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What Does the Bible Mean by Circumcision of the Heart?

Clarence L. Haynes Jr.

We don’t often talk about circumcision and definitely not circumcision of the heart. Think quickly when was the last time you heard a sermon preached about this? Yet it behooves us to grasp this process of the circumcision of the heart because God is interested in doing this in the heart of every believer.

To understand circumcision of the heart it helps to understand circumcision in general. In Genesis 17, God re-establishes the covenant promise that he made with Abraham. God again promises him that he would make him the father of many nations as Abraham continued to walk before him faithfully. As a sign of this covenant, God required Abraham and all the males to be circumcised.

"This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you." – Genesis 17:10-11

Circumcision was a physical act in the body that involved cutting away which was not very comfortable for those who had it done. However, it represented the seal of a covenant made between God and Abraham. This covenant did not stop with Abraham but was to be continued on through the generations of the nation of Israel. This covenant was not to be taken lightly and if anyone refused, they were cut off from the promise.

“Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” – Genesis 17:14

When you think about circumcision remember the cutting away and the covenant. This will give us perspective to understand how this applies to the heart.

What is circumcision of the heart?

While circumcision was a physical sign of God’s covenant with Israel, circumcision in the body could not change the heart. Abraham’s initial circumcision and all the males during his time was a circumcision of their choice. The circumcisions that came after that were not done with the child’s consent. The child had no understanding of the covenant of circumcision because they were done when the child was eight days old. They had no control over this and didn’t even know what was going on. It was the responsibility of the parents who allowed the circumcision to continue the covenant and later teach their sons. While this was a circumcision of the body of the baby, there was no guarantee it would be a circumcision of the heart.

Here are three points about circumcision of the heart that will help you understand what this really is.

1. Circumcision of the heart is about consecration and repentance.

In Deuteronomy 10, the Israelites were implored again to walk in obedience to the Lord.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? – Deuteronomy 10:12-13

After imploring the people with these words a few verses later we see this.

“Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.” – Deuteronomy 10:16

In this instance, the circumcision of the heart was a commitment to walk in obedience to the Lord. To consecrate yourself, to love God, and to serve him. We, therefore, understand that circumcision of the heart was an inner commitment that reflected itself in the outward lifestyle. Please pay attention to how this is different from the physical circumcision which affected the body but not the heart.

2. Circumcision of the heart is a foreshadowing of what was to come.

One of the things we know from the history of Israel is as much as God implored them to live in obedience and consecration, they struggled with this often turning away from God’s commands. Part of the reason was they had no ability to change their hearts. However, notice what God told Israel later in the same book of Deuteronomy.

“The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” – Deuteronomy 30:6

In this instance notice who was doing the circumcision; it was God. This circumcision of the heart was initiated by God, and it was done for one reason, so they could love him. This could be seen as a foreshadowing of the things to come because we like Israel have no ability to change our hearts unless God intervenes.

3. Circumcision of the heart condemns religious tradition.

In Romans 2 Paul lays out an argument against those who are Jews and are holding on to some level of spiritual superiority simply because they were circumcised. Paul is making a clear distinction between religious tradition which doesn’t save, and circumcision of the heart which does. Following religious ceremony and holding up all the outward appearances mean absolutely nothing if there is no change in the heart. Paul then says these words in the same chapter.

“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” – Romans 2:28-29

Let’s apply this to Christians in the 21st Century.

It is very easy to get sucked into all the things people use to make the case they are a true believer. Here are the outward signs people often point to. They may say things like these.

-I go to church every Sunday.
-I read my Bible every now and then.
-I give my offerings to the church.
-I serve in ministry.
-I was baptized when I was younger.
-I am a good person.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, none of them point to a true circumcision of the heart. Circumcision of the heart cannot just be outward expressions, there must be an inward transformation. Remember as we said earlier it involves a cutting away. A true circumcision of the heart will involve God cutting away things from your heart, which will result in transformation in your life.

How do we get there?

When you consider the verse in Romans, you will see how this process of circumcision is done. It is a work of the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t that sound a lot like what we read in Deuteronomy? The truth is you don’t have the ability to circumcise your own heart, that must be done by God himself, through the power of the Holy Spirit. What you must do is give God access to allow him to do the work that he desires to do. When God does a circumcision of the heart, he is not just concerned about how you look outwardly, he is more concerned about how you are inwardly. God knows for true change to take place it must take place on the inside first. Let me put it to you this way. You are not born again because you change your behavior. You are born again because God changes your heart, and this is what results in changed behavior. Your salvation is not just the forgiveness of your sin, it is about the transformation of your heart. When the Spirit of God transforms you, through circumcision of the heart, then you become a new creation.

Final Thought – Are you willing?

While circumcision of the heart may begin at salvation, it is not a one-time process, it is an ongoing process. This work of transformation, which is really sanctification, is a work that God will continue to do as he molds you into the image of Christ. Because of the way we are, this is a lifelong process that will not be complete until we reach eternity. However, if you love God and want to be what he desires you to be, it is a work you will embrace. With all this there is only one question left to ask, are you willing? If you are then you will see this process play out in your life. It will sometimes be painful because circumcision involves cutting, but when it is all said and done you will be better for it.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ PaulCalbar


Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club.  He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.