As I stated in my last post, one of the big hurdles I needed to jump over before I could consider infant baptism as an option for my family was this: I needed to become convinced that the Old Testament rite of circumcision was a pledge of real spiritual blessings. This was just one roadblock among several, but it was an important one. By rite of circumcision boys in Abraham’s household were marked as being a part of the covenant community. But did this sign have any spiritual significance like baptism does?
Baptist and paedobaptist theologians generally agree that circumcision was a physical symbol signifying spiritual realities. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart,” Moses said, “and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16). But were those who took the mark of circumcision expected to have this inner cleansing of the heart?
Circumcision: Just an Ethnic Sign?
In his admirable thesis, Paul King Jewett of Fuller Theological Seminary believed circumcision was one part of “the temporal, earthly, typical elements of the old dispensation.”1 In other words, circumcision only signified a household connection to Abraham, but there were no spiritual blessings given or criteria required of those who took this mark. This had been my objection as well: I believed circumcision was a sign of Jewish ethnic identity, so it had no parallel to baptism.
Adults who took the mark of circumcision, Jewett claims, were never required to display the inner reality of circumcision of the heart. This is the major difference between baptism and circumcision, says Jewett. He points primarily to the examples of Ishmael (Genesis 17:25) and the sons of Keturah, one of Abraham’s wives (Genesis 25:1-4). These boys were circumcised, yet they were not a part of the covenant that followed Isaac nor were they expected to live changed lives.
Genesis: When Circumcision Was Given
Was circumcision just a national or ethnic sign, a token signifying one’s connection to Abraham? Or was there more involved?
To answer this I had to go back to Genesis, when circumcision was given by God to Abraham’s household. There I found the real spiritual significance of circumcision from God’s point of view.
1. Circumcision was to be sign for Abraham’s household. God says circumcision “shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11), and this sign should be given to all males in his household, including the infants eight days and even the slaves he purchases. It was not merely a mark of physical lineage but of all those who come under Abraham’s fold.
2. Circumcision is identified with the covenant itself. “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:10). In the New Testament this is called “the covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8). God, as it were, was marking Abraham not just with a sign but with the covenant itself: “So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Genesis 17:13). To not take the mark of circumcision was to break God’s covenant (17:14).
3. Through this covenant, God promises to be the God of Abraham’s offspring. “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). This was not a promise merely to the children of Isaac (who was yet to be born) but even to Ishmael who was circumcised the same day as Abraham (Genesis 17:26). Knowing that God had promised him a son through Sarah, Abraham wanted to make sure Ishmael was not left out of God’s blessing (17:18), and God promises to answer Abraham’s prayer, multiplying Ishmael greatly and making him into a great nation (17:20).
4. Being in Abraham’s household meant being taught righteousness and justice. “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Genesis 18:19). All of Abraham’s house were commanded by Abraham to be righteous and just.
These four observations show us just how spiritual the rite of circumcision really was. We aren’t told anything in the Bible about the eternal destiny of Ishmael or any of Abraham’s servants or the sons of Keturah, but let’s imagine for a moment that one of them was not really converted, that they didn’t have a circumcised heart: what would this sign mean to him? While this sign didn’t signify a spiritual reality in himself, it did signify an objective spiritual reality. He was of the household of Abraham and that meant the Lord was his God. God would hold him to the same obligations as everyone else in the household: to live righteously and justly. Why? Because he was marked with the covenant in his flesh.
When Abraham cut the foreskin of the males in his household, what did this admittedly strange action signify to him? While it is impossible to know just how much Abraham grasped of all the implications of circumcision, we can look throughout the Scriptures to see how God understood it.
1. Circumcision was a sign of cleansing. In Abraham’s day the Egyptians practiced circumcision as a form of cleanliness and hygiene. Throughout the Old Testament the image of circumcision as a symbol of inner cleanness is repeated many times. Moses urges the people to no longer be stubborn, but instead to circumcise “the foreskin of [their] heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Moses also says a heart that has yet to be humbled or confess sin is an “uncircumcised heart” (Leviticus 26:40-41).
Speaking of the people of Jerusalem, prophet Jeremiah picks up this same theme, saying their “ears are uncircumcised,” meaning that they scorn the word of God and take no pleasure in it (Jeremiah 6:10). Through Jeremiah God calls to the men of Judah, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts” (4:4). God promises to punish all people who are “circumcised merely in the flesh” but are “uncircumcised in heart” (Jeremiah 9:25-26).
