Isn’t it interesting how someone’s own ideas can cloud how they interpret an event or topic? Two people can look at the same event taking place in the front yard, and come away with two different ideas of the significance of what happened. This can happen with Scripture as well, and as an example, we’ll take a look at baptism.
What does baptism represent? We know Scripture commands it, but do we ever stop to consider what it really represents? The picture is a beautiful one, but unfortunately, some have misunderstood it.
There are several views about Baptism, but I am going to focus on one: the one proposed by a particular branch of Federal Vision Theology. Fancy term, but basically, it is a more extreme vein of the belief that the Church replaced Israel. There is great debate about that issue, but I believe Scripture is clear—they are separate entities. Absolutely, Gentiles are brought into the covenant through the blood of Christ, but Israel still has a place in God’s plan. Don’t believe me? Just read Daniel 9 and Romans 11.
But anyway, back to baptism. Some people have claimed that baptism is the new circumcision. To some degree, the claim may sound true. However, Douglas Wilson in his book “To A Thousand Generations—Infant Baptism” argues for exactly that: infant baptism. This is not for salvation, but brings the child into “the covenant community” of believers, similar to the way infants were circumcised in Israel (Wilson Kindle Locations 109-110, 769-1496). The argument can get confusing as to what exactly he means.
When we come to the Scripture and search for such a teaching, we will simply not find it. There is no verse in Scripture that advocates infant baptism. On the other hand, we find time and time again the principle and command to baptize believers (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38; Acts 10:47; etc.). Baptism pictures what Christ did in dying for our sins and rising again, and it is our profession that we identify with Him in that (cf. Romans 6:3-5). It is our proclamation that we believe. An infant simply cannot do that.
So in a strict sense, baptism is not circumcision. There is not a one-to-one correlation of everything about Israel that finds its counterpart in the Church. However, there is a truth about circumcision that is the same. That truth is that real circumcision is not physical at all.
Interestingly enough, this is found in both Testaments. God speaks through Jeremiah to Israel, saying, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). The Lord was tired of the outward obedience that was a mere façade for the inner rebelliousness of His people. He was calling them back to a true relationship with Himself.
We find the exact same message in the New Testament. For instance, Paul writes:
“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 that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”Romans 2:28, 29
These verses clearly state that circumcision is not a physical act. And as Paul develops this concept of who the people of God are in Romans, he continues to refute that circumcision has any real part in that. As he does so, not once does he bring up baptism as a replacement for circumcision. In fact, by the time he has brought up baptism, he has already described how we are justified. He says we have been “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1). This is by faith.
Although Paul does mention a “baptism” in connection with “the circumcision of Christ,” he makes it clear that this is a spiritual baptism that is “through faith,” not a physical act (Colossians 2:11, 12). This is not to be confused with immersion in water that a believer receives.
So in other words, circumcision and baptism are two separate things. Today, true circumcision is a heart that turns to God in faith and cries out for salvation. Baptism is a picture, a reflection of Christ’s death and a testimony of the inner circumcision that has already happened.
Those like Wilson can make some pretty strong arguments, but I think they are looking at Scripture through the wrong lens. Instead of coming to the Bible and letting it speak for itself, they seem to have assumed that the Church is the new Israel, and therefore look for ways to explain how that works practically.
I’m not writing to defame Wilson or any of those like him. Instead, I am trying to point out that we must be careful that we don’t bring our own ideas to the Word of God and try to make the Bible fit it. This can be hard to guard against, but we must stand firm against it. We need to yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, refuse to cling to our own ideas, and see what God has to teach us from His Word. He will do it, but we must listen to what He has to say.
Wilson, Douglas. To A Thousand Generations—Infant Baptism: Covenant Mercy For The People Of God, Kindle Edition. (Moscow: Canon Press, 1996). Kindle Locations 109-110, 769-1497.