Examining “the sign of the covenant” (Genesis 17:11)

SUMMARY. Today’s article takes a look at the phrase “the sign of the covenant” that appears in Genesis 17:11, but that also factors prominently in the Presbyterian practice of Paedobaptism. We will examine the phrase in its context of Genesis 17:11 and compare that with the use of the same phrase when Presbyterians (and probably others) sprinkle water on the head of infants.

The most common use of “the sign of the covenant” is not in the exegesis of Genesis 17:11 but is instead in the words used by Presbyterians as the pastor of the church sprinkles water on the head of an infant (or small child, and so throughout the article). In this ritual, called Paedobaptism or infant baptism, the infant child of a professing believer is said to receive “the sign of the covenant” when they are sprinkled with water.

Now, while this practice has gone on for many centuries, first in the Roman Catholic church and then in most of the Protestant churches of the Reformation and beyond, there are difficulties in explaining or justifying this practice from the Bible. There are also difficulties in showing that “the sign of the covenant” commanded in Genesis 17:11 is analogous to “the sign of the covenant” given in the sprinkling of infants with water. This article is going to examine some of those difficulties.

NO EXAMPLE IN THE BIBLE

The first difficulty is that there is no example anywhere in the Bible, in Old Testament or New, of any infant ever being sprinkled with water. Thus, the Presbyterians have no biblical basis whatsoever for assigning any significance to sprinkling water on the head of an infant. Whatever meaning is assigned to the sprinkling is entirely arbitrary. In fact, the ritual of sprinkling an infant and the assigned meaning of that ritual are simply invented with no reference to the Bible. (As an aside, the question should be asked, “How can you maintain ‘sola Scriptura’ and, at the same time, prominently practice a ritual that is absent from the Scriptures?”) In summary of this point, then, the ritual of sprinkling water on the head of an infant is extrabiblical and the meaning of this ritual is arbitrarily invented.

AN ANALOGY BETWEEN CIRCUMCISION AND SPRINKLING INFANTS ?

Next, we know that the phrase “sign of the covenant” appears four times in Scripture. Three of those appearances are in Genesis 9 with the covenant with Noah. The fourth, and most important, appearance of this phrase is in Genesis 17:11, and this is the one that gets the most attention, because this use of the phrase is alleged to hold the key to the Presbyterian practice of Paedobaptism. Let’s try to follow this.

In Genesis 17:2-8, God declares to Abraham what He is going to do for Abraham under this covenant. Since God is the one who declares these things, we know that they will certainly come to pass.

In Genesis 17:9-14, the pronouns change from I (God) to you (Abraham). In these verses, God tells Abraham what his responsibilities are under this covenant. Every male among Abraham’s descendants (seed) must be circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin (17:10-11). Further, males are to be circumcised when they are eight days old (17:12). This is “the sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham, and it is obligatory. Any male who is not circumcised has broken God’s covenant and shall be cut off from his people (17:14).

Thus, the terms of the Abrahamic covenant are clearly established. All male descendants of Abraham are obligated to be circumcised in the flesh of their foreskin as “the sign of the covenant” (17:11).

So far, so good. But now the real work begins, because the Presbyterian needs to show that, as circumcision is “the sign of the covenant” between God and Abraham in Genesis 17, so sprinkling water on the head of an infant is the sign of the new covenant which Christ established by His death on the cross (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20).

There are difficulties presented by the task of showing this analogy. Here are a few.

