Circumcision of Isaac

“Abraham the Father of All Who Believe”

To thousands of new Jewish converts to Christianity, this was the meaning of believers-only baptism: as soon as they believed in Christ, their children, formerly members of God’s own treasured people, now have become unclean, detestable pagans, cut off from God’s covenant promises. And not one of them dared question the apostles; they just sheepishly accepted this horrific fact.

Scripture Readings: Genesis 17:1-14; Romans 4:11-12 (text)

May 13, 2012 Download this sermon (PDF)


Today, we witnessed as a congregation the public profession of faith and baptism of some of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Churches like ours that baptize infants and little children are often misunderstood by many other churches who view this practice as “unbiblical.”

So before we look at our text this morning, I would like to clarify a few things about water baptism that are misunderstood – often caricatured – by many evangelicals. I would begin by explaining what water baptism, particularly infant baptism, is not.

First, we do not baptize only infants and little children, but we do baptize adults as well if they have never been baptized even as infants. Just as we did today in the case of Sam, we also baptize those who are old enough to understand and confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

Second, we do not believe that baptism saves a person (baptismal regeneration), the view of Roman Catholics and Lutherans. Sometimes, the Bible seems to speak in this way, wherein there is a spiritual bond and a close connection between baptism and the washing away of sins, such as in Titus 3:5, “he saved us”¦ by the washing of regeneration” and in Matthew 26:26-28, “This [bread] is my body”¦ this [wine] is my blood of the covenant” (see also Gen 17:11; Acts 22:16; 1Cor 5:7; 1Cor 10:1-4). So this spiritual bond is metaphorical and does not equate baptism with salvation.

Third, infant baptism was not invented by Roman Catholics. As early as the mid-2nd century, only about 50 years after all the apostles died, the early church fathers already wrote that the practice of infant baptism was widespread. And since there was no such thing as the Roman Catholic Church until about the 7th century, Roman Catholics did not invent infant baptism. In fact, throughout the first 1,500 years of church history, there was no dissenting voice against infant baptism. The first opposition came from Anabaptist fanatics in the early 1500s.[ref]For the history of infant baptism in the early church, see “Infant Baptism in Early Church History” by Dennis Kastens, Accessed 5/14/2012.[/ref]

Since this historical fact can not be denied, it is truly astounding when we hear claims that it was so because the whole church – no exceptions – was corrupted! Can you imagine a time in 2,000 years of church history when the whole church was practically dead because of corrupt doctrines, worship, and practices, and not even a single person clung to Biblical truth? Even in the darkness of the medieval age, when the true gospel was almost non-existent, there were still a few, small flickering embers of truth.

Circumcision of Isaac, stained glass panel, 1525-30.
Circumcision of Isaac, stained glass panel, 1525-30.

What is even more astonishing is this: If the apostles did not baptize the children of the Jews who were the first converts to Christianity – thousands of them – why is it that not even one person raised a dissenting opinion? For Jews, circumcision as a sign of the membership of their children in God’s covenant people was extremely important. Paul and the other apostles vigorously fought against this Judaizing heresy of requiring Gentiles to be circumcised for entrance into the covenant community (Gal 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-5). How then can tens of thousands of them, just meekly accept that their children, formerly members of God’s own treasured people, now have become unclean, detestable pagans, cut off from God’s covenant promises, and in effect, are to be regarded as unclean, detestable pagans?

Fourth, contrary to popular evangelicalism, Jesus as a 40-day-old infant was not “dedicated” at the temple by Mary and Joseph. Rather, they went to the temple to fulfill their Old Testament duties under the Mosaic Law (Lev 12). Mary went to be ceremonially purified after she gave birth to a son (Lev 12:6-7). And the baby Jesus was ceremonially redeemed by another offering according the the law of the Passover feast, because all the firstborn sons of Israel were saved from death by the blood of the Passover lamb (Exod 13:2, 12). So, infant dedication as practiced today by most evangelicals is a result of biblical illiteracy, and therefore is completely unbiblical.

Fifth, sprinkling is not a Catholic mode of baptism. It is well-documented in Scripture, symbolizing the washing away of sins and the giving of a new heart by the Spirit (Ezek 36:25; Zech 12:10; Heb 10:22). As well, baptism does not always mean immersion, as when Paul says that all Israel “were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1Cor 10:1-2). Peter also says that the flood waters were a type of a “baptism that saved” Noah and his family, pointing to “a good conscience” as a result of the washing away of sins (1Pet 3:18-21). In both these “baptisms,” who were “immersed” in the waters? It was the unbelieving, pagan world!

Many Christians think that the only meaning of the word baptism is “immersion.” But if the Greek baptisma is translated as “immersion” in many of these verses, the result is pure nonsense. Here are just two examples: The Pharisees practiced ceremonial washing of the hands before eating, “such as the immersing of cups  and pots and copper vessels and dining couches” (Mark 7:2-5). Jesus challenged his disciples, “Are you able… to be immersed with the immersion with which I am immersed?” (Mark 10:38-39).

In addition to a ceremonial rite, baptism can mean many things, including: “being united” to a leader (Rom 6:3; 1Cor 10:1-2); literal washing (Mark 7:2-5); and Jesus’ death (Mark 10:38-39).

Setting aside these clarifications, we now go to the text at hand. In Romans 4, Paul points out that justification before God is by faith alone. The greatest example of this justification by faith alone is Abraham, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (verse 3). Since Abraham was the first of all circumcised Jews, he was the father of all Jews who believe in Christ. But since he also was already righteous before God by faith even before he was circumcised, he was also the father of all uncircumcised Gentiles who believe.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, God himself “signed, sealed, and delivered” it to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15 and 17. And to whom did God deliver his covenant? Not only to Abraham, but to his children and his children’s children for an eternal covenant. Today, we meditate on the theme “Abraham the Father of All Who Believe” under three headings: (1) The Sign and Seal of His Righteousness by Faith; (2) The Giver of the Sign and Seal; and (3) The Recipients of the Sign and Seal.

The Sign and Seal of His Righteousness by Faith
So, what is water baptism? Unlike what most people believe, baptism is not “a public confession of our personal faith in Jesus Christ.”[ref]“What We Believe,” by Christ’s Commission Fellowship, Accessed 05/14/2012.[/ref] What’s wrong with this idea?

It is the focus on ourselves and on what we have done: our “decision” to “accept Jesus.” On the contrary, baptism is a “sign” and “seal” of what God has done for the person being baptized: the washing away or forgiveness of sins through Christ’s broken body and shed blood. It is also a promise by God to the parents that the child who believes, whether in infancy or as an adult, will receive forgiveness of sins.

According to our text, Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” This text goes all the way back to Genesis 17 when God made his covenant with Abraham, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (verses 10-11). All of God’s covenants with man have a sign: the tree of life in the covenant with Adam; the rainbow, with Noah; the sacrificial animals, with Moses. With Abraham, it is circumcision.

Why is a sign needed? A sign documented and confirmed covenants between God and man. It is a witness given by God to remind man about his obligations under the covenant. God also reminds man about his promises under the covenant he has made. So for example, the rainbow reminded Noah and all mankind after him that the world will never be destroyed by flood again. It also reminds God about this same promise he made to Noah and all his descendants (Gen 9:12-17).

In the covenant with Abraham, the sign of circumcision documented the covenant that God made with Abraham and all his descendants, “you and your children after you.” All of Abraham’s descendants are under this covenant forever. The promises given to Abraham – a multitude of descendants and nations and a land of their own inheritance – are confirmed with the sign of circumcision. All of his descendants are God’s people, and the sign of membership in Abraham’s family, God’s people, is circumcision.

This is why the penalty for violating this sign of the covenant is severe: “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised… shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (verse 14). To be “cut off” means the death penalty, because the penalty for violating any of God’s commandments – sin and transgression – is death.

If any of Abraham’s children are not circumcised, he is not counted as a member of his family and of God’s people. He will be treated as one of the Gentiles who are “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Circumcision then is God’s sign of confirmation and the seal of his approval of their membership in the covenant people of God.

How is this related to baptism? Baptism, according to the New Testament, is the sign and seal of belonging to God’s covenant people. What is the sign in the other sacrament of the new covenant, the Lord’s Supper? It is the bread and wine, of which Jesus commands all his people, “Take, eat; this [bread] is my body… Drink of it [wine], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:26-28).

