Is baptism the new covenant equivalent of circumcision?
Although baptism was used by John the Baptist, baptism itself did not originate with Christians or, for that matter, with John. Jews practiced baptism (or mikvah) as a traditional act of purification or completion/fulfillment of a cycle, long before the coming of the Messiah. The origins of baptism might be found in the book of Leviticus where the Levite priests were commanded to undertake a symbolic cleansing in water before and after performing their priestly duties. Leviticus 16:4 tells us, “He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on.” Scripture also states in Leviticus 16:23-24, “Then Aaron is to go into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. He shall bathe himself with water in a holy place and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people.” Even brides and grooms would cleanse themselves before a wedding ceremony – signifying the moving from being single to being married.
Although the act described in these Old Testament passages was not specifically called “baptism,” it does highlight how important and holy ceremonial (and practical) cleansing is to God. John’s “baptism of repentance” (Luke 3:3; Acts 19:4) followed this paradigm of cleansing, although the final cleansing from sin is only available through Jesus Christ, and John’s baptism was the foreshadowing of that. The significance of baptism as a New Testament ceremony is that, as believers in Jesus Christ, we are baptized into His death (Romans 6:3) and raised to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4 KJV).
It must be understood that baptism is an outward proclamation of an inward process. In other words, baptism is a ceremonial act undertaken after a person has fully counted the cost and willingly agrees to publicly move to a different and better disposition.
Many Reformed traditions have made a very close parallel between circumcision and baptism and have used the Old Testament teaching on circumcision to justify the baptism of infants. The argument goes like this: since infants born into the Old Testament Jewish community were circumcised, infants born into the New Testament church community should be baptized.
While there are parallels between baptism and circumcision, they symbolize two very different covenants. The Old Covenant had a physical means of entrance: one was born to Jewish parents or bought as a servant into a Jewish household (Genesis 17:10-13). One’s spiritual life was unconnected to the sign of circumcision. Every male was circumcised, whether he showed any devotion to God or not. However, even in the Old Testament, there was recognition that physical circumcision was not enough. Moses commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 10:16 to circumcise their hearts, and even promised that God would do the circumcising (Deuteronomy 30:6). Jeremiah also preached the need for a circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4).
In contrast, the New Covenant has a spiritual means of entrance: one must believe and be saved (Acts 16:31). Therefore, one’s spiritual life is closely connected to the sign of baptism. If baptism indicates an entrance into the New Covenant, then only those devoted to God and trusting in Jesus should be baptized.
True circumcision, as Paul preaches in Romans 2:29, is that of the heart, and it is accomplished by the Spirit. In other words, a person today enters a covenant relationship with God not based on a physical act but on the Spirit’s work in the heart.
Colossians 2:11-12 refers to this type of spiritual circumcision: “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.” This circumcision does not involve the cutting of the body; it is a cutting away of our old nature. It is a spiritual act and refers to nothing less than salvation, effected by the Holy Spirit. Baptism, mentioned in verse 12, does not replace circumcision; it follows circumcision—and it is clearly a spiritual circumcision that is meant. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of inward, spiritual “circumcision.”
This passage also specifies that the new life, represented by baptism, comes “through your faith.” This implies that the one being baptized has the ability to exercise faith. Since infants are not capable of exercising faith, they should not be candidates for baptism.