When I first started interacting with more paedobaptists, their argument about circumcision and baptism seemed clear enough. God told Abraham that all his male descendants should be marked with circumcision as a sign that they were members of the covenant community. Knowing this, is there any corresponding mark that members of the new covenant community have? Yes, baptism. Just as God commanded adult covenant members to circumcise themselves and their children, so God must want Christian converts to do the same for their households.
But does baptism really replace circumcision? This was one of my questions about infant baptism. The New Testament never directly says that baptism replaces circumcision. The absence of any clear statement is startling.
In all the controversies among the first generation Christians that raged around the subject of circumcision, at no point does Peter, Paul, or any other apostle try to alleviate the problem by saying, “The reason you shouldn’t be circumcised is because baptism now replaces it.” For instance, in Acts 15 when the apostles and elders met in Jerusalem to settle the question about Gentiles being circumcised, at no point did the subject of baptism arise. If baptism really had replaced circumcision, wouldn’t this argument have silenced the Judaizers?
Baptism and Circumcision: Signs of Cleansing and Consecration
First, it is important to note that there are some direct correlations between circumcision and baptism. These correlations are so strong, even some Baptist theologians have agreed with paedobaptists that the connections are significant.
1. Circumcision and baptism are both signs of cleansing. In a previous post I detailed how circumcision symbolized cutting away “the foreskin of the heart.” Circumcision is a symbol of righteousness. Furthermore, it did not merely remind men to personally cleanse themselves of sin, but it reminded Abraham’s children of the promise of “credited righteousness.” Paul says circumcision was a sign and seal of God’s promise to Abraham and his family of justification by faith. Just as Abraham was justified in the eyes of God on the basis of faith, so all males in his family were marked with a sign reminding them and confirming to them the same promise of righteousness: if they had the faith of Abraham, they too would be reckoned as righteous.
Like circumcision, baptism is also a symbol of cleansing and justification. Ananias’ call to Paul was “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Baptism symbolizes the promise of washing and renewal. But it is more than this. Later, the same Paul would write to the Corinthians, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Note the echoes to the baptismal formula here—washing by the Spirit in the name of Christ—and all of this tied to justification in God’s eyes.
2. Circumcision and baptism are both signs of consecration. In the same post I also mentioned how circumcision was God’s way of consecrating Abraham to himself, God’s way of marking Abraham with his covenant. It was Abraham’s duty to keep this sacred covenant. He was “sealed” by God with a mark of ownership, obliged to recognize God’s authority and obey His will.
Similarly, baptism is also a sign of consecration. When God gave the disciples the Great Commission, Jesus says all authority in heaven and earth had been given to Him, so as they make disciples among the nations they should teach them to obey everything Jesus commands, and they should all be baptized (Matthew 28:18-20).
For these reasons, baptism serves as an appropriate counterpart to circumcision for the new covenant. Baptism is a sign of cleansing and consecration, and like circumcision, it was a sign of connection to Abraham’s covenant. Again Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:27,29).
The Passing of Circumcision
All this said about the connections between circumcision and baptism, why is circumcision no longer used among the people of God? Why does God no longer require it? Why change what had been established since the days of Abraham and require a different sign?
There are unique features that made circumcision no longer a fitting sign for the new covenant.
1. Circumcision is no longer required because it is a symbol of commitment to the covenant of Moses.
Circumcision was not merely a mark of Abraham’s covenant. Under Moses, God added that circumcision was a requirement to partake in the yearly celebration of Passover (Exodus 12:43-49). Levitical law required all male children to be circumcised on the eighth day (Leviticus 12:3).
As more and more Gentiles flooded into the church, a controversy arose. Should they be required to undergo circumcision? But this was not merely a question about foreskin; it was about conformity to the Mosaic law. “But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses‘” (Acts 15:5). Paul also clarifies for us that this is the crux of the problem: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). The Judaizers were insisting on obedience to the Mosaic covenant, and this is what circumcision signified to them.
