In our first post, we looked at how the apostles and disciples of our Lord understood His instructions in the Great Commission. We looked at the several examples of baptism in the NT and saw in each case that faith preceded baptism and that there was no evidence that children or infants were baptized. Then we looked at “household” baptism and concluded that there is no reason to believe that, even if there were infants or children in a particular household, the apostles would have baptized them. We finished with Acts 2:39, For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar, as many as the Lord our God shall call (NKJV, and everywhere, unless otherwise noted). Since Peter was addressing a Jewish audience at the time, this brings us to our next point.
– What was Circumcision?
One of the main arguments for infant baptism comes from the Reformed identification of the Old Testament nation of Israel with the New Testament church. In his book, “The Glorious Body of Christ,” p. 23, R. B. Kuiper says, “…the church of the new dispensation is the continuation of the church of the old dispensation.” On p. 201, he says, “In the old dispensation God instituted two sacraments, circumcision and the Passover. In the new dispensation, the Lord Jesus Christ substituted baptism for circumcision and holy communion for the Passover.”
As a result of this view, we read the following: “Children were admitted into the Old Testament church by a formal ordinance, from the time of Abraham downward. That ordinance was circumcision,” J. C. Ryle, “Knots Untied,” p, 80 (emphasis his). On the same page he says, “Now, if children were considered to be capable of admission into the church by an ordinance in the Old Testament, it is difficult to see why they cannot be admitted in the New. The general tendency of the Gospel is to increase spiritual privileges and not to diminish them.” However, as we shall see, inclusion in the nation of Israel (the “church” was unknown in the OT. It simply introduces confusion into the issue to say that Israel was a “church.”), inclusion in the nation of Israel wasn’t necessarily “spiritual” at all. It was genealogical and natural. Many Jews were lost, circumcision notwithstanding.
What was circumcision to the OT Jew?
There are about 40 references to circumcision in the Bible. In Genesis 17 it was given to Abraham as a physical sign of the covenant already given to him and to his descendants in Genesis 15. However, even though all the males in his household were circumcised, Genesis 17:23-27, the covenant itself was established with Isaac, 17:21, “…in Isaac shall your seed be called,” Genesis 21:12. This reminds us of Peter’s statement in Acts 2:39, “…even as many as the Lord our God shall call. Beyond being part of a godly household, circumcision was of no benefit whatever to Ishmael, the sons of Keturah later on, or others who weren’t descendants of Isaac. Of Isaac’s sons, Jacob was favored and Esau was rejected, Genesis 25:23. In time, Jacob’s twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel. The twelve tribes were formed into a nation at Mt. Sinai, where circumcision was incorporated into the Mosaic Covenant, Exodus 12:44, 48; Leviticus 12:3.
Circumcision was solemnly enjoined and strictly enforced, Genesis 17:4. Moses himself found this out the hard way, Exodus 4:24-26.
What, then, was circumcision? Reformed folks like to call it “a sign and seal of the covenant.” Referring both to the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Small says, “Primarily, then, the function of sacraments as expressed by the words ‘sign’ and ‘seal,’ is to signify and certify a relationship,” p. 71. However, circumcision itself did not “signify and certify” that relationship. We see this in Ezra 2:62, 63 and Nehemiah 7:64, 65, in the case of several men who were barred from the priesthood, not because they were not circumcised, but because they had no genealogical evidence of their descent from Aaron. Though this was a case of inclusion or not in the priesthood, it’s the same for the nation. In other words, “membership” in the “covenant community,” or nation, was obtained by being born into it, not by being circumcised. Circumcision simply testified to the fact of that birth. We’ve already seen in the cases of Ishmael, Esau and the sons of Keturah, that they were circumcised, indeed, were the physical children of Abraham or Isaac, yet had no place in the covenant or “the covenant community.”
Paul tells us clearly what circumcision was a “sign” of in Romans 4:9-11. After referring to the blessing of justification, that is, of one being declared righteous in God’s sight, Paul continued, Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised…. (emphasis added).
Circumcision wasn’t just a “seal, or sign, of the covenant,” Genesis 17, but of faith. Without Abraham’s faith, there wouldn’t have been a covenant. Likewise, baptism is to be a sign of faith, not of some relationship to the church. Without faith in the individual, baptism has no meaning at all.
In the Old Testament, circumcision wasn’t just about something done to 8-day old male children. It was never considered as an end in itself. It was intended as the object lesson of a profound spiritual truth. Moses declared this at the outset of his instructions to Israel. In Deuteronomy 10:16, after declaring God’s specific love for “the fathers,” he said, “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart and be no more stiff-necked.”
In other words, they weren’t to be content with a mere physical ceremony or to presume on mere physical descent. There had to be something on the inside as well. David later recognized the truth of this when he wrote Psalm 51:6, his own great repentant confession of sin: Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts.
For all that, Moses recognized that the people would never take his admonitions seriously. He never addressed them with any idea that they would actually obey what God said through him, but that they would continue to be rebellious. In Deuteronomy 31:27, he said, “for I know your rebellion and your stiff neck. If today, while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD, then how much more after my death?” God concurred with this assessment, “…for I know the inclination of their behavior today, even before I have brought them to the land of which I swore to give them,” Deuteronomy 31:21.
