Q. If infants were circumcised, why shouldn’t they be baptized?

A photo of an infant receiving the sprinkling that many call baptism
An infant receives what many believe to be proper baptism based on their understanding that baptism is the New Testament continuation of circumcision.

A. In the Old Testament, we read that someone entered the Abrahamic Covenant, and the Old Covenant (Law of Moses) which God temporarily appended to it (Galatians 3:19), by being born into the lineage of Abraham (or by being sold into it) and then being circumcised (Genesis 17:9-12). Many in Christendom today say virtually the same thing in their teachings concerning infant baptism. Essentially, they assert that Christians enter the Covenant by being born into the right lineage (having Christian parents) and then being baptized. They claim that circumcision and baptism are just two outward signs of the same thing. Thus, they say, if infants were circumcised in the Old Testament, they can be baptized now. I’ll explain how this argument is based upon false assumptions and also deflate the proof texts infant baptizers often use to support their case.

Two Kinds of Birth

In the Old Testament, simply being born into the right lineage was enough to qualify one to enter the covenants. For males, this was followed by the required ceremony of circumcision. The Jewish leader, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night thought that his ticket into the Old Covenant as a circumcised descendent of Abraham was also a pass for entry into the kingdom of God. He was wrong. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see God’s Kingdom” (John 3:3). In John 3:5-6, Jesus explains further: “Most certainly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he can’t enter into the Kingdom of God! That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). We all enter this world through natural birth. Through circumcision, the Jews also entered the Old Covenant. To enter the kingdom of God, however, anyone—Jew or Gentile—must be spiritually reborn, born again, regenerated.

As with other Old Testament ceremonies, circumcision was a type of a New Covenant reality or antitype. Some say that baptism is the antitype of circumcision. Ceremonies, however, are not types of other ceremonies. They are types of realities. Physical circumcision was not a type of baptism. Physical circumcision was a type of spiritual circumcision, the circumcision of the heart.

In Deuteronomy 10:16, God commanded the Old Testament Jews to circumcise their hearts, and in Jeremiah 4:4, He warned them to do so. It is important to know that, contrary to the specious adage commonly heard that God will not command what He knows people cannot do, God can and does commonly command what He knows people will not do because of their spiritual deadness. So, when God commanded the Old Testament Jews to circumcise their hearts, it wasn’t as if He expected those Jews at that time to suddenly do so en masse.

In Deuteronomy 30:6, God says that He will circumcise the hearts of those who return from the nations. This returning remnant from the nations is a designation frequently used to refer to God’s New Covenant elect called out of all the world’s nations. Ezekiel 11:17-20 is also referring to God’s calling His elect out of the world and into His true Israel, the body of believers and spiritually circumcising them:

Therefore say, Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples, and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. They shall come there, and they shall take away all the detestable things of it and all its abominations from there. I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh; that they may walk in my statutes, and keep my ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.

Ezekiel 36:24-26 says essentially the same thing, but also speaks of our being sprinkled with water and cleansed. This is not talking about water baptism, which pictures our dying and rising with Christ (Colossians 2:12), but our actual cleansing from sin:

For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.

This new heart, one that internally motivates us to love and fulfill God’s law, is an integral blessing under the New Covenant:

Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they broke, although I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD; for they shall all know me, from their least to their greatest, says the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Paul writes in Romans 2:28-29, “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God.”

What is inward, spiritual circumcision? It is none other that what Jesus said was needed before we can enter the kingdom of God—regeneration, or being born again. Looking again at the Old Testament Scriptures regarding spiritual circumcision, we read, for example, in Deuteronomy 30:6, “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live.” Notice that this says that the Lord “will circumcise your heart…to love the LORD.” This is regeneration, the spiritual rebirth from a life of sin to a life that allows us to love the Lord. By the way, there is no reason to think of offspring here as referring to little children. It may not even be referring to physical descendents at all. If Israel here is not physical Israel but its antitypical fulfillment in the body of believers, then offspring can also be the antitype of physical offspring—the believers who follow us. Paul sometimes referred to the Gentile Christians to whom he wrote and who were brought into the New Covenant through evangelization as his children (2 Corinthians 6:13; Galatians 4:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11).

So we see, then, that physical circumcision was for physical Israel, the children physically born as descendents of Abraham under the Abrahamic and Old Covenants, but it was a type of the spiritual circumcision of believers, that is also spoken of as a new birth, in spiritual Israel under the New Covenant.

So, in the Old Testament, one was born into the right lineage. Then, one had to be circumcised. The circumcision was a type of the regeneration that the Holy Spirit would work in the elect under the New Covenant. The circumcision was also the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham. And it was an apt sign. It was appropriate for God to make circumcision the sign of the covenant with Abraham because that covenant was a covenant of promise. It was the covenant in which God promised the New Covenant. Just as being born and then being circumcised was required to enter the Abrahamic and Old Covenants, so being born and then being born again—which is the reality typified by Old Testament circumcision—is required to enter the New Covenant instituted by the Seed God promised to Abraham (Galatians 3:16).

Was circumcision replaced by baptism, as so many claim? No. As we have just seen, circumcision was replaced by its reality, spiritual circumcision performed by the Holy Spirit, otherwise known as being born again or regeneration. We know that Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). But have we thought through the logical implication that to be a little child, you must first be born? To become a little child after you are already grown up, you must be born again. So, by saying that we must become as little children, Jesus was including the same concept He taught Nicodemus: we must be born again.

I want to point out here that this is the significance of why circumcision was appropriately performed on infants. Adults could also receive circumcision, but it was totally proper for infants because circumcision was a type of being born again, an act in which we are as passive as an infant. Remember, circumcision was a type of spiritual circumcision or regeneration, the antitype. This is one reason why it is totally inappropriate for Christians to be circumcised for religious reasons. They have already experienced the reality of being born again. For them to then be circumcised would be a giant step backwards to an Old Covenant shadow.

Whether baptism is appropriate for an infant would depend on the symbolism of baptism. Is baptism a type or an antitype? It is neither. What does it picture? First I want to point out something by using the Passover and Lord’s Supper as an example.

The Passover looked forward to the reality of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Some people have said that the Lord’s Supper is the New Testament counterpart to the Passover. In fact, some even call the Lord’s Supper the New Testament Passover. This is a large error and very misleading. Jesus, not the Lord’s Supper, is the New Testament Passover. He is the antitype of the Old Testament Passover. The Passover ceremony was the type. Jesus is the antitype; Jesus is the real Passover. The Lord’s Supper merely looks back to the reality of Jesus’ death. In it, we look back to a reality that has already occurred. The Lord’s Supper is not part of a type/antitype relationship. It is a memorial. It looks back on the reality that has all ready occurred. We remember Jesus’ death by eating the bread and drinking the wine of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:24-26).

Similarly, baptism is not the antitype or reality of circumcision or of anything else. Circumcision was a type that looked forward to the reality of regeneration. Baptism is no more the reality of circumcision than the Lord’s Supper is the reality of the Passover. Remember, Jesus is the reality of the Passover. Regeneration is the reality of circumcision.

So, what is baptism? Like the Lord’s Supper, it looks back to a reality. Baptism is a looking back to the reality of the cleansing that occurred when the Holy Spirit regenerated us. Notice Titus 3:5: “Not by works of righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” Since baptism is a looking back to a reality that has already occurred, who are the appropriate subjects for baptism? The proper subjects for baptism are those to whom the reality has happened. Those who should be baptized are those who have been cleansed in regeneration.

While is it possible that some few infants might be regenerated from the womb (see Luke 1:15 for a possible example), we can only go by someone’s profession of trust in Christ as Savior to know whether he or she has been regenerated. Certainly, some mistakes may occur and someone may make a false profession. The symbolism of baptism demands, however, that baptism be performed only after regeneration, and we can only suspect regeneration by what someone tells us. Obviously, this cannot happen with an infant.

In the second half of this article, we’ll look at some of the proof texts that infant baptizers use and see how these Scriptures are really no proof for infant baptism at all.

Peter Ditzel

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Copyright © 2016 Peter Ditzel. Permissions Statement. Unless otherwise noted, Bible references are from the World English Bible (WEB).