Question #416

Does baptism replace circumcision?

Does baptism replace circumcision?

The Answer:

"No" is the brief answer. However, one must read further to understand the relationship and/or the differences between circumcision and baptism. Submitted for that purpose are the comments of J.W. McGarvey from his commentary on Acts 16: 3:

Paul wished him to go forth with him, and took him, and circumcised him on account of the Jews who were in those quarters; for they all knew that his father was a Greek.

The circumcision of Timothy is quite a remarkable event in the history of Paul, and presents a serious injury as to the consistency of his teaching and of his practice, in reference to this Abrahamic rite. It demands of us, at this place, as full consideration as our limits will admit.

The real difficulty of the case is made apparent by putting into juxtaposition two of Paul's statements, and two of his deeds. He says to the Corinthians, "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing" (1 Corinthians 7:19); yet to the Galatians he writes: "Behold, I, Paul, say to you, that if you are circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" (Galatians 5:2). When he was in Jerusalem upon the appeal of the Antioch Church, brethren urgently insisted that he should circumcise Titus, who was with him, but he sternly refused, and says, "I gave place to them by subjection, no, not for an hour" (Galatians 2:3-5). Yet we see him in the case before us, circumcising Timothy with his own hand, and this "on account of certain Jews who were in those quarters." In order to reconcile these apparently conflicting facts and statements, we must have all the leading facts concerning this rite before us.

We observe, first, that in the language of Jesus, circumcision "is not of Moses, but of the fathers" (John 7:22). The obligation which the Jews were under to observe it was not originated by the law of Moses, or the covenant of Mount Sinai; but existed independent of that covenant and the law, having originated four hundred and thirty years before the law (Galatians 3:17). The connection between the law and circumcision originated in the fact that the law was given to a part of the circumcised descendants of Abraham. We say a part of his descendants, because circumcision was enjoined upon his descendants through Ishmael, through the sons of Keturah, and through Esau, as well as upon the Jews [1 Chronicles 1:28-42]. Since, then, the law did not originate the obligation to be circumcised, the abrogation of the law could not possibly annul that obligation. He shall be forced, therefore, to the conclusion, that it still continues since the law, unless we find it annulled by the apostles.

Again: its perpetuity is enjoined in the law of its institution. God said to Abraham: "He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised, and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant" (Genesis 17:9-14). An everlasting covenant is one which continues as long as both parties to it continue to exist. The covenant concerning Canaan was everlasting, because it continued as long as the twelve tribes continued an organized people to live in it. The covenant of Aaron's priestly dignity was everlasting, because it continued in Aaron's family as long as such a priesthood had an existence. So the covenant of circumcision must be everlasting, because it is to continue as long as the flesh of Abraham is perpetuated. This will be till the end of time; hence circumcision has not ceased, and can not cease, till the end of the world. This conclusion can not be set aside, unless we find something in the nature of gospel institutions inconsistent with it, or some express release of circumcised Christians from its continued observance.

It is, then, inconsistent with any gospel institution? Pedobaptists assume that it was a seal of righteousness, and a rite of initiation into the Church; and as baptism now occupies that position, it necessarily supplants circumcision. It is true, that Paul says: "Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while yet uncircumcised" [Romans 4:11]; but what it was to Abraham, it never was not any of his offspring, seeing that the child eight days old could not possibly have any righteousness of faith while yet uncircumcised, of which circumcision could be the seal. Again: it was not to the Jew an initiatory rite. For, first, the law of God prescribing to Abraham the terms of the covenant says: "The uncircumcised man-child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant" (Genesis 17:14). Now, no man can be cut off from a people who is not previously of them. Regarding the Jewish commonwealth, therefore, as a Church, the infant of eight days was already in the Church by natural birth, and circumcision, instead of bringing him into it, was a condition of his remaining in it. In the second place, this conclusion from the terms of the covenant is made indisputable by a prominent fact in Jewish history. While the twelve tribes were in the wilderness forty years, none of the children born were circumcised. The six hundred thousand men over twenty years of age who left Egypt all died in the wilderness, and an equal number were born in the same period; for the whole number of men at the end of the journey was the same as at the beginning (Numbers 1:45, 46; compare Numbers 26:51, 63-65). When they crossed the Jordan, therefore, there were six hundred thousand male Jews, some of them forty years of age, who had not been circumcised, yet they had been entering the Jewish Church during a period of forty years. After crossing the Jordan Joshua commanded them to be circumcised, and it was done (Joshua 5:2-7). This fact not only demonstrates that circumcision was not to the Jews an initiatory rite, but throws light upon its real design. The covenant of circumcision was ingrafted upon the promise to Abraham of an innumerable fleshly offspring, to keep them a distinct people, and to enable the world to identify them, thereby recognizing the fulfillment of the promise, and also the fulfillment of various prophesies concerning them. In accordance with this design, while they were in the wilderness, in no danger of intermingling with other nations, the institution was neglected. But, as soon as they enter the populous land of Canaan, where there is danger of such intermingling, the separating mark is put upon them.

From these two considerations, we see that there is no inconsistency between circumcision and baptism, even if the latter is admitted to be a seal of righteousness of faith, which language is nowhere applied to it in the Scriptures. Neither is there inconsistency between it and any thing in the gospel scheme; for Paul declares: "In Jesus Christ, neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which works by love" (Galatians 5:6). Thence, he enjoins: "Is any man called, being circumcised, let him not be uncircumcised; is any called in uncircumcision, let him not be circumcised" (1 Corinthians 7:18). So far as faith in Christ, and acceptability with him are concerned, circumcision makes a man neither better nor worse, and is, of course, not inconsistent with the obedience of faith in any respect whatever.

We next inquire, Are there any apostolic precepts which release converted Jews from the original obligation to perpetuate this rite? Paul does say, "If you are circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" (Galatians 5:2); and this, certainly, is a prohibition to the parties to whom it is addressed. If it was addressed to Jewish Christians, then it is certainly wrong for the institution to be perpetuated among them. But neither Paul nor any of the apostles so understood it. That Paul did not is proved by the fact that he circumcised Timothy; and that the other apostles did not, is proved conclusively by the conference which took place in Jerusalem upon Paul's last visit to that place. James says to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are who believe, and they are all zealous of the law. And they are informed of you, that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children, neither to walk after the customs. Do this, therefore, that we say to you. We have four men which have a vow on them. Take them, and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses, in order that they may shave their heads, and all may know that the things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself walk orderly, and keep the law" (Acts 21:20-24). This speech shows that James considered it slanderous to say that Paul taught the Jews not to circumcise their children; and Paul's ready consent to the proposition made to him shows that he agreed with James. Yet this occurred after he had written the epistle to the Galatians, in which he says, "If you are circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing" [Galatians 5:2]. There could not be clearer proof that this remark was not intended for Jewish Christians.

Even James, in the speech from which we have just quoted, makes a distinction, in reference to this rite, between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians. He says: "Concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written, having decided that they observe no such thing; save, only, that they keep themselves from idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication" (Acts 21:25). This remark refers to the decree issued by the apostles from Jerusalem, which Paul was carrying with him at the time that he circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:4). It should be observed, that there never did arise among the disciples any difference of opinion as to the propriety of circumcising Jews. This was granted by all. But the controversy had exclusive reference to the Gentiles; and the fact that the Judaizers based their plea for circumcising Gentiles upon the continued validity of the rite among the Jews, is one of the strongest proof that all the disciples considered it perpetual. If Paul, in disputing with them, could have said, that, by the introduction of the gospel, circumcision was abolished even among the Jews, he would have subverted, at once, the very foundation of their argument. But this fundamental assumption was admitted and acted upon by Paul himself, and no inspired man ever called it in question.

That it was the Gentiles alone who were forbidden to be circumcised, is further evident from the context of this prohibition in Galatians. This epistle was addressed to Gentiles, as is evident from the remark in the fourth chapter, "Howbeit, then, when you knew not God, you did service to them who by nature are no gods?" [Galatians 4:8]. The circumcision of the Gentiles is not, however, considered apart from the purpose for which it was done. It is often the purpose alone which gives moral character to an action; and in this case it gave to this action its chief moral turpitude. The purpose for which the Judaizers desired the Gentiles to be circumcised was that they might be brought under the law as a means of justification. Hence Paul adds to the declaration we are considering: "I testify again to every man who submits to circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. You have ceased from Christ, whoever of you are being justified by the law, you have fallen away from favor" (Galatians 5:3, 4). This can not refer to Jews, for it would make Paul himself and all the Jewish Christians "debtors to do the whole law"; a conclusion in direct conflict with one of the main arguments of this epistle (Galatians 3:23-25). It must, then, refer to Gentiles who were considering the propriety of circumcision as a condition of justification by the law.

We can now account for Paul's stern refusal to circumcise Titus. He was a Gentile, and could not with propriety be circumcised unless he desired to unite himself nationally with the Jewish people. But if, with Paul's consent, he should do this, his example would be used as a precedent to justify all other Gentile disciples in doing the same; and thus, in a short time, circumcision would cease to be a distinguishing mark of the offspring of Abraham, and the original design of the rite would be subverted. Moreover, to have circumcised him under the demand that was made by the Pharisees, would have been a virtual admission that it was necessary to justification, which could not be admitted without abandoning the liberty of Christ for the bondage of the law.

The case of Timothy was quite different. He was a half-blood Jew, and therefore belonged, in part, to the family of Abraham. He could be circumcised, not on the ground of its being necessary as a part of a system of justification by law, but because he was an heir of the everlasting covenant with Abraham. This, however, was not the chief reason for which Paul circumcised him, for Luke says it was "on account of the Jews who dwelt in those quarters; for they all knew that his father was a Greek." In this reason there are two considerations combined, the latter qualifying the former. The fact that his father was known to be a Greek is given to account for the fact that Paul yielded to the prejudices of the Jews. If his father and mother both had been Jews, Paul might have acted from the binding nature of the Abrahamic covenant. Or if both had been Greeks, he would have disregarded the clamor of the Jews, as he had done in the case of Titus. But the mixed parentage of Timothy made his case a peculiar one. The marriage of his mother to a Greek was contrary to the law of Moses (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Whether the offspring from such a marriage should be circumcised, or not, the law did not determine. The Jewish rabbis taught that the mother should not circumcise the child without the consent of the father,i which was to admit that his circumcision was not obligatory. Paul did not, then, feel bound by the Abrahamic covenant to circumcise him, but did so to conciliate the "Jews who dwelt in those quarters," who had, doubtless, already objected to the prominent position assigned to one in Timothy's anomalous condition. It was, as all the commentators agree, a matter of expediency; but not, as they also contend, because it was indifferent whether any one were circumcised or not, but because it was indifferent whether one like Timothy were circumcised or not. It was an expediency that applied only to the case of a half-blood Jew with a Greek father; and it would, therefore, be most unwarrantable to extend it to the case of full-blooded Jews.

The remark of Paul that "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God" (1 Corinthians 7:18-20), is readily explained in the light of the above remarks, and of its own context. It is immediately preceded by these words: "Is any man called being circumcised, let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision, let him not be circumcised." And it is immediately followed by these words: "Let every man abide in the calling wherein he is called." So far, then, is this text from making it indifferent whether a Christian become circumcised or not, that it positively forbids those who had been in uncircumcision before they were called, to be circumcised; while it equally forbids the other party to render themselves uncircumcised; which expression means to act as if they were uncircumcised by neglecting it in reference to their children. For to become uncircumcised literally is impossible. That circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision nothing, means, therefore, simply that it is indifferent whether a man had been, before he was called, a Jew or a Gentile; but it is far from indicating that it is innocent in a Jew to neglect this rite, or in a Gentile to observe it.

If we have properly collated the apostolic teaching on this subject, the conclusion of the whole matter is this: that Christian Jews, Ishmaelites, or Edomites, are under the same obligation to circumcise their children that the twelve tribes were in Egypt, and that the descendants of Ishmael and Esau were during the period of the law of Moses. This being so, the pedobaptist conceit that baptism has taken the place of circumcision is shown to be absurd, by the fact that circumcision still occupies its own place. It is undeniable that during the whole apostolic period Jewish disciples observed both baptism and circumcision, and as both these could not occupy the same place at the same time, their proper places must be different. According to apostolic precedent, both should still continue among the Jews; neither one taking the place of the other, but one serving as a token of the fleshly covenant with Abraham, the other as an institution of the new covenant, and a condition, both to Jew and Gentile, of the remission of sins.

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)