Dr. Gaffin begins this discussion by appealing to Abraham’s Circumcision from Romans 4:11-12,
11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
Dr. Gaffin then gives us the paedo-baptist interpretation,
I have been fascinated over the years by the way in which any number of credo-baptists have, in effect, glossed Romans 4:11 and they read it as saying that it was a sign and seal of Abraham’s faith, which, you see, is precisely what it does not say. It says it’s a sign and seal of the righteousness which is received by faith and that righteousness of God which is at the heart of the, of which is, as many will be aware, the focus of the whole of the main theme in the book of Romans, the righteousness that is the same for Old Covenant Believers and New Covenant Believers. The only difference being by way of promise or fulfillment. Abraham received the benefits of the salvation that have been secured in Christ, the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel by faith in The Promise. We have the privilege of receiving that same righteousness by faith in the promises that has been fulfilled in Christ.
Dr. Gaffin’s interpretation is common among paedo-baptists and has been answered quite judiciously by Dr. Greg Welty in his White Paper, “From Circumcision to Baptism: A Baptist Covenantal Rejoinder to John Calvin”. But before I quote from Dr. Welty’s paper I feel I must address a canard about Baptists and Covenantal Continuity-Discontinuity.
As Reformed, Covenantal, Confessional, Credo-Baptists we believe in discontinuity and believe in the continuity of the Covenants. We believe the New Covenant is the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant, and we believe it is the fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant, and we believe it is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant, and we believe it is the fulfillment of the Noahic Covenant and we believe it is the fulfillment of the Covenant Promise that God gave to Adam and Eve in the Temple-Garden of Eden. Thus we believe that the discontinuities are obvious as to their Shadow-Reality, Type-Anti-Type, and there is a long line of continuity that not only goes back to Abraham in Canaan, but further back to Adam and Eve in Eden.
And now, Dr. Greg Welty:
B. Romans 4:11 does not teach what paedobaptists want it to teach
A test case here would be Rom 4:11, a text which we have seen figures prominently in Calvin’s case for interchangeability of meaning between circumcision and baptism. Paul’s statement here in fact brings out a relevant disanalogy between Abraham’s circumcision and every other circumcision mandated in Gen 17. This implication is often missed because paedobaptists frequently paraphrase Rom 4:11 in fairly misleading terms, such as: “Paul says that the sign of circumcision is a seal of the righteousness of faith.” Indeed, many polemics on behalf of infant baptism give the impression that the text is simply about circumcision, and not about Abraham! (Such abbreviated or paraphrased “citations” of crucial texts are all too common in paedobaptist writers. One regularly reads such “biblical” claims as “The promise is to you and to your children…” (Acts 2:39), “Your children… are holy” (1 Cor 7:14), and “In him you were also circumcised… having been buried with him in baptism” (Col 2:11-12). The reader is rarely apprised of the inconvenient exegetical implications of the elided material.) Let’s look at Rom 4:11 in full:
and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them,
This is a fascinating text, especially when we compare its content with the typical paedobaptist commentary upon it. First, the text is not talking about circumcision in general, but about the circumcision of a particular individual, namely, Abraham. This is crucial, because this text is about the specific place of Abraham within the flow of redemptive history, and the significance of that special place he holds, for those who are redeemed apart from circumcision. (Calvin seems to acknowledge this point in 4.14.5. However, as we saw earlier in 4.14.23 and 4.16.20, he generalizes Rom 4:11 as a way of making circumcision and baptism interchangeable in meaning.) Second, the text says that Abraham’s circumcision was a seal, but it does not say it was a seal of “the righteousness of faith” in general, that is, for all who received circumcision. Rather, it is a seal of Abraham’s righteousness by faith, “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised.” Third, the text does not say that circumcision sealed a “promise” that the recipient of circumcision is justified by faith or would in the future be justified by faith, or a “promise” that if the recipient trusts God he will be justified. Rather, Abraham’s circumcision was a seal of Abraham’s faith, a faith which he already had, in the past tense. As a seal, it confirms and guarantees that what it signifies is indeed the case. The seal of King Ahasuerus’s signet ring (Esth 8:8) guaranteed that the letters thus sealed truly possessed royal authority. It did not make it merely probable that the letters carried royal authority, or make it that the letters would carry such authority given certain conditions to be fulfilled in the future. Similarly, the seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13-14, 4:30) guarantees that the recipient will gain the promised inheritance. Seals guarantee things; they do not just picture something while we sit back and wistfully hope that what is pictured is actually the case, or actually comes to pass.
