In the previous two lessons we discussed baptism. It is a ritual of washing, showing the forgiveness of our sins. And it is a picture of being buried with Christ and rising up into the new life of the Spirit. But there is another aspect, and perhaps you have wondered why it wasn’t brought up yet: baptism is a sign of the covenant. In the Reformed tradition we are quite fond of this emphasis.
I didn’t bring this up before, because I first wanted to explore the way Scripture speaks about baptism. There are no texts in the Bible that connect baptism directly to God’s covenant. This probably also explains why the catechism in LD 26, 27 doesn’t mention the covenant until the last question and answer.
But there is enough reason to connect the sacrament of baptism to the Biblical idea of covenant. One clear indication of this is found in Colossians 2:11-12, which mentions “baptism” as part of the “circumcision of Christ”. And the Bible clearly identifies circumcision as the sacramental of the covenant, at least in the Old Testament.
Circumcision of Christ
1. The historical sacrament
2. The spiritual reality
3. The Christian practice
The historical sacrament
What is circumcision? A week after a baby boy was born, there would be a special ceremony. The father would take a sharp knife and cut around the tip of the boy’s penis. This removed a small piece of skin, called the foreskin. There would be some blood, but the wound would heal quickly. But as the boy grew up, it would always be visible that the foreskin was missing. Normally, you wouldn’t see it, because of the clothes; but in the locker room and in the bedroom, you could always tell if a man was circumcised or not. Circumcision was therefore a lasting, visible sign in a person’s body.
In modern-day North America, a lot of boys are circumcised for medical reasons. (There is an ongoing discussion on whether this helps to keep him healthy or not.) But in the Bible, it was done for religious reasons. For Israelite men, being circumcised showed that you belonged to the Lord. That you belong to the covenant, that is, the special relation God had made with his people.
We read about this for the first time, and very clearly, in the story of Abraham. God said to him: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. … So shall my covenant be in your flesh, an everlasting covenant.” (Gen. 17:10,13)
We may call circumcision a sacrament of the Old Testament. It was a sign and a seal, instituted by God himself, reflecting a spiritual reality. Circumcision was the membership ritual for God’s people. The sign of circumcision itself didn’t create a bond between God and a person; but circumcision was a mandatory expression of the covenant relationship, because God had said so. Refusal to be circumcised meant that you could not remain in the covenant relationship.
For an Old Testament believer, his circumcision was a reminder, you could even say a monument, of the marvellous truth about his life. It proclaimed God’s claim: “I am your God and you are my people.” It marked God’s promise: “I will bless you!” It demanded loyalty: “You will serve the Lord your God.” And as fathers circumcised their children, who then circumcised their grandchildren, and so on, it was clear that the gracious promises of God did not stop at the life of one generation. The Lord had generously made a covenant that would last forever, from generation to generation.
All these things are also true for New Testament believers. And Christian baptism, whether administered to an adult convert or to the child of a believer, proclaims the same covenant promises. It is therefore no surprise that the church has long viewed baptism as the New Testament version of circumcision.
The spiritual reality
But before we discuss that further, we must be very clear on one thing: the sign of circumcision itself was meaningless if it was not matched with the spiritual reality to which it pointed. The act of circumcision does not save and does not automatically attract the love of the Lord. This was clear from the beginning. In Abraham’s family, Ishmael was circumcised but he left the covenant community. Abraham’s grandson, Esau, was circumcised, but when he despised God’s promises he placed himself outside of the covenant community; for him, the outward sign of circumcision became meaningless.
When Moses taught God’s law to the Israelite nation, he made a very powerful point: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” (Deut. 10:16) The Lord is not looking for people who have a piece of skin removed from their body, but for people who understand the meaning of that ritual. God’s people must live in a way that fits with the covenant relationship, that does justice to God’s promises and responds to his love by loving him back. That heartfelt, life-changing relationship with the Lord is the spiritual reality of which circumcision was a sign; and that spiritual reality is what the Lord wants to see. Not so much circumcised bodies, but circumcised hearts.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul picks up this theme when he addresses the Jewish Christians in Rome. These people thought that they had a great advantage over the other Christians, because they had been circumcised. But Paul warns them: “Circumcision is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision.” (Rom. 2:25) If you don’t live the life that belongs to the sign of circumcision, you might as well not be circumcised. Paul concludes with the radical statement: “A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.” (2:29)
We can now also understand better what Paul means in Col. 2:11, when he says: “In Christ, you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” If you come to faith in Jesus, you are, as it were, circumcised. Not a physical ritual performed by hand, but a spiritual reality made without hands. What is that spiritual circumcision? Paul engages in a profound wordplay when he says: “You put off the body of the flesh.” This hints at the physical foreskin that was cut off in circumcision; but it really speaks of the life of “the flesh”, a word that the Bible uses for our fallen, sinful nature in this fallen, sinful world. Whether you have your physical foreskin or not, doesn’t matter. But as a Christian you turned away from false gods, and denounced the part of yourself that wants to live according to the evil world. That is “the body of the flesh”, and that part has been, and must remain, cut out of your lives.
Should a Christian be circumcised? Paul’s answer in Col. 2 is: Yes, you must undergo spiritual circumcision, the circumcision of the heart of which Moses already spoke in Deut. 10.
