Posted by: stpowen | November 2, 2009

Circumcision and Baptism

Before moving on to consider the Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenant, it seems that now might be a sensible time to consider what relationship there might be between the act of circumcision and that of water baptism.

It would be hard to imagine two operations more different than circumcision and baptism.  They don’t sound alike, they don’t look alike and they certainly don’t feel alike.  If someone were to be blindfolded and then had one or other ordinance performed on him, I guarantee that he would be able to tell which one it was!   One was applied only to males in the Bible (Gen 17:10), whereas the other is given to both sexes (cf. Acts 8:12).  One leaves a permanent mark upon the recipient; the other does not.

There are other important differences that need to be spelled out here with reference to infants:-

There is no command in the Bible for infants to receive water baptism.

There is no instance in the Bible of infants being baptized.

There is no reference in the Bible to infants being baptized (1).

Water baptism in the Bible is constantly tied in with repentance, faith and discipleship (eg Matt 3:6, 11; 28:19; Mark 16:16; John 4:1; Acts 2:41; 8:12, 13, 36-37; 16:14-15, 31-34; 1Cor 1:16: compare with 16:15f; Eph 4:5); circumcision is referenced to no one’s faith but Abraham’s- and that to the faith he had while still uncircumcised (Rom 4:8-11).

“Me and my seed” of the Old Testament is replaced by Christ and His seed of the New  (Isaiah 53:10; Heb 2:13. cf. 1Cor 4:15).  This point was not lost on the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith:-

Larger Catechism of the W.C.F.  Q.31.  With whom was the covenant of grace made?  Ans.  The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.

In view of all these facts, paedobaptists tend to make their chief case by claiming that baptism  succedes circumcision and that both signify entry into ‘the Covenant.’  For example, Ralph E. Bass (What about baptism?  Living Hope Press), writes, ‘ The purpose of both [circumcision and baptism] is to identify sharers in the Covenant, and to receive new members into the community of faith.’  Clearly, if it can be shown that baptism is the direct successor to circumcision and that they both signify the same thing, then that would be a powerful  argument for the paedobaptist position.

Now if baptism is indeed the successor to circumcision, we would expect to see this spelled out in Scripture for us, but we do not.  Indeed, there is only one place in the whole Bible where the two ordinances appear together, namely Colossians 2:11-12.  We shall look at these verses presently.  But why does it not come up elsewhere?  Why were the Jews in Acts 2:41 baptized?  If they already had the ‘sign of the covenant,’ why did they need another?  If they were already ‘sharers in the covenant’ and members in the ‘community of faith’ as Bass suggests, why did they need to be brought in again?  Moreover,  it seems to me remarkable that in all the difficulties that the early Church had with the Judaisers, this simple argument was never used.  Why did no one present it at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15?  Why did no one explain that the Gentile Christians had received the ‘covenantal sign’ when they  were baptized and that therefore they didn’t need another?  Likewise in his letter to the Galatians, Paul could have explained the matter very simply: “These men telling you to be circumcised are simply doubling up the covenant signs; you already have the new circumcision in your baptism.”   There is a simple reason for Paul’s silence; circumcision and baptism signify very different things.

We have said earlier (2) that circumcision is never associated with anybody’s faith except Abraham’s.  The reader can trawl all the way through the Old Testament, but he will not find a single example.  The nearest approach is Exodus 12:43-49.  Here we are told that a foreigner wishing to partake of the Passover had to be circumcised along with all his male servants and household before he could do so.  Wishing to partake in a ritual meal is a very long way from expressing saving faith in Jehovah.  Moreover, Naaman the Syrian, who does appear to have been a genuine believer (2Kings 5:15), never sought circumcision, nor was it required of him.  King Nebuchadnezzar made what seems rather like a profession of faith (Dan 3:28f; 4:37), but there is no record of him having been circumcised.  Why not?  Because these two men did not live in Israel, and never desired to share in the Passover meal.

So we can see that physical circumcision post-Abraham never had anything directly to do with faith.  It was given to the physical descendants of Abraham and those who associated themselves with them, whether by becoming servants or taking the Passover.  To be sure, circumcision spoke of the faith of Abraham and of the Seed that should come from him.  As an indelible sign, it would carry on speaking to the one circumcised all his life. This, of course, is in contradistinction to baptism, which leaves no mark and so, unless faith is present, can be swiftly forgotten, or in the case of a child, not ever brought to mind.  But nothing is more clear than that the large majority of the Israelites were devoid of grace and faith.  We are told (Josh 5:5) that the Israelites who left Israel were all circumcised, yet all save two perished in the wilderness.  We are told that, ‘They could not enter in [to Canaan] because of unbelief’ (Heb 3:19).  It was their children, who were left uncircumcised by their parents, who reached the Promised Land.  ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love’ (Gal 5:6).

