This article is a continuation of the discussion Zach, Anisha and I are having concerning whether circumcision is efficacious, a proposal that we both think has strong implications for Baptism. I want to revisit Zach’s most recent article and respond to its claims.
At the beginning of Zach’s article, he problematically states that “Efficacy entails not only necessity, but also sufficiency.” This definition is not only inconsistent with regard to my beliefs but overcomplicates the discussion to include the technical words of ‘necessity’ and sufficiency’ which is not necessary for this discussion. Instead, I would say that efficacious circumcision means the sign of circumcision produces the desired reality of placing the circumcised within the Covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). Circumcision is a sign, to be sure, but it is a sign the conveys the reality it is intended to express.
Perhaps the more significant jump that Zach makes in his article is his contention that I argue circumcision of the body corresponds to circumcision of the heart. That is to say Zach is asking me to defend the position that ‘efficacious circumcision’ means circumcision of the body will cause circumcision of the heart.
However, this is not my view. Circumcision is the entrance into the Abrahamic Covenant with God as prescribed in Genesis. The act of circumcision is efficacious because when it is done, the circumcised actually becomes part of the covenant. That is not to say the covenant can’t be broken and that those in the covenant can’t be ‘uncircumcised in the heart.’ As demonstrated, the Israelites violated the covenant again and again, but the position of being in the covenant remained. The assumption that efficacious circumcision means circumcision of the heart is the foundation of Zach’s argument, and without it his further discussion is not relevant to my own views.
To restate my position in another way, those who are circumcised that are descended from Abraham are joined to the Jewish people in flesh and in spirit. That does not mean they must follow Halakhic Law, as breaking the law does not negate the underlying being a part of the Chosen People. Circumcision is efficacious because it makes the descendant of Abraham a part of the covenant made with him. The circumcised are still able to break that covenant and may not be circumcised ‘in heart,’but this has no implication on the efficacy of circumcision itself.
Now let us get to the implications of this discussion of circumcision: Baptism. Just like circumcision, I believe Baptism is efficacious because when we are Baptized, we become part of the Church, the people of Christ. The water is a sign, or symbol, of an actual reality that is taking place during the Baptism.
“In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes Baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.” (1 Peter 3:20-22)
This water saves, it cleans away sin and Baptizes you into Christ, into his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Just like with circumcision, one can wander away from Christ and reject him. This is why James writes to warn his fellow Jewish Christians to not be deceived by sin. He writes, “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when full-grown, gives birth to death.” (1 James 1:14-15) We must be on guard against sin to keep our hearts ‘circumcised’ to God, since we truly can lose that circumcision.
The seal of Baptism remains, just as a circumcised Jew remains a Jew. Sin may hinder the full fruits of Baptism, but that mark as a Child of God does not leave. Like the shepherd looking for his lost sheep, Christ is always looking to save us and return us in our sin to him. I am reminded of the poem Hound of Heaven, in reflecting on God’s pursuit of us:
“How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake Fancies as lost,
I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me’.”
(Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson)