By Dr. Christopher Cone
Tyndale Theological Seminary
Based on Romans 2:28-29, some have concluded that being Jewish is a spiritual rather than ethnic matter, and that people become "spiritual Jews" when they become Christians. Romans 2:28-29 reads,
"For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. 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."
For understanding this passage the near context of the passage is very important. Chapter 2:1-16 explains that God is impartial and judges all, and 2:17-29 addresses Jews specifically, to show that God holds them accountable as well. The section begins with the phrase, "But if you bear the name Jew..." Paul is speaking here to ethnic Jews, reminding them that the focal point is not their ethnicity, but rather it is something internal or spiritual.
Do Christians become spiritual Jews, or is Paul talking about something else entirely? Paul’s clarity on the issue is unmistakable in Romans 4. Seven times in that chapter Paul refers to Abraham as a father:
- 4:1—"our forefather according to the flesh"
- 4:11—"father of all who believe without being circumcised"
- 4:12—"father...to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow the steps of faith..."
- 4:12—"of our father Abraham..."
- 4:16—"those who are of the faith of Abraham who is the father of us all."
- 4:17—"A father of many nations have I made you."
- 4:18—"that he might become a father of many nations..."
The first reference (4:1) addresses Abraham’s relationship to ethnic Jews; the second (4:11) to those who are not ethnic Jews yet have believed in the Lord as Abraham did; the third (4:12); to those who are ethnic Jews (of the circumcision) and have believed in the Lord as Abraham did; the fourth (4:12) also to ethnic Jews who are believers; the fifth (4:16) to all who have faith like Abraham; and the sixth (4:17) and seventh (4:18) both refer to the Genesis 17:5 prophecy that Abraham would father many nations—and that Abraham would be father to a number of different kinds of descendants. Considering these seven attributions of fatherhood to Abraham in Romans 4, we can identify three specific kinds of Abrahamic descendants:
- Those who are physical descendants only (4:1)—unbelieving Jews (and even unbelievers from Ishmael, Esau, etc.),
- Those who are spiritual descendants only (4:11)—believing Gentiles (including believers from any and every people besides the line of Jacob),
- And those who are both physical and spiritual descendants (4:12)—believing Jews.
Gods covenant promises to Abraham regarding a specific mighty nation (Gen 12:2-3) would be fulfilled through Isaac, and Jacob—through the nation of Israel (Gen 17:19; 28:13-15; 35:9-12). But those who did not have faith like Abraham’s would not receive those covenant blessings. As Romans 9:6 tells us, "...they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." This is why Paul reminds ethnic Jews in 2:28-29 that faith (or circumcision of the heart) is required: because those who are only physical descendants of Abraham, and who are not also spiritual descendants will not participate in the covenant blessings that are reserved for believing Jews.
Do the "physical only" descendants of Abraham receive the covenant blessings? No.
Do the "physical and spiritual" descendants of Abraham receive the covenant blessings? Yes! Every last one of them! As Romans 11:26 says, "...thus all Israel will be saved."
In Romans 2:28-29 Paul is warning ethnic Jews of the importance of faith—of being not just physical descendants of Abraham, but also spiritual ones. So what about those who are spiritual descendants only and are not physical descendants (4:11)? Those are Gentile believers—those who are not ethnic Jews, but have believed in the same way as Abraham. That includes Gentile believers in the church age. In this group God fulfills, at least in part, His promise to Abraham that "...in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3).
Gentile believers in the church do not become spiritual Jews, and they cannot lay claim to Israel’s covenant promises. Instead, they rejoice together with church age Jewish believers knowing that from the two groups God made one new man in the body of Christ (Eph 2:11-3:6). Jew and Gentile together in the church age enjoy the promise of eternal life (1 Jn 2:25) and every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ (Eph 1:3).
God keeps all His promises, and He keeps them just as He has promised. Israel will one day see the fulfillment of all of God’s covenants to Abraham, David, and to the nation itself. He will also bring blessing to all the families (or peoples) of the world. Just as God is, we must be precise in distinguishing between the three types of descendants of Abraham. If we are not careful to note the differences, we will expect from God things He has not promised, and we will misunderstand those things He has promised.
Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:33-36).