by Peter Ditzel
Docetics and Judaizers
In John’s time, as in ours, there were many ways one might claim to be a Christian, but, in reality, deny that Jesus was the incarnate Christ. This is not the place to list all such heresies. But one was Docetism. Docetics openly denied Christ’s incarnation and crucifixion, saying these were only an illusion. Hopefully, most who claim Christianity would recognize such a heresy for what it is. But there was another common heresy in John’s time that has a counterpart today that is not so easily recognized.
Judaizers believed that, for someone to become a Christian, he had to first become a Jew. Males, therefore, had to be circumcised. After this, even though they were Christians, they were obligated to keep the Law of Moses. This heresy crops up throughout the New Testament, but Paul addresses it most completely in Galatians. And it is most succinctly dealt with in Acts 15, where the church clearly rules that circumcision and keeping the Law of Moses are not necessary.
But how is this specifically a heresy that “confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh”? Because it denies at least part of what Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the living God came to do and, in fact, did accomplish. It denies some things that were part and parcel of being Jesus, the Savior, and much of what the Old Testament said in prophecies, types, and shadows of the Messiah. For one, it denies the full efficacy of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It essentially says that Jesus’ atonement was not enough. Additions to Jesus’ atonement—such as circumcision and law keeping—are also needed.
It also “confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” by denying that Jesus Christ was the end goal and fulfillment of the law. Notice first the law of circumcision. God gave this law to Abraham (Genesis 17:9-12). Abraham’s descendents were to be circumcised, not because they were the children of believers (many had parents who were not believers), but because they were in the physical line of descent from Abraham that was to lead to the promised Seed, the Messiah (Galatians 3:16). Once the Messiah was born, there was no longer a need for circumcision: “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6). The One to whom circumcision pointed had been born. Therefore, the Judaizers’ insistence on circumcision showed them to be blind to the fact that the One to whom circumcision pointed had come, and, therefore, was a denial of the incarnation of the Messiah. This made them, by John’s definition, antichrists.
Next, notice the entire Old Covenant law. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” This Scripture is often misunderstood. People equate fulfilling with destroying. Jesus truly came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill. To destroy the law would mean to abolish the law before it had fulfilled its purpose. Jesus did not do this. He fulfilled the law because He was the culmination of the law. He was everything the law pointed to, and He kept the law perfectly for us.
The law served the purpose of guarding the Jews until Jesus Christ came. (If this is news to you, I suggest you read “Should we preach the law to bring people to Christ?“) But when Jesus came, He fulfilled its purpose: “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19). Notice that the law was added only until the Seed, Jesus Christ, should come. He has come and fulfilled the purpose of the law. Again, when the Judaizers claimed that Christians must continue keeping Old Covenant law, they were, in effect, denying that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh because they refused to believe that He accomplished one of the primary purposes for which He came, the fulfillment of the law. Such a denial made them antichrists.
But perhaps this emphasis on circumcision and keeping Old Covenant law sounds familiar. Maybe you are beginning to see that this was not a problem that went away in the first century. Do you know of any churches that, in effect, continue circumcision by claiming that infant baptism is a continuation of circumcision? Do you know of any churches that say the Old and New Covenants are really the same covenant and, therefore, the Old Covenant law continues today?
It is very likely that you do. They are called Reformed and Presbyterian and Puritan. Most (Reformed Baptists excepted) teach that baptism is the equivalent of and New Testament continuation of circumcision. They (including the Reformed Baptists) also teach that Old Covenant law continues today because the Old Covenant and the New Covenant are merely different administrations of the same covenant. They actually believe that the Old Covenant, which is clearly a covenant of works and death, is a covenant of grace. This blending of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is called Covenant Theology or Reformed Theology.
Many will be shocked at what I am saying about Reformed Theology. Doesn’t Reformed Theology teach the Doctrines of Grace (the Five Points of Calvinism or the TULIP), and don’t I also believe the Doctrines of Grace? Yes, this is true. But some of the other doctrines of Reformed Theology are not biblical and are a hindrance to those who are seeking freedom in Jesus Christ.
The Reformed Attempt to Continue Circumcision
Thomas Patient, who lived in England in the seventeenth century, was an Anglican, who became a Puritan and moved to New England. After a time, he came to see the fabrications that support Covenant Theology and infant baptism, a warrant was then issued for his arrest, and he fled back to England where he became a leading Baptist.
In 1654, he wrote, “In Acts 15:1, it is said by the false teachers, ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.’ Those teachers were of the same opinion with these in our days who hold that the covenant of circumcision was a covenant of life.” Patient continues to explain that Paul, in Galatians 3, “does set the covenant of grace and that of works in opposition. One he calls the Spirit and the other flesh.” Patient then refers the reader to Galatians 5:1-3, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.” Do you think of your baptism as the New Testament form of circumcision? Then you are entangled with a yoke of bondage, and you are a debtor to do the whole law.
As one writer insightfully observes, “Whenever religion rejects God’s authority, it creates ‘another Jesus’ which always leads to ‘another gospel.’ Why? Because whenever the sufficiency of Christ is denied, another gospel must be concocted to instruct people what they must do to be saved” (Mike Gendron, “Three Fatal Errors Common Among False Teachers,” Proclaiming the Gospel, July-September 2008, 2). To deny that Jesus came to fulfill and end the law and that He actually did that which He said He came to do—fulfill and end the law—is to deny the sufficiency of Christ, distort His Gospel, and misrepresent who Jesus Christ is. It is saying that Jesus is not who He claimed to be. What more dangerous spiritual position could one be in? As Jesus said, “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24).
The Heidelberg Catechism used by Reformed churches states:
Question 74. Are infants also to be baptized?
Answer: Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.
Another Reformed confession, the Belgic Confession of Faith, says,
Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers, who we believe ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children. And indeed Christ shed His blood no less for the washing of the children of the faithful than for adult persons; and therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of that which Christ hath done for them…. Moreover, what circumcision was to the Jews, that baptism is to our children. And for this reason Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”
The Scripture partly quoted above is Colossians 2:11: “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.” Is baptism done without hands? No. We use our hands to baptize someone. How, then, can this verse be referring to baptism as the circumcision made without hands? This cannot be a reference to baptism. Paul is writing of spiritual circumcision, which he elsewhere calls circumcision of the heart: “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:29). In Colossians 2:12, Paul lists something else about the saints. Not only are their sins removed by the circumcision of the heart, but they are also dead to their sins (v. 13) because they are united with Christ in His death and burial, this being represented by their baptism. It is a complete distortion of these verses to say that Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.” Paul is writing of two different things: 1. spiritual circumcision, and, 2. the death and burial of the saints with Christ, which is represented by their baptism.
Thomas Patient was not known for pulling punches. Writing of the covenant of circumcision, he said, “But when Christ came and became fully exhibited in the flesh, then the ground upon which this covenant was given ceased. Therefore, the covenant also ceased. For any man to go about to defend a covenant in the flesh is a doctrine virtually denying that Christ is come and fully manifested in the flesh.” And this is exactly what the doctrine of infant baptism does. It denies that the covenant of circumcision, which God made with a fleshly line only until Christ should come, has ended. It teaches that the children of believers are in a covenant relationship with God because of their fleshly descent from their parents. It says that they should be sprinkled as a New Testament continuation of circumcision. This is a denial that Christ came in the flesh and ended the fleshly covenant of circumcision that passed from parent to child. It is a doctrine of antichrist.
Copyright © 2010 Peter Ditzel