Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Circumcision of Christ

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of you flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:11-14).

A rite of passage is generally defined as a ritual marking a person’s coming-of-age in a culture, or marking one’s passage from one phase of life or status into another. There are many rites of passage in our modern society. When you’re five years old, you get to go to Kindergarten and begin your formal education. Many parents become misty-eyed when they take their child for his or her first haircut. I don’t know a mother who does not choke up just a little bit when they talk about when their baby lost that first tooth. Some of them even still have that memento secreted away in a memory box somewhere as a reminder of when their baby was a “baby”. In the United States age 16 is marked by many teenagers’ most important coming-of-age ritual – the driver’s license. At 18 years we take a couple more important steps down the road to adulthood when we become eligible to vote and boys are required to register for the draft (though that particular rite of passage is significant only with previous generations of Americans). In America, however, the magic age is 21. That is when our society finally views people as an adult. At 21 a person can drink alcohol, they can drive a car (preferably not at the same time, or in close proximity with one another), and they can enjoy most all the privileges of a full-fledged adult in our society. At 21 you are an adult, though there may still be quite a bit of maturing to be done.

There are many religious rites of passage as well. In Judaism, boys (at age 13) and girls (at age 12) reach bar/bat mitzvah. Prior to bar/bat mitzvah, a child’s parents are considered responsible for their child’s actions. After this age, children bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life (Bar and Bat Mitzvah, 2012). Some Christian denominations equate Christian baptism with bar/bat mitzvah. Many denominations believe that baptism should only be administered to those individuals who have reached what is generally termed as an age of accountability, when the child has matured to the point that they have become morally responsible and are able to profess their faith in Jesus. Consequently, a child who has not reached the age of accountability is not capable of sinning, and thus not guilty of sin. Only after a child has become morally accountable is a child able to commit actual sins; that is when they become guilty of sin. Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, wrote the following:
It is believer’s baptism, however, that provides the most significant reason to affirm the “age of accountability.” Believer’s baptism is a core belief of Baptists (there’s a reason that we are called Baptists!). The early Baptists were called “Anabaptists” because they believed that the infant baptism they had received was unscriptural, and they were baptized again upon their profession of faith in Christ. The denial of infant baptism has been a defining issue for Baptists throughout their history… Baptist confessions tend not to use the term “original sin” (it is in none of the versions of the Baptist Faith and Message), and two early Baptist confessions explicitly deny it. Baptists do believe that we children of Adam “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin,” but it is not until we become “transgressors” ourselves that we come under guilt and condemnation (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 3). So while we believe in an inherited sin nature, we do not believe in inherited guilt. It is the belief in inherited guilt that leads those in the Reformed tradition toward the necessity for infant baptism (Lemke, 2010).

Baptism is thus likened to a rite of passage into moral accountability for denominations who believe similarly, not unlike the Jewish practice of bar/bat mitzvah. Scripture does compare baptism to an ancient practice of Judaism. Baptism is not, however, compared to bar/bat mitzvah in the Bible; it is likened to the practice of circumcision. St. Paul, in the passage from Colossians quoted above, calls baptism, “the circumcision of Christ.” In good Lutheran fashion I ask, “What does this mean?” To understand what St. Paul means by his comparison, we have to know a little bit about circumcision as it is presented in the Old Testament.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Genesis 17:9-14).

Today in the United States circumcision is performed routinely in hospitals when a male child is born. The practice has little to do with religious faith, and is heavily debated between those who support the practice for medical and hygienic reasons, and those who decry the practice as mutilation and an infringement on individual liberty. The purpose of circumcision as instituted by God in the book of Genesis, however, was to be a mark of his covenant with Abraham. God had promised to send a savior to redeem mankind after the Fall, and he promised that savior would be the seed of Abraham. By the removal of the foreskin, males received a visible sign of this promise that God would send a Savior, born of a woman. No Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of the promise God had made long before, and every conjugal act between a husband and wife would illustrate the hope that God was working to restore creation and redeem all people (Engelbrecht, 2009). As a pledge, or sign, of the covenant, circumcision pointed to something greater than merely the act itself. The Word – the promise of God – not the mere removal of flesh from the body, was the chief thing in circumcision (Engelbrecht, 2009).

