Sixth Day – The Seal of the Covenant

`Ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every man child in your generations.’ Gen. 17: 11, 12.

`He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith.’ Such was according to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the ordinance of circumcision given to Abraham. And yet there are many who speak of it as if it were only the initiatory rite into the temporal privileges of the Jewish people. As if it could be meant as one thing to him, something deeply spiritual and sacred, and another to his descendants! As if the whole argument of the Epistle to the Romans did not reprove the Jews for looking at it in so carnal a light, and degrading it from what it originally was — the holy sacrament of friendship and fellowship with God, the seal of the righteousness of faith, the emblem of the covenant of the spirit in which God would circumcise the heart, the sure sign of God’s faithfulness to him and to his seed. It is only this spiritual aspect of circumcision which justifies the Church in grounding upon it the baptism of the infants of believers. But in this light it is the glorious type of the later ordinance, and its best exposition, when we understand how there was no need in the New Testament for repeating in express words the truth so deeply inwrought into the life of God’s people, that their children were as truly in the covenant, and had as sure a right to its sign, as they themselves. May the Holy Spirit lead us to know the mind of our God.

We are taught that circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith. A seal is the confirmation of something that has been settled and transacted, the securing of privileges that have already been secured. Abraham had believed, God had counted his faith to him for righteousness, and had taken him into a covenant of friendship. Circumcision was to him a Divine seal and assurance of this. But it was also a sign, and that no arbitrary one, but with a spiritual meaning. It was a sign of that purity and holiness which was to be the mark of God’s people. The most remarkable feature of the covenant was its passing on the blessing from generation to generation, its taking possession for the service of God’s kingdom of the very power of generation. Of this power sin had taken possession; the very first sign of sin with Adam and Eve was that they knew that they were naked and were ashamed. The very fountain of life was defiled, and had to be cleansed. And so, when the little child of eight days old had to suffer the taking away of the foreskin of his flesh, it was in token of the defilement there is in our natural birth, a foreshadowing of that Holy One who should be begotten of the Holy Ghost, and of that second birth in Him, not of the will of the flesh, but of God, which was to be the blessing of the new covenant. It was a type of the circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, being buried with Him in baptism. The seal of the righteousness of faith under the Old Testament was the sign of the need of regeneration, a sign for the quickening and instruction of Abraham’s faith, and the setting him apart as a father for the service of God.

Circumcision could not be to the infant Isaac essentially different from what it was to Abraham. It was to him too a seal of his participation in that spiritual covenant of which God’s promise and man’s faith were the two marks. All unknowing, he had been taken, with his father, and for his father’s faith; into the favor and covenant of God. It was to him, as to Abraham, a seal of faith — faith already existing and accepted. Not his own, but his father’s; for Abraham’s sake the blessing came on him. We find this distinctly stated later on (Gen. 26: 3, 5): ‘I will bless thee, because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, and my statutes, and my laws.’ And again (ver. 24): `I am the God of Abraham thy father; fear not, for I am with thee, and will bless thee, for my servant Abraham’s sake.’ Abraham had not believed for himself alone, but for his child; the faith that was counted for righteousness had entirely reference to God’s promise about his child; as a father he had believed and received the child in faith from God; the sign of circumcision in the child was the seal to the child of the father’s faith. God dealt with father and child as one; the father believed for himself and his child as one; the child had the same place in the covenant, and the same claim on the seal of the covenant, as the father. And as he grew up it would be to him a seal not only of the faith his father had, but of God’s promise waiting for his faith too, the remembrancer of the one thing required by God, the one thing counted righteousness by Him, the one thing well-pleasing to Him, and by which he in turn could pass the blessing on to his seed again.

What circumcision was to Abraham and Isaac, baptism is still to believers and their children. It, too, is a sign, only far clearer and brighter. If circumcision spoke of the shedding of blood and the purifying of the very fountain of life, the water in baptism witnesses of the blood that has been shed and the Spirit that has been given, with their cleansing and renewing. `There are three who bear witness: the Spirit; and the water, and the blood.’ Of all these blessings it is a sign, and also a seal — a seal from God of the righteousness of faith, that faith in His promise is well-pleasing to Him, and is counted as righteousness.

And baptism is all this, not only to the believing adult, but to his infant too. It were indeed strange if Abraham and every father of his race should, under the Old Testament, have had the privilege of knowing, My child has the same place in the covenant as I have; and of having this sealed to him by the child’s receiving the sign of the covenant, and the Jew, on becoming a Christian, should at once have forfeited the privilege. It need not for a moment surprise us that our Lord, in giving the command to baptize, said nothing of the little ones. So deep had this foundation truth, ‘My covenant with thee and thy seed,’ and therefore the sign of the covenant for the father and the child too, been laid in the very first establishment of the covenant, and so completely had it become inwrought during two thousand years in the life of God’s people, that only the very express revocation of the principle could lead us to believe that the New Testament sign of the covenant is for the adult only. No; in this dispensation of larger love and more abounding grace, this beautiful provision of the everlasting covenant shines with new glory, the covenant and the sign of the covenant for parents and children alike.

But then, let us remember, almost more than in the old, in this dispensation of the Spirit, the one condition of blessing, without which the covenant and its sign are of no value, is faith. It is on this that the blessing of infant baptism depends. The parent must meet God as Abraham did, as a believer. It is faith and faith alone that can enter into the covenant, that pleases God, that obtains the reward. He must believe for himself in that Christ who is the surety of the covenant, who is Himself the covenant. He must believe for his child. `Thy God and the God of thy seed;’ these are the unchangeable terms of an everlasting covenant. The faith that claims the first may claim the second too. It has the same warrant — God’s word. It has the same hope — God’s faithfulness. It obtains the same blessing of free grace — the salvation of my child as surely as my own. And it has the same sign as its seal — baptism for the infant as well as the adult.

O my God! we thank You for the condescension to our weakness, manifested in giving us, in visible sign, a Divine seal of spiritual and unseen blessings. You know our frame, and remember that we are dust. You are the Creator of our bodies, not less the Father of our spirits; You have redeemed them to be the temple of Your Holy Spirit. In the body You set the seal of Your acceptance of us and Your right over us. Lord, teach us to understand this; and let holy baptism, the seal of the New Testament faith and life, be indeed to Your people the sign that they are baptized into the death of Christ.

And grant, most gracious God! that where Your people cannot yet see eye to eye in the dispensation of this ordinance, it may still be, not the symbol of division, but the bond of unity in the Spirit of love.

And teach us, who believe that You Yourself have meant this seal of the covenant for our children too, to recognize its deep spiritual meaning, and to live ourselves as baptized into the death of Christ, and circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands. Teach us in faith to claim the full spiritual blessing for our children too, and to train them for it. And so fulfil to us, O our God! in full measure the promise of the covenant: `A God unto thee, and to thy seed.’ Amen.