Ralph Bass, whom I quoted above, gives a number of ‘proof texts’ for his view. He puts together the following two texts:-

“This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male child among you shall be circumcised…. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:10, 14

“Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” Acts 2:41

The reader will quickly spot the flaw in Mr Bass’ argument.  What is missing in the Gen 17 text is any reference to faith.  Also that text is talking about children (and only male children at that), the other about adults.  Moreover, we have seen (3) that circumcision was applied to those who were not in the covenant, therefore it cannot ‘identify sharers in the Covenant,’ or ‘receive new members into the community of faith’.

Let us now consider Jeremiah 31:31ff:-

‘”Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah- not according to the covenant I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a Husband to them, “ says the LORD.  “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the LORD: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.   No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least off them to the greatest of them,” says the LORD.  “For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”’  These verses are of course quoted by the writer to the Hebrews in Heb 8:7-12 and 10:16-17.

The first thing to note is that the new covenant is ‘not according to’ the former one.  It is no use for paedobaptists to declare that the covenants are all one; this text clearly declares that there are at least two and that there are differences between them.  We can list the differences.

1.   The old covenant was broken.  The clear implication of the text is that the new one will not be.  In accordance with this, we read several times in the O.T. of the covenant being broken and Israelites being referred to as covenant-breakers.  No one in the N.T. is ever accused of this (3).  To be sure there are those who appear to be Christians, but then fall away, but they are not called covenant-breakers; rather they were never in the covenant at all, but instead are those whom have ‘crept into [the churches] unnoticed’ (Jude 4) but are never truly part of them (cf. Matt 7:21-23; Acts 8:20-23; 1John 2:19).   Christ tells such people, “I never knew you!”  He doesn’t say, “I knew you once and had you in my covenant and then forgot about you.”

2. In the new covenant, the law is written on the hearts and minds of those who are in it.  Clearly there were those under the old covenant of whom this was true (eg. Ezra 7:10), but it is evident that for most of Israel’s history, the large majority of her people were devoid of grace (cf. eg. Isaiah 1; Jer 5).

3. No one in the new covenant needs to taught to know the Lord, for they all know him.  That does not mean that they may not need to know Him better or more clearly, but there is no one in the new covenant who does not know Him to some extent.   This is borne out by such texts as 1Cor 1:2-9.  Paul is writing to those who are ‘Sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.’  If there is anyone in the Corinthian church of whom that is not true, Paul isn’t writing to him.  Again, in 1John 2:20, Christians are told, ‘But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things.’  Whom is John addressing?  Christians; everyone to whom he is writing.

4. Those who are in the New Covenant have their sins forgiven.  It is clear that neither those whom paedobaptists describe as being ‘under’ the Abrahamic Covenant, nor those in the Sinaitic Covenant had such forgiveness (cf. Gen 38:7;  2Chron 7:19f).

The response from paedobaptists is to say that the promises of Jer 31:31 are not to be realised until the return of Christ.  This is, for example, the position of Richard Pratt Jnr (4).  It is true to say that the promises given in Jeremiah 31 point to what was then a future date, and there is nothing there to say when the fulfilment will be.  However, when we come to the quotations of the verses in Hebrews 8 and 10, it is clear that the fulfilment was actually present at the time of writing.

For example, Heb 8:6 tells us that the new covenant has already been established:  ‘…….Inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.’  The word which the NKJV translates as ‘was established’ is nenomothetetai.  The tense is  perfect passive, indicating a completed action;  ‘has been established’ might be the best rendering.  What in Jeremiah’s time were promises had, in the First Century, been enacted once for all.  Also in Heb 10:11-18, the fulfilment of the new covenant is present throughout.  For example, consider vs17-18.  ‘….Then He adds, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”  For where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.’  He does not say,  ‘when there will be remission’  for the offering for sin was given once and for all by our Saviour on the cross.  Forgiveness of sins is a present reality for those in the new covenant.  If therefore the old covenant is indeed, ‘not according to’ the new in so many ways, then it seems fair to say that circumcision, the sign of the old covenant is ‘not according to’ baptism, the ordinance of the new covenant.

We should now look at what the Westminster Confesssion has to say on this matter.  In Chapter XXVIII (‘Of Baptism’) we read that baptism is, ‘unto [Christians] a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.’  The proof text given is Romans 4:11 which, of course, does not speak of baptism, but of circumcision.  What is meant here by ‘seal’?  A seal is a guarantee of genuineness.  One may buy jars of pickles or condiments on which is written, ‘None genuine without this seal.’  The seal is an assurance to the buyer that the contents on the jar were produced by the company whose name is on it, and that they have not been tampered with.  In Britain, before a law can come into force it must receive the ‘Royal Assent’ which is given when the royal seal is placed upon the law.  This is the sign that it really is the law of the land (cf. Esther 3:12).

