Westminster Presbyterian Church
Circumcise Our Hearts!
We have the great joy and privilege this morning to celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism with the Fuentes Family. Ivan and Adrian will soon be presented by their parents by the profession of their parents’ faith and the covenant sign and seal of God and of his covenant community will be placed upon their heads. And this is not a guarantee of salvation for these boys, but it is, as Peter would word it, an appeal to God of a good or of a clean conscience, that as believing parents, as Zach and Jenny raise these children in the faith and in the presence of the covenant community, and under the means of grace, that God will bring these two boys to faith in himself. For God’s word will not go out void, as Isaiah tells us. And if we train up a child in the way that he should go, he will not depart from it, Solomon writes in the book of Proverbs.
With this before us, I thought that it would be appropriate for us to spend some time reflecting upon baptism and its role within the covenant community. And particularly as Presbyterians who baptize our children, understanding Baptism to be the New Testament replacement for the covenant of circumcision, to briefly lay out its purpose and its role in the light of God’s covenantal promises.
To start with, we need to ask the question, what is a covenant? And what is a covenant community? We use that language a lot and we speak in that way quite often, but sometimes I wonder whether those familiar phrases are really phrases that we know what they mean. In the most basic language, a covenant is an agreement between two parties, typically one party is more powerful than the other one, and in ancient times there were regular covenant agreements that were oftentimes called Susrain/Vassal Agreements, where one was a Susrain or a King would make a covenantal agreement with those who were to be his vassals, those who were to be his underlings. “This is what I will do for you—I will protect you, typically—and here are the penalties for you if you are unfaithful to me.” “And these are the aspects of this covenant.” And these covenants were typically sealed with the shedding of blood.
Now if you go back to Genesis 15 sometime you will find the great example of how God was making this kind of covenant with Abram (Abraham). Abram was commanded to go and gather a series of animals and he was commanded to divide those animals in half, separating them into two rows with the bloody entrails stretched out between them. And of course, the typical way in which a covenant would have been ratified then would have been that both parties would come and walk through the gory blood trail as a signification and to say that if I don’t keep this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to me.
Something very special and unique took place in Genesis 15 when God made that covenant, because Abram (Abraham) was not instructed to walk through that pathway of blood. Instead, God put Abram to sleep and God came in a great vision and God walked through those split animals in Abram’s stead. What God was communicating is here is the covenant and here are the expectations that I am placing upon you, Abram, and upon your children. And if you don’t live up to those expectations, may what happened to those animals happen to me. And indeed that is part of the reason that God’s Son had to come and die upon the cross in a horrible way, that he was the one shedding his own blood that those animals represented—because of our covenantal unfaithfulness.
This is the idea of the covenant and this is the idea and importance of the blood of that covenant. We get to Genesis 17, though, and God gives Abraham a sign of this covenant is circumcision. God tells Abraham that not only must he be circumcised, but all of the children in his household from eight days old and up must be circumcised—indeed, all of his servants who are under his protection—his covenant household—were also to be circumcised. The bloody sign of that circumcision being a sign and a seal of that covenant, God’s bloody covenant which he made with his people beforehand.
Yet, notice something, as we look to Deuteronomy Chapter 30, and this is one of the reasons that I wanted to look at that this morning. Because God speaks in scripture of a second kind of circumcision. Deuteronomy, Chapter 30, verse 6, Moses says, “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring.”
What is the purpose of this second kind of circumcision that scripture speaks of? Moses will tell us: “So that you will love the Lord you God with all of your heart and with all of your soul”—literally, “for the sake of your life.” Do you see what God is doing here? God is pointing back to the external sign of circumcision and saying that this language, this idea, this pointing to the covenant, this seal is a seal of something that is also pointing to an inward reality of faith and the new life that is given.
Paul picks up this language that is given in Romans, Chapter 2 and Chapter 4, to speak of how this outer circumcision is not enough without the circumcision of the heart that accompanies it—the spiritual rebirth that comes through faith. For how can we love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul if God has not first given us new life? Thus one circumcision is an outward sign and the other circumcision is an inward reality that the first circumcision points toward.
Yet, if this is the case, why are we told that outward circumcision is no longer to be practiced in the new covenant age—in the New Testament age of the church of Jesus Christ? The reason is that the circumcision is a bloody sign and Christ has already shed his blood to fulfill the covenant that God has made with his people, illustrated all of the way back in Genesis 15. No longer, writes the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews, Chapter 10, do we need to repeat these bloody sacrifices, for Christ has sacrificed his blood for us once and for all. Thanks be to God for that gift! And as a result, we who are believers stand before a righteous and almighty God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and not our own righteousness. And we are called righteous, we are called justified, and we are called sons of the living God.
So just as the bloody celebration of Passover, which represented God’s redemption is replaced by the blood-less celebration of the Lord’s Table, so too, the bloody outward sign of circumcision is replaced by the blood-less sign of water baptism—signifying the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Thus, in Acts 2:37-39, when the people were cut to the heart, we are told, under Peter’s preaching, and they asked, “what must I do to be saved?” Peter said to repent and to be baptized—and verse 39—“and this promise is for you and for your children and all who are far off and all who the Lord calls to himself. As the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 3:26-29, “for in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God through faith. As many of you as who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, but we are all one in Christ. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to the promise.”
