Beyond identification as one belonging to God Paul tells us in Colossians that circumcision had a deeper spiritual meaning. Circumcision symbolizes through the removal of the foreskin the removal of the flesh or sinful nature from the heart. The flesh is to be cut away so that it is no longer our source of guidance and strength. The “flesh” in scripture represents the sinful nature. The sinful nature is sinful because it centers on self (me, myself and I). The sinful nature centers on self because of pride. In the Garden of Eden Eve and Adam sinned because they discarded trust in God and His word for self-reliance and self-promotion (Gen. 3). The serpent’s temptation involved bringing God’s word into question (Gen. 3:1-3, contradicting God’s word (3:4), and tempting with the idea that by disobeying God, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). As soon as they chose to disobey God in pursuit of becoming “like God,” the fleshy sinful nature was born.
One of John Wesley’s most noted and most used sermons was entitled The Circumcision of the Heart. It is the seventeenth sermon in the popular set of Rev. N. Burwash’s Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons. In this message Wesley defines circumcision of the heart as:
That "circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter;" — that the distinguishing mark of a true follower of Christ, of one who is in a state of acceptance with God, is not either outward circumcision, or baptism, or any other outward form, but a right state of soul, a mind and spirit renewed after the image of Him that created it; — is one of those important truths that can only be spiritually discerned. And this the Apostle himself intimates in the next words, — "Whose praise is not of men, but of God." As if he had said, "Expect not, whoever thou art, who thus followest thy great Master, that the world, the men who follow him not, will say, ’Well done, good and faithful servant!’ Know that the circumcision of the heart, the seal of thy calling, is foolishness with the world. Be content to wait for thy applause till the day of thy Lord’s appearing. In that day shalt thou have praise of God, in the great assembly of men and angels."
To be more particular: Circumcision of heart implies humility, faith, hope, and charity. . . . At the same time we are convinced, that we are not sufficient of ourselves to help ourselves; that, without the Spirit of God, we can do nothing but add sin to sin; that it is He alone who worketh in us by his almighty power, either to will or do that which is good; it being as impossible for us even to think a good thought, without the supernatural assistance of his Spirit, as to create ourselves, or to renew our whole souls in righteousness and true holiness.
The circumcision of the heart is a removal hindrances to holiness by God in the heart of one fully surrendered to Him.
What is the circumcision of the heart? Before we look at the particular statements by Paul in our passage we need to understand a few things about Circumcision. Physical circumcision was a rite of identification performed the eighth day after birth (Lev. 12:3). What we should consider is that birth preceded circumcision. Similarly, the new birth in the Spirit can precede the circumcision of the heart. Some people accept the Lord in a way that the circumcision of the heart is concurrent with conversion. At other times the circumcision of the heart is more of a subsequent work.
A phrase similar in meaning to the circumcision of the heart is The baptism with the Holy Spirit. The baptism with the Holy Spirit is a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer (compare John 20:22 with Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4). This is a work that involves two aspects heart purifying and empowering. In Acts 2 we see the empowering aspect of the baptism with the Holy Spirit. In Acts 15:8-9 we see the purifying aspect of the baptism with the Holy Spirit as described by Peter. The circumcision of the heart emphasizes the purifying aspect of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Circumcision represents something done to a very private part of a person. Similarly, God wants to do a deep work that affects even the most private and personal areas of our lives. God wants us to surrender every part of ourselves to Him. He wants us to withhold nothing from Him. Circumcision, therefore, is a very apt choice of God to illustrate this desire of His.
Circumcision was also something that was celebrated. As we look at what Paul says about circumcision of the heart let us receive the work of God in our hearts by faith and hen celebrate what God is doing and will do by faith in us.
First, Circumcision of the heart is something we experience in our relationship to Jesus. Paul says, “in Him” (2:11a). This points us to our relationship with Jesus which is based on God’s grace and trust in Christ as our Savior and Lord (John 1:16-17; Eph. 2:8-9). It refers to an abiding relationship with Jesus (John 15). It starts and ends with Jesus.
