Friday, June 10, 2011

Baptism is New Testament Circumcision

In theological discussion presuppositions must always be accounted for. It is foolishness to ignore presuppositions. This is why two people can read the same text and come away with two opposing interpretations. As a Covenant theologian, I do not for a second hide the fact that my presupposition is this: Covenant is the framework upon which everything in Scripture attaches. Everything which God has revealed, He has revealed through the grid of covenant. This seems like a fair conclusion. I do not believe this to be an artificial paradigm imposed upon Scripture. If we follow the Reformation principle of letting Scripture be its own interpreter, it seems clear that covenant is the underlying framework upon which all revelation is affixed.

Since the Baptist does not view covenant this way, he differs from the Reformed theologian when it comes to the administration of the covenant of grace. At the heart of the baptistic argument against infant baptism is the denial that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sacrament of entry into covenant with God. Reformed theology teaches that baptism is the New Testament version of circumcision. If this concept were clearly grasped, much confusion would be cleared away.

Having prefaced all that, let us now look at some Scriptural evidence for the contention that baptism is, in fact, Christian circumcision.

In Colossians 2:11, Paul tells us, “in Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision done by Christ." Before we proceed, it is crucial to remember Paul’s constant invective against those who insist that circumcision is necessary for Christians. It should be obvious then that whatever Paul is referring to here, he does not mean physical circumcision. Let’s let Paul explain himself. How does he say we were circumcised by Christ? He says, “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith.” The first word of verse 12 (συνταφεντες), is a participle described the circumstances in which believers are circumcised. In other words, Paul is saying that we are circumcised with a spiritual circumcision (made without hands) with the circumcision of Christ and this is done by being baptized. It is common (based on Romans 6) to use burial as an illustration of baptism. Notice here though, that Paul uses burial as an illustration of circumcision. He says, “You were circumcised by having been buried…”

Therefore Paul concludes that in the New covenant, our baptism is our circumcision. It identifies us with Christ’s death. This is why Paul so adamantly opposed the Judaizers who wished to impose circumcision upon Christians. Baptism is the sign of our having been circumcised in Christ. For this reason physical circumcision in the new covenant is unnecessary. Baptism identifies us with Christ's death and faith is the means by which we united to Christ.

Looking back on the first New Testament administration of the sacrament of baptism, we see Peter actually equate circumcision with baptism. How, you ask. Precisely because when Peter says, “the promise is to you and to your children, and all who are far off," he is using the exact same formula that God Himself used when He instituted the sacrament of circumcision in Genesis 17:7. And the Jews understood this clearly.


  1. Hi Andy! Fellow Caffeinated Calvinist and Presbyterian here.
    You wrote: "At the heart of the baptistic argument against infant baptism is the denial that baptism has replaced circumcision as the sacrament of entry into covenant with God."

    I'm in a PCA church and when we studied the topic of baptism last year, one of the things I did was take time to listen to John Piper's teaching on this topic.
    Actually, what you stated about the Baptist position, doesn't exactly line up with what I hear from Piper. He stated that baptism IS the sacrament of entry into covenant with God and that this is the very reason why he holds to believers baptism. His argument was that membership in the church = entry into covenant with God, and to be in covenant with God, God must first have enacted the relationship (ie, regeneration) Therefore, if I understood correctly, church membership, baptism, and a profession of faith are a package deal.
    Does that make sense? (hopefully)

  2. Good stuff. Thanks for bringing out the grammar.

  3. Andy, you have somewhat mischaracterized the Baptist position.
    From Piper:

  4. If we are on mission, even paedo-baptists should be doing more believer baptisms than infant baptisms. Too much empahsis on this doctrine leads to potential Judiazing-IMO.

  5. Hi Deb and the two anonymous commenters,

    Thanks for your comments. Although I check my blog stats regularly, comments still seem a more concrete proof that anyone is actually reading the blog. Regarding this post, I did not attempt a full scale treatment of baptism. I have written a dozen or so other posts on the subject, so some questions raised by this particular post may be addressed in other posts. Having said that, a couple things might be stated to clear up some of the perceived ambiguity of my article.

    1. The primary Baptist theologian most of us Reformed folk are familiar with is John Piper. This is because he, unlike many Baptists, is a Calvinist. Therefore, his particular view of baptism may not necessarily line up at every point with the Baptist view, generally speaking.

    2. Baptist theology does presuppose a radical discontinuity between God’s covenant people in the Old Testament and His covenant people in the New Testament. Reformed theology does not. We hold, on the force of statements such as those in Galatians 3, that New Testament believers are true children of Abraham and therefore heirs to the covenant promises made to him. Scripture actually says this. This is a doctrinal issue I have dealt with in other posts, so I won’t go into a long explanation of that here.