As the bread and wine signify the broken body and shed blood of Christ and seal God’s new covenant with his people, so does water baptism signify and seal the washing away of sins under the same new covenant. Paul makes this connection directly:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off 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 powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 2:11-12).[ref]Scott Clark, in “A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism,” explains the connection:

The connection between baptism and circumcision is quite clear in Colossians 2:11-12. The connection is not direct, but indirect and the point of contact between them is Christ and baptism is the sign and seal of that circumcision. In v.11 Paul says “in him [i.e. in Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision done by Christ” and in v.12 he says exactly how it is that we were circumcised in and by Christ: “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith….”For Paul, in the New covenant, our union with Christ is our circumcision. In baptism, we are identified with Christ’s baptism/circumcision, as it were, on the cross. Neither baptism nor circumcision effects this union (ex opere operato), rather God the Spirit unites us to Christ, makes us alive and gives us faith.

The point not to be missed is that, in Paul’s mind, baptism and circumcision are both signs and seals of Christ’s baptism/circumcision on the cross for us. By faith, we are united to Christ’s circumcision and by union with Christ we become participants in his circumcision/baptism. Because circumcision pointed forward to Christ’s death and baptism looks back to Christ’s death, they are closely linked in Paul’s mind and almost interchangeable. Paul’s point here is to teach us about our union with Christ, but along the way we see how he thinks about baptism and circumcision and his thinking should inform ours.

One of the reasons that Paul so strongly opposed the imposition of circumcision upon Christians by the Judaizers is that, by faith, we have already been circumcised in Christ, of which baptism is the sign and seal.We were already identified as belonging to God and we have undergone the curse in Christ. So actual physical circumcision is, in the new covenant, unnecessary. Paul tells those who wish to circumcise themselves, to go the whole way and emasculate themselves.

The Reformation Study Bible, R.C. Sproul, gen. ed. (Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2005), 1730, explains the connection further:

As the initiating rite of the old covenant, circumcision had signified cutting away sin, undergoing a change of heart, and being included in the household of faith (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; 9:25, 26; Ezek. 44:7, 9). Dramatically, Paul says that in their baptism into Christ and into His body, these Gentiles have already been circumcised. Baptism is “the circumcision of Christ,” and it signifies the washing away of sin, personal renewal by the Spirit of God, and membership in the body of Christ (cf. v. 13; Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet. 3:21). The passage makes an important point about the unity of the covenant of grace in both the Old and New Testament era: Gentile believers are not expected to follow the old covenant mode of identification with God and His people (Acts 15). But their faith in Christ has nevertheless made them as much children of Abraham as if they were ethnic Jewish believers (Rom. 2:28, 29; Gal. 3:26”“29; Phil. 3:3). Baptism is not identical to circumcision, but it corresponds to it in essence (Rom. 4:11) and has replaced it as the sign of the covenant.


As the foremost apostle to the Gentiles, Paul knows more than any of the others about Jesus’ Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). What does “baptizing in the name of the Trinity” mean? This formula tells us that baptism signifies and seals our mystical and spiritual union with Christ in His life, death and resurrection, establishing and guaranteeing our relationship with the Triune God.

Jews who were converted to Christianity easily saw the continuity between the two signs: the old covenant circumcision and the new covenant water baptism. In Acts 15:5, some of them, formerly Pharisees, wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised. Why did they think so? Since they knew the requirement of the Mosaic law that all those who converted to Judaism were required to be circumcised, they applied the same principle to Gentiles who converted to Christianity. This connection alone would necessarily lead to the conclusion that the children of the Gentile believers would also be baptized. It would be absurd if these former Pharisees demanded the circumcision only of adult Gentiles!

So just as circumcision signified God’s ownership of Jews as his own “treasured possession [and] holy nation” (Exod 19:6), water baptism signifies God’s ownership of all Christians, whether Jews or Gentiles, as his “holy nation… a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2:9). The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 94 summarizes this doctrine, that baptism “signifies and seals our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.”

Thus, water baptism can never be the believer’s own declaration of his faith in Christ. On the contrary, it is the Triune God’s own work of washing away of the believer’s sins, “signed, sealed and delivered.”

The Giver of the Sign and Seal
Baptism is not a testimony of the believer about his faith; it is not about himself and what he has done. Rather, it signified what God has done for him: forgiveness of sins, being washed clean of all his uncleannesses.

In baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper, God is “all the more fully declar[ing] and seal[ing] to us the promise of the Gospel, namely, that of free grace He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 66). Because baptism signifies “renew[al] by the Holy Spirit and sanctifi[cation] to be members of Christ, so that we may… lead holy and blameless lives” (HC 70), it signifies work that the Triune God alone can accomplish in saving sinners.