Paul stands out in the early church as a shining example of why circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic law were rejected. He too had been dedicated to the law since he was young: a true Israelite by birth, circumcised the eighth day, raised in a Hebrew home, belonging to the party of the Pharisees, and blameless when it came to obedience (Philippians 3:5-6). But when he met Christ, he considered his spiritual resume worthless next to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ and being “in him.” He no longer wanted a righteousness of his own depending on the law, but a righteousness coming from faith in Christ (3:8-10).
Paul said he and other Christians were now “the true circumcision,” people who put no more confidence in the flesh (3:3). They were not like those “mutilators of the flesh,” men who cut their foreskin in order to be holy (3:2). A true Jews, says Paul, is one inwardly: “circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). The real problem with circumcision was that it was a part of an old system where people served God by the letter of the law (Romans 7:6; 2 Corinthians 3:6). What counts, says Paul, is not circumcision or uncircumcision, but “only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6); what matters is “a new creation” (Galatians 6:15), being in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Circumcision was no longer a fitting symbol because it was connected to serving God by way of the Mosaic covenant.
2. Circumcision is no longer required because it symbolizes a curse, and Christ has become that curse on our behalf.
When God made the covenant of circumcision with Abraham, he followed the pattern of many covenant treaties common in Abraham’s day. Covenants were ratified between two parties by way of ceremonies. During these ceremonies each party would take an oath, binding them to the new special relationship. Every covenant contract had explicit blessings and curses—blessings for honoring the relationship, curses for breaking the covenant terms—but during covenant ceremonies it was customary that the curses that were recited. Usually these curses were also symbolically represented in some fashion.
In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham the covenant obligations, blessings, and curses, but then he gives him the sign of circumcision as a way to highlight the curse of the covenant. In v.14 God tells Abraham, “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.” The cutting of the foreskin symbolized the potential curse: being “cut off” from God’s people.
This phrase, “cut off,” is repeated time and time again in the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 12:15,19; 30:33; 31:14; Leviticus 7:21,25,27; 17:4,9,10; 18:29; 19:8; 20:3,5,6,17,18; 23:29; Number 9:13; 15:30,31; 19:13,20). This was an ultimate judgment of banishment and death for disobedience. No longer would they experience the covenant blessing of God shining His face upon them (Numbers 6:22-27), but rather His face would be set against them (Leviticus 17:10; 20:3,5,6).
But when the Messiah came, he was “cut off” on our behalf (Daniel 9:26). Jesus experienced the hell of God forsakenness on the cross (Matthew 22:46).
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul addresses the subject of God’s curse: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14). Notice, Paul mentions both covenant curses and blessings here, but he says Jesus had become the curse for us on the cross. Why? So that the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant could be given to us.
This is another reason why circumcision is no longer required: it symbolizes a curse that has already been taken on our behalf. To go back to cutting off foreskin is to deny the redemptive significance of Jesus being cut off in our place.
3. Circumcision anticipated the promised seed, and Christ is the fulfillment of that promise.
Early in Abraham’s journey God promised to give Abraham offspring (Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 24:7). Not only would Abraham have children of his own, but eventually his family would grow and bring a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3). God changes his name from Abram, meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude,” and then He promises, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations” (17:6). It is directly after this that the covenant of circumcision is given, a mark on Abraham’s penis reminding him of the promised seed.
After the coming of Christ, Paul reveals to us the fullest meaning of this promise. “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say ‘and to seeds,’ as though referring to many, but referring to one, ‘and to your seed,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Christ is the fulfillment of this promise: he is the ultimate seed of Abraham who inherits the blessings of Abraham’s covenant and then shares them with all united to Him.
John Calvin rightly sees the connection here, saying circumcision was a reminder to Abraham of the promise given of the blessed seed in which all the nations of the earth, including Israel, would be blessed, and that the saving seed was Christ.1 This is one reason why circumcision is no longer required in the new covenant: the promised seed has finally come. As Calvin says, “the former [sacraments] only foreshadowed God’s grace, but the latter give it as a present reality.”2
From these three observations, we can see why the ritual baptism is a fitting counterpart to circumcision, offering a parallel meaning for those in the new covenant.
- Unlike circumcision, baptism is not an expression of living under the law of Moses, but is rather an expression of living under the law of Christ, being his disciple (Matthew 28:18-20).
