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The Difference Between Religion and Redemption

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 2:25–29

Many Jewish people in Paul’s time scrupulously adhered to religious ritual, believing, like so many today, that this is enough to gain God’s acceptance. The apostle rejects such thinking and points to the truth that only a heart changed by God finds acceptance with Him. 


For years, an immigrant named Reuben Mattus had been selling ice cream in New York. It was his family’s own recipe, and he made a modest living selling it. Then Reuben had an inspiration. He discovered that people were convinced the best foods were exotic foods, from other countries around the world. So, in 1959 Reuben Mattus and his wife Rose came up with a new name for their ice-cream—they called it Häagen-Dazs. It was the same family recipe, with a few minor changes; but this time, it was marketed under an exotic, international name that sounded Scandinavian. They even printed a map of Scandinavia on the ice cream cartons. With that, sales took off. The rest is ice cream history.[1]

What Reuben Mattus had discovered was not just a better way to sell ice cream but a better understanding of human nature. In every culture, at any time, image means everything—or so it seems.

The self-righteous, religious Jews Paul is addressing here in Romans 2 have the right name printed on the carton—they have the mark of the Abrahamic covenant as the company label on each package. As far as marketing religion went, they were dominating the market.

If God is impressed with anybody, He must be impressed with these faithful Jews. Paul has given all the reasons why. They were proud to have the Law, or the Torah; they considered themselves moral, upstanding men and women who spoke respectfully of God and knew His will and taught the truth to others.

But Paul, by the inspiring influence of the Holy Spirit, has pulled off the mask and revealed that while their lips praised Jehovah, their hearts were far from Him. They thought their religious practices would make them acceptable to God. But as we have already learned, it’s possible to be religious and not redeemed.

Now Paul begins to address one of the most significant of those religious practices. He anticipates the argument these religious Jews are going to bring up—that they have the mark of the covenant, they have been circumcised according to the command of God to Abraham.

So, what Paul does here is offer three basic principles that reveal how futile it is to try to get God’s acceptance through the outward act of circumcision. In fact, we can apply these principles to all of us today who light a candle or work through a rosary or spin a prayer wheel or make some kind of spiritual pilgrimage to some holy site somewhere in the world.

Here is the first principle: religious rituals cannot replace righteous living. Paul writes in verse 25:

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.

What Paul means is that religious rituals might be acts of obedience to God, but they cannot replace living for God. You cannot live like the devil and then go light a candle and say a prayer. In other words, you can put a bumper sticker on your car that says, “God loves you,” but that is not going to cover for driving recklessly on the highway.

Paul is simply saying that a symbol of obedience is worthless without a lifestyle of obedience.

Paul continues in verse 26:

So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?

The man who lives a godly life and has never been circumcised will be just fine before God—as opposed to the man who is circumcised and does not care about God.

Back in these days, circumcision was a physical mark of people who were dedicated to God and His Word. It represented the cutting away of the flesh and the devotion of someone’s life to God. It was the mark of the covenant for the Jewish people in the Old Testament. It is not commanded in this dispensation of the New Testament. The church is made up of Jews and Gentiles—circumcised and uncircumcised alike.

Frankly, even back in the Old Testament, God never intended for faith to be placed in the physical mark but in Himself. In Paul’s day, the nation of Israel had begun to believe the physical mark was good enough.

Paul is pointing out that all they have is a religious ritual without a redeemed heart.

Here is the second principle: trusting external activity will not protect against eternal accountability. Paul presents it this way in verse 27:

He who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

The rabbis of Paul’s day taught that no circumcised man would ever see hell.[2] So, imagine the shock as Paul tells Jewish people they will one day stand condemned by the righteous lives of Gentiles? This verse must have shocked their sense of security and safety with God.

Now here’s the third principle: religious actions do not guarantee God’s approval. This is Paul’s point in verses 28 and 29:

No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Again, Paul delivers a shocking truth here: being a true Jew is more than a physical mark. It is a matter of the heart—it is having faith in God.

Beloved, to this day, religion always emphasizes the work of human hands. People are told what they must do to find peace and security in the life to come.

Christianity does not emphasize the work of your hands but the surrender of your heart. Religion will always focus on what we do; approval with God focuses on why we do it.

Do you pray? Why? Do you give money to the church? Why? Do you live a moral life? Why? Religion says you have to do such things to go to heaven. Christianity says you do them because you are going to heaven.

Our world is impressed with image—with something that seems exotic—even if it is nothing more than ice cream. God said it this way to the prophet Samuel: “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Religious rituals, including circumcision, are outward signs. What we need is heart surgery—a heart that is transformed by God’s Spirit through faith in Christ.

Why does the Bible talk about the heart? Isn’t that just the muscle pumping blood through your body? Well, the New Testament word for heart is kardia, which gives us words like cardiologist and cardiology. The Greek word refers figuratively to the real you, the entirety of the inner being of a person.[3]

So, regardless of what you look like on the outside—the design and name on the ice-cream carton, so to speak—the real you is on the inside, where nobody sees or knows but you and God.

Paul is telling his readers—and us—not to be so impressed with the name on the outside of the carton, not to depend on the design stamped on the package. The religions of this world are simply roadways to hell and the judgment of God, because religion only cares about the packaging—if it looks good, it sells.

Christianity is the road to heaven; it is not all about image or appearances. It is not selling anything. It is a free gift given to those who will surrender their heart—their true self—to the Lord Jesus Christ. At its very core, Christianity is a matter of the heart.

[1] Brandon Specktor, “This Is the Real Secret Behind Häagen-Dazs Ice Cream’s Name,” Reader’s Digest, September 8, 2017,

[2] Everett F. Harrison, “Romans,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Zondervan, 1976), 34.

[3] Johannes Behm, “Kardia,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1965), 611, 612.

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