Much has been made by supporters of infant baptism of the analogy between circumcision and baptism (cf. Col. 2:11-13). But beyond the fact that they are both initiatory rites they have comparatively little in common.
First, we need to note that the covenants of which they are the sacraments are different covenants. The difference between the old and new covenants is radical (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8.) as we shall see further below. (1* See also my Covenant Continuity and Discontinuity)
Next it is noticeable that paedobaptists and even some credobaptists apparently see circumcision as being essentially spiritual in meaning since it began with Abraham who was circumcised as a believer (cf. Rom. 4:11). However, while recognizing its origin with the fathers Jesus clearly associates it with law (John 7:22f.). After all, the OT itself also subsumes circumcision under the law as Leviticus 12:3 (cf. Gen. 17:12) indicates. And Paul obviously accepts this connection as Galatians 5:1-6, not to mention his entire polemic against the Judaizers, makes clear (cf. 6:15; Acts 15). In Acts 7:8 Stephen refers to the covenant of circumcision. In view of the fact that Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day as a consequence of being given this covenant, it seems necessary to infer that law was involved even though he himself was a believer. (2* The reader should note, of course, that along with the Bible itself I differentiate between circumcision, or physical circumcision tout simple, Eph. 2:11, and circumcision of the heart, Dt. 30:6; Jer. 4:4, spiritual circumcision, Col. 2:11, and true circumcision, Rom. 2:29; Phil.3:3. Physical circumcision is visible, spiritual circumcision is invisible.)
The fact that all the men of Abraham’s household, (Gen. 17:23) including Ishmael who was explicitly denied covenant membership (Gen. 17:18f.), were normally circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:12-14) established a fundamental hiatus or dichotomy between fleshly circumcision and spiritual baptism which is recognized in the NT. Genesis 17:14 indicates that failure to be circumcised involved transgression of the legal covenant and merited being cut off from the people, that is, Israel according to the flesh. In light of this we should not be at all surprised that even the child of promise, Isaac, was likewise circumcised (Gen. 21:4). In Paul’s eyes he belonged proleptically to two Israels (cf. Rom. 9:6). Thus, we are compelled to conclude that infant circumcision spells law and requires completion in spiritual circumcision (cf. Dt. 30:6; 29:4; Jer. 24:7; 32:39) every bit as much as physical birth ideally requires consummation in spiritual rebirth (John 3:1-8)! So, I conclude that to substitute infant circumcision with infant baptism like substituting repeated animal sacrifices with repeated masses reflects major misunderstanding. Not for nothing did Paul underline the fact that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything but that a new creation is everything (Gal. 6:15; 5:6; 2 Cor. 5:17).
Another pointer in this direction is the absence of female circumcision. In Israel girls were virtually ranked with children and the heathen who were deceived like Eve. She received the commandment only at second hand from Adam (cf. Gen. 3:6; 1 Tim. 2:14; Rom. 1:18-32; Eph.4:17-19). Furthermore, unlike boys who at their bar mitzvah became sons of the commandment (cf. Luke 2:40-52), girls were never considered to be personally responsible for keeping the law of Moses. On the other hand, Jesus regards women as daughters of Abraham by faith (Luke 13:16, cf. 1 Pet. 3:1-6). And, as everyone knows, girls were and are (properly) baptized as believers in Christ (Gal. 3:27f.).
Yet another factor needs to be taken into account. Circumcision, since it occurs on the eighth day, takes place before boys have done either good or evil (cf. Rom. 9:11). In other words, since it signifies law, it puts boys in exactly the same position as innocent but (spiritually) infantile Adam who necessarily received the commandment before he sinned (cf. Gen. 2:16f.). Indeed, on the assumption that where there is no law there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15) it could do no other. By contrast, baptism, which signifies regeneration whose indispensable precondition is righteousness (Lev. 18:5) (3* On this see my The Order of Salvation, The Order of Salvation in Romans) takes place only after testing under (the) law (cf. Ex. 15:25b;16:4; Dt. 8:2,16, etc.), as Jesus’ own case proves (4* See further my Regarding the Baptism of Jesus, Cart-Before-The-Horse Theology, etc.). Whereas both Gentile and Jew failed the test (cf. Rom. 1-3), Jesus passed it with flying colours, for his Father was well pleased with him. This is confirmed by his reception of the Spirit at his baptism when as God’s natural Son (through the Virgin Mary, cf. Luke 3:38) he was acknowledged as his regenerate Son (Mt. 3:13-17, cf. John 3:1-8) and given eternal life as man in accordance with the promise (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.).
This brings us to the radical difference between circumcision and baptism. Circumcision is a surgical operation performed by a priest signifying membership of the (legal) covenant community as Abraham’s physical progeny (Gen. 17; Mt. 3:9; John 8:33,39, cf. Acts 13:26; Rom. 4:1,16) to whom the law was uniquely given, but baptism by the Spirit (cf. Mark 1:8, etc.) is a work of God whose condition is conversion (repentance and faith) to Christ (cf. John 1:17). Paul clearly recognizes this in Colossians 2:11-13. The former is done “by hand”, the latter, that is, spiritual circumcision, is done “not by hand” (acheiropoietos), or, otherwise expressed, it is a monergistic act of God. In the eyes of Paul, not to mention John the Baptist who baptized merely with water (John 1:29-33), this “spiritual circumcision” (cf. Col. 2:11-13; Eph. 2:11) is fundamentally different from the legal variety. Failure to recognize this leads inexorably to the merging of old covenant with new covenant and the untenable idea of one covenant in two dispensations or the organic unity of the covenants. Furthermore, not only can we not attribute spiritual circumcision to Ishmael, but neither can we attribute it to the Jews in general, including John the Baptist (cf. Mt. 3:14 ;11:11), as Paul makes clear in his allegory in Galatians 4:21-31. Unbelieving Jews are still at Sinai, that is, under law and are related to Ishmael. They are still in bondage to the stoicheia or elementary principles (ESV) of the universe (Gal. 4:9; Col. 2:20).
Another point of immense importance is the contrast between life and death implied by the sacraments. Whereas baptism signifies Spirit and life, circumcision signifies law and death. In Paul’s eyes the ministry of the law which is signified by circumcision is death (2 Cor. 3). (5* It is worth noting at this point that in Joshua 5 all the circumcised older men die in the wilderness. Not so the uncircumcised younger ones who according to Numbers 14:3,29-35 were not guilty even though they suffered as a result of their parents’ sin. Pace those who believe in original sin!) So to attempt to substitute circumcision with baptism as the Reformed do is in effect to put babies under an obligation not merely to keep the law with a view to life but to fulfil in the flesh all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) as Jesus did after being sealed by the Spirit at his baptism (cf. Mt. 19:21). The very idea reflects fundamental theological and especially covenantal misunderstanding. This becomes yet more apparent once we note the differences between the respective covenant blessings.
Examination of the Bible reveals that the blessings of the old covenant, real though they are, come well short of those of the new covenant (cf. 2 Cor. 3). They are contrasted in the NT especially by Paul in Romans and the author of Hebrews. (6* See again my Covenant Continuity and Discontinuity)
Old Covenant Blessings
The inheritance of the Jews included the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2, cf. 2:17-20), collective physical adoption (Ex. 4:22), circumcision, temporary animal sacrifices, tenuous earthly redemption (long life), the glory, the covenants including the temporary law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs and the Messiah according to the flesh, (cf. Rom. 9:4f.), etc. Justification comes only by faith in the promises (Gen. 15:6; Heb. 11) but it is not provided by the covenant. Regeneration remains a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6; Jer. 31:33, etc.), conditioned on perfect obedience (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). Only Jesus met this condition and was thereby enabled to fulfil all righteousness and inaugurate the new covenant.
New Covenant Blessings
We receive salvation by grace through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8). The new covenant is eternal (Heb. 13:20) and involves eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12) and an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15), justification, regeneration (adoption) (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8, etc.), the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2, etc.), sanctification, perfection, transformation and glorification (Rom. 8:30; Heb. 9:11-15; 13:20). In a word, it saves.
To blur the distinction between circumcision and baptism is to blur the distinction between Jew and Christian, between old covenant and new. It is in effect not merely to excise the letter to the Galatians from the NT, but it is also to deny the essence of the gospel. We are saved by grace through faith, not law.
So I conclude that as circumcision signifying law (Lev. 12:3; John 7:22; Rom. 2:25; Gal. 5:3) sealed the righteousness of Abraham by faith (Gen. 17:10f.; Rom. 4:11), so baptism signifying new birth (Mt. 3:11,16f.; John 1:32f.; Acts 1:5; 11:16) sealed the regeneration of Jesus who kept the law (Lev. 18:5; Mt. 3:13-17; John 1:32; 6:27).