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Galatians 3:16-18 denies that the Mosaic covenant annulled the promises of the Abrahamic and proceeds to argue the Christian gospel on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant against the idea of salvation by keeping the Mosaic law.

Yet, when the covenant was initially made with Abraham, God gave circumcision as the sign. Circumcision was given to Abraham (Genesis 17), not Moses (Exodus 34). Yet, in Paul especially, circumcision is often associated and even identified with the law of Moses in distinction to salvation by faith.

Paul seems emphatic that circumcision is not necessary and that trusting in circumcision is dangerous. It is easy to see why Paul would warn against trusting in works of the law given through Moses, but it is easy to sympathize with someone who feared the prospect of uncircumcision.

Genesis 17:14 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.

(Again, speaking to Abraham, not Moses).

Paul is not alone in his interpretation. It is also the verdict of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, affirmed by none other than Peter himself. In Acts 15, they associate circumcision with a "custom of Moses" (v. 1 and 5 by the pro-circumcision men from Judea and Pharisees, and again in v. 10 when Peter indirectly refers to it as a yoke).

The bow placed in the sky in the Noahic covenant remains because the covenant with creation remains, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest. So it is reasonable to believe that even very ancient covenant signs that came before the advent of Christ could still be in effect if their corresponding covenants remain in effect.

Why is circumcision then associated with Moses and therefore part of the burden of the law? Clearly, Reformed Covenant Theology accepts the New Testament canon containing the Pauline epistles and Acts as scripture, and so we can understand this view to be correct on the basis of authority. I would just like a better explanation than I have for why this sign has passed away or been swallowed up by Moses. For context, I am a Reformed Christian who affirms Reformed Covenant Theology.

  • The Abrahamic covenant was initiated by the faith of Abraham though and not by circumcision, I think that is an important distinction. Also I think it is generally taught by any theology that embraces infant baptism (such as Reformed) that baptism is the new form of circumcision by which we receive the Holy Spirit which does away with the old flesh. So its not so much that circumcision was taken away, but that it was given a new form and that Paul's rants against judaizing that reference circumcision refer to the physical shedding of blood whereas now everything in Christianity is "bloodless". – Ian Sep 7 '17 at 4:35
  • The Baptism/circumcision relationship is one I had not considered and I think you are right that it is relevant. – Ben Mordecai Sep 7 '17 at 13:21
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The Heidelberg Catechism says that baptism has replaced circumcision. (Emphasis mine).

Q & A 74

Q. Should infants also be baptized?

A. Yes. Infants as well as adults are included in God’s covenant and people, and they, no less than adults, are promised deliverance from sin through Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit who produces faith. Therefore, by baptism, the sign of the covenant, they too should be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers. This was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, which was replaced in the New Testament by baptism.

Bannerman in The Church of Christ II, p. 98 says the following:

Circumcision was independent either of the introduction or abolition of the law of Moses, and would have continued the standing ordinance for admission into the Church of God as the seal of the covenant of grace, had not baptism been expressly appointed as a substitute for it."

Pierre C.H. Marcel in The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, p. 157 says the following:

One may admit that during the Mosaic period circumcision acquired a certain typical significance. But originally it was a sign and seal of the covenant which was made with Abraham. In so far as it was a type, it naturally vanished with the appearance of the anti-type, and even in so far as it was the seal of the covenant it gave place to an unbloody sacrament expressly instituted by Jesus Christ for the Church, and recognized as such by the Apostles, for, thanks to His work of redemption, Christ put an end once for all to the shedding of blood.

For the second part of the question, namely, why circumcision is associated with the law of Moses by the Judaizers, the answer is simple. Circumcision is part of the Mosaic law! While it is true that circumcision was first inaugurated with Abraham, it is repeated in the law of Moses. Jesus mentions this in John 7:22-23:

Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a man's whole body well?

So the Judaizers aren't exactly incorrect to associate circumcision with Moses, even though Moses was not the first to circumcise.

  • I think this answers half of the question. Circumcision is replaced with Baptism. The other half then is why it was associated with Moses. – Ben Mordecai Sep 10 '17 at 0:40
  • I've added an edit which may explain it. Let me know if it is insufficient. – Birdie Sep 10 '17 at 23:23
  • I think that helps. If I understand you correctly, it would be as if 400 years after the apostles there were another prophet of God who came and gave more specific instructions about how we should practice baptism. We would likely look at this prophet and say, "He gave us baptism" or "Baptism according to the custom of ___" without denying that it was a New Testament institution. – Ben Mordecai Sep 11 '17 at 2:29
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Circumcision didn't pass away; it blossomed from a physical act into a spiritual reality. The NT insists on a circumcised heart; without it there is no salvation. What was a sign - cutting off flesh - became a living reality as the Holy Spirit circumcises the heart. Even though we can't immediately see the results of the Spirit-heart circumcision, it is more real and effective than the physical act. Abraham was changed. His name was changed, and his body was changed. These were tangible effects of a real inward change.

One interesting sidenote, while we aren't sure of the precise origin of the word covenant, it might derive from the same word family for cut. The idea of covenant is introduced with God passing through the cut animals in Gen. 15.

  • 2
    The OT also insisted on a circumcised heart. "Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer." Deut. 10:16 – Bible Explorer Sep 8 '17 at 3:28
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    This isn't the Reformed perspective. As @BibleExplorer said, the OT also insisted on a circumcised heart. The spiritual reality of circumcision existed in the OT as well as the NT. Rather, circumcision was replaced with baptism as the sign of the covenant. – Birdie Sep 8 '17 at 22:20

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