September 05, 2016
by Iain Duguid
The truly remarkable aspect of God’s command to Abraham was not the command to be circumcised, but the command to circumcise his children also. Circumcision was practiced quite widely among other peoples in the ancient Near East. However, in other religions it was usually a rite of purification associated with puberty, not something done in infancy. Yet when God chose Abraham, he didn’t choose just him; he chose his children as well. God is not only the God of Abraham, but also the God of Isaac and Jacob. That is why Abraham was to circumcise his children: they needed to know they were not free to choose their own gods. They were to receive the sign of the covenant to show them that they were part of the covenant people. They belonged to the one true God, and they were to submit to him in a covenant relationship.
Did circumcision save them? Absolutely not. Ishmael was circumcised on the same day as Abraham (Gen. 17:26), yet he showed no evidence of a heart renewed by grace. Although he bore the sign of the covenant, he was not ultimately part of God’s covenant people. As he grew up, he lived against (literally, “in the face of”) God’s covenant people (16:12), not in friendship with them. As Genesis 17:19–20 makes clear, although God’s blessing rested on Ishmael and his descendants, his covenant was with Isaac and his descendants. In a similar way, circumcision pointed Israel’s children to the one covenant God who alone could save them. If they trusted in him, like their father Abraham, they would find a refuge in him. But if they refused that God and rebelled against him, their very circumcision would testify against them. They too would be cut off from the presence of God, just as Ishmael was.
Circumcision and Baptism
The biblical background is why we baptize little children, for, as Peter declared on the day of Pentecost, the promised gift of the saving Holy Spirit is for our children as well as for us (Acts 2:39). Will baptism save your children? No. But it points them, as it points all of us, to Jesus Christ, whose cleansing blood is symbolized by the water. It points them to the need for a change that can only come from outside, for baptism, like circumcision, can be done to you only by someone else. Baptism also points them to the fact that they are part of God’s covenant people. They are not free to choose their gods as they please; they must surrender to the one true God or face the consequence of eternal separation from him in hell.
In baptism…we ask the only one who can save us and our children to act in their lives.
But baptism is more than that. Baptism is an act of faith in the promises of God. If baptism is your testimony that you chose God, then of course it makes no sense to baptize children. They have no clue what is happening to them, no more than Isaac understood why he was being circumcised. But if baptism is God’s promise that through Christ he is willing and able to accept your child, then it is a precious reminder to you and to your children of God’s grace and mercy. Abraham knew when he circumcised his children that the ritual was not enough: they too had to trust God in faith, just as he had. So also, when we baptize our children, we declare to them that faith in Christ is necessary for them too. In baptism, we quote back to God in prayer Peter’s declaration on the day of Pentecost, and we ask the only one who can save us and our children to act in their lives.
Think about it: what grounds do you have for hoping that your child will receive the Holy Spirit and grow up to be a Christian? Perhaps you will say, “Well, I’m trying to do all the right things. I send him to church; I read the Bible with him; I set him an example in Christian living.” I hope you do all those things; they are a great blessing. But don’t you see? The only thing that you can do for your child by yourself is make him or her religious. Only God can give your child the new heart he or she needs. “Well, of course he’ll do that,” you say. But there is no “of course” about it. The only thing we pass on to our children as a matter of course is a sinful nature and a flawed example.
The Faithfulness of God
However, our God has revealed himself as a covenant God who deals faithfully with us as families, not just as individuals. That is what we proclaim joyfully to the world when we baptize little ones: that they too can look to our God in repentance and faith and receive the promised Holy Spirit. We are acknowledging to ourselves and to our children that we cannot save them—but also that God can, and will, if they look to him in repentance and faith, because he is a covenant-keeping God who does not change. God’s promise remains sure because it rests upon his character and not upon ours.
Yet we can be baptized on the outside and completely miss living out the kind of relationship of submission and trust that our baptism shows us. Look at Abram. At the beginning of the chapter, he falls down in reverence and faith, responding rightly to God’s promise of a covenant relationship. Just a few verses later, however, we see him falling down again, this time in doubt, laughing in unbelief. Instead of trusting God’s Word that declared that Sarah would have a son who would be the child of promise, he asked if Ishmael could instead be the one. His faith failed him, and he tried to tell God how he should run his kingdom.
It is often like that for us. Your baptism points you to the cleansing that has been provided for you in Christ, yet you are still racked by guilt over sins, unable to believe that Christ’s blood really paid for them all. Like Abraham, you find yourself doubting whether God is really able to do the impossible and forgive some like you. Your baptism declares that in Christ you are a new creature, yet you continue to live as if your sins still possessed dominion over you. You fall down in worship before your idols, instead of falling down in submission to God. Your baptism points you to the Holy Spirit, who has been poured out in your heart, and yet you live a prayerless life, as if your own strength were sufficient. What a mess we all are, recognizing the relationship with the sovereign Lord established in our baptism but then living as if God weren’t really part of our lives at all.
Christ was baptized with the baptism of God’s wrath so that we might receive the baptism for the remission of sins.
That is why it is so crucial that we understand that God’s covenant relationship rests on his faithfulness and not on ours. It wasn’t Abraham’s faithful submission that merited a relationship with God: it was God’s free grace. So too it is not my promise to follow Jesus that provides assurance but his promise never to leave me to myself. That is why Jesus Christ needed to be both circumcised for us and baptized for us. He faithfully fulfilled the calling of covenant obedience, submitting every aspect of his life to God, even when it was most painful. There was no area of his life that he held back from the Father. In him, the symbolism of circumcision and baptism became a terrible reality, as God the Father literally cut him off for our sin. He was baptized with the baptism of God’s wrath against sin, so that we might receive the sweet promises of baptism for the remission of sins. The one who truly walked blamelessly before the Lord was treated as if he were a treacherous rebel and avowed enemy of God’s kingdom, so that you and I who truly are rebels might receive mercy.
There is the source of your hope, the glorious gospel that calls you and me to fall down today and worship our glorious and faithful God. Who can you trust in the difficult circumstances of this ever-changing world? Who can you trust with your life? Who can you trust with your children? Who can you trust with your sin and your continual inability to walk blamelessly? Who can you trust with the fact that you fall down every day in worship to other gods? The answer to all these questions is “our covenant God.” Come to him and submit your life to him in a relationship that will last forever. Receive the sign that goes with that promise. And delight in the faithfulness of God that guarantees the fulfillment of the promise in spite of your weakness and brokenness.
This piece is adapted from Iain Duguid, Living in the Gap Between Promise and Reality. The Gospel in the Old Testament Series. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing Company, 2015), 88–92. Used with permission of the publisher.