One of the reasons why there is widespread disagreement over whether or not the children of believers should be baptized is that many of those who believe in infant baptism see a connection between the Old Testament practice of circumcision, a rite which was administered to believers and their children, and infant baptism in the New Testament. Many who oppose infant baptism see little or no connection between these two sacraments. Usually, those who oppose infant baptism tend to be dispensationalists, while those who gravitate towards providing the rite of baptism to babies also come from a reformed background. There are, of course, exceptions. Some baptists oppose infant baptism, yet adhere to reformed theology. They're known as Reformed Baptists.
Before I continue, let me briefly define two terms: Dispensationalism and Reformed Theology.
Dispensationalism is a system of biblical interpretation formalized in the nineteenth century by John Nelson Darby and later popularized by the publishing of the study Bible of C. I. Scofield and the establishment of Dallas Theological Seminary by Lewis Sperry. It is the foundation of what is known in eschatological studies as premillenialism and involves the division of history into (usually) seven distinct periods of time known as "dispensations". Twentieth century writers such as John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, and Charles Ryrie brought the doctrines of Dispensationalism into mainstream scholarship, which are often summarized by Ryrie's famous "sine qua non", i.e., his statement of the three primary tenets of the system. These are: 1) a clear distinction between Israel and the Church, 2) literal interpretation of Scripture, and 3) the glory of God as the primary goal of history.
Reformed theology is at variance with dispensationalism. Those in reformed circles find only the third of the above principles to be valid. God's glory is clearly the driving force behind all things. But those adhering to Reformed Theology believe, among other things, that there is only one people of God, rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, united in Christ, and consisting of both Jew and Gentile.
The terms "reformed" and "Calvinist" (referring to John Calvin, the reformer best known for his view on predestination, also known as divine election) are sometimes used interchangeably. However, John MacArthur is both a 5-point Calvinist and a dispensationalist. He is a Council member of The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc., a reformed organization and close friend of many reformed theologians, yet he, unlike most reformed theologians, does not believe Old Testament circumcision is the New Testament equivalent of baby baptism. Quoting MacArthur:
"I reject infant baptism [because] it is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision."
MacArthur goes on to say:
"Now don’t get too carried away here; this isn’t going to be as complicated as you think. Infant baptism is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision. Now, let me give you the bottom line. Infant baptism says this. This is the theology of it: the old covenant sign was a baby circumcised. That introduced them into the covenant. So, we need a parallel. The parallel sign is baby baptism. That’s in the new covenant; that introduces them into the new covenant. Sounds good. In the old covenant, they had a circumcision which introduced them into the covenant community. In the new covenant, we have the baby baptism which introduces the infant into the covenant community. That’s the logic. "
"You know what? Those two things just don’t go together ever in the Bible. It’s a nice thought; just isn’t Biblical. Scripture never makes that connection. There’s not a verse they could point to. There’s not a passage they could point to, either by explicit terms or by implicit. There’s not one place in the Bible where baptism is ever connected to circumcision, period…no place.
So, any connection is purely manufactured. So, without Scriptural support, without Scriptural connection, they infer that baby baptism is the new covenant equivalent of old covenant circumcision. Now, let me make a very simple few statements so you’ll understand just exactly what the difference is."
"It’s true. In the Old Testament, little boys, on the eighth day after their birth, were circumcised. Girls weren’t so that poses a real problem in paralleling the new covenant since girls can come into the new covenant too. But, little boys were circumcised the eighth day. Now, that introduced them—listen carefully—that introduced them into an earthly, temporal community of people. That introduced them into the nation Israel, as it were. It was physical and it was temporal. That’s what it was."
