The Present Truth : June 25, 1896
“The Sign of Circumcision”
And now we must carry a little further the study of the seal of the covenant, namely, circumcision. What does it signify, and what is it in reality? We have learned that it signifies righteousness by faith. It was given to Abraham as a token of the possession of such righteousness, or, as an assurance that he was “accepted in the Beloved, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” Ephesians 1.6, 7. What circumcision really is may be learned from the following scripture: —
“For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law; but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision, which is by nature, if it fulfill the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Romans 2.25-29
Circumcision was the sign of righteousness by faith. But that righteousness is the righteousness required by the law of God. Circumcision never amounted to anything unless the law was kept. In fact, the keeping of the law is real circumcision. The Lord requires truth in the inward parts. An outward show, with no righteousness within, is an abomination to Him. The law must be in the heart, or else there is no real circumcision. But the law can be in the heart only by the power of the Lord through the Spirit. “The law is spiritual,” (Romans 7.14), that is it is of the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the law can be in the heart only as the Spirit of God dwells there. Circumcision is therefore nothing less than the sealing of righteousness in the heart by the Holy Spirit. This is what Abraham received. His circumcision was the scale of the righteousness of faith, which he had. But the righteousness of faith was that by which he was to inherit the promised possession. Therefore circumcision was the pledge of his inheritance. Now read the following text: —
“It whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace. . . . in whom also we have obtained an inheritance being predestinated according to the purpose of Him that worketh all things after the counsel of His own will; that we should be to the praise of His glory, who first trusted in Christ. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation; in whom also after that ye believed, ye were scaled with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession.” Ephesians 1.7-14
The word of truth is the Gospel of salvation. When we believe the Gospel, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that seal is the pledge or assurance of our inheritance, until it is bestowed at the coming of the Lord. Abraham had, therefore, the Holy Spirit as the pledge of the inheritance that was promised him. The possession of the Spirit shows that we have a right to the inheritance, because the Spirit brings righteousness, and the inheritance is one of righteousness. Righteousness, and that only, will dwell in the new earth.
In harmony with the above text, we have also the following: “And ye are complete in Him [Christ], which is the head of all principality and power; in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” Colossians 2.10, 11
God’s promise to Abraham had been made long before the time of which we are writing. The making of the covenant is recorded in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. But after the covenant was made, Abraham fell into the error recorded in the sixteenth chapter. He saw his mistake, and repented of it, and turned to the Lord again in full faith, and thus received the assurance of forgiveness and acceptance; and circumcision was given as the reminder of it.
The Scriptures, which we have read in the New Testament concerning circumcision, are not the statement of something new. Circumcision was always just what it is there said to be. It always meant righteousness in the heart, and had no significance whatever when that righteousness was absent. This is plainly indicated in Deuteronomy 30.5, 6: “And the Lord thy God will bring thee into the land which thy fathers possessed, and thou shalt possess it; and He will do thee good, and multiply thee above thy fathers. And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.”
Why the Outward Sign?
The question very naturally arises, ‘Why was the outward sign of circumcision given to Abraham, if he already had everything that it implied?’ Since circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit, and is nothing but the possession of righteousness by faith, and Abraham had that before he received the sign of circumcision, why was the sign given?
It is a reasonable question, and happily may easily be answered. The reader will first notice, however, that that which Abraham received is in Romans 4.11 called “the sign of circumcision.” The real circumcision he already had. In harmony with this is the statement that that which was in the flesh, made by hands, was only “called circumcision.” Ephesians 2.11. It was not circumcision in fact.
Now the reason why this sign was given, which was only a sign, and which brought nothing to its possessor, and which was a false sign unless the righteousness of faith was in the heart, will be seen when we consider what had taken place after the covenant was made with Abraham. He had entered into an arrangement, the object of which was to work out the promise of the Lord. Abraham and Sarah believed that the promise was to be theirs, but they thought that they must work it out. But since the promise was of an inheritance of righteousness, the thought that they could work it out was in reality the very common idea that men can work out the righteousness of God. So when God repeated the covenant, He gave to Abraham a sign, which should always be a reminder of his attempt to work out the promise of God, and his failure. It did not give him anything, but was on the contrary a reminder that he could do nothing of himself, and that everything was to be done in him and for him by the Lord. The cutting off of a portion of flesh showed that the promise was not to be gained by the flesh but by the Spirit. Ishmael was born after the flesh, but Isaac after the Spirit.
The same purpose was also served by it for his descendants. It was to keep continually before them the mistake of their father Abraham, and to warn them against making the like error. It was to show them that “the flesh profiteth nothing.” In after times they perverted this sign, and assumed that the possession of it was an assurance of their righteousness, whether they kept the law or not. They trusted that it brought them righteousness, and made them the peculiar favorites of the Lord. But the Apostle Paul showed the truth in regard to the matter by saying, “We are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” Philippians 3.3. The Jews came to look upon it as bringing to them everything, because they trusted in their own righteousness; whereas its only object was to teach them not to put confidence in themselves.