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  • Writer's pictureKathy Berry

It's A Skill Set, Not An Ensemble: God’s Work. Character Challenged. Life Follows.

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

The inward work of God’s redemption on a soul is not the outward manifestation of doctrines and assertions. It is a life quieted by the sting of death—the death of self for Christ’s all. Upon Calvary’s tree, we all must hang with heavy hearts, depths of sorrow too agonizing for words. Groans of realization, when tended by the soothing touch of Christ’s own hands, both pierced and stained, breathe the awareness of a life renewed.

Life renewed manifests as patterns tried and true. It is a life, as Oswald Chambers once described, “battered into shape and used by shocks of doom.”[1] It isn’t a life necessarily characterized by ease but rather one that is malleable by the tenderizing work of God’s hands. It can, though not always, be a painful process. It is a process of surrender, of dying to oneself, that produces true religion. The religion without is no more life-changing than a trip to the wardrobe. As the title implies, it is a skill set of divine character traits often won in years of sorrowful and silent growth, not exquisite appearances.

Blessed be Thine infinite mercy, who sentest Thine own Son to dwell among men and instruct them by His example, as well as by His laws, giving them a perfect pattern of what they ought to be. Oh, that the holy life of the blessed Jesus may be always in my thoughts and before mine eyes, till I receive a deep sense and impression of those excellent graces that shined so eminently in Him; and let me never cease my endeavors till that new and divine nature prevail in my soul, and Christ be formed within me.[2] —Henry Scougal’s Prayer, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 1692

The inward working of God’s Spirit is the apostle Paul’s point so often expressed through circumcision as a synecdoche (a word encompassing a class). In simple terms, circumcision often represents those set apart and made inwardly righteous through identification with Christ’s suffering. Paul categorizes the faithful as behaving in a “circumcised manner.” That is, anyone who keeps the righteous requirements of the law, even non-Jews, acts in a set-apart fashion (Rom. 2:26-29). Here, a short historical perspective is needed to illustrate Paul’s tension further.

Cultural Backdrop #2:

What does it mean to join a first-century Jewish movement as a Gentile living in a pagan culture? Jewish groups of antiquity enjoyed a modicum of respect from Roman authorities as an ancient culture and religion. Greco-Roman society understood that Jewish communities worshipped the God of Israel, so no one expected their participation in polytheistic worship. For others, abstention risked the welfare and prosperity of the whole, garnering wrath from the gods through various catastrophes. Fields would yield little, sickness would prevail, and fertility—unproductive. These were the perceived outcomes. However, as a Jewish sect, the “Jesus Movement” was exempted from pagan cultic activities.

When Paul dissuaded Gentiles from converting to Judaism through circumcision to join the Jesus Movement, he essentially placed them in a politically challenging situation. Gentiles, brought in through an inward circumcision of the heart, remained Gentile. Imagine the pressure they faced. The pressure for Gentile conversion, therefore, represented a challenge to Paul because his message was “remain in the condition in which he [God] called you” (1 Cor. 7:20).

Faith in Messiah’s atonement is the process—but grace is the vehicle. Circumcision remained a Jewish work/rite of custom (erga nomou) according to God’s land covenant with Israel, not the nations. So, circumcision is neither for Gentiles nor the prerequisite in the Jesus Movement. It is required of Jews (Paul circumcises Timothy) because it relates to the everlasting land covenant (cf. Gen. 17:3-8). In short, Gentiles were members of a Jewish movement without political benefits.

Armed with this backdrop, let’s return to Romans 2:28-29, rereading the text not as replacement theology but as Paul’s admonishment against hypocrisy:

“For one is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something visible in the flesh. Rather, the Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart—in Spirit not in letter. His praise is not from men, but from God (Rom. 2:28-29 TLV).

In his book, Reading Paul within Judaism, Mark Nanos explains that Paul uses a rhetorical device—a hypothetical Jew whose outward sign of “jewishness” is no cause for boasting. His circumcision identifying marker is visible between himself and God. Likewise, Paul parallels the inward circumcision of the heart as seen only by God. As Nanos says, according to Torah, “the ideal Jew seeks validation only from God.” A Jew is not acting “jewishly” if his boasting is in himself. In other words, a real Jew follows Torah’s principle against hypocrisy, seeking approval from God alone. So, Paul is teaching non-Jews the ideal of living in “obedience of faithfulness.” [3]

Rashi, an 11th-century rabbi, later uses the same rhetorical device when discussing hypocrisy. He compared Esav’s behavior to that of a pig, based on Genesis 26:34. Esav appeared outwardly to follow his father’s ways of righteousness, but inwardly, he was corrupt. Appearing kosher outwardly, the pig displays split hooves, yet inwardly, it does not chew the cud—a requirement of kashrut.

It doesn’t matter your outward appearance or your ethnicity. The question remains: “Has the inward work of God’s redemption circumcised your heart?” His skill in bringing redemption and the work of sanctification in a yielded heart brings life. It is not the ensemble of outward appearances—holiness through the recitation of creeds. Creeds serve their function; they remind us of guiding principles. They don’t replace the hard work of sanctification: “Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born, but not within thyself, thy soul will be forlorn” (Silesius). Oswald Chambers asked, “Have we allowed our personal lives to become a “Bethlehem” for the Son of God?” [4] This life requires submission and obedience.



[1] D.W. Lambert, Oswald Chambers: An Unbribed Soul (London: Marshall, Morgan, Scott, 1968), 67.

[2] Ibid, 60.

[3] Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism (Eugene, OR.: Cascade Books, n.d.), 148.

[4] Lambert, Oswald Chambers: An Unbribed Soul, 61.

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