A Note on Circumcision and Baptism: Taking Account of Redemptive History

Feb 2003

In another article ("Toward a Theology of Baptismal Transition"), I argue that in the sacrament of baptism, there is a genuine transferrence, a kind of salvific transition which occurs.

One of the chief objections commonly brought forward against such a notion has to do with what Paul says regarding circumcision. For example, in Galatians 5:6, Paul writes, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love."

In view of this, it is argued, sacraments do not avail anything with regard to salvation; only faith working through love.

Likewise, in Romans 4:9-12, Paul writes the following:

Does this blessedness [i.e. the blessedness of sins covered] then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

Here we find that Abraham's justification predated his circumcision; consequently, his justification was in no sense dependent upon his circumcision. Circumcision, it is argued, is but a "seal" of the faith which Abraham had already exercised. Thus baptism ought to be understood in the same way.

This analysis, however, is inadequate, because it fails to deal with the contextual issues - issues which have to do with the new moment in redemptive history. In both Romans and Galatians, Paul is arguing for the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant apart from circumcision. He is not arguing for their inclusion apart from a sacramental initiation (baptism). To the contrary, it is via baptism that Paul claims the covenantal benefits: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:27). Given that statement, it is very questionable whether Paul would have been willing to say the same thing regarding baptism in Galatians 5:6 that he did in fact say regarding circumcision. Throughout the book of Acts, the apostolic imperative for entrance into the blessings of the new covenant is frequently tied to baptism (e.g. Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12; 19:1-6; 22:16, etc.). Entrance into the kingdom is by way of a birth by water and Spirit (Jn. 3:5).

Why does Paul go to such trouble in Romans 4 to show that Abraham was justified while still uncircumcised? He does not make this argument in a vacuum. The broader context has to do with the arrival of the new covenant as the demonstration of the righteousness of God in Christ (Rom. 3:21-26). In connection with that, it is Paul's burden to show that Gentiles are included in this saving work apart from the works of the law (note especially 3:29 in context). The Mosaic law is in a sense summed up by circumcision, because circumcision was the initiation into the Mosaic covenant. It is for this cause that Paul meditates upon circumcision issues in 4:9ff.

When Paul shows that Abraham's justification predates his circumcision, he proves that God's freedom to justify transcends the norms of the Mosaic law. For Paul, justification reaches its eschatological fulfillment in Christ. The righteousness of God finds its culmination in Him. And since that righteousness has reference to both Jews and Gentiles, it cannot be tied to the works of the law (Rom. 3:29), because the law was specifically for the Jews. It was added, as Paul writes in Galatians, for a temporary purpose, in order to govern Israel as a child-custodian, until Christ the Faithful One should come (Gal. 3:19-25).

Thus Paul's point is not to make sacraments in general irrelevant to salvation, an afterthought. Rather, it is to de-absolutize a covenant whose time had come and gone, in order to make way for the inclusion of Gentiles along with Jews in the eschatological covenant, apart from the Mosaic law. If God could justify Abraham apart from circumcision, then He is not tied to it as a means of justification. This does not yet say whether circumcision ever had anything to do with justification in any sense. It only shows that the gospel is not bound to circumcision and the Mosaic law.

The question then arises: what about Paul's stress that imputed righteousness is given to those "who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised" (Rom. 4:11b-12)? Does this not indicate that justification is by faith, as opposed to circumcision?

It is here that we must tread a delicate line. In a real sense, that is precisely Paul's point. Those who were circumcised were deluded if they thought that they could simply appeal to circumcision as their hope (see Rom. 2:25ff.). Justification comes to those who, like Abraham, live by faith. And we could go further and say that the same is indeed true in the case of baptism: one has no right to appeal to baptism as a ground of hope if one is not walking in faith. The employment of the sacraments by those who are in unbelief and rebellion will lead, not to salvation, but to judgment (1 Cor. 10:1-22).

But there is more to be said. The problem with such people is precisely that they disassociate the sacrament from faith. Meanwhile, we all too commonly do the same thing. The biblical norm is not to juxtapose faith and baptism as two antithetical entities. The norm is that baptism is the initial embodiment or instantiation of faith. It is not a subsidiary requirement, somehow a secondary instrument for appropriating salvation. Rather, it is the objective faith-act in which the subject is transferred from the realm of this age into the one to come. Consequently, Ananias can instruct Paul to wash away his sins in the water of baptism (Acts 22:16).

When Paul says that circumcision does not avail anything, we must remember that he is talking about the situation now, under the new covenant. But under the old covenant, the one who was not circumcised was excluded from the people of God (Gen. 17:14). In other words, circumcision did avail something then! As long as circumcision was the covenant sign, it enacted a real transition for the one circumcised. But that transition demanded a response of faith; it demanded that the covenant member grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, walking in the steps of Abraham, who exhibited a living faith (Rom. 4:12).

So too with baptism. In baptism, the one baptized is united to Christ (Rom. 6:3ff.) and puts Him on (Gal. 3:27). That faith-enactment calls for a life of faith. This was precisely the error of the Galatians. Having begun in the Spirit (3:3), having been initiated into the new creation in union with Christ by way of baptism (3:27), they now were veering from their course and attempting to be justified by law (5:4). They were transferring from the new eschatological covenant to an obsolete covenant, and in so doing were departing from Christ, who is indeed Himself the covenant to the Gentiles (see Isaiah 42:6; cf. 49:8).

Thus, circumcision and baptism are parallel in the sense that they are both the initiatory sacraments of their respective covenants. But they are not parallel with regard to their current efficacy. Circumcision now avails nothing. But baptism does avail, as the faith-act by which we are brought into union with Christ, who has inaugurated the new age toward which the old covenant pointed.

— Tim Gallant

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