In Genesis 17, God instituted circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant he made with Abraham. This covenant sign was to be practiced on Abraham and all males within his household. This included infants born into his household, who would receive the sign of circumcision on the eighth day after their birth. This sign was obviously a bloody sign—circumcision involves the cutting of the foreskin, which leads to bloodshed. God was very serious about the application of this sign, demonstrating that it was not merely optional, but required. Moreover, as Calvin noted, it emphasized that salvation is from the Lord, not from the individual’s activity or will.
Circumcision continued to be the sign and seal of the covenant throughout the Old Testament era and into the New Testament time. Jesus himself was circumcised on the eighth day, as were all the children of faithful Jews (see Luke 2:21). The Apostles would also be circumcised as infants, just as Paul was (see Phil. 3:5). These were all still under the Old Covenant administration, with all of its types and shadows.
The key to this issue is really the coming of the New Covenant, and the many changes that were introduced. Just to list a few, the New Covenant had a new and better mediator, our Lord Jesus Christ. The whole ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ, and done away with. We no longer bring animals to worship to be slaughtered and offered on the altar; the death of Christ is sufficient for the remission of all our sins. One key change from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant is the change in the sacraments. In the Old Covenant the saints celebrated Passover, the Day of Atonement, and other ceremonial meals. In the New Covenant we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Passover is eclipsed by the Lord’s Supper; the lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs are replaced with the simplicity of bread and wine.
There was also a change in the initiating sacrament. In the Old Covenant it was circumcision. In the New Covenant it becomes baptism. Jesus instituted baptism before he ascended to heaven (Matt. 28:19). Baptism is a bloodless sign and seal of the new covenant and replaces circumcision. Thus, Christians are no longer obligated to practice circumcision, but instead are required to be baptized, and to present their children for baptism.
Paul acknowledges that switch in Colossians 2:11–12, where he uses circumcision and baptism interchangeably. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, we believe that baptism is the sacrament that we are under, not circumcision. While some Christians may have their children circumcised for practical reasons, such as health and hygiene, there is no continuing spiritual significance to that practice.
I hope that gives you some understanding of where we’re coming from. Thanks for your good question!
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