    3. The term “sacrament” is avoided by Baptists, almost without exception. The term they prefer is “ordinance.” The term “sacrament” is perhaps deemed to convey something of an “ex opere operato” notion. Reformed theologians, have, of course, never taught this. In Reformed theology, the sacraments are signs and seals of God’s covenant with us. God’s covenant of grace with Abraham, of which the sacrament sign and seal was circumcision, explicitly demanded that the infant seed be brought into this covenant as well. And God’s command to do this in Genesis 17:7 is echoed very clearly by Peter in Acts 2:38, 39. Every Jew present would have instinctively recognized the allusion to Genesis 17.

    Let me hasten to add this: I have never broken fellowship with anyone over baptism, and I don’t ever intend to either. But just because a doctrine is not one of the absolute essentials to salvation, that doesn’t mean that we should not defend it. I believe the early church understood this and the Reformers did, too. I have many Baptist friends and enjoy fellowship in the Lord with them, but that doesn’t mean that doctrine is unimportant.

    And finally, Anonymous, you are certainly right. If the Church is fulfilling her mission to evangelize the world, she will be baptizing many adult believers who have never heard the Gospel before. No advocate of paedobaptism would dispute that. The baptizing of infants though, shows that the Church is growing in those lands because the adult converts are having children. Infant baptism is a beautiful illustration of the Gospel: Who is more helpless and without merit and ability than a baby? And this is exactly how Jesus says anyone enters the Kingdom of God.

  6. Credo-Baptists have failed to acknowledge, and therefore to answer, the obligation that is incumbent on them: since circumcision as a covenant sign was applied to those too young to have made a profession of faith, when did that principle change? They act as if paedobaptists have introduced covenantal inclusion, when it is actually THEY who claim that there has been a change. Where is their proof for that radical change?

  7. Chris, I'm Presby, paedobaptist, but sympathetic to the Reformed Baptist view. My understanding is that the nature of the covenant itself has changed from one made with human hands, to one that is enacted by God, by grace, through faith. The new circumcision is one made not by human hands, but rather by the Spirit. Baptism for an RF is the outward demonstration of the regeneration which God has worked. Thus, entrance into the covenant thru faith, not works and is not dependent upon biological bloodline, but rather by the seed of God that causes one to be born again.
    The Piper link above explains much better than I.

  8. I will defer to Chris regarding your question. But let me make these observations in the meantime. If I understand Piper’s argument correctly, it is he who is misrepresenting the Baptist position. He seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. Either baptism is simply a “public way of taking a Christian stand” (his words), or it is a sacrament expounding the Gospel.

    I also found it problematic that Piper says, “because then the symbol feels more like a declaration of the new reality of faith.” What does feeling have to do with anything? A doctrine is either true or false; feeling isn’t the determining factor: Scripture is.

    Further, Piper says, “Circumcision was a sign of ethnic continuity; baptism was a sign of spiritual reality.” Now this is just flat wrong. If I were to ask you where you’d expect to find more teaching about circumcision, most people would say the Old Testament. The opposite is, in fact, true. The New Testament has waaaay more to say about it. The word “Circumcision” appears 35 times in the New Testament. This is actually more than in the Old. Out of the 6 times that the word “circumcise” appears in the Old Testament (KJV), three times it refers to a spiritual act. This means that it is a sacrament: a visible sign or seal of a spiritual reality. The other three refer the act specifically to the covenant God made with Abraham. To say that circumcision was merely an ethnic badge is erroneous.

    Look at Philippians 3:3, “We are the circumcision.” . . . . . . wait for it. . . . . . . , which worship God IN THE SPIRIT (emphasis mine). Romans 2:29 explicitly teaches that true circumcision is what the Old Testament called, “circumcision of the heart.” Circumcision in the Old Testament was a physical act that demonstrated the need for an inward, spiritual “cutting away” which the sinner really needed, and which only God, by His Spirit, could do. My other posts on this subject deal with these aspects more fully.

    Regarding Chris’ remarks, I concur with you wholeheartedly. I defend paedobaptism because I believe it is taught in Scripture and for no other reason. I grew up Pentecostal. I did not inherit the paedobaptist view and now adhere to it blindly. I have examined the subject over a long period of time. I had my children baptized (though neither were infants at the time, and after I had already had them subjected to the "dedication" ceremony) But I must confess I feel a bit at a disadvantage because as far as I can see, the burden of proof is not mine, but the credo-baptist’s. A covenantal understanding of Scripture shows that the Bible teaches covenantal, i.e., infant baptism. Church history demonstrates that this is how Scripture was understood. When Irenaeus mentions the practice, he speaks of it as if it were something everyone knew of and understood. And this was in the 2nd century. He was taught at the feet of Polycarp, who was, in turn, a disciple of St. John. The Baptist doctrine as we know it appears on the scene in Germany in the 1500’s. Hence, they are the innovators. The burden of proof is on them to show that only they have preserved the Bible’s true teaching and how it was that God forsook His church into error for over 1500 years.


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