Now this is a point that I think is often missed when discussing this passage: God gave Abraham the Covenant Sign of Circumcision as a seal of the righteousness he had by faith; not as a sign and seal of his faith. So circumcision was a sign and seal of righteousness; and that had by faith. Next, we see that Abraham received this sign after being declared righteous not just so that he could be the father of uncircumcised believing Gentiles, but also that he would be the father of the circumcised who are not just “merely circumcised”.
The covenant people in the Old Testament were mixed. They were all physical Israelites who were circumcised, but within that national-ethnic group there was a remnant of the true Israel, the true children of God (verse 8). This is the way God designed it to be: he 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 containing “children of the flesh” and “children of God.” Therefore it was fitting that circumcision was given to all the children of the flesh. (John Piper, “How do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond?”)
The above sentiment is arguably the largest barrier to Christians’ understanding circumcision as a means of administering the one redemptive work of Christ to the saints of the Old Testament. True, most all would agree that circumcision pointed to Christ in some sense, even marked out the seed line from which He would be born; but because they believe that the sign peculiarly marked out an ethnic, national, physical people, circumcision itself was not “sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 7.5). If, as stated by Piper above, the Sign was a mere marker of “national-ethnic” physical descendants of Abraham, who only happened to contain a spiritual remnant called out by God, then clearly the Covenant Sign of Circumcision was not itself a means of administering the redemptive work of Christ. At best, the Sign merely narrowed the pool (and even that not exclusively).
It is not hard to see the origin of this sentiment; on the face of it, the very institution of the rite in Genesis 17 seems to suggest that all and only those physically circumcised were God’s people and that to be circumcised was to be among the covenant people of God, ipso facto. We read,
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. …So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 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.” (Gen. 17:10-14)
If the words of this institution mean that (1) all who were circumcised were in fact Covenant members, God being their God and they His people, by virtue of bearing the physical sign, and (2) that the threat of being “cut off” was pronounced to all and only those who did not bear the physical sign, then it would seem that John Piper et al are clearly correct.
Another way to state it: if “any uncircumcised male […] has broken my covenant,” means that all who bore the physical sign were in and all who did not bear it were out of the Covenant, 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”. 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 would suggest, this is the exact wrong reading of Genesis 17. The significance of “cut off” is bound up with the true significance of circumcision itself. That which circumcision signifies, when absent, renders one “cut off” from the community—that is, lacking the signification of circumcision renders one a covenant breaker, cut off by God, not simply lacking the physical sign.
So the first task is to determine, what indeed is the significance of the sign of circumcision according to the Scripture. This is the task I intend to take up in this post (Part 1). In the next (Part 2), I intend to apply the conclusions of this post toward interpreting the phrase “cut off” in Genesis 17.
Part 1: The Significance of Circumcision for the Old Covenant People
To begin with, we must be clear that circumcision was a sign, a covenant sign (Acts 7:8; Romans 4:11). Signs are quite distinct entities. They contain not only their own meaning as religious, cultural, linguistic, or social entities, but also by convention, institution, or covenant, point beyond themselves to something external. For instance, a gold ring in itself is a created object that has its own meaning and use—conveys beauty or wealth or the like—but can also (by institution) signify that the bearer is a member of the marriage covenant. The normal conventional meaning and use of a gold ring is put in service of signifying something else, a covenantal arrangement.
As a result, we must be careful to make the distinction between the meaning of a sign and its signification in this discussion. A classic example in philosophy of the distinction between meaning and signification is the use of the terms “Morning Star” and “Evening Star”; both point to and signify the same entity, the planet Venus. But the phrases themselves differ in meaning—literally, culturally, and experientially. Or, to use a Biblical example, we can note that the Old Testament Passover, the Atonement, the daily sacrifices, etc., all had different meanings, included different ordinances and prescribed practices, but all nevertheless signified the same thing: the sacrifice of Christ. This is the very nature of signs.
Now, the meaning of circumcision certainly includes a looking forward to the male who would be cut off from His people, that this salvation would come about through natural progeneration, that all men had a natural corruption that must be removed to be prepared for this salvation, etc., and is thus a looking forward to Christ. And this meaning is clearly not disconnected from the signification. This, I believe, we all agree upon.
But, in the following, I will argue that the signification of circumcision, i.e., that which the sign signifies is:
(1) righteousness, which is had only by faith in Christ 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.
As such, the Covenant Sign of Circumcision was much more than a mere physical, ethnic, national mark, but was rather a sign and seal of the righteousness had by faith in Christ, and as such was a means of administering His one work of redemption to the Saints of old.