Romans 2:28-29 is one of the more popular passages used to teach that true Israel is not the physical nation but any who has the spirit of God. This type of interpretation refers to the church today as spiritual Israel. This spiritualization of Israel diminishes the authority of the scripture and denies the natural reading as explained in ‘Does the Bible Teach a Spiritualized Israel’.
Though it may be desirous to try and usurp some of Israel’s prophecies or promises, the natural reading of Romans 2:28-29 does not teach that the church today, where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, is spiritual Israel.
We can determine this first by establishing who the passage is addressing.
‘Thou Art Called a Jew’
“Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God” – Romans 2:17
Romans 2:17 indicates the audience of the passage as those that are called Jews. He continues in the next three verses speaking about how the Jews were given the wisdom of the law.
So then, he that is called a Jew is the same who was given the oracles of God and was given the promises, covenants, and service of God (Romans 3:2, 9:4). The target audience of the passage is physical Israel, those of the house of Jacob.
The Name of God Blasphemed
“Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written” – Romans 2:23-24
As we continue through the passage we see that Paul starts to address a problem with his blessed nation Israel. Israel makes their boast in the law, but they fail to do the law. Israel the people named after God, have become as vain as the Gentiles given up by God in Romans 1 (Romans 1:24,26,28).
The Issue of Circumcision
“For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. “ – Romans 2:25
When God gave the covenant to Abraham, he instituted circumcision as the token that Israel was keeping the covenant (Genesis 17:10-14). If they break the law then the token of keeping it is made worthless. The circumcision sign is made vanity and just as if they were uncircumcised.
“Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?” – Romans 2:26-27
Keep in mind that Israel was given a prophetic position to teach and to judge the nations (uncircumcision), because they were given the promises and the covenant and the law (Romans 9:4, Isaiah 61:6).
However, Paul notices that if Israel behaves like the nations, and the nations walk in righteousness, the nations should judge Israel! Since Israel was blaspheming the name of God by boasting in the law while breaking it, Paul places Israel in their proper place.
He suggests that the nations who kept the righteousness of the law, though being uncircumcised and strangers from the covenants, should be the judge of unrighteous Israel who blasphemed God through their disobedience of the law while carrying the token of obedience in circumcision.
Who’s a Jew?
As we finally reach the verses used to teach a spiritual Israel we should recognize that so far Paul has been talking about the physical nation Israel and their failure to keep the law.
Also, we should realize that no Gentile nation has kept the law either. For the nations were given up by God as being reprobate in chapter 1. This is the very reason God called Abraham out from among the Gentiles, because the Gentiles were already in disobedience.
“For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: “ – Romans 2:28
Here Paul references the true meaning of the circumcision found in the law to describe who is truly a Jew, worthy of the token of the covenant.
“Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” – Deut 10:16
A Jew obedient to the covenant, worthy of the circumcision, and the name of God is one that circumcises the heart and obeys the law of righteousness. Hence, the final verse.
“But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. “ – Romans 2:29
Israel was wrong to boast in the law, which is the letter, while they were not obeying the law to circumcise their hearts in the spirit. Therefore, though a Jew had an advantage by having the law and the oracles of God, it became of none effect since they were disobedient to it.
Only those circumcised Jews who were obedient to the law could truly claim the promises inherent in the token of circumcision. Rather than adding Gentiles to a supposed “spiritual Israel”, Paul is here removing those dead bones from the nation Israel from claiming righteousness based on their circumcision.
The entire passage speaks of the physical nation of Israel, and their disobedience to the law of Deut 10:16. In no way does it refer to a ‘spiritual’ Israel which is not of physical Israel or to the church today in an allegorical fashion.
Even more significant to those would be saved by God’s grace today is the fact that the uncircumcision are reckoned circumcision in the passage only when they keep the law!
However, Paul proves to both Jew and Gentile that they are all under sin, and by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified (Romans 3:10-20). If the Jew in Romans 2:28-29 is spiritual Israel then the Jew in Romans 3:10 must also be spiritual, which would place the most unnatural reading on the passage.
Where is the Jew that is part of an alleged spiritual body of Israel to be found in Romans 3:10 where all are found unrighteous? Everyone on the planet is contained in this passage which sets the foundation for the gospel of the grace of God proclaimed in Romans 3:22-26.
To make the church today part of the Jew in Romans 2:28-29 would require an ignorance of the context, prophecy concerning Israel, as well as a disrespect for the natural reading of the word of God.
The church today is neither a replacement for Israel, nor is Israel an allegory for the church. Instead the church, the body of Christ, that contains the redeemed today is labeled a ‘new creature’ (2 Cor 5:17).
We are given the title of ambassadors for Christ, members of his body, a title separate and distinct from the covenanted name for the nation Israel according to prophecy.