The above quote is from an anonymous 17th century Particular Baptist. “The wha?” you say. In the 17th century there were Baptists who were Calvinists and they were referred to as “Particular Baptists” because they believed in particular redemption rather than the General Baptists who believed that Jesus died for the sins of everyone. Today, we’d call them Reformed Baptists because they believed a lot more Reformed theology than just particular redemption. This chap probably chose to be anonymous because for a while in the 17th century it was illegal to be a Baptist in England.
Anyway, this particular Particular Baptist (sorry) denied that the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17 was the Covenant of Grace. Now, as far as that goes, I’m fine with it. The two covenants are not the same. However, that doesn’t make the covenant of circumcision a covenant of works either. I would put it in the category of a covenant of promise (Eph 2:12). Here’s why:
In Galatians 3, Paul pits the law against the promise of the covenant of circumcision. You can tell that he has Genesis 17 in mind because in verses 15-18 he cites it when he says “and to your offspring” which he explains is talking about Jesus. According to verses 2, 5, 14 and 4:6 the promise is the Holy Spirit. So Paul’s understanding of the covenant of circumcision is that it promised and pictured the Holy Spirit. That makes a lot of sense biblically since in Deut 30, God promises to circumcise Israel’s heart. In Col 3:11 we are told that we have received Christian circumcision done without hands. In Romans 2:29 circumcision is called “a matter of the heart.” And Paul asked the Galatians in verse 2, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Since the promise of the covenant of circumcision is the Spirt and we receive the Spirit by faith, not works, the covenant of circumcision cannot be a works/law covenant.
What of the fact that it can be broken (Gen 17:14) which our anonymous Baptist cited in his quote? The way a child is said to have broken the covenant if he was not circumcised. This helpless infant is not relying on his own works but the faithfulness of his father. Since we receive Christian circumcision in the same way, while we were helpless and by the faithfulness of our Heavenly Father, this condition pictured God’s grace.
What of God’s command to Abram “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1)? Isn’t that a law of the covenant of circumcision? No, it isn’t. God explained why he required this of Abram, “that I may make my covenant with you” (Gen 17:2) and then immediately says “Behold, my covenant is with you.” (Gen 17:4) so Abram had already met those requirements. How? He’d met them the first time God established this covenant: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6). This covenant of circumcision was a gracious covenant.
What of Galatians 5:3 which says that if you’re circumcised you’re under obligation to keep the entire law? That cannot be speaking of Genesis 17 since Paul has already contrasted that covenant with the law in chapter 3. Also, when Abram entered the covenant of circumcision, the law had not yet been given. Abrams couldn’t have been under obligation to keep the entire law since it would be another 500 years before God would give it. In Galatians 5, Paul is talking about the Mosaic covenant which was a law/works covenant.