Circumcision and Baptism and their inescapable connection                                                                               by Jack Kettler 

Characteristics of Circumcision:

In Genesis 17:9-14 we see the introduction and connection of circumcision with God’s covenant.  

9 And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. 11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. 12 And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. 13 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. 14 And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.

We learn among many things in this passage that this covenant involving circumcision is an everlasting covenant. The idea of covenant is the interpretive grid for understanding the Scriptures and the idea of covenant which plays a central role in Protestant Reformed Presbyterian theology. Said another way, Reformed theology sees the idea of covenant as the model for understanding how God works with man in Scripture. In short, covenant theology is the idea that God enters into a contract or agreement with mankind. It will be beneficial to look at a couple quotes by two historic theologians, to gain a better understanding of this.

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) was professor of theology at Geneva and an outstanding Reformed theologian:

“A covenant denotes the agreement of God with man by which God promises his goods (and especially eternal life to him), and by man, in turn, duty and worship are engaged...This is called two‐sided and mutual because it consists of a mutual obligation of the contracting parties: a promise on the part of God and stipulation of the condition on the part of man.”1

Herman Witsius, was a Dutch theologian, pastor, and a leading professor of the seventeenth century:

“A covenant of God with man, is an agreement between God, about the way of obtaining consummate happiness; including a commination of eternal destruction, with which the contemner of the happiness, offered in that way, is to be punished.”2

“And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)

The significance of the Deutronomic passage is that we see the introduction of a spiritual aspect to circumcision. Circumcision of the heart is not physical, but spiritual.

“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” (Romans 4:11)

Paul in Romans introduces us to the idea that circumcision is a sign and seal of righteousness. We also learn that Abraham had righteous faith before he was physically circumcised and believers can have this same righteousness imputed to them without the physical mark of circumcision. This understanding confirms that there is a spiritual aspect to the sign and seal of circumcision.

“Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings.” (Jeremiah 4:4)

The prophet continues to develop the spiritual aspect of circumcision. The importance of the spiritual characteristic of the sign and seal will continue to emerge.    

“And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6)

In this passage, we see something new, namely, that “God will circumcision thine heart, and the heart of thy seed.” God does the action or circumcision of the heart and in addition, gives hope to the recipient’s posterity. (emphasis mine)

“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” (Colossians 2:13)

The apostle in this New Testament passage authenticates the idea of God doing the action on man’s heart when he says; “And you…hath he quickened.”

This teaching of God doing the action is so significant, we should consult commentator Matthew Poole:

“And you, being dead in your sins: he further shows they had no need of circumcision in the flesh, Ephesians 2:11, having all in Christ for justification as well as sanctification, though they (as well as the Ephesians, see Ephesians 2:1,5) were by nature spiritually dead in sins, deprived of the life of grace, and separated from the life of glory.

And the uncircumcision of your flesh; and having the foreskin of their flesh in paganism; which was true literally, but, considering the internal circumcision, Colossians 2:11, the apostle’s expression here is to be expounded of the internal corruption of our nature, the uncircumcised heart, original corruption derived unto all by carnal propagation, which is predominant in the unregenerate. These being dead as to the life of grace, Matthew 8:22 John 5:25 Romans 8:7 1 Corinthians 2:14 1 Timothy 5:6.

Hath he quickened together with him; you who were strangers from the life of God, Ephesians 4:18, hath he now quickened or revived to a spiritual life with him here, and hereafter to eternal life, 1 Corinthians 15:22.

Having forgiven you all trespasses; having freely pardoned to you (the word noting a free affection to give and forgive, 2 Corinthians 2:10 Ephesians 4:32) all your sins, after as well as before baptism, which is the sign and seal of it, Psalm 103:3; so that the Spirit of Christ doth not only infuse a principle of grace, and implant a living and abiding seed to work out vicious habits, but God, upon the account of Christ’s plenary satisfaction, doth freely remove all the guilt that binds over to eternal death, and doth not impute to believers any of their sins in whole or in part, but treateth them as if they had committed none at all, Matthew 26:28 Acts 10:43 Ephesians 1:7 Hebrews 9:15, and will remember them no more, so that when they are sought for they shall not be found, Jeremiah 31:34 50:20 Hebrews 10:17. What the papists say of the fault being remitted, when the punishment may be exacted either in whole or in part, that they may have a pretence for human satisfactions, (the groundlessness of which was hinted, Colossians 1:24), is a mere figment of the schools, against Scripture and reason.” 3

Pool does a remarkable job of connecting numerous passage of Holy Scripture that demonstrate God’s gracious action that He works on the heart of sinful man.

“And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him.’ (Genesis 21:4)

In this Genesis text, we see another truth emerged, God’s command to place the sign and seal upon his son Isaac.  

“And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, speak unto the children of Israel, saying, if a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” (Leviticus 12:1-3)

In this Leviticus passage, we see the command to place the sign and seal of the covenant upon all male children. This is in harmony with our introductory text from Genesis 17. In particular: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10)

“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised.” (Jeremiah 9:25)

Jeremiah introduces an important teaching that the sign of circumcision does not guarantee protection from judgment.

Paul develops this in greater detail:

“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11, 12)

According to Paul, Abraham was already imputed righteous before having the actual physical sign. And furthermore, anyone can have this righteous imputed to them also without the sign. God commands the covenant sign be placed upon Abraham and his children of faith, yet the sign does not convey saving grace in and of itself. The sign is a mark which sets a community of people apart from others. It is important, yet, what the sign signifies is even more important, imputed righteousness the result of true faith. It is possible to have the sign and be outside the covenant of grace.

Textual examples of having the outward sign yet outside the covenant:

“Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.” (Genesis 25:34)

And Paul further elaborates; “As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. (Romans 9:130      

These two passages prove that the utmost importance of having the sign and seal of the covenant placed upon yourself and children by God’s command, does not guarantee imputed righteousness and salvation.

Characteristics of Baptism:

In the Old Testament, the outward sign and seal of the covenant circumcision was said to be everlasting in Genesis 17. What has happened to this sign in the New Testament?

A review of Paul’s teaching on circumcision will be helpful:      

“And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also.” (Romans 4:11)

“In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12)

As already noted, the sign and seal of the covenant did not convey righteousness by the act itself. The righteousness was imputed by faith apart from the physical act. In the Colossians text, Paul introduces baptism along with circumcision. Is this an afterthought or a disjointed sentence? Is there a connection between the two thoughts, circumcision and baptism in Paul’s teaching?

It will be helpful to see how Paul begins to draw together his teaching on the covenant, circumcision and baptism:

“Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:11-13)

In the next three passages, it almost seems like Paul has forgotten circumcision? He has not, he is now connecting baptism the New Covenant’s outward sign and seal with becoming righteous in Christ.

“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.” (Titus 3:5)

“For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)

Paul, in the New Testament, teaches that our union with Christ is circumcision of the heart and not the flesh. As we learned earlier, the sign and seal were ultimately spiritual in nature. In baptism, we are identified with both Christ's baptism and His circumcision. See previously referred to, Colossians 2:11-12. Neither baptism nor circumcision causes or effects this uniting together by the outward act. The Holy Spirit joins us to Christ. It is spiritual.

And, like circumcision, baptism is a one-time act and like circumcision it is commanded by the Lord. In addition, baptism signifies union with God in the covenant. Circumcision, points forward to Christ’s work and baptism points back to Christ’s work. Circumcision has not disappeared in the New Testament, it has changed forms. This must be the case, otherwise we have a contradiction between the Old and New Testaments. Remember, circumcision was an everlasting covenant. What is the solution to this apparent dilemma? In the concluding section, this will be dwelt with.  

Back to the issue at hand. Another similarity, baptism like circumcision was administered to the heads of households along with their offspring as we see in the next two passages.

“And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, if ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us.” (Acts 16:15)

“And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.” (Acts 16:33)

The apostle Peter likewise connects baptism with children:

“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

Like circumcision, baptism is connected to becoming righteous. And like circumcision, baptism does not actually result in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the member of the covenant. It is spiritual and this righteousness, like Abraham received, can come before and separate from the physical cutting of the flesh.

Can someone be saved without baptism? Consider:

“And a superscription also was written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew, This Is the King Of The Jews. And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, if thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:38-43)

Was the thief baptized? Was he saved? Christ’s word to the thief is the answer.

So according to Paul, baptism and circumcision are both signs and seals of Christ's covenant of redemption. Due to the fact circumcision pointed ahead to Christ's death and baptism points back to Christ's death, they are closely connected in Paul teaching and virtually interchangeable.

Now for the answer to the dilemma on the Old Testament everlasting covenant of circumcision. This concluding section with answer more than just dilemma on circumcision. The following is taken from my book, The Religion That Started in a Hat on pp. 205-206

What is the Hebrew word for everlasting? It is 'olam. 

