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Circumcision: A Sign of Faith

July 13, 2022 · Chris Carter

Covenant Theology

There are those who say that circumcision is not a sign of faith, but rather an ordinance of the law, having nothing to do with faith at all. They do not deny that the sign of circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, rather, they uphold that the Old Covenant was only a covenant in the flesh, a covenant which demanded outward obedience to the law, with circumcision being merely the first task of obedience to it. As such, they say, given the uselessness of this Old Covenant in producing the obedience which God desired, God did away with it, replacing it with the New Covenant and its sign of baptism, signifying the spiritual resurrection of the individual. They say circumcision is not a sign of such inward change; whereas baptism is a sign of faith, circumcision only signified ancestral generation from Abraham, serving only to identify those covenant people of Israel through lawful ordinance applied in accord with natural reproduction. Scripture is opposed: circumcision is a sign of faith, and a schoolmaster of it.

A Distinction Without a Difference

The first way in which they make this claim is by distinguishing between “promise” given to Abraham and “covenant” made with Abraham. I, for the life of me, cannot be brought to understand how this disjunction of promise and covenant can be found in scripture. It is true that God promised Abraham many things, including that he would be the father of many nations, that his children would number the stars, and that His descendants would possess the land of Canaan. When God told this to Abraham, it was said that the patriarch “believed in the Lord; and He credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6). This is to say that Abraham heard the gospel preached in this, and that he believed. The Apsotle concludes the same thing, saying,

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3)

It is inescapable from this that Abraham was a Christian, believing in God for the accomplishment of the work of Christ: the salvation of the world, the establishment of His church, and the dominion of an everlasting kingdom over all the nations of the world. In this Abraham was justified, trusting not in his own works nor in the integrity of his flesh, but seeing only inadequacy in himself and believing that God alone would fulfill His promise no matter how impossible it seemed at the time. In other words, Abraham believed God’s promise by faith alone, and was justified.

After God made His promise to Abraham, He established the ordinance of circumcision to be a sign of the promise which Abraham believed by faith, ratifying that promise with a covenant,

This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17:10)

It is here where they stumble. They wrongly draw a distinction between law and faith at this point by saying that Abraham believed the promise but only merely obeyed the law of circumcision. Faith was associated with the promise, but circumcision of Abraham’s descendants was only faithless obedience to the law, having nothing to bear on faith nor any connection to it. This relegates circumcision to a mere sign in the flesh, a sign of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise, but no further; for all those circumcised after Abraham, circumcision was but a mere law.

To this construct I ask, is it indeed possible to divorce the promise from the covenant? Is not the promise entailed in its entirety in the covenant? Did God not include every point of promise which He made to Abraham, and which Abraham believed? For indeed, in both the promise and the covenant God bound Himself to make Abraham the father of many nations (Genesis 15:5, 17:6), that his descendants would posess the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:7, 17:8), and in both Abraham believed that God would accomplish what He spoke (Genesis 15:6, 17:23). There is no distinction to be made between the two; God covenanted what He promised, and promised what He covenanted, and both were received by faith.

The Seal of Faith in Circumcision

Indeed the Apostle himself confirms for us that this circumcision was not a mere outward obedience to a fleshly ordinance, nor a mere cutting of the flesh of the reproductive organ. It was surely a sign of Abraham’s faith as surely as it was a sign of faith to those who had been circumcised. Paul writes,

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it credited? 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 uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. (Romans 4:9-12)

Of circumcision and faith, the Apostle writes that circumcision was a seal of the righteousness that Abraham had by faith. It was given while he had faith and was uncircumcised, so that when a man comes to believe in Christ and later be circumcised, he may be counted as a son of Abraham; a son according to faith and circumcision. Furthermore, it was given to children, so that when they come to believe in Christ, they may also be counted as a son of Abraham; a son according to faith and circumcision. It is not enough, the Apostle says, to be counted as a son of Abraham by circumcision alone; whether circumcised as a child or as an adult, faith is what made one a true son of the patriarch. To the uncircumcised Gentile who came to faith in Christ, their circumcision was a seal of the faith that they had attained while uncircumcised, but to the circumcised Jewish boy it was a reminder in his flesh, calling him to look upon Christ in the same manner that his forefather Abraham did: that is, by faith. He may have been born of Abraham by birth, but his circumcision bore witness that he must be born again of Abraham, again, by faith.

Circumcision therefore cannot be a mere law which bears nothing upon the conscience. It was a painful ordinance, an ordinance of blood made with a permanant mark in the flesh, purposed for many things, but surely intended to remind a young Jewish man that external signs and obedience to external ordinances are not enough for God; the heart must be changed. After Abraham had been gathered to his fathers, it was necessary for Moses to go back up to Sinai to receive the Decalogue again a second time from God. When he had returned from the holy mountain to admonish Israel to obedience yet again, He reminded them of the grace that had been shown to their fathers and gave them this command:

Circumcise your heart, and do not stiffen your neck any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)

For certainly Israel had been circumcised in their flesh; they had obeyed that command, following the ordinance of their forefather. But when God had given them 10 new commands, He charged them not only to be circumcised of the flesh, but also to be circumcised of heart. We do not need to make such speculations about the meaning of Moses’ exhortation here. The phrase, “circumcision of the heart” is simply a euphamism for faith. It is, in fact, an identical exhortation to the one that Paul gave to the sons of Israel in the Roman church.