"In the new covenant, there is no "physical" community. We don’t have a nation; we don’t have a land. We aren’t a duly constituted people, ruled over…We don’t an order of priests. We don’t have a king. We are a spiritual community. There’s a big, big difference. Circumcision was the sign of ethnic identity. It was the physical participation in the temporal features of the Abrahamic covenant. Listen carefully: it didn’t have any spiritual implications at all. None! Because most of the people who were circumcised—the vast majority of Israelites who were circumcised, went to hell. You understand that? They rejected the true and living God; they worshipped idols. Right? That’s the history of Israel. In the present, most of the Jewish people, who are circumcised, will perish without the knowledge of God. In the future, two-thirds, it says, of the nation Israel, will be purged out and be judged eternally by God and He’ll save a third and bring them into His kingdom. The vast majority of Jews will perish without the knowledge of God."
"Not all Israel is Israel. What did God say? Circumcise your—hearts. You see, the spiritual promises and realities that God offered Israel didn’t come to them by any right or ceremony or ritual. All circumcision did was mark them out as a part of the nation Israel. They entered into the physical participation, the ethnic identity, the temporal features of the nation Israel that was under blessing, promised by God to Abraham. It was an earthly blessing, not salvation. That’s why Paul said, "I was circumcised the eighth day and that’s manure. That did nothing for me savingly; I was on my way to hell and I had been circumcised," Philippians 3.
A person born in Israel of Abrahamic seed was physically related to temporal, external privileges; nothing more. Now you come into the New Testament—the new covenant—this is dramatically different. There is no physical participation. There is no temporal, earthly feature attached to this—we don’t have a land, we don’t have a place. Under the old administration, the Abrahamic covenant during the Mosaic era, you entered the earthly, natural, covenantal community by birth, and by circumcision you took the sign of that people. But, there was a small remnant in Israel that really believed, wasn’t there? They entered into the special, spiritual blessings."
"But, in the new covenant, there are only those who believe, there are only those who have come by repentance and faith. This is not the same at all. There is absolutely no connection. All in the new covenant are believers. All in the new covenant know God. Now, if the early church thought that baptism was a replacement—baby baptism was a replacement for circumcision—why isn’t that in the New Testament?"
"And then, why did the Judaizers who were going around telling everybody they had to be circumcised, why didn’t Paul say to them, "Hey, you guys, that’s over; baptism has taken it’s place. We don’t circumcise babies, we baptize them." He could have put an end to the deal with just one comment. Now, why would they go into the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 and had this big, long debate about what do we do about the circumcision…what do we do? Why didn’t somebody just get up and say, "Oh…no, no. That’s out and baby baptism has taken its place." That’s never said. Nobody ever says that."
"The Abrahamic covenant had a unique feature: circumcision. All that meant was you identified with the nation of Israel. Circumcision had a second benefit: it was physically beneficial. Up until very modern times, Jewish women had the lowest rate of cervical cancer of any people in the world because circumcision does help prevent the passing on of certain diseases. God knew that that would be a preservative in His people and He wanted to preserve His people Israel because of His ultimate purpose for them. Also, it was a sign of how desperately they needed to be cleansed on the inside…it’s symbolic of that. But, the point was it just introduced you into the nation; it didn’t save you. There is no parallel to this in the New Testament. There is nothing that sort of ushers you into some earthly group. There’s just the believers and they’re all in the new covenant. "
"You see, Jeremiah 31:34—Jeremiah in 31, is talking about the new covenant. Listen to what he says; here’s the character of the new covenant, they are very different from Israel under the old. Here’s what he says; this is the most salient feature of the new covenant. Here it is—Jeremiah 31:34, "They shall all know Me." That’s the difference. Under the old covenant, they didn’t all know God. They didn’t know Him. Remember when Jesus came, He said, "If you knew My Father, you’d know Me," didn’t He? "You don’t know My Father, you don’t know Me."
In the new covenant, they all know God. You’re not even in the new covenant unless you know God and the only way to know God is through Christ. That means that all those who are members of the new covenant community know God savingly. Membership in the new covenant is limited to those who have been saved. Jeremiah is making a dramatic statement here. He’s saying, "I know under the old covenant there were lots of folks who had the sign of the covenant, there were lots of folks in the covenant community who didn’t know God. But, in the new covenant, everybody in it is going to know God. That’s distinctive. That’s conclusive. Circumcision was never a spiritual sign of anything. Baptism is a spiritual sign of true inclusion in new covenant salvation by grace through faith."