“Upon closer examination of the Hebrew word 'olam, we can raise the question, does this mean that a practice commanded in Scripture will last forever? First, we can admit that it's possible when dealing with the usage of 'olam that a practice mentioned may last forever. However, the context of a passage is important when making this determination. Admitting that 'olam may literally mean forever does not invalidate the fact the there are numerous indicators that 'olam can also be used to describe a practice that will end or change forms going from the Older Covenant into the New. In particular, 'olam is used regarding ordinances in the Older Covenant which were to be kept by the people of Israel and not carried over into the New Covenant Church practice in their Older Covenant forms. It should be noted that there are significant discontinuities and continuities in redemptive history when moving from the Older Covenant into the New Covenant era.

Examples of the time limitations of 'olam:

For example:

Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. (Exodus 21:6)

In this passage 'olam stresses permanence and that the man would be a servant forever. This verse is explicit in conveying the idea of a limitation of time. The prima facie limitation in this verse is the life-span of the servant.

Another example is the Feast of unleavened bread:

So, you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance. (Exodus 12:17)

The discontinuity is that the New Covenant Church no longer celebrates the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The continuity is that this Feast is fulfilled in Christ.

Consider the Passover:

Now this day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you are to celebrate it as a permanent ordinance. (Exodus 12:14)

The discontinuity is that the New Covenant Church no longer celebrates the Passover feast. The continuity is that all of the Older Covenant feasts including the Passover find fulfillment in the Lord's Supper.

The Sabbath Day to be kept on the seventh day:

Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. 'It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:16-17)

The discontinuity is that the day has been changed to the First Day of the week in celebration of the resurrection of Christ. The continuity is that God's people are to still honor Him by resting for our labors after six days of work. (Hebrews 4:9) In the Greek text, the word for “rest” in Hebrews 4:9 is sabbatismos. It means “a Sabbath rest.” Young's Literal Translation captures this well when we read: “There doth remain, then, a sabbatic rest to the people of God;” Hebrews 4:9.

Then there is the example of circumcision:

And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17:7-10)

The discontinuity is that circumcision is no longer required in the New Covenant. The continuity is that circumcision is replaced by baptism in the New Covenant era as the mark of the covenant.”

In conclusion:

In reality, there is no dilemma at all between circumcision and baptism and everlasting command once you understand the continuity and discontinuities between the testaments. Circumcision changed forms going into the New Covenant and the essence of the covenant is administered now by baptism. In addition, the blessings of the covenantal sign have been expanded to include not just males, but now females. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

The sacraments (Circumcision and Passover) of the Old Covenant regarding spiritual things that were signified, were, in substance, the same with those of the New Covenant (Baptism and Communion). Old Covenant sacraments were types and shadows that pointed to Christ and His mediatorial work.

Hence, circumcision and baptism have the same meaning although different forms were use, in substance, their spiritual realities are identical. The replacement of circumcision with baptism represented the change brought about by the ending of the age where types, shadows and symbols pointed the spiritual realities fulfilled by Christ. In its infancy, the church was represented by Israel and its sacrificial system point to the Christ the Lamb of God, the true sacrifice. The apostle’s apologetic largely showed the Jews how Christ fulfilled the types and shadows of the sacrificial system. Coram Deo … before the face of God!

An explanation of the Sacraments:

1. Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.

2. There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.

3. The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.

4. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.

5. The sacraments of the old testament, in regard of the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 27, Of the Sacraments.


1.      Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, translated by G. M. Giger (Phillipsburg, 1992), Locus 8, Q3, para 3 (1.574).

2.      Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Reformation Heritage Books, reprinted 2010), p. 45.

3.      Matthew Pool, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hedrickson Publishers, reprinted 1982), pp. 717, 718.

Recommended Reading:

Studies in Dogmatics: The Sacraments, by G. C. Berkouwer, Eerdmans Publishing Company

4 Vol. Classic Baptism; Judaic baptism; Johannic Baptism; Christic Baptism and Patristic Baptism, by James W. Dale, P & R Publishing

Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, by Everett Ferguson, Eerdmans Publishing Company

Baptism in the Reformed Tradition: An Historical and Practical Theology (Columbia Series in Reformed Theology) by John W. Riggs, Westminster John Knox Press

Word, Water & Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, by J. V. Fesko, Reformation Heritage Books

Christian Baptism, by John Murray, P & R Publishing

Infant Baptism: Scriptural and Reasonable, by Samuel Miller, Palala Press

Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, by Paul K. Jewett, Eerdmans Publishing Company

Children of the Promise, by Robert R. Booth, P & R Publishing

William the Baptist, by James M. Chaney, Bake Book House

Immersion or Sprinkling? Which is the Biblical Mode, by Duane E. Spencer, Geneva Ministries

Sign and Seals of the Covenant, by C.G. Kirkby, Evangelical Book Shop

Baptism, by Francis A. Schaeffer, TriMark Pub

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against cultic attacks. Available at: