Circumcision Was Always About The Necessity Of Regeneration

HB reader Allan writes,

The NT apostolic doctrine is that OT circumcision of the flesh is replaced by NT circumcision of the heart. I have not found them saying it is replaced by baptism.


Circumcision was always a sign of what the Spirit does within his elect. It is not the case that the circumcised heart replaced circumcision. Your question, however, is a good opportunity to look at what Scripture says about circumcision.

True Circumcision Was Always Spiritual
Yes, it is true that there was a legal quality to the old, Mosaic covenant. The Lord did institute (as the rabbis counted them) 613 commandments (the civil and ceremonial laws) in addition to his moral and natural law that he had already revealed in the garden and re-stated at Sinai. It is true that the Lord put Israel under the law in order to teach them the greatness of their sin and misery. Leviticus 18:5 does say, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh.” In Galatians 3:11, however, the Apostle Paul quotes this verse and interprets it as the preaching of the law, as a re-statement of the covenant of works that God made with Adam. Sinners, of course, can not “do and live.” Our Lord Jesus knew that when told the young man, “sell all you have and give it to the poor” (Matt 19:21). As he had done to Israel, pre- under Moses now he does again: God the Son was preaching the law to a sinner that he might learn the greatness of his sin and misery and turn in repentance and faith to the only Savior from the wrath to come.

The old covenant (the Mosaic covenant; 2 Cor 3) was a part of the types and shadows (Col 2:17; Heb 8:5; 10:1; ) but we should not therefore assume that it was unspiritual or wholly external and external or not therefore also an administration of the covenant of grace. Deuteronomy 10:15–16 says, “Yet Yahweh set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.” This is the language of the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works. We see the same thing in Deuteronomy 30:5–6: And Yahweh your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” Notice how the outward and typological (the land promise and circumcision) are cheek by jowl with the internal and the spiritual. Yahweh will fulfill the land promise and the seed promise (Gen 12 and 15) that he made to Abraham but those promises were administered temporarily under types and shadows. As I’ve shown repeatedly in this space (see the resources below) the land was never ultimately about the land and the seed promise was never ultimately about an earthly people. Notice how again Scripture repeats the heart of the Abrahamic promise from Genesis 17: “I will be a God to you and to your children.”

The circumcision of the heart promised in Deuteronomy 30:6 signals to us that circumcision was never really about the cutting away of the foreskin. It was always, even under the types and shadows, about our need for new life, or, figuratively a new heart. The new heart, the circumcised heart, is something that only Yahweh gives and it was promised under the types and shadows in terms of the sacrament of types and shadows, circumcision but it signaled the same realities signified by baptism: a new heart.

We know that circumcision, though a part of the types and shadows, was never really only outward because Paul says, “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:29; ESV). There has always been an outward administration and an inward reality. That was true under Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets. After all, Paul here only repeats what Yahweh said under the Moses and the prophets. In Jeremiah 4:4 Yahweh said, “Circumcise yourselves to Yahweh; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem…”. In Jeremiah 9:25 he declared, ““Behold, the days are coming, declares Yahweh, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh…”. What God has always wanted, what circumcision always signified was a new heart. Thus, we should not conflate the external administration of the covenant of grace with its internal realities. There has always been both an external administration and an inward reality.

The External Administration Included The Children Of Believers
The question then is what has God commanded regarding the external administration. The historic Christian understanding of the history of redemption has been, since the early 2nd century (e.g., the Epistle of Barnabas), that there is one covenant [of grace] administered in the sign of circumcision under the types and shadows (under Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets) and under the sign of baptism in the new covenant.

As circumcision pointed to the necessity of a new, circumcised heart, so baptism points to necessity of the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5). Even though circumcision pointed to a need for a circumcised heart, God nevertheless ordained—as all concede—that it should be administered to believers and to their children. That pattern continued in the new covenant, where Peter repeated the Abrahamic promise: “For the promise is to you and to your children and to the Gentiles” (Acts 2:39). When our Lord told Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3; ESV) he was not saying anything new. He had been preaching that same message to Israel, under types and shadow, for 2000 years. As Peter says (1 Pet 1:3), as always, the Spirit who blows where will, who gives new life to his elect, “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23). Just as circumcision never conferred new life on those who received it, neither does baptism.

The promise remains: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” So the fundamental realities are unchanged. Regeneration has always been the product of God’s sovereign grace. Since the fall God’s elect have always needed a new heart that only the Spirit can give. Under the types and shadows those realities were signified by a bloody ritual, circumcision. Under the new covenant, those realities are typified by baptism, which, like circumcision is a ritual identification with Christ’s death. Paul says this in Colossians 2:11–12 when he appeals to circumcision as an illustration of Christ’s death, then points to the cross, and then to baptism. It is substantially the same doctrine in Romans 6. Like circumcision, baptism is an outward identification of Christ’s death. Circumcision anticipated his death, his being cut off (Rom (9:3; 11:22) outside the camp (Heb 13:11–13) for his elect, as our substitute. Baptism looks back to those realities but they are the same realities. What changed was the mode of administration.

Check out the resources below. Start perhaps with the Heidelcast series, “I Will Be A God to You and to Your Children.”

A Curriculum On Covenant Theology and Infant Baptism

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  1. “I will be a God to you and to your children.” That was the truth that opened my eyes to the truth of infant baptism. I’m always happy when I see the subject approached this way. Thank you Dr. Clark!

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