(This message was delivered by John MacArthur Jr., of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California. It was transcribed from the tape GC 80-194: "A Scriptural Critique of Infant Baptism." A copy of the tape can be obtained by writing, Word of Grace, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412 or by dialing toll free 1-800-55-GRACE.)
I consider John MacArthur to be one of the finest Bible teachers around. I listen to him often, have read some of his books, and have learned a lot from him for which I am truly grateful. But I have to disagree with him on this point.
I believe that the best refutation I've found so far to MacArthur's position is from a web article entitled A Biblical Response to John MacArthur, Jr.’s “A Scriptural Critique of Infant Baptism by Bob Vincent." The entire article is found at:
A Rebuttal to MacAthur's Position
Let me finish by quoting Vincent's article, which is a response to John MacArthur's rejection of infant baptism as a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision.
In many ways, this is the crux of the matter, because the practice of infant baptism—and many other New Testament doctrines, such as the Trinity and justification by faith—rests squarely on an Old Testament foundation. Remove that foundation, and infant baptism collapses.
How should we view the Old Testament? Should we reject it as having nothing to say to us today? Or should we obliterate all distinctions between the two Testaments? I believe that we should avoid both extremes. The Old Testament is related to the New in the way that a bud is related to a flower and an acorn is to an oak. The people of God in the Old Testament are compared to children; in the New they have come to adulthood. (Cf. Galatians 4:1-7.) Two extremes must be avoided as we deal with the Old and New Testaments: that of an extreme kind of Dispensationalism that sees little connection and continuity between the Old and New Testaments, on the one hand, and an approach that flattens Redemptive history, on the other, as if there were no true and radical significance to the Cross. A biblical approach to the two Testaments comprehends that there is virtually nothing “new” in the New Testament, because it is all rooted in the Old Testament, but it also understands that virtually nothing from the Old Testament comes into the New without being transformed in the work of Christ.
Our attitude toward the Old Testament should be like the Lord Jesus’. Think of the number of times our Lord established his teaching by quoting from the Old Testament. Many people seem to overlook what the Lord Jesus himself said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17.)
But how is the Old Testament fulfilled in the New? Let us take as an example the Old Testament celebration of the Passover. After having given elaborate instructions about selecting the Passover lamb, God told his people, “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants.” (Exodus 12:24.) How are New Testament believers to carry out this commandment? Are we to slaughter lambs today, or are we simply to abandon the Passover ordinance completely? We are to celebrate it, says Paul, “For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival. . . .” (1 Corinthians 5:7, 8)
Christian people have continued to observe the Passover for almost two thousand years; they do it every time they break the bread and drink the wine in the Lord’s Supper. And just as Old Testament believers purged the leaven out of their houses, so we must purge out of our hearts “the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness.” (1 Corinthians 5:8.)
This idea of fulfillment is written large over the doctrines and practices of the Old Testament. The power of the Holy Spirit brings the inner meaning of Old Testament institutions to greater significance. This new, heightened Spirituality often involves some modifications in the outward form.
What is true of the Passover is true of other Old Testament institutions: the kingdom promised to David is fulfilled in his Son, Jesus Christ, who sits at the Father’s right hand in glory and subdues all nations unto himself by pouring out his Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. (Cf. Acts 2:29-36.) The bloody death of Jesus on the cross fulfills the Tabernacle with its bloody animal sacrifices. (Cf. Hebrews 9 and 10:1-22.) The glorious Temple of the New Covenant is composed of the people of God, whom the Holy Spirit indwells. (Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17.) However, God has made modifications: the heavy veil separating sinful man from a holy God is gone; it was ripped apart as the flesh of the Son of Man was ripped on the cross. (Cf. Matthew 27:51 and Hebrews 20:19, 20.)
