A Quick Note on Circumcision and Baptism in Galatians 3

We’ve been working our way through Galatians in our small groups in RUF this last quarter and it’s fascinating the way passages I thought I knew well continue to surprise me.

In Galatians 3, it’s safe to say one of the issues Paul is dealing with concerns the question of who are the heirs of the promise to Abraham and his seed (Gal. 3:16). How does one get in on the promises to Abraham? By faith or by works? And how is that promise to be related to the covenant at Sinai? Without getting into the weeds of the whole discussion, what I had never noticed before was the way that Paul’s argument ends up swapping baptism in for circumcision and strengthening the argument for continuity between the two.

In 3:6, Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” His point here is to give not only a proof-text that Abraham was justified by faith, not by works, but to argue more fundamentally that Abraham’s children, the heirs of the covenant promises to Abraham, reveal themselves to be such by the same faith that Abraham displayed, and that this was God’s intention all along (Gal. 3:7-9).

At the end of the passage, after a long, complex argument about the way the Sinaitic covenant doesn’t annul, or change the covenant with Abraham, what the purposes of the Law actually were, etc. Paul writes this:

“for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal. 3:26-29)

For Paul, baptism is the sign marking you out as united with Christ by faith and through Christ, the seed (3:16). It is the sign and seal of those who have believed God’s promises as Abraham did, have been justified by faith, have God as their God, and are therefore heirs of the promise to Abraham.

The significant point here, though, is that this is precisely the role that circumcision played as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant promises in Genesis 17:9-14. Circumcision marked out the heirs of Abraham who believed by faith in the promise that God would be his God, give him heirs, and be the father of many nations. As Paul puts it elsewhere, “He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:11). Paul doesn’t mention circumcision in Galatians 3, but by implication for those attuned to the story, baptism is clearly now functioning as the sign marking out the heirs of the covenant with Abraham through Christ, just as circumcision did under the old covenant.

This doesn’t constitute a knock-down argument for the association between circumcision and baptism in the NT, nor one for infant baptism. For that you’d need to deal with Colossians 2 as well as a deeper exploration of the associated, shared, symbolic meanings: forgiveness of sins, cleansing, removing/killing of the flesh, renewal of the heart. (Incidentally, I think this is one of the reasons so many Evangelicals find the link so initially counter-intuitive—when is the last time you heard a good sermon on the theological meaning of circumcision in the OT?) Nevertheless, it’s one more text that should be addressed in that conversation.

Soli Deo Gloria