So as we go into baptism, we understand that it is a visible sign of the covenant of grace, a sign that will be sealed officially and fully when these children come to faith on their own. It is an outward sign of being part of the covenant community and of the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ.
So how does this tie back into Deuteronomy 30? I think that we have already seen that this language of the circumcision of the heart is what we tie back into. This language of God, in the hope and in the promise of a good conscience, that these two children being lifted up before him and God placing that covenantal seal on their heads. And the hope and the prayer is that as we present these children that God will indeed make real what that sign represents in their lives.
With that in mind, I would like to make three observations. First, note the emphasis on children in the verses of Deuteronomy 30. Verse 2: “repent to the Lord, you and your children as you return to the Lord.” Verse 6: “God will circumcise you and your offspring.” Verse 16: “and you shall live and multiply,” recognizing that the children that God has given us are blessings that come into our lives. And verse 19: “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”
One thing that we protestants do exceptionally well is to put forward the reality that salvation is by faith and by faith alone in Jesus Christ. That there is no works that bring us salvation—there is no lineage or family tree that brings us salvation. There are no statutes or roles that will guarantee our salvation. That salvation is through a personal relationship—an intimate relationship—with the Lord God.
Yet, in light of that emphasis, I believe that we have lost a sense that Scripture has put before us that faith is something that is to be taught and passed down, if you will, in principle, from generation to generation. That a church is not meant to start over, if you will, every generation as it goes from scratch, but instead, children are expected to pick up the mantle of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ that these signs that we place on them point toward and that their parents model for them. In our protestant churches, so often it is not the norm that you see two or three or four generations gathered together for worship. But so often, the norm is that of children rebelling against the faith of their parents. I am not advocating that we as protestants should try and fulfill some kind of Roman Catholic or other idea that is part of this—but advocating that we question whether or not we are placing enough emphasis not just on the personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but in raising our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. And indeed even raising and pointing our children to that same faith.
My prayer, my exhortation for you, Zach and Jenny, in particular, but also for all of us who have children or even who have adult children who have moved on in life, or who have grandchildren, is that we raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord—that we are being deliberate about pointing our children towards faith in Jesus Christ in a powerful way. That we raise our children in the church, that we raise our children always pointing to the reality that the sign that has been placed upon their head points toward. With the expectation, not the general hope, but the expectation that they will come to faith in God himself. And that we strive, that we not see generations rise up as we read through the historical books in the Old Testament, particularly in Judges, that does not know the things that God has done—not just in Biblical times, but in the history of our nation, in the history of the world, in the history of the church, and in the history of their individual family. Children should know their parents’ witness story—children should know their parents’ confession of faith and how their parents came to faith in Jesus Christ. And we as parents should be deliberate about pointing our children toward that reality and that expectation that they too would come to faith in our Lord and Savior.
Secondly, note too the language of blessing and cursing that is attached to covenant membership. All too often we like to talk about the blessings as comfortable and pleasing to do. But we don’t often talk as freely about the judgments that are given in connection with the blessings. Those who are born again believers—those who are redeemed need to always remember one thing—we have been redeemed from something and that something is the righteous judgment that God brings for sin. If we don’t preach judgment and we don’t preach the threat of judgment at the same time that we preach redemption, redemption won’t have its meaning, it won’t have its power because people won’t understand what it is that they have been saved and delivered from. Eternal Judgment of God. If we are to preach the gospel of redemption to our children and to our neighbors, we must also not be afraid to preach what we have been redeemed from.
Christ did not die to make you nice—he died to make you holy. And he died to deliver you from the wrath to come. Make sure that when you are sharing the gospel with others that you understand the stakes that you are playing with. This is not a kids game of penny poker, but this is a matter of life and death. The stakes are eternal. Do not take them lightly. If you do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, you will be rightfully condemned to the fires of hell. If your children do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they will be rightfully condemned to eternal damnation.
Beloved, are you comfortable with those stakes, because these are the stakes that we are playing with. Are you satisfied in knowing which side of the divide that you stand upon—and your loved ones stand upon. If not, this is the day of decision. This is the day that you have the time to speak these words to your children, to your families, and to yourself.
And Thirdly, finally notice the emphasis on your response to choose life. In verse 16, Moses writes, “Obey the commandments.” How do we do this? Love the Lord our God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes and his rules that we might live and multiply. Do you see what he is saying? That just coming to faith, just saying, “Lord forgive me,” is not simply what you have been called to do—that is a first step. But we are also called to live it out. We are also called to walk the walk of faith. We are also called to walk before the nations proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, loving the Lord, walking in his ways, and keeping his words.
I would like to close this morning with verses 19 and 20 of this chapter. Moses speaks these words to you and to me, and he speaks as follows:
I this day, I call heaven and earth as witness against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him for he is your life and length of days. That you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob to give them.
Beloved, choose this day whom you will serve. Choose this day what inheritance that you are seeking—an inheritance that is here in the wealth of the nations, or an inheritance that is being reserved, as Peter writes, in heaven, free from being defiled and corrupted.