- Unlike circumcision, baptism does not symbolize a potential curse but a promised blessing of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38).
- Unlike circumcision, baptism is not a sign that anticipates the coming of Christ, but a sign that points back to the finished work of Christ (Romans 6:4).
Special Focus on Colossians 2:11-12
Inevitably, Colossians 2:11-12 becomes a pivotal text when discussing infant baptism because it is the one place in the New Testament where the concepts of circumcision and baptism are spoken about in the same breath. The text states, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
First, note Paul does not say in this passage, “Baptism replaces circumcision.” If that were the case, there would be little room for debate about this. But it’s what he does say that helps us see the connection between the two.
Paul’s expression in v.11-12 are a continuation of the sentence begun in v.9. The main verb is found in v.11, “you were circumcised,” and v.12 is a series of participial phrases related to this main verb. Thus, v.12 is an explanation of how the Colossians were circumcised.
The context helps us to grasp the significance of what Paul is saying. Doctrinal error had crept into the church at Colossae. While there is debate about the exact nature of the heresy, most commentators agree that there were Jewish elements in these false teachings. The heretical teachers, more than likely, were teaching the Colossian Christians that they needed to be circumcised.
Paul’s letter was written, in part, to equip the Colossians to combat the apparent attractiveness of these false teachings. To do this, Paul tells the Colossians that they have already been circumcised in a certain sense: not physically, but a circumcision “made without hands.” John Calvin captures the force of Paul’s argument very well: “These teachers (he says) urge you to have your bodies circumcised. Yet you have been spiritual circumcised both in soul and body. You therefore have a revelation of the reality, which is far better than the shadow.”3
Paul explains, the Colossian’s circumcision was inward, not outward. It was a “putting off the body of the flesh,” that is, a cleansing from sin. This happened when they were “buried with [Christ]” and “raised with him.” This vital union with Christ in his death and resurrection happened when they were converted, when they put “faith in the powerful working of God” who raised Jesus from the dead. Spiritual union with Christ is what effects this inward circumcision.
Significantly, Paul says this burial with Christ happened “in baptism.”
Note the strong connections between the meaning of circumcision and the meaning of baptism. Calvin writes, “What do these words mean, except that the fulfillment and truth of baptism are also the truth and fulfillment of circumcision, since they signify one and the same thing? For he is striving to demonstrate that baptism is for the Christian what circumcision previously was for the Jews.”4 Echoing this same sentiment, Sinclair Ferguson states, “[W]hatever the exegetical intricacies of Colossians 2:8-12, no reading of the passage ‘works’ unless it recognizes that both circumcision and baptism point to one and the same reality.”5
Putting it All Together
Paul Jewett, in his thorough antipaedobaptist polemic, even admits, “Circumcision may fairly be said to be the Old Testament counterpart of Christian Baptism. So far the Reformed argument, in our judgment, is biblical. In this sense, baptism, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, ‘occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament.’”6
Doing away with circumcision was a significant change for God’s people, brought on by no less a significant event than the coming of Christ. With his coming, the sign of covenant cleansing and consecration changed.
As I studied more on the subject of infant baptism I began to open myself up to the possibility that since babies were circumcised in the old covenant, so babies should be baptized in the new.
- Just as circumcision was a call to personal righteousness to the child growing up in Abraham’s home, so might baptism be for the child growing up in mine.
- Just as circumcision was a mark proclaiming God’s promise of justification for the child in Israel who had faith like Abraham, so might baptism be for my child who grows up being nurtured by stories of God’s great faithfulness.
- Just as circumcision was a mark that consecrated Abraham’s children, obligating them to obey God, so baptism might be for my kids as they grow up from the beginning learning to be a disciple of Christ.
- Just as circumcision reminded every generation in Israel about the promised seed, so perhaps baptism is a reminder to each new Christian generation of the Messiah’s finished work.
While none of this goes to “prove” infant baptism, these parallels between circumcision and baptism helped to clear the way for embracing it later on.
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Read all the posts in this series:
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1 Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.21
2 Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.23
3 Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.24
4 Calvin, Institutes, 4.16.11
5 David F. Wright, Baptism: Three Views, p.134
6 Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, 1978, p.89