How Do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond?

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "FAITH WAS CREDITED TO ABRAHAM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.

I am going to talk today about the relationship between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. One of the reasons we are called Baptists is that we believe that the New Testament teaches us to baptize believers, but not the infant children of believers.

Some Reasons Baptists Do Not Baptize Infants

There are many reasons for this conviction. Let me mention five that I will pass over quickly so that I can come to the main issue in Romans 4:11, where some of those who believe in infant baptism build their case. I pass over these quickly because I have dealt with them before in the sermon series on baptism in the spring of 1997. You can get those sermons and read them or listen to them.

  1. In every New Testament command and instance of baptism the requirement of faith precedes baptism. So infants incapable of faith are not to be baptized.
  2. There are no explicit instances of infant baptism in all the Bible. In the three "household baptisms" mentioned (household of Lydia, Acts 16:15; household of the Philippian jailer, Acts 16:30–33; household of Stephanus, 1 Corinthians 1:16) no mention is made of infants, and in the case of the Philippian jailer, Luke says explicitly, "they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house" (Acts 16:32), implying that the household who were baptized could understand the Word.
  3. Paul (in Colossians 2:12) explicitly defined baptism as an act done through faith: ". . . having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God." In baptism you were raised up with Christ through faith—your own faith, not your parents' faith. If it is not "through faith"—if it is not an outward expression of inward faith—it is not baptism.
  4. The apostle Peter, in his first letter, defined baptism this way, ". . . not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism is "an appeal to God for a good conscience." It is an outward act and expression of inner confession and prayer to God for cleansing, that the one being baptized does, not his parents.
  5. When the New Testament church debated in Acts 15 whether circumcision should still be required of believers as part of becoming a Christian, it is astonishing that not once in that entire debate did anyone say anything about baptism standing in the place of circumcision. If baptism is the simple replacement of circumcision as a sign of the new covenant, and thus valid for children as well as for adults, as circumcision was, surely this would have been the time to develop the argument and so show that circumcision was no longer necessary. But it is not even mentioned.

Those are some of the reasons why Baptists are hesitant to embrace the more elaborate theological arguments for infant baptism. But now here we are at Romans 4:11 and many of those who baptize infants see in this verse a linchpin for their position. Let me try to show you what they see and then why I am not persuaded.

Why Do Many in the Reformed Tradition Endorse Infant Baptism?

We are dealing here with a great Reformed tradition going back to John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli and other reformers. I do not despise this tradition. And for many years I have tried to be fair with the arguments, especially since most of my heroes are in this camp.

The main reason that this great Reformed tradition endorses the baptism of infants of believers is that there appears to be in the New Testament a correspondence between circumcision and baptism. Just as circumcision was given as a sign to the "children of the covenant" in the Old Testament, so baptism—the new sign of the covenant—should be given to the "children of the covenant" today. For example, in Colossians 2:11–12 there seems to be a connection between circumcision and baptism: "In Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism . . ." So for the sake of the argument, let's grant that there is some correlation between circumcision and baptism.

What are we to make of this correlation? Well, for 400 years a fairly elaborate argument has been made that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant and that it should be applied in the church the way it was applied in Israel, namely, to the children of the covenant members—Israelites then, Christians now. So for example the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (from 350 years ago) says, "The seed and posterity of the faithful born within the church have by their birth an interest [a share] in the covenant and right to the seal of it and to the outward privileges of the church under the gospel, not less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament."

In other words, the children of Christian believers today belong to the visible church by virtue of their birth and should then receive the sign and seal of the covenant just as the eight-day-old infants of Israelites did in the Old Testament. That is the main argument.

Why Is Romans 4:11 the "Linchpin" for Many Who Baptize Infants?

Now what relevance does Romans 4:11 have here? Let me quote from a letter—a very good letter (in spirit and content)—that I received from a defender of infant baptism after I preached my messages on baptism in the spring of 1997. He lamented that I had not dealt with Romans 4:11. Here's why: "For me Romans 4:11 is the 'linchpin' in the doctrine of paedobaptism [infant baptism]. Pull it out, and the whole doctrine falls."

Now what is it that he and others see here that makes this verse so compelling in defense of infant baptism? I'll try to explain. Let's look at the text. In verse 9 Paul reminds us that "Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness." That is, he was justified and got right with God through faith alone. Then verse 10 points out that this happened before Abraham was circumcised. "How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised." The point is that Abraham's justification was not brought about through circumcision, which came later, but through faith alone.

Then comes the crucial verse 11 which functions as a kind of definition of circumcision: "He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised." So Abraham's circumcision is described here as "a sign . . . a seal of the righteousness of faith."

Now why is this important? It's important because it gives a spiritual meaning to circumcision that is like the meaning of baptism in the New Testament—"a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith." We say that baptism is an expression of genuine faith and the right standing with God that we have by faith before we get baptized. This seems to be what circumcision means too, according to Paul in Romans 4:11. Circumcision is a sign and seal of a faith that Abraham had before he was circumcised.

So you see what that means? If circumcision and baptism signify the same thing—namely, genuine faith—then you can't use this meaning of baptism by itself as an argument against baptizing infants, because circumcision was given to infants. In other words, you can't simply say, "Baptism is an expression and sign of faith; infants can't have faith; therefore don't baptize infants." You can't simply say this, because Romans 4:11 says that circumcision means the same thing—a sign of faith—and it was given to infants.