For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from people, but from God. (Romans 2:28-29)

Israel was to be circumcised like Abraham. Why? Because their circumcision was a reminder that they needed to be circumcised of heart like Abraham. Their circumcision demanded repentance, for in like manner the prophet Jeremiah says,

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your hearts, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will spread like fire and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:4)

And Paul, again, is very clear to identify spiritual circumcision with salvation when says,

And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision performed without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

(This passage, I believe, unlocks the answer for why we do not need to be physically circumcised any longer as an ordinance).

So it is that the image of circumcision, specifically when applied to the heart, is ubiquitously used throughout the scriptures to signify nothing less than faith. For what is circumcision but the removal of the flesh? And what is faith but no less than the cutting off of the old, dead man, and the mortification of lawless works by repentance? Is faith not dying to self, being buried with Christ, and coming out of the grave in newness of life? And, dare I say, is that not precisely what baptism into Christ is?

If circumcision was a mere ordinance of the law to be kept without any sort of bearing on repentance and faith, then what is the point in admonishing Israel by the image of the very same sign of circumcision to have faith in the Lord? Why, if circumcision was merely a command of the law which brings death, did God use its image when talking about a the spiritual reality of being born again? The short answer, and the best one, is that circumcision is not merely a command of the law, but a sign of faith.

Warnings Against Unbelief and Covenant Presumption

Is this to say that all who were circumcised are regenerate? Certainly not; the scriptures are full of scoundrels who bore the covenant sign of faith in their flesh yet had no circumcision of heart, like faithless Esau, who sought repentance but could not find it. All who bear the covenant sign without the requisite signification in the heart are hypocrites, by their birth and circumcision professing to be children of Abraham but by their unbelief showing themselves to be false children. Indeed a Jew is one outwardly, but a true Jew is one inwardly.

Does circumcision then mean nothing? Certainly not; it is a sign that you are in the covenant community of God’s people. It is a sign that you have been set apart, even if only by natural birth, and that you are holy, if only externally for a time. It is a reminder in your flesh of the repentance and faith that you ought to demonstrate with your heart. Your circumcision is not enough, and this is no small matter; those who presume that they are in right standing with God only on the merit of their covenant sign are warned to take heed, lest they be cut off from their people. Indeed, God was not pleased with most of His covenant people, as the Aposle recalls,

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and they all passed through the sea; and they all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and they all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased; for their dead bodies were spread out in the wilderness. (1 Cor 10:1-5)

Was it their disobedience to the law which caused God to destroy most of them, and spare a faithful remnant? It must observed that we, in the New Covenant, may be tempted to fall into the same sin of covenant presumption, presuming by our church attendance and our baptism and our taking of the eucharist that we are justified before the Lord. Paul says otherwise, reminding us that our fathers were gathered together in the wilderness, were baptized, and also partook of spiritual food and drink, and their bodies are strewn throughout the wilderness for their covenant unfaithfulness. What God desires of His people (and what He has always desired) is faith and obedience. The faithful are pleasing to Him, and the unfaithful are not. The faithful bear inward faith in accordance with their outward covenantal sign, while the unfaithful remain in their sins, in dissonance with their outward covenantal sign.

Indeed, some Jewish Christians were attempting to prosyletize their brothers according to this covenant presumption. For Paul brutally chastizes them for going back to the Mosaic Law to presume their standing with God.

Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the Law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and one by the free woman. But the son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is speaking allegorically, for these women are two covenants: one coming from Mount Sinai giving birth to children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is enslaved with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. (Galatians 4:21-27)

For we are not justified by the law, nor has anyone ever been justified by works of the law in any age, in any place of the earth. The Law, the apostle says, was slavery; binding the sinful heart of man to things it could not accomplish, rendering it unable to please God in anything. Salvation is not by works of the law, nor ordinances, nor festivals, nor any other commandment, for every command of God is a call to faith. To the one who could not attain the law, who must go to the temple and shed blood for the remission of sins, the law was a mirror to his own depravity, and the sacrifice a picture of its cost. There is no better schoolmaster to lead us to faith than the law.

Therefore the Law has become our guardian to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24)

So it is even with circumcision, that ordinance that Jewish boy bore in his flesh, a teacher, reminding him to look to his forefather Abraham.

In illustrating this covenantal reality requiring faith to comport with circumcision, the Apostle likens the covenant people of God to an olive tree. You may have believed and been grafted in, or else you grew on the tree. You may have believed and then been circumcised, or you may have been circumcised as a boy and later believed. Whatever way you got on the tree, whether you were circumcised as an adult or as a child, what matter is whether you are living in harmony with the sign you bear. Whereas circumcision was a sign of the faith that you ought to have as a son of Abraham, it made no guarantees as to whether you would really be faithful. The living branches are pruned to be more fruitful, but the dead ones are broken off.

