In our LAST POST we argued that literally every passage wherein circumcision is either discussed or mentioned is consonant with the claim that the Covenant Sign of Circumcision had always signified for the Old Testament People of God (1) righteousness, which is had only by faith and is worked in the heart by the Holy Spirit (regeneration), and (2) a call to and requirement for such righteousness as a Covenant member.
With this conclusion firmly in place, we are now in a position to counter the growing sentiment that the Sign of Circumcision was a mere marker of the “national-ethnic” physical descendants of Abraham, as advocated by, e.g., John Piper: “[God] bound himself by covenant to an ethnic people and their descendants; he gave them all the sign of the covenant, circumcision, but he worked within that ethnic group to call out a true people for himself… The people of the covenant in the Old Testament were made up of Israel according to the flesh—an ethnic, national, religious people[…].”
I intend to close the circle in this post by showing that the intended sense of “cut off” in Genesis 17 is bound up with the true significance of circumcision itself. That which circumcision signifies, when absent, renders one “cut off” from the community, i.e., a covenant breaker, cut off by God.
[If the reader has not yet familiarized herself with “How Christ was Administered: Circumcision, Part 1”, now is the time to do it.]
The Union of Sign and Signified in the Scriptures
The first point to note is that whenever the Bible speaks of sacraments as signs of something else, it presumes a “Sacramental Union” (as the theologians call it). The sign, in as much as it is a sign, is always meant to point beyond itself and raise the mind to that which it is signifying. It is never intended to be an end in itself, but is unified with its signification, sharing and communicating predication. I think the following from William Ames’ The Marrow of Theology is quite helpful in this regard:
(26) The form of a Sacrament is that union which is between the sign, and things signified.
(27) This union is not corporal, neither yet is it imaginary, but it is a spiritual relation by virtue whereof the things signified are really communicated to these, who do rightly use the signs.
(29) From this Union followeth a communication of Predication, whereby, 1. First, the sign is predicated of the thing signified, as when Sanctification of the heart is called circumcision. 2. The thing signified of the sign, as when circumcision is called the Covenant, and bread the body. 3. The effect of the thing signified is predicated of the sign, as when Baptism is said to regenerate. 4. A property of the sign is predicated of the thing signified, as when breaking which agreeth to the Bread is attributed to Christ. 5. A property of the thing signified is attributed to the sign, as when sacramental eating and drinking is called spiritual. (Bk. 1, Ch. 36)
Given this understanding, it is easy to find plenty of examples of this Sacramental Union displayed in the scripture wherein each of Ames’ predications of communication are present. For example,
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 3:16)
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17:10)
And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood[…].” (Luke 22:20)
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)
Now clearly the fruit of the tree did not contain spiritual death in its DNA; clearly the Covenant itself was not the act of circumcision; clearly the cup was not the New Covenant; and clearly the baptism itself did not wash away Paul’s sins. Rather, these signs were given as confirmations of God’s word and promises. They were given as visible, audible, tangible, taste-able pointers to the spiritual mysteries that we apprehend only by faith. As Chrysostom has said,
Were we incorporeal, he would give us these things in a naked and incorporeal form. Now because our souls are implanted in bodies, he delivers spiritual things under things visible. Not that the qualities which are set before us in the sacraments are inherent in the nature of the things, but God gives them this signification. (Hom. 60, ad Populum Antioch)
The mind is to be always raised from the physical sign to its spiritual signification or it is indeed no sign at all.
The Meaning of “cut off”
So, I conclude, when God instituted circumcision as the Sign of the Covenant, declaring the following:
“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 17:14)
He was declaring the curse of being cut off to any and all who do not have that which is signified, viz., righteousness, had by faith only. This should be clear from the very words of the institution itself:
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” […]And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations[…]. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you[…]. 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[…]. 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 17:1-4, 7, 10-11, 14)
Every member of this Covenant was to be walk before God and be blameless, i.e., be righteous, and God would indeed be their God and they His people. Any who did not have that which was promised/required as signified by the Sign would be cut off from His People. God was not here instituting a fleshy, outward, mixed company of ethnic Jews. He was creating a people for Himself to live and walk with Him in true righteousness and blessedness. He was creating a spiritual people.
