Calvin: Circumcision Was Spiritual And Substantially Identical To Baptism

But since before baptism was instituted God’s people had circumcision instead, let us examine how these two signs differ from each other, and in what respects they are alike. From this will appear the anagogic relationship of the one to the other. When the Lord commands Abraham to observe circumcision, he previously states that he will be God to him and his descendants [Gen. 17:7, 10], adding that he possesses the abundance and sufficiency of all things [Gen. 17:1, 6, 8]. This he does in order that Abraham may regard His hand as the source of every good. The promise of eternal life is contained in these words as Christ interprets them, drawing an argument from them for the immortality and resurrection of believers. For Christ says, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living” [Luke 20:38; Matt. 22:32]. Paul also, therefore, when he shows to the Ephesians out of what destruction the Lord has delivered them, from the fact that they had not been admitted into the covenant of circumcision infers that they were without Christ, without God, without hope, strangers to the testaments of promise [Eph. 2:12]—all of which the covenant itself contained. But the first access to God, the first entry into immortal life, is the forgiveness of sins. Accordingly, this corresponds to the promise of baptism that we shall be cleansed. Afterward, the Lord covenants with Abraham that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart [Gen. 17:1]. This applies to mortification, or regeneration.1 And lest anyone be in doubt, Moses more clearly explains elsewhere, when exhorting the Israelite people to circumcise the foreskin of their heart for the Lord [Deut. 10:16], that circumcision is the sign of mortification; on this account Israel has been chosen as the people of God out of all the nations of the earth [Deut. 10:15]. As God, when he adopts the posterity of Abraham as his people, commands them to be circumcised, so Moses declares that they ought to be circumcised in heart, explaining the true meaning of this carnal circumcision [Deut. 30:6]. Again, that no man should strive after it by his own strength, Moses teaches that it is a work of God’s grace. All these things are so often reiterated by the prophets that there is no need to heap up here the many texts, as they occur repeatedly [Jer. 4:4; Ezek. 16:30]. We have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the patriarchs in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since it represented for them forgiveness of sins and mortification of flesh. Moreover, as we have taught that Christ is the foundation of baptism, in whom both of these reside, so it is also evident that he is the foundation of circumcision. For he is promised to Abraham, and in him the blessing of all nations [Gen. 12:2–3]. To seal this grace, the sign of circumcision is added.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Battles edition), 4.16.3


1. Regeneration here refers to sanctification not to the moment at which one is brought from spiritual death to new life in Christ.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Are you familiar with Karen E. Spierling’s “Infant Baptism in Reformation Geneva: The Shaping of a Community, 1536-1564”?

    If so, what are your thoughts about it? I was able to read a little bit of it at Lanier Theological Library in Houston yesterday and it looked pretty legit.

  2. Are you familiar/can you recommend readings on the relationship of the ritual washings in Judaism involving the mikveh, and if/how they play(ed) into the notion of NT baptism? I adhere to the reformed connection of Baptism with OT circumcision. But I have never found a discussion from a reformed/Calvinistic view on the role of ritual washings before and after the Incarnation.

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