There’s a scrap of paper in my Greek Bible with some words scribbled on it in blue ink. I remember writing them about five years ago when I was reading through the book of Romans. They contain a seed of an idea that I had that morning when I read Romans 2:29; but I’ve never developed this thought. So I’ve left the scrap paper and scribbles right where I left them on page 413, a constant reminder to revisit this powerful verse in Romans. Here’s my awkward translation of it, “But the one who is inwardly a Jew, even having circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, not the letter, whose praise is not from humans, but from God” (Romans 2:29).
Here’s what I wrote on the paper: “The measure of a man is not the greatness of his accomplishment, but the greatness of his repentance.”
I’ll begin with a question, “Whom would you most desire to give you praise?” It’s awesome to receive praise from parents or from peers, from community or country, but there’s an even greater source of praise available to us. The ultimate praise comes from God. Can you imagine what it would be like to receive praise from God? Romans 2:29 indicates to us that there is praise from God available to us. But whom is the one that God praises?
If you’re like me, you struggle with this. We love it when people praise us. And all sorts of malfunctions/dysfunctions happen when we are not praised, when we are overlooked, when we are forgotten. We quickly go from confidence to crisis when we don’t receive the praise that we feel is “due” us. We love it when other humans praise us, as the verse describes. We don’t need a lot of over-the-top celebration, mind you, but simple recognition or acceptance will suffice. Just acknowledge my act, my gesture, and that will be enough.
Paul wrote the letter of Romans with his Jewish people in mind. Paul knew how important this concept of praise was to the Jews of his time. Chrysostom notes the link between the external rites of the Jews and praise. Circumcision is an external rite, a word to summarize the Jewish practices of Sabbath keeping, animal sacrifices, purification rites, etc. Jews prided themselves in their external accomplishments. But Paul wants us to know that there is another kind of circumcision, of the heart and not just the flesh. Circumcision of the flesh is external, including all that we do on the outside in order to feel better about our inside.
Humans look at the flesh, what’s on the outside. We praise each other for the greatness of our circumcision, if I can continue to use this crude metaphor. Some of Paul’s people would glory in circumcision, which is just another way of saying that they put all their confidence in their ancestry. Their greatness came from humans, in other words. We continue to place and find our greatness in the external: race, origin, degree, wealth, status, accomplishment, fame, etc.
We justify our existence by what we have done, can do, or will do. Actually, we ask other humans to justify our existence, by placing on them the burden to praise us. And if they praise us, then we feel that they grant us our worth. If they give us this worth, then our lives have meaning. And if our lives have meaning, then we are justified in existing in the first place. If we feel like we have sufficient justification for living, then we will not do anything drastic.
But the measure of a person is not the greatness of his accomplishment, at least not according to God’s eyes. While humans look at the flesh, God gazes at the heart. There is a circumcision of the flesh and there is a circumcision of the heart. Ambrosiaster says that there is a “veil over the heart,” which only God sees and only God can remove. Humans boast in external transformation (accomplishment), but God boasts in internal transformation (accomplishment). Circumcision of the heart is inner transformation and what God requires. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut 10:16). “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts” (Jeremiah 4:4).
The more I am circumcised in the heart, the greater I am. The more I seek, by all the graces that God has given, to transform my inner being, to cut away the veil on my dark heart, the greater I will be in God’s eyes. The route of transformation is repentance. Repentance is turning my course away from self-satisfaction and toward God glorification. To repent is to remove self-religion by replacing it with true religion, worship of God. To repent is to remove the hard skin on my heart, which keeps me from knowing God and living for him.
In short, to repent is to love God, because you’re turning away from loving other things more than you love him, embracing him as you turn.
The measure of a man is not the greatness of his accomplishment, but the greatness of his love for God. The more I repent, the greater the praise from God. Greatness is inward first and does not pertain to keeping the letter of the law. The letter of the law will not make one great. Greatness comes from the Spirit, as the Spirit of God takes away the layers of life that keep me from him.
Whom does God praise? God praises the one who repents of his sin, allowing the Spirit entrance into his heart. Once the Spirit is in the heart, it performs soul surgery, removing the veil of the heart. The greater the repentance—the greater the turning toward God—the greater the inner transformation.
In an age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs (mine included!), when everything is “externalized,” we must keep our hearts for God. Our greatness does not come from what others can recognize about us, but from what God can do in us.
© Samuel Kee, 2012