“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” Rom 2:28-29
In this chapter, Paul is comparing several groups of people in order to make the above point. First, there are Jews who have been circumcised and brought up in all the customs and traditions of the Torah, as a son of the covenant with God, who therefore thinks that because he is a descendant of physical seed of Abraham, that he is exempt from the judgment of God “in the day of wrath,” (vs. 5). This class, because they are certain of their election, are not careful in obeying Torah.
Second, there are Gentiles who are uncircumcised, who have not been brought up in the Torah, who are not descendants of the physical seed of Abraham, but who obey the Torah (the synagogues all had “devout Gentiles” as we learned from Acts who attended every week, in order to learn the Torah that was read every week).
The other two classes of people are devout Jews who do obey Torah, and unrighteous Gentiles who do not obey Torah.
Paul is making the point that those whom God will judge in the day of wrath, will be those who practice unrighteousness (Torah- lessness, 1 Joh 3:4), whether Jew or Gentile. And those who will escape wrath, will be those who practice righteousness, whether Jew or Gentile. All through this chapter there is an emphasis on the deeds that men do, not the groups to which one belongs, or the doctrines which one believes.
Paul develops this theme more heavily in Galatians, but in this chapter he is beginning to show that those who are the true seed of Abraham are the children of The Seed, which is Messiah (Gen 3:15), who bear the fruit of the Seed of Messiah, which is a circumcised heart who seeks to walk in God’s ways (who out of a circumcised heart obeys His Word); NOT the children of the physical seed who may only have circumcised flesh.
The Torah itself teaches this (which is where Paul got this from. The Old Testament was the only Bible Jesus and the apostles had). The foundational principle of creation is the Law of the Seed – that life comes from a seed; that like kind produces like kind, and that the Messiah is the Seed (Gen 1-3).
The seed of Abraham, whom God recognized as being Abraham’s only son, was Isaac (Gen 22:2); although Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn. But the inheritance of Abraham went to Isaac. Isaac was the child of The Seed (Messiah, or The Word of promise, in which Abraham placed his trust); while Ishmael was the child of the seed of the flesh. God recognizes the children of Messiah, the children of The Word of promise, not the children of the flesh. It is not a coincidence that in Torah, in every instance without deviation, the inheritance of the patriarchs did not go through the firstborn of the flesh. God was showing by it that it was not the flesh which counted.
This was a revolutionary concept in Paul’s day, which is why he spends so much time in the epistles explaining it. The bottom line is, it is not the things that man looks at that saves a person – class, group, form, flesh. It is the thing that God looks at – a circumcised heart that obeys God.