This melancholy refrain continues throughout the Old Testament. Ezekiel admonished Israel, “…O house of Israel, let us have no more of all your abominations, when you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary, to defile it…. Also see Jeremiah 9:25, 26. Both of these passages correlate the circumcision of the heart and of the flesh. The outward “sign” was meant to be indicative of an inward work, not done by or to the Israelite, but in him.
Nothing changed in the New Testament. Addressing the Sanhedrin, Stephen called them,“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,” Acts 7:51. The Reformation Study Bible has this note: “These metaphors are Old Testament figures meaning spiritually stubborn and unregenerate” (p. 1571). Indeed, Israel’s unregenerate condition, as shown in their representatives, was the underlying reason they crucified their Messiah.
– Circumcision and Baptism: Are OT symbols replaced by NT symbols?
Is the Reformed view Scriptural? We quote Kuiper again: “In the new dispensation the Lord Jesus Christ substituted baptism for circumcision and holy communion for Passover.” Did He? Did He just replace one symbol with another?
The New Testament teaches that OT symbols were not simply exchanged for new symbols, but were fulfilled by the realities they foreshadowed. This is clearly seen in the Passover. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul wrote, …For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. The Passover wasn’t replaced by another symbol of the death of Christ, but by the death of Christ itself. Our Lord has imbued the elements of the Lord’s Supper, the fruit of the vine and the bread, with sublime meaning far greater than mere symbolism. They are memorials, reminding us that Christ has died, that His was a real body that hung on a Cross, and it was real human blood that He shed in payment for our sins. You may argue that I’m quibbling about words, and perhaps I am, but we offer no “symbolic” death of Christ when we observe the Lord’s Supper. There is no blasphemous “unbloody sacrifice,” as if something more than the actual sacrifice of Christ were necessary. The Lord’s Supper portrays the glad reality that the Cross is empty, which seems to have escaped those who picture Him as still on it, and so is the tomb in which He was buried, for our Lord told us to observe His death until He comes back. He can’t do this if He’s still dead.
In partaking of the Supper, we confess that it is only through His death and payment for sin that we have forgiveness. Further, it is implicit that it’s only through Him that we have everything we need if we are to stand in God’s presence uncondemned. One of the terms for this is “justification,” a theme along with some others that Paul develops fully in Romans 1:18-8:39. We’ve just touched it lightly here. Christ rose from the dead because death had no claim on Him. Death had no claim on Him because sin has no place in Him. It was “our” sins for which He died, not His own. Sin no longer has any claim on us, either, if we are His. The Resurrection was God’s testimony to the sinlessness of Christ. The Resurrection was also the receipt, if you will, for the redemption that was purchased for the sons and daughters of men. (I find it telling that the word processing program I use didn’t know either “uncondemned” or “sinlessness.”) The Lord’s Supper tells us, “It has been finished!” By faith, we rejoice in this as we observe communion.
As for circumcision, the Old Testament connects physical circumcision with the circumcision “of the heart,” that is, of regeneration. Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote to Titus, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5. In Galatians 6:15, Paul dismissed circumcision as having no meaning at all for the Christian: …in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. He describes this “new creation” in these words: In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh… Colossians 2:11. “Made without hands,” either ours or the action of some official with a drop or two of water, or even of full immersion if we’re adult. It’s a matter of obedience, not salvation.
If in the Lord’s Supper we testify that “it is finished,” then in believer’s baptism we testify, in effect, that “it has begun.” That is, the work of salvation, the work of the Holy Spirit, has begun in us, as evidenced by our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, faith which we already have, not “faith” which may be ours some day.
Here is the real difficulty we have with infant baptism. Charles Hodge wrote the following in his Systematic Theology, III, p. 588: “…those parents sin grievously against the souls of their little children who neglect to consecrate them to God in the ordinance of baptism. Do let the little ones have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life, even if they afterwards choose to erase them. Being thus enrolled may be the means of their salvation” (emphasis added). In “Baptism Not for Infants,” T. E. Watson responds to this assertion, “This is astounding. Is Hodge serious? Does he really believe that the Lamb’s book of life is, as it were, a heavenly baptismal role [sic]?” p. 77. As a Baptist who mainly agrees with the Reformed view of salvation in the doctrines of grace, though not a Reformed Baptist, I find it incredible that Hodge could even think of such a thing. The only verse in the Bible which refers to names being written in the Lamb’s book of life says that they were written there from the foundation of the world, Revelation 17:8. I’m afraid Hodge’s statement is on a par with the radio preacher years ago who informed us (and it was “confirmed by a brother” – his words) that the last page of the Lamb’s book of life was beginning to be filled in. * sigh * However, according to the inspired apostle, the pages have already been filled in!
Finally, there is a statement by Dr. Norman Shepherd, Chairman of the Department of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, “Baptism rather than regeneration is the point of transition from lostness in death to salvation in life” (As quoted in “The Banner of Truth Magazine,” Issue 166-167, p. 60, italics added). In addition, there is the note in the Reformation Study Bible on Colossians 2:11: “Baptism is ‘the circumcision of Christ,’ and it signifies the washing away of sin, personal renewal by the Spirit of God, and membership in the body of Christ” (p. 1730). We cannot at all agree with Dr. Shepherd and even if the RSB statement is true for the believer, who, as we’ve seen, is the only suitable New Testament candidate for baptism, it certainly is not true for an unaware infant with a drop or two of water on its forehead.
Next: Israel, the Church and the Covenants.