  • Already mentioned is the fact that sprinkling infants with water is absent from all of Scripture. It is therefore difficult to draw an analogy between circumcision, which does exist in Scripture, and the sprinkling of infants, which does not.
  • The phrase “the sign of the covenant” does not appear in any verse of Scripture after Genesis 17:11, where male circumcision is explicitly stated to be the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. It is therefore difficult to connect circumcision with anything in the New Testament, since nowhere in the New Testament can we find a corresponding sign of the covenant.
  • If, despite the fact that there is no sprinkling of infants anywhere in the Bible and despite the fact that there is no identified “sign of the covenant” in the New Testament, we nevertheless made the arbitrary assumption that male circumcision in the flesh of the foreskin on the eighth day was analogous to sprinkling water on the head of an infant, we would need to address the fact that these two signs of the covenant are vastly different in their forms. As seen below, this presents a difficulty, namely, if these are, in fact, analogous, why are they so dissimilar?
circumcisionsprinkling on head
males onlymale and female
on the eighth dayno specific time
cutting with a knifesprinkling with water
“sign of covenant” explicit“sign of covenant” assigned
obligatoryoptional
permanent sign in the fleshtransient sign leaves no trace
biblically commandednot in the Bible
Comparing circumcision and sprinkling
  • The final difficulty in showing that these two rituals are analogous to one another consists in looking at their purposes. We would assume that, if these practices are analogous to one another, then their purposes would provide clues of this analogy. In Genesis 17, the purpose of circumcision is clearly given: to mark the seed of Abraham by a permanent physical sign. But where do we go to find the purpose of sprinkling water on the head of an infant? Since this ritual does not appear in Scripture, we have no way of knowing its God-ordained purpose. In fact, since this sprinkling of infants with water does not appear in the word of God, we conclude there is no God-ordained purpose to this practice. Whatever purpose there is to this ritual must be arbitrarily assigned by man.

So far in this article we have examined the concept of “the sign of the covenant” and have encountered significant difficulties in trying to see how the phrase as used in Genesis 17:11 has any resemblance or connection to the words used by Presbyterians as they sprinkle infants. The magnitude of the difficulties leads us to conclude that there is, in fact, no connection between these two uses of the phrase “sign of the covenant” and that Presbyterians use the phrase when sprinkling infants for reasons that are based on other than exegetical concerns.

SDG                 rmb                 3/2/2022                     #494

Because of the covenant (Genesis 18 and 19) – Part 2

But because there was a covenant . . .

Post #452 on November 5 began a study of the LORD’s covenant with Abraham from Genesis 15-19. This post will continue that study as we look deeper into the covenant and its effects on the events surrounding the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19.

A REVIEW OF ABRAHAM’S COVENANT

Before we move on to Genesis 19, however, I want to review some of the key points we have already learned in our study and reveal their significance.

First, we saw that Abraham “believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Abraham expresses his faith in the LORD, and by his faith he is declared righteous.

Next, we see that, after Abraham expresses his faith, on the basis of a blood sacrifice, the LORD made a covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:18-21).

Thus, by the end of Genesis 15, based on his faith, Abraham has received a covenant with the LORD that has been sealed by the blood of a sacrifice.

ABRAHAN’S COVENANT FORESHADOWS OUR NEW COVENANT

An examination of Abraham’s covenant reveals that it pictures for us the new covenant that believers have with the Lord Jesus Christ. For just as the LORD’s covenant with Abraham began when Abraham believed in the LORD, so our covenant of salvation begins when we believe in the Lord Jesus. Just as Abraham’s covenant with the LORD was sealed and ratified by blood sacrifice, so the new covenant is established on the basis of Christ’s shed blood on the cross. And just as Abraham was the passive recipient of the promises contained in his covenant with the LORD, so we, by faith, are the recipients of all the promises given in Christ. “For all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in Him (Christ)” (2 Cor. 1:20).

So, because there is a new covenant . . .

. . . we who believe in Christ receive all the promises of God.

Reading on, in Genesis 17, the LORD appeared to Abraham (17:1) to establish the terms and conditions of the covenant that He had made with Abraham in Genesis 15:12-21. It is clear that the purpose of the LORD’s appearing to Abraham was to establish His covenant since the word “covenant” is used eleven times in this chapter. Abraham is commanded to circumcise all males in his household as a sign of the covenant between him and the LORD (17:11). Also, in Genesis 17:16, 19, and 21 the LORD promises Abraham that Sarah shall bear him a son. His son shall be named Isaac and he will be born “at this season next year” (17:21).

We have now caught up to where we were before with the previous post (#452) in Genesis 18. What can we say about the relationship between the LORD and Abraham?

Because there was a covenant . . .

. . . there is peace between Abraham and the LORD. Even though the LORD has come down to render judgment on Sodom, the LORD and Abraham enjoy a fellowship meal. Because the LORD has established His covenant with him, Abraham has no reason to fear. The “Judge of all the earth” (18:25) is standing before him, yet Abraham enjoys pleasant communion with the LORD and His angels.