Nowhere in the Bible is it said that baptism is the seal of anything, and nowhere is it said that circumcision is the seal of anything to anyone save Abraham.  What Rom 4:11 says is that Abraham’s circumcision was the seal, not of his faith, but of the righteousness of his faith; that is, that his faith (which he had before he was circumcised) was indeed counted for righteousness (Gen 15:6).  It was not that to anyone else but Abraham.  How could circumcision be that seal to an eight day-old baby?  Nor is baptism a seal, either to an infant or an adult.  The Holy Spirit is the seal of the righteousness of our faith (Eph 1:13; 2Cor 1:22).  ‘The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom 8:16).

Now at last we can come to consider Col 2:11-12.  ‘In [Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ; buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.’

Does this text say that baptism is the successor to circumcision?  Not at all!  We can do no better here than to quote A. W. Pink (5).

It is a mistake to suppose that baptism has come in the place of circumcision.  As that which supplanted the Old Testament sacrifices was the one offering of the Saviour, as that which superseded the Aaronic priesthood was the high priesthood of Christ, so that which has succeeded circumcision is the spiritual circumcision which believers have in and by Christ:  “In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” (Col 2:11)- how simple!  How satisfying!  “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him” (v12) is something additional:  it is only wresting Scripture to say these two verses mean “Being buried with him in baptism, ye are circumcised.”  No, no:  verse 11 declares the Christian circumcision is “made without hands,” and baptism is administered by hands!  The circumcision “made without hands in putting off [judicially, before God] the body of the sins of the flesh” has taken the place of the circumcision made with hands.  The circumcision of Christ has come in the place of the circumcision of the law.  Never once in the New Testament is baptism spoken of as the seal of the new covenant; rather is the Holy Spirit the seal:  see Ephesians 1:13; 4:30.’

Exactly so.  The main argument of Colossians is that believers are complete in Christ (2:10).  The O.T. contains several exhortations to the Israelites to circumcise their hearts (eg. Deut 10:16; Lev 26:41-2; Jer 4:4. cf. 9:25-6; Rom 2:28-9), but Christians are never urged to baptize themselves in the Spirit.  This is because circumcision was applied to infants who were ‘brought forth in iniquity and conceived in sin’ (Psalm 51:5) and was therefore of no effect unless a changed heart came later.  Baptism, by contrast was given to those whose heart had already been changed, enabling them to repent and trust in Christ (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:41; 8:12; 16:14), so that they needed nothing more.

What then is the purpose of circumcision?  Why did God institute it?  Briefly, it is the sign for the physical descendants of Abraham.  It is the mark that God selected to distinguish them from all other peoples as the nation from which the Messiah should come.  It was, or should have been, a reminder to the Israelites that from their midst the Saviour should come.  Baptism by contrast is the sign for the ‘children of promise’ (Gal 4:28), the spiritual descendants of Abraham.  It speaks to the one baptized of his engrafting into Christ and his enrolment among the people of God.  It symbolizes his dying to sin with Christ and rising to new life.  

So one was brought into the old covenant by one’s first birth, and received the sign shortly thereafter. One is brought into the new covenant by the second birth, regeneration.  The sign should follow as soon as that birth becomes apparent.  Of course, mistakes are made and unregenerate people are baptized.  This is regrettable, but also inevitable; we are not infallible judges in this matter.  It happened in the time of the Apostles, and the words of Peter to Simon Magus apply.  “You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:8:21).  Simon was not a covenant breaker, he was never in the covenant and the same applies to unregenerate people who are baptized today.   Baptism is the sign of the new covenant, but not the seal which is the Holy Spirit.  ‘None genuine without this seal.’  Does this invalidate Believers’ Baptism?  Not in the slightest.   ‘But when they believed……… both men and women were baptized’ (Acts 8:12).  That is the Biblical example and that is what should be followed.

We conclude therefore, that circumcision and baptism are two separate ordinances symbolizing different things and that they should not be confused or conflated.


(1)  Paedobaptists sometimes point to 1Corinthians 10:1-2 and claim that it proves that infants were baptized.  Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but even if we allow it, it has no reference to Christian baptism since it is ‘into Moses.’

(2) In a prevous posting.

(3)  We might think of Heb 10:28.  ‘Of how much worse punishment do you suppose will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace.’  Now the question here is, for whom did Christ die?  Did our Lord shed His blood for those who would count that very blood a common thing?  Of course not!  He laid down His life for the sheep, not the goats (John 10:11).  The ‘He’ in Heb 10:23 refers to Christ Himself, the ‘Son of God’ who is the nearest antecedent.  ‘And for their sakes I sanctify myself’ (John 17:19).

(4) Richard L. Pratt Jnr., “Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,”  The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (P & R Publishing, 2003).