Randy Booth, pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, rightly points out:
The demand for a converted heart was certainly not a new element in the new covenant, but had always been the standard of covenant faithfulness. Before the new covenant’s call for repentance, God warned Israel repeatedly that circumcision had to be far more than simply an outward physical rite; rather, it has to be an outward sign of an inward truth.2
2. Circumcision was a sign of consecration. Repeatedly in Genesis 17, God not only gives Abraham staggering promises, but he commands Abraham and his offspring to a live and life of obedience. God appears to Abraham and speaks these opening words: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:2). He tells Abraham to keep His covenant (17:9). And again in verse 14, the seriousness of this command is emphasized: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Circumcision was not Abraham consecrating himself to God—he had done this already in Genesis 12 by traveling to the land of Canaan in faith. Rather, this was God’s command to Abraham, His way of consecrating Abraham to Himself. God was marking Abraham in his flesh with His covenant (Genesis 17:13). It was a mark not of Abraham’s commitment but of Abraham’s duty.
Romans 4:11 – Paul’s Understanding of Circumcision
Paul says Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11). This short statement tells us a couple things about circumcision.
1. Circumcision is a sign and seal confirming God’s covenant. Paul calls it “the sign of circumcision.” This is an echo of Genesis 17:11, where God states, “it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Circumcision served as a visible reminder to both the covenant promises and covenant obligations made by God. It authenticated God’s covenant, guaranteeing to Abraham and his descendants the genuineness of God’s covenant. Like a sign, a seal also points to the idea of validation and authentication: it is God’s signature. A seal is also a mark of ownership showing that Abraham belonged to God.
2. Circumcision signed and sealed the promise of justification by faith. We must be careful not to misread the text here. Paul cannot be saying that circumcision was a mark signifying someone had faith or imputed righteousness.3 Ishmael and Abraham were circumcised the same day (Genesis 17:26), so it was a sign to Ishmael as much as it was a sign to Abraham. The same mark was given to countless others after Abraham, many of whom did not have faith nor counted righteous by God. Elsewhere Paul goes to great lengths to explain that circumcision does not mean one is justified in God’s eyes (Romans 2:25-29; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 5:6; Philippians 3:2-3).
The context of Romans gives us the meaning. In Romans 3, Paul has just made the staggering claim that God justifies people on the basis of faith. In Romans 4, he is going back to the Old Testament to show the reader that this doctrine is not new, but can be traced all the way back to Abraham. He quotes Genesis 15:6, saying that even before he was circumcised, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). In this way his life serves as an example to both circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles that God promises righteousness to those who have faith. Therefore, circumcision was not a sign and seal of Abraham’s (or anyone else’s) personal faith, but it was a sign of the promise: you will be justified on the basis of faith just as Abraham was.4
How does this tie to baptism?
Exploring this topic stretched my understanding of God and the way he covenantally related to people. And this exploration would later become important building blocks for embracing infant baptism.
First, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant promises. By circumcision, God marked each person as his own. He place his seal on them (Romans 4:11), setting them apart to himself. God promised Abraham He would be God to his offspring (Genesis 17:7). This mark was tangible, a permanent mark of in their flesh that authenticated to them that they were a part of an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17:13) that began with Abraham.
Not only did this mean the inheritance of the Promised Land, but also the gift of promised righteousness. Each male growing up in Israel was marked with this promise: If I have faith like Abraham, I will enjoy the same righteous standing in God’s eyes that Abraham had.
Second, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant obligations. To bear the mark of physical cleansing meant a call to inner cleansing (Deuteronomy 10:16). God chose Abraham for this very purpose: that he would command his household to keep the way of the Lord, to live justly (Genesis 18:19). Just as sure as circumcision was a sign of blessing, it was also a sign of obligation to walk in the footsteps of Abraham, the man of faith and righteousness.
Therefore, the sign of circumcision was not first and foremost pointing to something about the person, but about God’s covenant with that person. God chooses to use physical signs to point us to objective spiritual realities. By “objective” I mean, circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant, not a sign of someone’s inner experience. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant itself (Genesis 17:11), not a sign that each individual with that mark would experience the full benefits of the covenant.
This was important to me because it opened me up to the possibility that our covenant-making God saw baptism the same way. I had come from a tradition that taught baptism was a sign of my faith, but perhaps baptism, instead, is first a sign pointing to the faith. Perhaps baptism is something grander than just a testimony of my commitment to God, but is rather a testimony of God’s covenant commitment to His people.
Stay tuned for more…
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Read all the posts in this series:
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1 Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, 1978
2 Gregg Strawbridge, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, p.176
3 In John Piper’s 1999 sermon, “How Do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond?” Piper responds to a letter he received from a paedobaptist about Romans 4:11. While debating the significance of this text for infant baptism, both he and the paedobaptist agreed: “Circumcision is a sign and seal of a faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised” (italics added). This, I believe, is common misreading of the text.
4 John Calvin uses this same language when explaining Romans 4:11. “Paul expressly argues that Abraham’s circumcision was not for his justification but for the seal of that covenant by faith in which he had already been justified” (Institutes, 4.14.5). Circumcision was a seal to the Jews by which they were assured that faith is counted to them as righteousness (Institutes 4.14.21).