Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.
–Romans 2.25-29 (NIV)
We have been focusing on observing a real season of Lent so that we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us, work to put to death those things in us that keep us hostile toward and alienated from God. All of this is a good thing if we ever hope to experience real joy, peace, and fulfillment. But given that human nature is what it is, there is always a real danger that we will turn our Lenten disciplines into ends rather than keep them as means to an end (holiness) and if that happens, we are in danger of becoming ritualistic and self-righteous.
This is the danger Paul is addressing to his Jewish audience in the church at Rome in today’s passage. Apparently some of them looked at their circumcision as a badge of honor and privilege rather than as a visible reminder that they were God’s people whom he had called to bring healing and reconciliation to his broken and sinful world. Many Jews apparently looked at their circumcision as something that made them superior to others and that assured them of always being in good standing in God’s eyes. Not so, says Paul. As with anything else, circumcision was an outward and visible sign that should remind them of the inward reality of being part of God’s people.
Likewise with our Lenten disciplines. When we stop seeing them as a means to a greater end, we are in danger of focusing on the wrong things. We are in danger of becoming ritualistic and self-righteous (look at me, how well I am following my Lenten disciplines). But this is an inappropriate way to look at our Lenten disciplines. We must always look at them as means to help us gain a humble and contrite heart. We must look at them as means to help us deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus. Anything else simply won’t do.
During this season of Lent as you pursue your disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial, confession/repentance, keep in mind why you are engaging in those disciplines and ask the Lord’s help to always keep you humble so that you can be a good and faithful Kingdom worker. Doing so is a good indication that your heart is properly circumcised.