It is my thesis that Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles in terms of the newly constituted Israel and that the distinction he introduces here is not timeless, but redemptive-historical.
In the wider context Paul is addressing a Jewish interlocutor (see vv.1-3,17) who is eager to judge others and hopes to escape God’s judgment by passing judgment on others. In verse 25 he writes (ESV is used throughout this post),
For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.The Jewish interlocutor would have agreed with the first statement but would have been shocked and possibly offended by the second, especially if he were familiar with the practice of epispasm, by which hellenizing Jews somehow disguised the mark of circumcision (cf. 1 Macc.1:15). Then in verse 26, Paul writes,
So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?The question is rhetorical. God will reckon (logizesthai) uncircumcision as circumcision if the uncircumcised keep the Torah. The non-Jew who keeps the law can be reckoned as a member of God’s covenant community.
Verse 27: Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision, but break the law.“Physically uncircumcised” is better translated “uncircumcised by nature (phuseos),” an expression which recalls 2:14, “the nations who have not the law by nature (phusei).” These phrases denote those who are “naturally” Gentiles, Gentiles by birth. So, God will reckon those who are “by nature” outside the covenant as being “inside” the covenant if they keep (telousa) the Torah.
Sidenote: I agree with Andrew Das who argues, against a number of scholars, “It would hardly carry any persuasive value to say that only a hypothetical Gentile judges the Jew. Why bother? On the other hand, actual Gentile obedience and actual Gentile judges would shame the Jew.” (Paul, the Law and the Covenant [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001] 185, n. 48).The “naturally” Gentiles who keep the law will condemn “you who have the written code and circumcision”—literally, “you the-through-letter-and-circumcision (dia grammatos kai peritomes)-transgressor of Torah.” This has been rendered as “though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor” (NASB) but the Greek preposition (dia) is more naturally instrumental than concessive. It is through the possession of Torah and circumcision that he becomes a transgressor. Torah, far from solving the problem of sin, exacerbates it (cf. Rom.3:20, 5:20 and 7).
Those who judge others, but fail to keep Torah themselves will be “judged” (v.27) by the Gentiles who keep Torah through the Spirit. Paul turns the tables on the Jews! The “righteous” who judge are not the “naturally” circumcised, but those who, though “naturally” uncircumcised, do the things written in Torah.
This passage envisions the reconstitution of God’s people in the new covenant. As in Galatians 2 Paul is concerned with the question, who is a Jew? With his disagreement with Peter in mind, he says to the Galatians (2:14), “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how you can force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Peter had assumed that uncircumcised believers, in order to belong to God’s people, would have to assume the identity of ethnic Jews by getting physically circumcised. But “the Israel of God” (Gal.6:16) is now redefined as the people of the Messiah. Those who believe in Messiah Jesus, and are baptized into him, form the new family, redefined around and by the Messiah in fulfillment of the promises to Abraham (Gal.3:29).
It is in this context that we must understand Romans 2:28-29:
For 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.The Hebrew word for ‘praise’ is jehuda (Judah), so that the very name ‘Jew’ (Ioudaios in Greek), ought to mean ‘praise.’ But this word Ioudaios is to be predicated of a group no longer defined ethnically or by possession of Torah and no longer marked by things which are “in the open” (en to phanero). Rather, “the-in-secret-Jew” (ho en to krypto Ioudaios) is circumcised in the heart and gains ‘praise’ not from humans, but from God.
Herman Ridderbos (Paul: An Outline of His Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975]) writes (334-335),
The last pronouncement in Romans 2 is also of importance for the reason that without directly mentioning the name of Christ it signifies a radicalizing of the concept Jew, and thereby of the definition of the essence of the people of God . . . For Paul, even when speaks of being a Jew in the heart and the Spirit, faith in Christ and his gift of grace are all-important, and therefore natural descent from Abraham is no longer a determinative factor for belonging to the people of God.See also Thomas Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity, 2001) 81.
Jews who don’t keep the law are not (true) Jews and their circumcision is uncircumcision (v.25). On the other hand God can reckon “uncircumcision” as “circumcision”; he can reckon those “naturally” outside the covenant as being inside the covenant if they, by the power of the Spirit, keep the law (v.26). The Messiah and the Spirit reconstitute the people of God, transforming the heart to enable it to keep the commandments of God (cf. Rom.7:4-6; 8:4-8; 2 Cor.3).
Conclusion: Paul’s manifest/secret distinction in Romans 2 is not timeless, but has specific import at this juncture in redemptive history when the people of Israel had only recently been reconstituted by the arrival of the Messiah and the outpouring of His Spirit on Pentecost. It was a time period when “manifest” circumcision, for example, still had a lot of spiritual capital in the minds of people and therefore Paul has to explain that, because it is no longer the marker of God’s people, “manifest” circumcision has been relativised. The new marker of God’s people is “secret” faith (see the contrast between circumcision and faith in Romans 4).
Paul would never claim, in other words, that those who were circumcised but not believers were not truly in the covenant. Precisely because they were in the covenant, they had to be “broken off” (Romans 11) that the Gentiles might be grafted in. It is therefore going beyond Paul to say that only the elect are members of the covenant community. Even once one has been grafted in, the possibility of falling away remains (Rom.11). Paul’s language about election largely needs to be understood in the context of covenant and not vice versa. This does mean that Paul’s use of “elect” often unsettles those of us who grew up with the pleasant aroma of TULIP. We must remember, however, that Paul’s teaching does not explicitly contradict TULIP; it simply operates more in the historical sphere than in the eternal.