Why? Because of unbelief.

Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. (Romans 11:20-21)

Law and Faith are Necessary Companions

Of course we, in the New Covenant, have the tremendous blessing of being able to look retrospecively upon all of scripture, guided and aided by the teaching of the apostles in this regard. To us it has been revealed the doctrine of election, the doctrines of grace, the doctrine of the trinity, and a myriad of other precious doctrines which probe the depths of salvation. But surely we cannot say that the Old Testament saints knew nothing of salvation by faith. Indeed substitutionary atonement was revealed to them through Isaiah (Isaiah 53:5), resurrection and judgement were revealed to Daniel (Daniel 12:2), the kingdom was revealed to David (2 Samuel 7:10-16), original sin was revealed to the Psalmist (Psalm 51:5), and indeed Christ was even preached to Adam (Gensis 3:15). While the Old Testament saints under the Mosaic covenant were certainly under law, both the law and the prophets were schoolmasters, revealing to them that true and proper relationship to God was not to be found in law, but in Christ; that is, in an appeal to God through faith.

The distinction then between Old and New Covenants is not a distinction of law versus grace when it comes to salvation. For it is not the case that the Old Covenant was only about law, and the New Covenant does away with the law. Far from it, the New Covenant bolsters the law by writing it on hearts of stone. This is precisely what is meant by the great prophet of the New Covenant Jeremiah, when he says,

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

How is the New Covenant distinct from the Old? Its promise is, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” It is distinct not in terms of law versus grace, but in terms of law without versus law within. For was there not grace in the Old, and did not Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and David and all the rest of the Old Testament saints partake of it? And is there not law in the New, as Paul and James and Peter and Jesus admonish us to obedience? For the promise of the New is not that law is done away with, nor replaced by grace, but that law, by grace, is written on the heart. The law is not done away with, but fulfilled; its obedience having been fulfilled in the life of Christ, our transgressions against it punished in the death of Christ, and our minds renewed and sanctified to the law by the Spirit of Christ. This indeed is the distinction between the Old and the New: the law without, versus the law within!

Does this mean that we are under law? Absolutely not! For the same prophet who spoke for God, saying “I will put my law on their hearts” also said “I will remember their sins no more”. The Apostle himself brings these two into beautiful conjunction, saying,

Do we then nullify the Law through faith? Far from it! On the contrary, we establish the Law. (Romans 3:31)

For the law and faith are not two opposing things, but two inseperable things. The one points to the need for the other, and the other establishes the one. For what is the law but a reflection of the character of God, unchanging and perfect in its precepts? And what is faith but sound trust in that same gracious and merciful character, expressed in Jesus Christ? And how can any measure of obedience to the law be obtained but by faith, that is, by a renewed, regenerated, liberated mind, freed by total and complete forgiveness? The law and faith are not enemies, but partners; not competitors, but companions. For this reason the Apostle chastized the foolish Galatians for requiring works of the law to be saved. They upheld the law, not too much, but too little; for if they were true students of the law, and honest introspectors of their own nature as fallen men in desperate need of saving grace, they would have understood that the necessary consequence of every precept of the law was faith in Christ, faith plus nothing else. By the same token we are warned that if our outward works do not comport with our faith, then we have no faith at all. For James says,

In the same way, faith also, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:17)

So it is that faith without law is a dead faith, and law without faith is a dead law; bringing only death.

A Sign to Keep Accountable

What I hope to have demonstrated as an accessory point to my claim that circumcision is a sign of faith, is the incredible continuity between the Old and New covenants when it comes to both law and faith. Where our opponents may demonstrate them in a simplistic and disjointed fashion, positing the Old Covenant as being only “law” and the New as being only “faith” or “grace”, we must be careful to examine the scriptures. There is law in both the Old and the New, and faith in both the Old and the New. There is ordinance in both, grace in both, and Christ in all. What distinguishes the New from the Old, and indeed what makes the New a truly better and more glorious covenant than the Old is that the law is written on the heart. No longer is the law written on tablets of stone to be forgotten, nor penned in ink and laid up in the temple to be overlooked, nor preached to ears that cannot hear, but written upon hearts of stone where it cannot be ignored by the conscience any longer. In all ages and in all places, God has desired a faith-filled and obedient people, and to the degree that He achieved it in the Old Covenant, He achieved it exponentially more in the New.

It is now that we have a full picture of faith and circumcision in view: that circumcision was not merely a ritual of the law to be meaninglessly applied to mark God’s covenant people according to the flesh. Rather, it was a sign of faith pointing back to the faith of Abraham, pointing inward to the heart and the removal of the sinful flesh, and pointing forward to the circumcision of Christ, whose flesh was cut off for us in His death on the cross. Israel were like olive branches, some wild and grafted in by circumcision as adults, while the majority were natural branches who were circumcised as infants. Whether is was the Master Gardener who grafted them in or natural growth He caused upon the tree, their circumcision was a sign that they were all accountable to God for a faith-filled and repentant heart, lest they be cut off for their unbelief.

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Chris Carter ·
Chris Carter is the proprietor of The Puritan Vision, formerly called The New England Reformer.

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