Based on commentary by John Calvin

Sacraments are signs and seals of faith, which God has set apart as holy.  The sacrament of circumcision under the old covenant has been replaced by water baptism under the new covenant.  Both of these are signs of a spiritual reality: circumcision in the flesh represented spiritual circumcision of the heart, and water baptism signifies spiritual baptism or regeneration by the Holy Spirit (i.e., being born again).  Likewise the sacrament of Passover under the old covenant has been replaced by the Lord’s Supper under the new covenant. 

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.[1]

The observance of the sacraments (i.e., the holy ordinances which God has ordained for His people to observe) must always be accompanied by the proclamation of the Word of God:  All signs we know are unmeaning and without any importance without the word.  It is God’s Word, then, that in a manner gives life to signs, and applies them for the benefit and instruction of men (Jer. 43:8-10).
[2]  Since words ought ever to be connected with signs, we hence conclude how senseless the Papists [the followers of the Pope] are, who practice many ceremonies, but without knowledge.  Whatever signs men may devise for themselves are indeed dead and empty things unless God’s word is added (Jer. 51:60-64).[3]

What did circumcision under the old covenant signify?

Circumcision “was a symbol of renovation.”
[4]  It was a sign of repentance and faith:  It is a common thing with Moses and the Prophets to call an unrenewed heart, uncircumcision, and to say that the people are uncircumcised in heart; for circumcision while an evidence of free salvation in Christ at the same time initiated the Jews into the worship and service of God and proved the necessity of a new life; it was in short a sign both of repentance and faith.[5]

By this symbol God showed that if a man rightly aspires after true religion, he ought to begin by putting off all the evil propensities of his flesh; he must deny himself and die both to himself and to the world; for circumcision includes all this.  The Prophet Jeremiah shows that the Israelites had no excuse, that they did not go astray by mistake or through ignorance, but they were acting perversely and deceitfully with God; for circumcision, by which they had been initiated into God’s service, sufficiently taught them, that God is not rightly nor faithfully served, except when men deny themselves.

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.”[7]

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).”[8]

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.”[9]

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.[10]

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).[11] 

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).[12]

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.[13] 

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? 

[1] 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. 
[2] John Calvin, Commentaries on The Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, Vol. IV, trans. Rev. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 513.
[3] Vol. V, 292-293. 
[4] Vol. I, 204.
[5] Vol. I, 508.
[6] Vol. I., 204.
[7] Vol. I, 205.
[8] Vol. I, 507.
[9] Vol. I., 205.
[10] Vol. I, 328.
[11] Vol. I., 328.
[12] Vol. I., 205-206.
[13] Vol. I., 508.


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Revised: 08-26-2014