(5) A. W. Pink, The Divine Covenants (Pietan Publications).



  1. Looking good! Dr PM did a 50 minute bible study last week entitled ‘The Covenants’, and made a fair job of presenting BCT in such a short span, quite comprehensible to beginners as well.

  2. “If someone were to be blindfolded and then had one or other ordinance performed on him, I guarantee that he would be able to tell which one it was!”  

    Hahaha … you’re too much Steve! :ob

    Jonathan, I had a bit more thought on PM’s “The Covenants” video that I bought at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and read his article. What are your thoughts of Rich Barcellos’ article concerning the Mosiac Covenant, where he explains Owen’s view of the Covenants, which some have argued is a more balanced view of BCT. According to Barcellos, the mosaic covenant is neither viewed by Owen as the CovOfGrace, nor the the CovOfWorks. Thoughts?

  3. A couple quick comments: the opening comments on the Mosaic or Sinaitic covenant; circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic covenant, not the Mosaic. Toward the end of the article you referred to baptism as a sign of the new covenant. Nowhere in the New Testament is baptism called the signing of the new covenant. This is a major error that Schreiner and Wright made in their book, “Believer’s Baptism.” Covenant theology holds that baptism in the New Testamentis this sign of the Abrahamic covenant just as circumcision was in the Old Testament.

  4. I think that in the light of Lev 12:3, Acts 15:1 etc you have a struggle to say that circumcision was not a sign for the Mosaic Covenant just as it was for the covenant with Abraham.

    You are right that baptism is not described in the Bible as the sign of the New Covenant, but it is an ordinance of Christ and it is surely not without significance. See WCF XXVIII and 1689 LCF XXIX [see also WCF Larger Catechism, Q. 165]. But where on earth do you get the idea that baptism is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant? Abraham never baptized anyone! I’m afraid this sounds like a Just So Story produced by Presbyterians.

  5. Congratulations, Steve! I have emailed material to 2,000 Baptist seminary professors as well as pastors and you are the first one to refer to Scripture in order to connect circumcision to the Mosaic covenant.
    That being said, though, as a paedo-baptist I don’t see eye to eye with you. Lev. 12 is in fact an instance of circumcision being referred to in the middle of laws given by Moses. But I think that is where it ends. In Gen. 17:11 Scripture explicitly calls circumcision the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis circumcision was established as a specific rite for the descendants of Abraham and at later points in time such as Lev. 12 it was fit into other practices etc. But it is never referred to as a sign of the Mosaic covenant nor is it said to be redefined as a practice relative to the Mosaic covenant. It was first of all the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and it always remained that.

    Where do I get the idea that baptism later became the sign of the Abrahamic covenant? I need to send you a copy of a paper. It goes into evidence that the Abrahamic covenant does exist in New Testament times, baptism and circumcision have the same meaning and the same function and that Col. 2:11-12 equate the two. It is impossible to cover all that needs to be covered in a brief post here, but I do hope to dialogue with you more through that paper.

  6. Thanks Herb,
    I’ll wait with interest to see your paper. Until I read it, I can’t really see what you’re driving at. Who denies that circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham? But circumcision is also very closely related to the Mosaic Covenant. It was a condition of partaking of the Passover (Exod 12:43-48). It is also very clearly seen by Paul as being part- indeed, the epitome- of the Mosaic law (eg. Gal 5:2-6).

    You also need to take into account that circumcision is never ever mentioned in respect of anybody’s faith but Abraham’s. May I suggest that you also glance at my articles on the other covenants? I think you may find them helpful in understanding my position.

  7. Steve, did you ever get/read Herb’s miracle paper?

  8. A bit late here, but only shortly after Jonathan.

    Circumcision was and is the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, which is still in operation. Circumcision since Christ has been explicitly of the heart (Romans 2). Baptism is the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that Paul speaks of in Galatians 3, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Even the Old Testament speaks of the need to “circumcise the foreskins of your heart and be no longer stubborn.” So baptism does not replace circumcision, it supplements it. Abraham was commanded to circumcise his household (not just children – every male, slaves, servants, etc.) as a sign of the covenant WITH ABRAHAM. A continual reminder to the Jews of God’s covenant WITH ABRAHAM, which they too could enjoy the privileges of if they repented and believed. Unbelieving Jews were cut out of the Abrahamic olive tree, believing Gentiles grafted in, but received spiritual circumcision, the new birth. Paedobaptism is an attempt, often sentimental, to bring unbelievers intp the church where they don’t belong.

  9. Hello Jonathan,
    I did indeed. Herb sent me a load of stuff which I critiqued. You can read some of it here
    although I’m not sure that he has included it all.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Dr James. I believe that the Abrahamic Covenant is now subsumed into the New Covenant, but other than that I can agree with what you’ve written.

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