But when Paul speaks of this “circumcision of Christ”, he then immediately speaks about baptism. “… Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith.” Putting away the old life of the flesh can also be viewed as the death and burial of your old self, connected to the death and burial of the Lord Jesus himself. So Paul connects the meaning of the old sign of circumcision to that of the new sign of baptism. Whether we talk about a spiritual removal of the foreskin, or a spiritual burial with Christ, the idea is the same: our sinful life must come to an end, removed and put away, so that we may live the new life of the Spirit.
And then, in light of Genesis 17, we may also say: both circumcision and baptism are sacraments of the covenant, the relationship God made with us so that we may live that new life of the Spirit. When Abraham was circumcised, it was so that he might live a new spiritual life, a life of faith and blessing. When you were baptised, it was for the same reason: so that we may live a life of faith and blessing.
The Christian practice
So our baptism, just like circumcision in the past, is a monument to God’s gracious covenant. It proclaims the wonderful truth that the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, entered into a relationship with us, a relationship of light and life and blessing. In the New Testament we read of several people who turned to the Lord in faith and so became part of that covenant, and received water baptism as a sign, while the Holy Spirit baptised their lives. They are visually marked out as covenant members. As the catechism says in q&a 74, this was done in the old covenant by circumcision, in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.
But what about the children? God had told Abraham to circumcise the children as well, almost immediately after birth. The covenant promise was for them as well. This is remarkable, since babies cannot really believe; they don’t have the faculty for either faith or unbelief. As we grow up, we gradually get to know the Lord, and gradually grow in our ability to love the Lord. Because of this, there are many Christians who will only baptise those old enough to make a deliberate decision and embrace the Lord in faith. This insistence on “believer’s baptism” was found among the Anabaptists during the Reformation, and gained popularity a century later when the first Baptist churches were founded.
But we baptise children. We are not against baptising adults, and gladly apply the sacrament when a grown person confesses his/her faith in Jesus Christ. But the children who are raised among us in a believing household, we also baptise. There is no direct instruction in the Bible to do so, but we can briefly outline three Biblical reasons why we do so.
First, because there is continuity between God’s covenant with Abraham and the covenant in the blood of Christ. The new covenant is not a complete replacement, but a fulfilment and completion of the old. The covenant of love for Abraham’s family has grown into the covenant of love for all believers world wide; but it is still a covenant from generation to generation. At the very beginning of the New Testament era, on the day of Pentecost, Peter underlined this when he said: “The promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts. 2:39)
Second, when in the book of Acts people come to the faith, we usually read that “they were baptised with their households.” The natural implication is that the children would also be included in the sacrament, and it is clear that along with their parents, they belong to the circle of faith—that is, to the covenant.
A third argument comes from what Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:14: “Your children are holy.” More can be said about the context of this verse, but we leave it for now, and simply conclude that children of believers are, at least in some way, “sanctified in Christ”, that is, considered holy.
So when the catechism asks whether infants should also be baptised, the answer is straightforward: Yes! Why? Because they belong to God’s covenant and therefore to his congregation, to his church. Little as they are, they already receive God’s promises; the catechism mentions the redemption from sin, and the Holy Spirit, who works faith. Just like their parents, they have the promise of washing from sin and living a new life.
Now let’s be clear: when a child is baptised, it doesn’t automatically mean that he or she is saved. When children grow up, they must have true, personal faith, just like their parents. They must live their own Christian life. They cannot be “grandchildren of God”, hitchhiking along with the faith of their parents; they must be children of God in their own right. If you have been baptised but then rejected the Lord, your baptism won’t save you, and you aren’t any better off than Esau.
Our Christian baptism, whether we receive it as a child or as an adult, shows the marvellous truth that the Triune God enters into a gracious relationship with us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit make profound promises to bless us. In this covenant relationship, we are then called to live for God, to reciprocate God’s love by loving him back, to live in line with the covenant to which we belong.
The better we understand our need, the more we can appreciate our baptism. It tells us clearly that we belong to the Lord. It proclaims that, even though we are sinners, we have the love of the God of heaven and earth; and we receive forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, and a new, holy life through the Spirit of Christ.
Do you understand this? And how do you respond? Will you now love him back, who has first loved you? Will you honour your baptism by living the life to which you were called? If you do so in faith, your baptism will be a powerful source of comfort and motivation.
- What happened in circumcision?
- What “circumcision” was always more important than the circumcision of the body? Where does the Bible show this clearly?
- What is circumcision a picture of, according to Col. 2:11?
- How is this connected to your baptism?
- List at least two reasons why we baptise children?
- Does your baptism mean that you are saved?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Genesis 17:1-14. What is the circumcision a sign of?|
|Tuesday||Deuteronomy 10:12-22. What circumcision was the Lord especially looking for?|
|Wednesday||Jeremiah 4:1-8. What is the “foreskin” the Israelites must remove?|
|Thursday||Romans 2:17-29. Is there an advantage to being circumcised?|
|Friday||Romans 4. What was Abraham’s circumcision a sign of?|
|Saturday||Colossians 2. The sign of circumcision, baptism, and Jesus’ resurrection all proclaim the same practical truth for a Christian. What is that truth, and how does it impact our lives?|