And we see in the subsequent history that God makes no covenant nor terms of peace with those who do not have righteousness by faith (Psalm 50:16). Ishmael, though physically circumcised was cut off:
So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. (Genesis 21:10-12)
Esau, though physically circumcised, was cut off along with the whole of his circumcised descendants:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:15-17)
Thousands of Israelites were struck down in the wilderness by God. Why? For lack of faith:
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:16-19)
For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. (Hebrews 4:2)
Moses told the people that they must love the Lord their God with their whole being and remove the foreskin of their heart or they would be cut off (Deut. 10-14). The prophets told them that the wicked uncircumcised in heart will be destroyed along with those not circumcised in flesh (Jer. 9:25-26 and others). The Law the Lord had given His People was littered with sanctions including banishment and death for unholiness in all its forms. And finally we read in the New Testament that many branches of Israel were cut off from the one Olive Tree, i.e., one People of God, and many Gentiles were grafted in. Why were they cut off?:
They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. (Romans 11:20)
A Spiritual Sign of a Spiritual People
As noted in the last post, if “any uncircumcised male […] has broken my covenant” means that all who bore the physical sign were in the Covenant and all who did not bear it were out, then it is plain that this sign signified an ethnic, physical people; it would have been a sign of a Covenant People that were intentionally and by very constitution “mixed” (at best). In fact, circumcision could have theoretically been the Sign of a Covenant Community with no believing members at all; and only those who had not the physical sign were outside of this Covenant Community, viz., “cut off”.
But I whole heartedly reject such characterization of the Old Testament People of God, on grounds of the true signification of circumcision (Part 1), the general use of sings and sacraments in the Scriptures, and the true intention of the threat of being “cut off”; as well as the many Pauline passages in Part 1 that make it abundantly clear that Circumcision of the Heart was always what was intended by the Sign.
And it is very important to make clear: just because not every unbeliever was immediately and publicly cut off from the visible People of God says nothing of God’s intention with circumcision, nor of the spiritual nature of His spiritual people bearing the spiritual sign of His Covenant. For Paul says to the Jews,
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
And of the Jews Paul says,
What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! (Romans 3:3-4)
God has always been a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29), who walked in the midst of the camp such that it must be holy (Deut. 23:14); and He promised to walk among them and be their God and they His people, should they be righteous (Lev. 26:12). As Paul records in the New Testament,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:16-18)
Last, I will conclude with a Psalm that I think states it all well:
Turn away from evil and do good;
so shall you dwell forever.
For the Lord loves justice;
he will not forsake his saints.
They are preserved forever,
but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
The righteous shall inherit the land
and dwell upon it forever.
The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip. (Ps. 37:27-31; cf. Ps. 101:6-8)
Or, less graciously, we can end with Calvin:
In asserting a difference of covenant, with what barbarian audacity do they corrupt and destroy scripture? and that not in one passage only, but so as not to leave any passage safe and entire. The Jews they depict as so carnal as to resemble brutes more than men, representing the covenant which was made with them as reaching no farther than a temporary life, and the promises which were given to them as dwindling down into present and corporeal blessings. If this dogma is received, what remains but that the Jewish nation was overloaded for a time with divine kindness, (just as swine are gorged in their stye) that they might at last perish eternally? Whenever we quote circumcision and the promises annexed to it, they answer, that circumcision was a literal sign, and that its promises were carnal. (Institute, Bk. IV, Ch. 26.10)
Christ was indeed administered to the faithful saints of the Old Testament by the Covenant Sign of Circumcision, sealing to them the righteousness had only by faith in Christ, worked in the heart by the Spirit, and likewise enjoined upon them as Covenant Members. And all who did not have this signified righteousness were to be “cut off.” As such, God was creating a People for Himself, that He might be their God and they His People.
“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes.” (John 15:2)