Why was Abraham circumcised? Well, in his case, he believed God, his faith was reckoned as righteousness, and in recognition of that God took him into his intimate friendship, and established his covenant of circumcision with him. Anyone thus circumcised, in those peculiar circumstances, certainly had a seal of his righteousness by faith. The fact that God would take Abraham into his confidence, and begin his covenant of circumcision with him, sealed to an unworthy Abraham his righteousness by faith. Abraham’s circumcision testified to him that God had indeed accepted him by faith, had not imputed his many transgressions to him, and had instead inaugurated a special relationship of gracious favor and privilege with him. When Abraham reflected upon the circumstances in which he was commanded to be circumcised, his thoughts went directly to one thing: “God has justified me, God regards me as his special friend, God has marked me out for his special purpose, and this is the significance of the mark which I have received. It seals to me that truth of my own justification, for gracious divine acceptance of my entire person is the whole reason why I have that mark today. I am not justified because I was circumcised; rather, I was circumcised because I was justified.” Thus, when we examine Abraham’s place in redemptive history, we see the unique circumstances surrounding his circumcision. And this is precisely why Abraham’s circumcision can function as a seal of his righteousness by faith.
Before continuing, note that these three points alone are sufficient to undermine the usual paedobaptist contention from this text, that circumcision, for any and all who received it, signified and sealed their righteousness by faith, by sealing either an unconditional “promise” of justification (that the recipient is justified by faith, or will be justified by faith) or a conditional “promise” of justification (that if the recipient will only believe, he will be justified). Simply put, the text says no such thing. It does not speak of a general “promise” at all, but of the present justified status of a particular person. To miss this is to engage in the typical paedobaptist flattening of redemptive-historical detail in the exegesis of the text. A favorite proof-text is converted into a “spoof-text”: circumcision “means” justification by faith; therefore, it was applied to all Israelites in virtue of that general “meaning”.
But it is a fourth and final point which clearly brings out how the typical paedobaptist spin on this text is so misleading. Why was Abraham circumcised? And by “why?” I mean: for what purpose in redemptive history was Abraham circumcised? What is its real meaning, its historical-redemptive meaning? For that is the question Paul is asking (even if it is not the question paedobaptists usually ask when they come to this text). The text answers this question very clearly, with a purpose clause in the Greek:
Abraham was circumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.
The historical-redemptive significance of Abraham’s circumcision was to prophesy the future gracious inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles into the family of God, to prophesy that justification by faith comes first, prior to any works of the flesh which may follow (in Abraham’s case, there was a fourteen-year gap between his justification and his circumcision). Its significance was to prophesy the teaching of the Jerusalem Council, and the teaching of Paul in particular, that the saving faith of Gentiles will be the faith of the uncircumcised. Abraham is the “father” – not by genetic material, but by prototypical example – “of all who believe without being circumcised”.
Because God mandated that every Abrahamic descendant be circumcised from infancy, what Abraham’s circumcision signified is something that could not be signified by the circumcision of any descendant of Abraham. Since every descendant of Abraham was circumcised at birth (or close to it), such a ritual could not clearly signify the future justification of the uncircumcised. It could not seal, to the Abrahamic descendants who received it, a righteousness which they had by faith while uncircumcised, for the simple reason that they started their existence in the Abrahamic community as circumcised individuals.
There is a crucial disanalogy, then, between the circumcision of Abraham and the circumcision of any of his descendants, which Paul brings out in Romans 4:11-12. And he dwells upon it precisely because he sees it as a divinely intended disanalogy that speaks to the unique New Covenant moment in redemptive history in which the Roman Christians find themselves. Paul presses home the lesson of Abraham’s circumcision to his largely Gentile readers, because no other circumcision in redemptive history will do the job. There is a reason why as a matter of pedagogy Paul selects Abraham’s circumcision and not the circumcision of any other Jew in history: it is the unique circumstances of Abraham’s circumcision which make it peculiarly appropriate as a sign of the gospel for the Gentiles, and therefore uniquely suited to teach the Gentiles the gospel of God’s grace. Thus, to assimilate the meaning of any and every circumcision in redemptive history to the meaning of Abraham’s circumcision (as a means of constructing some subtle argument for paedobaptism which is wholly extraneous to Paul’s context) is to, quite frankly, miss the point, and turn Paul on his head in the service of paedobaptism. Abraham’s circumcision was, we Baptists might say, an instance of “believer’s circumcision,” and it is in virtue of that that it functions as “a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised.”