This is why Romans 4:11 is considered by some as the linchpin of the defense of infant baptism. It defines circumcision in a way that gives it the same basic meaning as baptism, and yet we know from Genesis 17 that circumcision was appointed by God for the infants of all Jewish people.

(10) This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. . . . (11) and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. (12) And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. (Genesis 17:10–12)

So, even though circumcision is described by Paul as a sign and seal of Abraham's righteousness of faith, it was to be given to his infant sons, and their sons, and even to their servants who were not Jews by birth.

So, if circumcision can be a sign of faith and righteousness, and still be given to all the male children of the Israelites (who don't yet have faith for themselves), then why should not baptism can be given to the children of Christians even though it is a sign of faith and righteousness (which they don't yet have)?

What Shall We Say to This?

The main problem with this argument is a wrong assumption about the similarity between the people of God in the Old Testament and the people of God today. It assumes that the way God gathered his covenant people, Israel, in the Old Testament and the way he is gathering his covenant people, the Church, today is so similar that the different signs of the covenant (baptism and circumcision) can be administered in the same way to both peoples. This is a mistaken assumption.

There are differences between the new covenant people called the Church and the old covenant people called Israel. And these differences explain why it was fitting to give the old covenant sign of circumcision to the infants of Israel, and why it is not fitting to give the new covenant sign of baptism to the infants of the Church. In other words, even though there is an overlap in meaning between baptism and circumcision (seen in Romans 4:11), circumcision and baptism don't have the same role to play in the covenant people of God because the way God constituted his people in the Old Testament and the way he is constituting the Church today are fundamentally different.

Paul makes this plain in several places. Let's look at two of them. Turn with me to Romans 9:6–8:

(6) But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; (7) nor are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants, but: "through Isaac [not Ishmael] your descendants will be named." (8) That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants.

What's relevant in this text for our purpose is that there were two "Israels": a physical Israel and a spiritual Israel. Verse 6b:"They are not all Israel [i.e., true spiritual Israel] who are descended from Israel [i.e., physical, religious Israel]." Yet God ordained that the whole, larger, physical, religious, national people of Israel be known as his covenant people and receive the sign of the covenant and the outward blessings of the covenant—such as the promised land (Genesis 17:8).

The covenant people in the Old Testament were mixed. They were all physical Israelites who were circumcised, but within that national-ethnic group there was a remnant of the true Israel, the true children of God (verse 8). This is the way God designed it to be: he bound himself by covenant to an ethnic people and their descendants; he gave them all the sign of the covenant, circumcision, but he worked within that ethnic group to call out a true people for himself.

How Is the Church a Continuation of Israel?

Now the question for us is: is the New Testament Church—the Church today—a continuation of the larger mixed group of ethnic, religious, national Israel, or is the Church a continuation of the remnant of the true sons of Abraham who are children of God by faith in Christ? Are we a Spirit-born, new covenant community with the law of God written on our hearts and defined by faith? We don't need to guess at this.

Paul makes the answer clear in Galatians 4:22–28:

(22) For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman [Ishmael, born to Hagar] and one by the free woman [Isaac, born to Sarah]. (23) But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. . . . (28) And you brethren [the Church], like Isaac, are children of promise.

Now who is "you brethren"? They are the Church. The Church is not to be a mixed heritage like Abraham's seed. The Church is not to be like Israel—a physical multitude and in it a small remnant of true saints. The Church is the saints, by definition. The Church continues the remnant. As verse 28 says, the Church is "like Isaac, children of promise."

The people of the covenant in the Old Testament were made up of Israel according to the flesh—an ethnic, national, religious people containing "children of the flesh" and "children of God. "Therefore it was fitting that circumcision was given to all the children of the flesh.

But the people of the new covenant, called the Church of Jesus Christ, is being built in a fundamentally different way. The church is not based on any ethnic, national distinctives but on the reality of faith alone, by grace alone in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not a continuation of Israel as a whole; it is a continuation of the true Israel, the remnant—not the children of the flesh, but the children of promise.

Therefore, it is not fitting that the children born merely according to the flesh receive the sign of the covenant, baptism.

The church is the new covenant community—"This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25)—we say when we take communion. The new covenant is the spiritual work of God to put his Spirit within us, write the law on our hearts, and cause us to walk in his statutes. It is a spiritually authentic community. Unlike the old covenant community it is defined by true spiritual life and faith. Having these things is what it means to belong to the Church. Therefore to give the sign of the covenant, baptism, to those who are merely children of the flesh and who give no evidence of new birth or the presence of the Spirit or the law written on their heart or of vital faith in Christ is to contradict the meaning of the new covenant community and to go backwards in redemptive history.

The Church is not a replay of Israel. It is an advance on Israel. To administer the sign of the covenant as though this advance has not happened is a great mistake. We do not baptize our children according to the flesh, not because we don't love them, but because we want to preserve for them the purity and the power of the spiritual community that God ordained for the believing church of the living Christ.

I pray that you will be persuaded of these things, and that many who have been holding back will be baptized, not to comply with any church constitution, but by faith and obedience to glorify the great new covenant work of God in your life. Have you been washed by the blood of the Lamb? Are your sins forgiven? Have you died with Christ and risen by faith to walk in newness of life? Does the Spirit of Christ dwell in you? Is the law being written on your heart? Come, then, and signify this in baptism, and glorify God's great new covenant work in your life.