Since Adam and Eve fell to sin in the Garden of Eden, God took the initiative in man’s redemption from sin and death, shedding the blood of an animal to cover the nakedness of their sin. To break this curse of sin and death on mankind, God sent his Servant Son to be “cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people,” (Isa 53:8) to fulfill the requirements and promises of the covenant.

When this Servant was born, he was born under the Law, and was given the sign of circumcision. But not only his foreskin was cut off; on the cross, his whole body was “cut off.” Just as Abraham’s only covenant son was cut off and raised from the dead, figuratively (Heb 11:19), so would the only-begotten Son of God be literally cut off and raised from the dead.

In baptism, God unites us with his Son by the Holy Spirit, so Paul makes this connection between baptism and union with Christ:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:3-4).

A Christian is united to Christ from the moment he believes. His old sinful self is crucified with Christ, and a new creature is raised with Christ in his resurrection.

And with a resurrected soul, he now is able to walk in newness of life. How is he able to do this, since he still has to contend with his sinful nature? Again, God has provided the means for him: the Son who was cut off in his “baptism” on the cross is also the One who will pour out his Spirit of holiness on the believer who was united to him in baptism. This is why John, who baptized with a baptism of repentance, in denying that he was the coming Messiah, revealed, “I have baptized you with water, but [the Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

Three and a half years later, Christ died, was raised from the grave, and ascended into heaven. From there, he poured out his Spirit on his disciples, baptizing them with the Spirit, just as John prophesied about the Lamb of God. On the same day, Peter later announced to the throngs in Jerusalem attending the Passover Feast, that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Cut to the heart, the Jews asked the apostles what they must do, and Peter commanded them:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:36-39).

If they repented and believed, their sins would be forgiven, and baptism would be applied to them as a sign and seal of being cleansed of sin, to them and to their children.

The Recipients of the Sign and Seal
Who receives the sign and seal of baptism? In the introduction, I mentioned most of the misunderstandings about infant baptism. For example, John MacArthur said that the practice of infant baptism is “devilish” because “it’s not in the Bible.” Many Reformed and Presbyterian pastors and teachers were infuriated by this “devilish” claim, including myself. We believe the Baptist position is wrong, but unlike MacArthur, we never call their view as “devilish.”[ref]For a point-by-point response to John MacArthur’s sermon, “Is Infant Baptism Biblical?” see Limerick Reformed Fellowship’s “A Review of John MacArthur’s Five Arguments Against Infant Baptism.”[/ref]I have heard such a charge so many times that this seems to be the last resort for Baptists and Arminians when they are confronted by overwhelming Scriptural and historical evidence.

As was mentioned earlier, Paul points out the connection between the two signs of membership in God’s covenant nation: circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12. In Genesis 17, who were circumcised? It was Abraham, who was 99 years old, because he already had faith, which was counted to him righteousness. Before he was given the sign of membership into God’s covenant people, he already had faith for at least 24 years. So we baptize adults.

Who else? Ishmael was circumcised when he was a 13-year-old teenager. Did he have faith? Apparently not, because he turned out to be an unbeliever. Many circumcised Israelites later turned out to be unsaved, dying in the wilderness under God’s wrath.

Infant baptism in a 3rd-century painting in the Catacombs of San Callisto
Infant baptism in a 3rd-century painting in the Catacombs of San Callisto

This is why we do not say that the act of baptism can save the baptized person. For adults, they are the sign of their profession of faith. For infants and young children like Ishmael, baptism is a promise to both parents and children of their forgiveness of sins when they come to faith in Christ. The visible church can never be a church made up only of true believers.

Who else was circumcised under God’s covenant with Abraham? It was Isaac, when he was eight days old. Did Abraham know if Isaac would come to faith? No, he did not. But God commanded him to circumcise his children, not because Isaac already had faith, but because he was the child of Abraham, and the covenant was between Abraham and all his children forever.

To be a member of God’s people and to distinguish them from their pagan neighbors, God commanded all Jews to be circumcised. Israel was separated as God’s chosen nation from “among all peoples,” his own treasured possession, and as a holy priesthood to serve God (Exod 19:5-6).

So also is baptism. When we baptize our children, we are saying to the congregation and to the children, that they are distinct and separate from those outside the church. They are not pagans, and we treat them as elect children, unless they later in life reject God’s covenant membership through unfaithfulness and rebellion against God. They are baptized

to be ingrafted into the Christian church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament baptism is appointed (HC 74).