In the same way, . . .

. . . because there is a new covenant . . .

. . . those who believe in Jesus “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus gave His disciples the Lord’s Supper, which is a fellowship meal that those who follow Jesus enjoy together as we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:27). We know that there is coming a day when the Lord Jesus will come from heaven to judge the living and the dead, but we have no fear of that day because Jesus has paid for our sins on the cross and He has become a propitiation for our sins to forever quench the wrath of God against us. ‘There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). So, because there is the new covenant, we do not fear the Judge, but eagerly await Him (Hebrews 9:28).

There is a very serious reason why the LORD has come down to visit Abraham.

THE IMPENDING DESTRUCTION OF SODOM

The LORD has determined to destroy the city of Sodom because “their sin is exceedingly grave” (18:20). The two angels (19:1) have come down with the LORD for the purpose of destroying that wicked city. There is only one problem: Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is living in Sodom. If Sodom is destroyed, Lot will be destroyed along with the city. And now Abraham has a covenant with the LORD complete with fellowship and divine promises. How will the LORD’s covenant with Abraham affect this situation with Lot and the judgment of Sodom?

That will be the subject of our next post.

SDG                 rmb                 11/15/2021                 #455

Because of the covenant (Genesis 18 and 19) – Part 1

But because there was a covenant . . .

I have been spending time lately in Genesis looking at the life of Abraham, the father of faith, and this week I have been in chapters 15 through 19, which focus on the LORD’s covenant with Abraham. This post will be more like a series of observations than my usual study which presents my observations and then applies them.

THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM IS “MADE” BASED ON HIS FAITH

The covenant with Abraham begins in an unusual way. After Abraham expresses his faith; that is, after he “believes God, and it is credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), the LORD has Abraham prepare a number of sacrificial animals and then causes him to fall into a deep sleep (15:12). While Abraham slept, the LORD “made” a covenant with him (15:18-21).

Why does the LORD make His covenant with Abraham while Abraham is asleep? The point of this seems to be to emphasize that this covenant between the LORD and Abraham is completely dependent on the LORD’s will and activity. Because Abraham has believed God (faith in 15:6), he is going to be the recipient of the benefits of this covenant, even though he is completely passive in making the covenant. Because of his faith, Abraham has full possession of this covenant with the LORD. By faith, he is now in covenant with the living God.

THE COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM IS “ESTABLISHED

Moving forward to Genesis 17, now the LORD “establishes” His covenant with Abraham. While the covenant was “made” (cut) when Abraham was asleep (15:18), in Genesis 17 the LORD appears to him while he is wide awake to “establish” His covenant. In Genesis 17, the word “covenant” appears eleven times. When Genesis 17 has ended, there is no doubt that the covenant has been established. It is public.

It needs to be stressed here that all the benefits of this covenant accrue to the passive participant. Abraham gets all the blessings. He receives all the promises. The sole requirement for Abraham is that he must keep the covenant by circumcising all his male descendants. That’s it. He will be a father of a multitude of nations (17:4, 5), and all he is obligated to do is to make sure that his “seed” are identified by circumcision.

All of this is really an introduction to my main observations.

THE LORD COMES DOWN TO ABRAHAM

In Genesis 18, Abraham has a face-to-face conversation with the LORD that lasts throughout the chapter. Let’s be clear on what occurs here. An ordinary flesh and blood human being has a time of peaceful fellowship with the LORD of the universe. Now ordinarily, when the LORD comes down, He comes in fire and smoke and whirlwind. When He came down on Mount Sinai, the entire top of the mountain was engulfed in flames and black smoke. When the LORD comes down, there is terror and judgment, like when He came down on the first Passover and killed all the firstborn of the Egyptians. But because Abraham has a covenant with the LORD, they enjoy a meal together and have pleasant fellowship. Because of the covenant, there is peace and friendship between the holy God and the ordinary saint.

I need to put a bookmark here, but next time we will look at this covenant relationship in greater depth and see how the covenant between the LORD and Abraham determines many of the amazing events in Genesis 19 and the destruction of Sodom.

SDG