St. Paul is correct in correlating baptism with Old Testament circumcision. As a covenant sign, circumcision physically established the covenant and pointed to what God was doing in order to redeem us to himself. In Christ, however, the purpose of the covenant with Abraham (i.e. to be a blessing to all the families of the earth) was fulfilled. The new covenant is established with a different kind of circumcision – baptism (Engelbrecht, 2009).
As the Bible sees it, baptism is not primarily a sign of repentance and faith on the part of the baptized. It is not a sign of anything that we do at all. It is a covenant sign (like circumcision, but without blood-shedding), and therefore a sign of the work of God on our behalf which precedes and makes possible our own responsive movement (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999).

Certainly, based on what the Bible tells us about the nature of circumcision, and St. Paul’s correlation of circumcision with baptism, one is certainly justified in concluding that there is a Biblical basis for baptizing infants. This rite was performed on infants eight days old. It would be odd to refer to Baptism as the “circumcision of Christ” if Baptism of infants was to be forbidden while circumcision was given almost exclusively to infants. However, this is by no means the only reasoning for infant baptism. Babies, even before they are born as evidenced in the case of John the Baptist, are capable of faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. The work of God’s Holy Spirit is not limited by age, or anything else. The Holy Spirit works when and where he wills.

For he [John the Baptist] will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb…When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy'" (Luke 1: 15, 41-44).

Children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom, and are not merely some sort of amoral being until they reach a nebulous “age of accountability”. Being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature. Along with that corrupt nature comes the inclination and desire to flee from God, and they therefore need the forgiveness that Christ offers in baptism, just as an unregenerate adult does. Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth[1]. St. Paul tells us in Romans 3: 23-24 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism, by the working of the Holy Spirit, and makes it possible for us to respond to him, though feebly[2]. In this way baptism is not unlike the defibrillator used by paramedics on a person whose heart has stopped beating; such a person is technically dead, and is powerless to make themselves alive again. Someone – a paramedic – must do something to them without their help to get their heart beating again. St. Paul tells us that we are dead in our transgressions[3]. Through baptism, God takes us who were dead in our transgressions, and makes us alive in Christ.


Additionally, there are several reports in scripture where people bring their children to Christ to have him touch and bless them. Jesus warns against the danger of offending against little ones that believe in him, and in the same context says that to be Christians we have not to become adults but to become as children (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999). One such passage is in the Gospel of St. Mark:


People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10: 13-16).

St. Luke also writes:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them (Luke 18:15).

On the contrary, there is a long tradition in the church of baptizing children, derived from Scripture, dating back to apostolic times. Infant Baptism was common practice in the early church. Scripture lends support to this when it reports that the Apostles baptized entire families – some of which, at least, would normally include children[4]. When entire families, and all indeed who belonged to them were baptized, it is probable that if there were a number of children in these families, the Apostles did not exclude them. More importantly, the Apostles could refer Jesus’ command to “let the little children come to me,” to the rite of circumcision from the Old Testament. The fathers of the early church certainly debated the subject of infant baptism. However, the volume of writings in favor of infant baptism far outweighs those in opposition to the practice, from the second century to the time of the Apostolic Constitutions:
He came to save all persons by means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, children, boys, youth, and old men[5]…Even to the greatest sinners and to those who have sinned much against God, when they subsequently believe, remission of sins is granted. Nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace. How much more should we shrink from hindering an infant. For he, being lately born, has not sinned – other than, in being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth. For this reason, he more easily approaches the reception of the forgiveness of sins. For to him are remitted – not his own sins – but the sins of another. Therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council that no one should be hindered by us from baptism and from the grace of God[6]…Baptize your infants also and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of God. For He says, “Allow the little children to come unto me and do not forbid them[7],” (Bercot, 1998).

Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word (Luther, 1986). Through baptism, God receives people into fellowship with himself. Babies are to be baptized because they are included in the Savior’s command to baptize all nations[8]. And, like all of mankind, a baby is, by nature, an object of wrath, prior to regeneration through faith in Christ[9]. Thanks be to God that he has provided for mankind this means of grace by which he works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare[10].



Works Cited

Bar and Bat Mitzvah. (2012, April 27). Retrieved April 27, 2012, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_and_Bat_Mitzvah

Bercot, D. W. (Ed.). (1998). A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Lemke, D. S. (2010, July 26). Age of Accountability. Retrieved April 26, 2012, from Southern Baptist in NC: http://rebekah1.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/age-of-accountability/

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.



End Notes

[1] Psalm 51:5

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:11

[3] Ephesians 2:5

[4] Acts 16:15, 33

[5] Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.391

[6] Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.354

[7] Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.457

[8] Matthew 28:19

[9] Ephesians 2:3

[10] Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3, 5; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 1:13-14; Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5