So baptism of little children is not about whether the children have faith or not, because we do not know. Only that baptism is their initiation and ingrafting by God into the Christian church. But even if it is about faith, most Christians wrongly assume that children cannot have faith. We know that both Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), David (Psa 22:9-10), and John the Baptist (Luke 1:41) were already elect children even when they were still in their mother’s womb.

Lastly, most evangelicals say that there is no explicit command in the New Testament to baptize infants. But there is no explicit command to give the Lord’s Supper to women, or to believe in the Trinity, or to change the Sabbath to the first day of the week. We believe these to be true based on “good and necessary consequence,” by which doctrines that are truly taught in Scripture, yet are not explicitly stated, are legitimately inferred from one or more passages. (The reverse of this is “free will,” which most evangelicals believe is biblical, but is nowhere taught or even mentioned in the Bible.)

The New Testament is explicit only when an Old Testament command is made obsolete: for example, animal sacrifices and other ceremonial laws, and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Applying the principle of deduction in the case of baptism, the New Testament does not mention the baptism of little children because there is continuity from the Old Testament circumcision to New Testament baptism, as Paul explained in Colossians 2:11-12.

As well, we see many “household baptisms” in the New Testament. In fact, I would say not only five in the Book of Acts and 1 Corinthians, but thousands. Why? Because there were 3,000 Jewish men who professed faith on the day of Pentecost. And since we see the pattern of baptizing whole households in Acts, surely many, if not most, of these households were baptized with the heads of households who believed. It is a huge stretch of the imagination – nay, an impossibility! – to say that there is not even one little child among these thousands of households.

Why are we so sure that children are included in a household? Because in the early New Testament church, and even in the Old Testament, we know who constitute a household: parents, children, servants, and sojourners. In Greek, the word is oikos. In his letter to Polycarp early in the 2nd century (105-115 A.D.; note that the apostle John died ca. 90-95 A.D.), Ignatius of Antioch sent his greetings to all, “I salute all by name, and especially the wife of Epitropus with her whole oikos and her children.” Again, in his letter to the church in Smyrna, he sent his greetings, ”I salute the oikous of my brethren with their wives and children.”

The whole of Scripture refers to all the members of the family – husband, wife, children – as a household. God referred to Abraham and his household in Genesis 18:19, “For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his oikos after him to keep the way of the Lord.” When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for food, the Pharaoh told Joseph to tell his brothers to “take your father and your households” and live in Egypt. Who belonged to the households of Joseph’s family? They include “your little ones” and “your wives” (Gen 45:18-19).

Moreover, it is clear that when the head of household believes, the whole household is baptized, whether they believe or not. Many evangelicals again assume that in the case of Lydia in Acts 16, she believed and all those who heard the gospel in her house believed. But what do we read in Acts 16:14-15? “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul… she was baptized, and her household as well.” In the case of the Philippian jailer, Luke says, “And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God” (Acts 16:34).

The pattern is clear: Whenever God establishes a covenant with man, it is with the covenant head and his descendants after him. And the faith of the covenant head of household is followed by the baptism of his whole household.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, rejoice this morning with the Ong families. They have made their public profession of their faith in Christ and his work of salvation for themselves. Always remember this day, because you have witnessed how they have been faithful to God’s commands.

But their profession and baptism do not end today. It must continue until the end of their lives, or until our Lord returns. So baptism is an ever-continuing reality. You are continually being reminded of Christ’s “baptism” on the cross to wash you of your uncleannesses by his Spirit, signified and sealed by your baptism with water. And being washed by the Spirit of Christ is your daily purpose as you mature more and more in faith.

You who are Gentiles by birth are the true circumcision by virtue of your “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (verse 12). You are truly circumcised “who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:3). When God has truly circumcised your heart, ”you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). Then, and only then, will your profession of faith and your baptism be confirmed. Your love for God and your good works also confirm that you indeed are Abraham’s spiritual children in Christ (John 8:39, 42; Gal 3:29).

We continually praise the Triune God because we do not deserve his kindness, mercy and love in Christ. You do not deserve to be members of his covenant household, the covenant people. Yet he has made you members in your profession of faith and in your baptism, you and your children, and your children’s children after you, “to the thousandth generation of those who love God and keep his commandments.”