Is Circumcision Efficacious?

This is a response to Daniel Sutkowski’s Baptism and Circumcision, which extended into his conversation with Anisha on Efficacious Baptism. I push back against the stance that physical circumcision is efficacious.

Daniel contends that physical circumcision is efficacious.* Efficacy entails not only necessity, but also sufficiency. (Genesis 17:4 commands circumcision, making it a necessary to taking part in the covenant, but Genesis 17:4 does not proclaim the physical act of circumcision efficient.) The Bible pushes against the claim that physical circumcision is efficacious.

In Jeremiah 9:25-26, God proclaims,

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will attend to all those who are circumcised only in the foreskin: Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all those with shaven temples who live in the desert. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.

Here we see a distinction between physical circumcision (which is important, even commanded!) and circumcision in the heart. Ideally, this distinction does not exist, as the heart should already be in the right place; ideally, the two are one. But, unfortunately, this distinction became necessary.

A few more Bible verses emphasizing circumcision of the heart:

Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)

Moreover, the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord,
remove the foreskin of your hearts,
O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
and burn with no one to quench it,
because of the evil of your doings. (Jeremiah 4:4)

Physical circumcision alone is not sufficient. As such, it cannot be considered efficient. Physical circumcision is not sufficient to effect righteousness.

Paul writes,

Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God. (Romans 2:25-29)

He continues, “The purpose [of Abraham’s circumcision] was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them” (Romans 4:11). This means that only faith is necessary for righteousness to be reckoned to someone.

The Bible calls circumcision a sign. When God ordains circumcision to Abraham, he says, “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11). At the same time, “signs” in the Bible carry much more wait than “symbolism” in the modern sense; “signs” (אותות) are often paired with “wonders” (מופתים). Signs carry an important role of reminding us of our covenant with God, a necessary ingredient for faithfulness (Exodus 13:9, 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18).

Interestingly, circumcision appears to be not only a sign of the covenant, but also the covenant itself: “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). The Bible employs this form of metonymy, by which circumcision represented God’s entire covenant with Israel. Circumcision equates to the status of being in the covenant with God, and uncircumcision as outside the covenant.

In Romans 4:11, Paul expands on the role of circumcision in our relationship with God. Circumcision is not only performed by us to remind ourselves, it not only represents the covenant, but Abraham actually “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” As David Gibson points out, “Circumcision is a seal of God’s promise of righteousness, not of human faith in the first instance.”

Daniel brought up Colossians 2:11-12, which connects the rituals of circumcision and baptism. Indeed, Paul not only compares these rituals, but he again emphasizes the distinction between “the body of the flesh” and “a spiritual circumcision… the circumcision of Christ.” Similarly, the power of baptism Paul speaks of comes not from the physical ritual, but “through faith in the power of God.”

*The idea that spiritual circumcision, or circumcision of the heart, is efficacious falls in line with sola fide, which Daniel does not hold. The idea that spiritual circumcision and physical circumcision, together, are efficacious is not particularly controversial.


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