In the Old Testament circumcision was the sacrament of initiation and reception into the covenant community. Circumcision defined the covenant community; it was the sign and seal of covenant membership. In this article, I will argue that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sacrament of initiation and reception into the covenant community. Just like circumcision was applied to the male children born in this community, likewise baptism should be applied to all the children born in the new covenant community, the church.
In order for this to be true, there are at least two points that must be demonstrated from the Scriptures. First, it must be demonstrated that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant. Circumcision had its beginning in the formal establishment of the Abrahamic covenant. If the structure associated with the Abrahamic covenant continues at some level into the new covenant, then it is necessary that we establish a relationship between the two covenants. Second, it is necessary to demonstrate from the Bible that there is a relationship between circumcision and baptism.
If these two premises can be established from Scriptures, then there should be no doubt that the baptism of children born in the church is biblical unless the Bible explicitly forbids such a practice. This is very compelling if you understand that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic.
The New Covenant As Fulfillment of the Old
In Galatians 3:6-9, Paul writes: “Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (emphasis added).
If we had no other Scripture to support the thesis that the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic we would need to go no further. This passage provides us with all the biblical evidence that we need to establish the connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant. For example: God, “...announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.” In addition to this Paul, says, “...those who believe are children of Abraham. So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” This is all the evidence that we need to demonstrate the connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant.
Paul goes on to write in Galatians 3:14-16 “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. Let me take an example from everyday. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.”
In this passage Paul states explicitly that just as a human covenant can not be set aside or added to, so it is with the covenant that God established with Abraham. The promise established with Abraham is eternal, it is fulfilled in Christ, through the church.
Modern day dispensationalists believe that the Abrahamic covenant is eternal as well, but they reject the idea that the Abrahamic covenant is fulfilled through the new covenant. Since they reject this idea, they also reject the idea that baptism has replaced circumcision.
From Paul’s teaching it should be explicit that the promise made to Abraham is realized through Jesus Christ and the new covenant. The Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant are one and the same covenant. The new covenant is the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham and his seed, “meaning one person, who is Christ.”
Therefore the church is the new Israel.
Galatians 3:29 “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” There should be no doubt what Paul teaches about this subject. Paul sees everyone belonging to Christ as Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. One might ask, heirs according to what promise, the promise made to Abraham? (Refer back to 3:8, “All nations will be blessed through you” and then again in verse 14 the promise of the Spirit.)
“Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham‘s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Could it be any more clear? The promise made to Abraham was fulfilled in Christ. If you believe, then you are an heir to Abraham. The new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.
The Relationship Between Circumcision and Baptism
The apostle Paul makes an overt connection between baptism and circumcision in Colossians 2:11-13. In this passage, Paul goes from circumcision to baptism back to circumcision.
In Him 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. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.
There is no doubt that Paul sees a relationship between circumcision and baptism in this passage. The relationship between the two extends to their role as a sign and seal. Just as circumcision involved the cutting away of the flesh, which portrayed an internal cutting away of the sinful nature by the Spirit of Christ, likewise baptism signifies the washing away of our sin, a burial of the old sinful nature and a resurrection unto new life. Both sacraments signified the promise of internal washing and renewal unto new life. Both sacraments were conditioned by faith; the promise was received through faith.
If the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant and baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign and seal, then it is important that the covenant sign and seal be applied to the children of believers as it was in Abraham’s day. The Scriptures prescribe the biblical practice for administering circumcision. Likewise the only change associated with baptism is the fact that baptism is not gender specific. Unlike circumcision, baptism is intended for both males and females.
Given the fact that the first century church was overwhelmingly Jewish, it would have been necessary for Peter and the apostles to restrain the Jewish converts from baptizing their children. Imagine a Jew who claimed Abraham as his father, realizing that the promise made to Abraham was realized through faith in Christ, and the sign and seal of circumcision had been replaced by baptism. The Jewish convert would have applied the sign and seal to his children. There is no doubt that converted Jews would have applied the covenant sign and seal to their children unless otherwise instructed to withhold the sign and seal from their children. If the application of the covenant sign and seal changed this dramatically then there should be no doubt that the New Testament would not be silent on this matter. Just because modern day Baptists assume discontinuity does not mean that Jewish converts would have assumed discontinuity.
Acts 2:38, 39 “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off--for all whom the Lord our God will call’” (emphasis added).
There is nothing in Peter’s instructions that would have persuaded Jewish converts to withhold baptism from their children. It was commonly understood that God had worked through family units. The family unit was the main way that the faith had been passed on in the Old Testament; this pattern continues into the New Testament. As a result any objection made against infant baptism could also be made against infant circumcision!
In conclusion, we see how God continues to work through households in the New Testament, and we see how baptism has replaced circumcision as the covenant sign and seal of initiation and membership in the covenant community. Acts 16:13-15:
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
There is no mention that the members of Lydia’s household believed; yet they were all baptized, because this was the long-established pattern from the time of Abraham. God continues to work through households, even as new people are grafted into the church from outside the covenant community. This long-standing pattern has continued into the New Testament and into this age. Any objection made against infant baptism could also be made against infant circumcision.
This should cause objective people to reconsider their objections. If the New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, and if baptism has replaced circumcision as the covenant sign and seal of membership in the covenant community, then it would only make sense that the New Testament would have to forbid the application of baptism to children born in the covenant, if this was God’s intent. But the New Testament never forbids the application of the covenant sign and seal to children born in the covenant community; therefore on what basis would you withhold the sign and seal of membership to the children born in the church?
Rev. Mark J. Stromberg is the pastor of the United Reformed Church of Belgrade, Montana.