of which he must reject, as idle fancies of men, what are both the wisdom and the power of God.

"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 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.'"

— Sermon #17 "The Circumcision of the Heart"

"I am, First, to inquire, wherein that circumcision of the heart consists, which will receive the praise of God. In general we may observe, it is that habitual disposition of soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin, 'from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit;' and, by consequence, the being endued with those virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so 'renewed in the spirit of our mind,' as to be 'perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.'

"To be more particular: Circumcision of heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity. Humility, a right judgment of ourselves, cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our own perfections, from that undue opinion of our own abilities and attainments, which are the genuine fruit of a corrupted nature. This entirely cuts off that vain thought, 'I am rich, and wise, and have need of nothing;' and convinces us that we are by nature 'wretched, and poor, and miserable, and blind and naked.' It convinces us, that in our best estate we are, of ourselves, all sin and vanity; that confusion, and ignorance, and error reign over our understanding; that unreasonable, earthly, sensual, devilish passions usurp authority over our will; in a word, that there is no whole part in our soul, that all the foundations of our nature are out of course.

"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."

— Sermon #17 "The Circumcision of the Heart"

"The best guide of the blind, the surest light of them that are in darkness, the most perfect instructor of the foolish, is faith. But it must be such a faith as is “mighty through God, to the pulling down of strong holds,” — to the overturning all the prejudices of corrupt reason, all the false maxims revered among men, all evil customs and habits, all that “wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;” as “casteth down imaginations,” reasonings, “and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringeth into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”

"'All things are possible to him that' thus 'believeth.' 'The eyes of his understanding being enlightened,' he sees what is his calling; even to glorify God, who hath bought him with so high a price, in his body and in his spirit, which now are God’s by redemption, as well as by creation. He feels what is “the exceeding greatness of his power,” who, as he raised up Christ from the dead, so is able to quicken us, dead in sin, “by his Spirit which dwelleth in us.” “This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith;” that faith, which is not only an unshaken assent to all that God hath revealed in Scripture, — and in particular to those important truths, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” “He bare our sins in his own body on the tree;” “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” f25 — but likewise the revelation of Christ in our hearts; a divine evidence or conviction of his love, his free, unmerited love to me a sinner; a sure confidence in his pardoning mercy, wrought in us by the Holy Ghost; a confidence, whereby every true believer is enabled to bear witness, “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” that I have an “Advocate with the Father, and that “Jesus Christ the righteous” is my Lord, and “the propitiation for my sins,” — I know he hath “loved me, and given himself for me,” — He hath reconciled me, even me, to God; and I “have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.”

"Such a faith as this cannot fail to show evidently the power of Him that inspires it, by delivering his children from the yoke of sin, and “purging their consciences from dead works;” by strengthening them so, that they are no longer constrained to obey sin in the desires thereof; but instead of “yielding their members unto it, as instruments of unrighteousness,” they now “yield themselves” entirely 'unto God, as those that are alive from the dead.'"

— Sermon #17 "The Circumcision of the Heart"

Adam Clarke said:

Verse 29.
But he is a Jew. A true member of the Church of God.

Which is one inwardly. Who has his heart purified, according to what God has uniformly prescribed by his prophets; see above: for circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit, ν πνεύματι by the Spirit of God, who is the author of all spiritual affections and holy purposes: for everything here is to be understood spiritually, and not literally; for without holiness none can please God, and without holiness none can see him.

Whose praise is not of men. It has, with great probability, been conjectured that the apostle may here refer to the signification of the name Jew, or Judah, יְהוּדָה Yehudah, PRAISE, from יהד Yadah, he PRAISED.

“Such a one is a true Israelite, who walks in a conformity to the spirit of his religion: his countrymen may praise him because he is a steady professor of the Jewish faith; but GOD praises him, because he has entered into the spirit and design of the covenant made with Abraham, and has got the end of his faith, the salvation of his soul. Sentiments like these, on the same subject, may be found in the ancient Jewish writers. Rabbi Lipman gives the opinion of their most ancient and pure writers in these words: — 'A certain Christian mocked us, saying, ‘Women, who cannot be circumcised, cannot be reckoned among Jews.’ Such persons are ignorant that faith does not consist in circumcision, but in the heart. He who has not genuine faith is not a partaker of the Jewish circumcision; but he who has genuine faith is a Jew, although not circumcised.' NIZZACHON, Num. 21, p. 19. It is a curious maxim of the Talmudists, That the Jews sit in the inmost recesses of the heart. NIDDA, fol. 20, 2. This is exactly the sentiment of St. Paul: Circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit. In short, common sense, as well as their law and their prophets, taught every considerate man among them that God could be pleased with their rites and external performances no farther than they led to holiness of heart and righteousness of life.”

— Clarke’s Commentary.

John Fletcher said:

"It is, I think, allowed on all sides that 'we are saved,' that is, sanctified as well as justified, 'by faith.' Now, that particular height of sanctification, that full 'circumcision of the heart,' which centrally purifies the soul, springs from a peculiar degree of saving faith, and from a particular operation of the 'Spirit of burning:' a quick operation this, which is compared to a baptism of fire, and proves sometimes so sharp and searching, that it is as much as a healthy, strong man can do to bear up under it. It seems, therefore, absurd to suppose that God’s infinite wisdom has tied this powerful operation to the article of death, that is, to a time when people, through delirium or excessive weakness, are frequently unable to think, or to bear the feeble operation of a little wine and water."

— The Last Check to Antinomianism. A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory.

Joseph Benson said:

Verses 28, 29.
For he is not a Jew — In the most important sense, that is, one of God’s beloved people; or a true child of Abraham, to whom the promise belongs, and one that God will own for a true member of his church; who is one outwardly — Only; or one of Abraham’s posterity, according to the flesh, and enjoys the outward privileges belonging to that relation. Neither is that circumcision — The chief and true circumcision, acceptable to God; which is outward in the flesh — Consists only in the outward ordinance, and the mark imprinted on the flesh. But he is a Jew — One of Abraham’s spiritual seed; who is one inwardly — Who inwardly possesses the disposition of Abraham, and imitates him in his faith and obedience. In this sense, the pious Gentiles, though uncircumcised, and members of no visible church, were really Jews, or children of Abraham, entitled to the blessings of the covenant which God made with him. It is of such as these that Christ speaks, in his epistle to the church at Smyrna, Revelation 2:9; I know the blasphemy of them who say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. And circumcision is that of the heart — The circumcision which renders men the sons of Abraham, and the people of God, is of the heart, made by cutting off or mortifying its lusts. That this is the true circumcision, or the thing meant by that rite, is evident from the command of Moses to the Jews, Deuteronomy 10:16, Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, and be no more stiff-necked; and from the promise made to the same people, Deuteronomy 30:6, The Lord thy God will circumcise thy heart, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart. In the spirit — Seated in the inmost soul, renewed by the Spirit of God. Or the expression may mean, according to the spiritual sense of the law; and not in the letter — Not in an external ceremony, performed only according to the letter of it. Whose praise is not of men — Who look only on the outward appearance, and will probably be so far from esteeming, that they will despise and hate such; but of God — Who sees in secret, and approves of what is internally holy and spiritual. It is justly observed by Macknight here, that the apostle, by distinguishing between the spirit and the letter of the law of Moses, intimates that the rites enjoined in that law were typical, and had a spiritual or moral meaning, as Moses also expressly declared to the Jews, Leviticus 26:41, and in the passages of Deuteronomy above quoted. Jeremiah, likewise, Jeremiah 4:4, represents circumcision as emblematical; consequently all the other rites of the law were so likewise.”

— Benson's Commentary.

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