Second, Circumcision of the heart is a work of God in us. Paul refers to it as, “you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” (2:11b). This is not something done with human hands; it is not a work by us on our selves. It is a work of God in us (e.g. Phil. 2:13). This is a work of God on our heart. And if it is a work of God it involves receiving it by faith. Our part is to cooperate with God. He is the surgeon, we are the patient. The patient merely needs to present themselves for the surgery. We simply have to come to Him in faith surrendering to Him to do His work in us.
Third, Circumcision of the heart is putting off the flesh. Paul then says, “by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh . . .” (2:11c). As we have said the flesh refers to our sinful nature which is bundle of self-centeredness: selfishness, self-reliance, self-satisfaction, self-exaltation, self-promotion, self-serving, and lust. “Putting off” (ἀπέκδυσις - apĕkdusis, ap-ek´-doo-sis) means to divest, put off, renounce. The idea involves the disarming of an enemy who is then led off in the victor’s procession. It involves undressing. We undress or disarm the flesh.
Prior to this circumcision of the flesh we wore our flesh; it was what we were known by, like a uniform. The flesh was worn like a uniform that represents a team, company or some other group we belong to. And like a team, company or group, we did things in a certain way; in this case, the ways of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). But by the circumcision of the flesh we put off or throw aside the uniform of the flesh and put on the uniform of those who live by the Spirit.
What enemy is disarmed here? “the body of the sins of the flesh.” The flesh! How is it disarmed? “by the circumcision of Christ.” The Christian is still tempted by the sinful flesh nature. But the sinful flesh nature is disarmed in Christ. Jesus has cut it off from its supply of blood. Our sinful nature is something we will need to be aware of our entire lives. But through the circumcision of Christ it is defeated and can only follow in our victory procession as a conquered foe.
We appropriate this circumcision of the flesh by faith and conquer it in the Spirit. We put it off in that we don’t wear it. The control and influence of the flesh is broken. It may still entice us. But it only has power as we yield to it. Instead we by faith must yield to the Spirit (e.g. Romans 6). Instead we invite Jesus to clothe Himself with us and we too submit to and surrender to Jesus; we put Him on.
Fourth, Circumcision of the heart is about Christlikeness. Paul refers to, “by the circumcision of Christ” (2:11d) This circumcision is particularly “the circumcision of Christ.” Jesus does this circumcision to us as we present ourselves to Him in faith. And the nature of this circumcision takes on the nature of its Author, Jesus. It is His circumcision. God’s plan is for us to be like Jesus (Rom. 8:29; cf. also 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).
Fifth, Circumcision of the heart involves dying to self and rising to new life by faith in God’s working. Paul finally says we are, “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses” (2:12-13). We identify with Christ’s death in our baptism. Jesus died on the cross. We who come to Him willfully die to self. This is God’s purpose for us (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:14-15). We do this by faith. And we are raised to newness of life with Jesus by faith (e.g. Rom. 6:4). Our faith is in “the working of God.” We surrender to Him and trust in Him to do the work in us. God is real. He really does make a difference. He really will circumcise your heart if you present yourself to Him and trust Him to do it. The proof of this is in Jesus’ own resurrection. If God raised Jesus from the dead, He will circumcise our hearts and subdue the flesh in our lives too.
Are you controlled by your flesh and its lusts? Is it defeating you or are you defeating it? Are you led by the flesh or the Holy Spirit? Are you growing in your faith and becoming more and more like Jesus? Or are you self-centered and worldly? Ask the Lord to search your heart and listen to His honest appraisal of you. In our final part of this series we will consider the subsequent nature of the circumcision of the heart. This is a work that can happen after our conversion experience. If God has something more for you, wouldn’t you want to experience it? Don’t miss the last part of this three part series to find the answers to these questions.