Augustine says that a sacrament is a
word made visible, and he speaks correctly; because in baptism God addresses our
eyes, when He brings forward water as a symbol of our ablution and
regeneration. In the Supper also He directs His speech to our eyes, since
Christ shows His flesh to us as truly food, and His blood as truly drink, when
bread and wine are set before us.
Circumcision was the great boast of the Jews but only before men, for nothing but ambition and vanity ruled in them while they openly exulted and boasted that they were God’s holy and peculiar people. Hence the Prophet instructs them not to value what was of no importance but to become circumcised to the Lord; that is, he bids them not to seek applause before the world but rather seriously to consider that they had to give an account to God. And hence he adds, Take away the foreskin of your heart, as though he had said, “When God commanded the seed of Abraham to be circumcised (Gen. 17:10-12), it was not His object to have a small portion of skin cut off, but He had regard to something higher, even that you should be circumcised in heart.”
God regards true circumcision of the heart: By saying that all nations were uncircumcised, Jeremiah doubtless includes the Israelites, and thus by way of reproach he takes away from the chosen people their peculiar distinction. Hence the Prophet says that though they had the visible symbol in their flesh, they were yet uncircumcised in heart, and ought therefore to be classed with the nations. God cares not for the external symbol, but regards the chief thing, which is the circumcision of the heart (Jer. 9:25-26).”
The apostle Paul teaches the same thing in Romans 2:28-29: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”
The letter is of no value before God, but the spirit is what He requires. The external sign is worthless, except accompanied by the reality within; for the literal circumcision mentioned by Paul is merely the external rite; in the same manner baptism with us may be called the letter, when there is no repentance and faith. But the spirit, or spiritual circumcision, is the denial of self; it is renovation, and in a word, that true conversion to God, of which the Prophet speaks here. Nor has Moses been silent on this point; for in the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy he shows that the Jews greatly deceived themselves if they thought that they did all that God required when they were circumcised in the flesh; “Circumcise,” he says, “your hearts to the Lord.”
Jeremiah also speaks of those who had uncircumcised ears: “To whom shall I speak and give warning, That they may hear? Indeed their ear is uncircumcised, And they cannot give heed. Behold, the word of the LORD is a reproach to them; They have no delight in it” (Jer. 6:10).
What is the difference between an uncircumcised ear and an uncircumcised heart? The uncircumcised ear is that which rejects all true doctrine. An uncircumcised heart is that which is perverse and rebellious. But we ought to understand the reason of this: as circumcision was an evidence of obedience, so the Scripture calls those uncircumcised who are unteachable, who cast away every fear of God and all sense of religion, and follow their own lusts and desires.
As it was with the outward sign of circumcision under the old covenant, so it is with water baptism under the new covenant: It was God’s will to consecrate His ancient people to Himself by circumcision; but when they became satisfied with the visible sign only, there was no longer the reality, and God’s covenant was profaned. It is the same at this day with respect to baptism; they who wish to be deemed Christians boast of it, while at the same time they show no fear of God, and while their whole life obliterates the true character of baptism (cf. Rom. 2:27).
Water baptism will avail a person nothing if they do not receive spiritual baptism, which only the Holy Spirit provides. Have you been baptized by the Spirit; have you been regenerated or born again? It is certain that men do not bestow on themselves what God signifies by the sign of baptism; but God counsels them to seek from Him the grace of His Spirit, that they might not in vain be sealed by the external rite of baptism, while destitute of its reality (Rom. 2:29).
Water baptism does not regenerate a person; the Holy Spirit does. Water baptism avails hypocrites nothing for they receive only the naked sign; and therefore we must come to the spirit of baptism, to the thing itself; for the interior power is renovation, when our old man is crucified with us, and when we rise again with Christ into newness of life.
Water baptism alone will not save you; you must be born again by God. To be saved, you must be baptized with the Holy Spirit (cf. Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; 10:47; 11:16; 1 Cor. 12:13). Have you been baptized with the Holy Spirit?
John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Twenty Chapters of the Book of the
Prophet Ezekiel, trans. Thomas Myers (Edinburgh, Scotland: Calvin
Translation Society, 1843), Vol. I, 152-154. See Augustine’s Homily on
John, 89, Book 19.
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