The Old Testament emphasis on the family is not done away with under the New Testament. While there are dimensions to the family motif that are expanded in the New Testament, unlike such things as the Passover and the Temple, the earthly family connection is reaffirmed alongside the Church as the new family of God and not simply fulfilled in it, for example: “The promise is for you and your children . . .” (Acts 2:39.) “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household . . .” (Acts 16:31 ) and “I also baptized the household of Stephanas . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:16 .) As with other New Testament institutions, baptism does not exist simply as a New Testament phenomenon; it is the Spiritually enriched, outwardly modified continuation of an Old Testament ordinance, circumcision. What is the real meaning of circumcision, and how is it fulfilled in baptism? The most basic significance of circumcision lies in the historical fact that Jesus was circumcised for us. The real circumcision of Jesus did not occur when he was eight days old but in his thirty-third year. A rabbi’s knife did not carry it out, but iron spikes and a spear on a Roman cross. The Bible had prophesied all of this centuries before. In the prophecy of the seventy weeks Daniel foretold, “Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off” (Hebrew: karath.), referring, of course, to the crucifixion of Christ. (Daniel 9:26.) But this cutting off of Christ on the cross pointed to his suffering the judgment due to those who had broken the divine covenant.
When God made his gracious contract with Abraham, he cut (karath.), or established that covenant—not only with Abraham, but with his descendants as well. (Genesis 15:18.) In time God expounded on the meaning of that agreement in greater detail. His promises are sure to all who believe, but God warned that the one who does not respond to this contract “will be cut off (karath.) from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:14.)
God gave an outward reminder and seal of confirmation of this covenant: “Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:10.) They cut off the foreskin to remind the people of the blessings and obligations of the contract. It was a symbolic way of saying, “May I be cut off in damnation, if I do not live up to this covenant.”
As Moses was about to enter Egypt , God sought to kill him because he had failed to perform this ordinance on his son. (Exodus 4:24.) How could he expect God’s blessings on his mission when he had flagrantly disregarded God’s ordinance? “But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off (karath.) her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me’ she said. So the Lord let him alone. (At that time she said ‘bridegroom of blood,’ referring to circumcision).” (Exodus 4:25, 26.)
As we know from reading the history of God’s people in the Old Testament, they broke God’s contract with them repeatedly. The wrathful judgment of God was stored up over nearly two millennia until it came crashing down in full brunt on him who took the place of the covenant breakers, Jesus Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21.)
The crucifixion of Christ is not only the reality of circumcision. It is also the reality of baptism. Jesus, in looking ahead to his death on the cross, asked James and John, “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38 .) On the cross Jesus drank to the last bitter dregs the cup of God’s wrath. As our Savior hung on the cross, he was baptized with the judgment of a holy God against human sin. He was circumcised by the fury of divine justice as his life was cut off.
The Apostle Paul unites circumcision and baptism (the Old and New Testament signs of membership among God’s people.). After reminding the Gentiles of the total sufficiency of Christ to save them, Paul tells them: “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11, 12.)
When Jesus died on the cross, all believers in all ages, both Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free, were circumcised with him. So, too, were we all baptized with him. That is the connection between circumcision and baptism, the death of Christ on the cross for our sins. Because of the substitutionary death of Christ as our curse-bearer, we may wear the sign of judgment as a token of God’s favor. The Old Testament believer received circumcision as a token of God’s grace; so today, our baptism is a seal of God’s kind intention toward us because his justice was satisfied on the cross.
Some people seem to think that circumcision was little more than a sign of national identification, a kind of glorified pledge of allegiance to the nation of Israel . Scripture, however, does give us a clear understanding of the significance of circumcision. Perhaps the fullest treatment on the subject is found in the Book of Romans. There Paul tells us: “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code.” (Romans 2:28, 29.) The meaning of circumcision, then, is not some outward thing; it points to the work of the Holy Spirit in giving a new heart. Circumcision reminds us of the individual’s need of being born a second time.
Paul tells us further that circumcision is a sign of being justified by faith. He reminds us that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11.) In other words, Abraham believed, he was justified by faith, and then he received God’s sign and seal of this in circumcision. Sometimes people are married and cannot afford a wedding ring. Some years later they buy a good set of rings and begin to wear them. They are no more married now than when they were poor. But now they have an outward sign, a token of their true state. Abraham was right with God the moment he put his trust in him. He was no less saved before circumcision and no more saved after it. The important things about circumcision are the Spiritual realities to which it points: the new birth and justification by faith.
To be circumcised was to wear a sign that said, “I am a believer; I have been born again; God accepts me as holy and righteous; He has established his covenant promises with me.” It was to bear the seal of God’s ownership. To be circumcised was to say that Christ would die for your sins and to confess that you were united to him as he is offered in the gospel, the same gospel which was preached to Abraham. (Galatians 3:3.) Abraham was circumcised because he looked forward with rejoicing to the day of Christ. (John 8:56.)
What can be said about the real meaning of circumcision can be said about the real meaning of baptism, because baptism is New Testament circumcision. Under the New Covenant the gospel encompasses all nations and is not limited to one race as it was, for all practical purposes, under the Old Covenant. This is part of the reason why females also receive the seal of faith alongside males today. As with the other great symbol of the Old Testament, the Passover, so with circumcision: blood had to be shed. However, the death of Christ has fulfilled the shedding of blood, once for all time, on the cross. The outward form of circumcision is different from that of baptism, but the inward meaning is the same.
This presses us to the great objection to infant circumcision: how could the Lord command Abraham to dedicate his children to God by placing on them a mark which symbolized that they were believers, born anew by the Spirit, justified by faith? Yet that is exactly what God commanded him to do in Genesis 17:9-14. And it was Moses’ failure to carry out this commandment which so angered God that he sought to kill him before he entered Egypt . (Exodus 4:24 ff.)
Whatever God’s reasons, we see that every objection which people have raised against infant baptism may also be raised against the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament. It is not our place to object to God’s commandments. It is our place to submit to his will in all things. Why did God command us to do this?
God told Abraham to place the mark of divine ownership on his household because it was God’s purpose for them to belong to him: “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” (Genesis 17:7.) The Bible brings the same thought out hundreds of years later, on the plains of Moab, as God’s people were about to enter the promised land: “The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” (Deuteronomy 30:6.) Deuteronomy 30:6 had both a present and a future meaning for Moses’ hearers.
Had we been among the adults standing there on the Plains of Moab, we would have understood Moses’ words as having a direct and present application to us, as well as to succeeding generations of our people. We would have understood the promise to us and our descendants in Deuteronomy 30:6 the same way we understood the admonition to us and our descendants in Deuteronomy 30:19, 20, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
We would have understood this promise about heart circumcision in light of what Moses had said to us earlier in Deuteronomy 10:15, 16, “Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today. Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.”
Do these blessing and curses point to a distant future? Yes. But they also point to an immediate future, long before the time after the return from the Babylonian Captivity. Would not Naomi have understood her journey into Moab with Elimelech and her return with Ruth to be a fulfillment of the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy?
Heart circumcision was very much the emphasis of the Old Covenant. Of the some six hundred cases where the Hebrew Bible uses the word, LEB, “heart,” a significant number of verses point to the need of a godly heart, one that could only exist after a heart was circumcised. For example, Solomon confessed that his father David was “upright in heart.” And Psalm 7:9, 10 implores, “O righteous God, who searches minds and HEARTS, bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure. My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in HEART.”
The Old Testament itself indicates that there was an inner reality to circumcision that no one possessed simply because his prepuce was clipped. That is why Jeremiah admonished some physically circumcised descendants of Abraham that they needed to experience the reality of circumcision by means of a sovereign work of grace: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, circumcise your hearts, you men of Judah and people of Jerusalem, or my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done—burn with no one to quench it.” (Jeremiah 4:4.)
‘“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh—Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.”’ (Jeremiah 9:25, 26.)
Romans 9:6-8 describes the situation that existed under the Old Testament: ‘It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel . Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.’ As it was then, so it is now: there is always the true people of God within the visible people of God. Our prayers must be that both our children and ourselves are truly part of God’s people.