Romans, Israel, and Infant Baptism
I've been sitting on thoughts about sacramentology and baptism since covering them in early September during our weekly bible study. More specifically, in what way Romans 2-4 educate us (or don't) on the continuity of God's administration of His covenants. This is mostly a concern for exegesis but it addresses poor exegesis that makes these chapters about baptism.
The story oft told is that Paul in Romans 2 through 4 demolishes the idea that circumcision corresponds to baptism (particularly of the infant sort). Or more specifically that neither circumcision or baptism has any covenantal role in the New Covenant like circumcision had in the Old Testament. This line of thinking is normally developed as a polemic against the practice of Infant Baptism retained during the Reformation. Though it should be sufficient to say that the grounds of infant baptism are not solely—perhaps even primarily—tied to continuity with circumcision, there are reasons to stop and take a critical look at these important chapters of Paul's epistle.
Romans 2 & 3
In the second chapter of the epistle, Paul is expanding (in some sense) the verdict of judgment against sin that he has described in the opening chapter (Rom. 1:18-32). Paul has explained how God's righteousness was revealed in the gospel (Rom. 1:17) before articulating how God's wrath is revealed against the ungodly (Rom. 1:18). Further, those who judge the ungodly positively (Rom. 1:32) and those who judge the ungodly negatively (Rom. 2:1-11)—in different manners revealing hypocrisy—will be found guilty of transgressing the law. So, Paul concludes his discourse on God's wrath by declaring the future judgment of Christ as part of his "gospel" (Rom. 2:16).
To be additionally clear, Paul articulates that this judgment pertains to the Jews and their faith in circumcision (Rom. 2:17-29). Paul critically states that circumcision—as a ritual of law—only benefits those who keep the law (Rom. 2:25) and thus does not preserve them from this judgment. Paul understands that this statement would spark questions and so the opening verses of the next chapter address those questions (Rom. 3:1-4). In the face of this disregard for external circumcision, Paul still confesses that physical circumcision—as a ritual of God's faithfulness (Rom. 3:3)—has benefits! Namely, Paul says that "the spoken words of God" (Rom. 3:2; HCSB) were given to the Jews in circumcision! Though circumcision of the heart alone justifies, outward circumcision is not rendered useless or meaningless. Instead, physical circumcision is rendered moot when viewed as a human response to God to merit His favor. From this section of Paul, we witness the Reformation emphasis that the sacraments are articulations of divine action (e.g. promises from God to man) and not human action (e.g man's demonstrated "commitment" to God through ritual).
Today as in Paul's day, this naturally leads to some confusion. Paul has just finished saying that God has spoken words of benefit to a people who have not escaped God's judgment. If these promises of God were spoken and if recipients of these promises don't believe, wouldn't that make God a liar? Paul answers in the negative—God's faithfulness is not tied to our faith whether in our practice or rejection of faith (Rom. 3:3-5; 2 Tim. 2:13). In fact, Paul argues our unfaithfulness to God's promises reveals God's righteousness. Who are we to conclude God is unjust?
In contrast to law-oriented (or legalistic) circumcision, Paul concludes that God's redeeming righteousness has been revealed in Jesus Christ to all men (Rom. 3:21-26). Boasting in the law or some ritualistic commitment to God is a wasted effort. God will save the circumcised and uncircumcised in the same manner, faith (Rom. 3:27-31).
All of this backdrop leads to Paul's primer on "justification by faith." Contra any Jewish boasting, works were of no use in justification even to Abraham and David (Rom. 4:1-8). These great recipients of God's covenants were justified on the basis of faith and not of works. At this point, the Jews of Paul's audience are meant to be convinced and assured that God has not forgotten His promise. But the question remains, who else is this blessed "justification by faith" for exactly? Is it only for the circumcised (Rom. 4:9)? Didn't Paul just finish saying that God was the God of Jew and Gentile (Rom. 3:29)?
Paul's answer is that the blessing belongs to both (Rom. 4:12, 16). However, this question is why Paul introduces the timeline of Abraham's justification. Abraham received the sign of righteousness by faith (circumcision) when he was without circumcision (Rom. 4:11). He received the promise of the covenant before receiving the sign of the promise. To Paul, this alone is proof that Abraham is the father of both the circumcised and uncircumcised (Rom. 4:12). This was written for our sake (Rom. 4:23-24) in order to demonstrate that God is, in fact, the God of the Gentiles (Rom. 1:16; 3:29-30; 4:16)!
So what does this particular section say sacramentally about circumcision and/or infant baptism? Well, relatively little actually. Paul's point in the passage is to show how Abraham was "the father of many nations" (Rom. 4:17) to descendants of the law and his faith (Rom. 4:16). This passage isn't denigrating to circumcision in regards to sacramental theology or covenantal continuity. Paul has already affirmed that circumcision is a benefit to the Jews, but it is not so exclusively a benefit as to exclude the Gentiles who are uncircumcised. One might persist that there is an important value in that Abraham received the sign after faith as a seal of what he already had by faith. Only to the extent that we allow the value to be what Paul says it is—to show Abraham is the father of the Gentiles.
In context, Paul doesn't provide any reason to assume circumcision meant less than a sign and "seal of righteousness" to Isaac. Abraham believed (the promise of) God and was justified (Gen. 15:6). But the promise (by faith) was guaranteed to all Abraham's descendants (Rom. 4:16). This logic of inclusion into the promises of circumcision is also reflected in Ephesians 2:11-19. Far from being texts that disprove continuity, these texts expand the continuity of the Old Testament covenants to the Gentiles.
Despite Paul's clarity about the expansion of this covenant, the opposition of many Jews remained a subject of controversy to the church. In fact, one can argue from the Scriptural witness that it is precisely Paul's expansion of the covenant aspects to the Gentiles that upset the Jews. Why are so many Jews rejecting the fulfilled promises of God that they claim to be waiting for? This is the question Paul answers in the ninth chapter of Romans by explaining God's historical behavior to the Jews and how it carries forward to their current time (and beyond).
This background is also why the chapter starts with a valuable, comprehensive look at God's work towards the Jews. Paul opens with a lament that his people are separate from the God who has given them so much. All of these things were promised to them simply because of God's favor to the Patriarchs. For they are—not were as some supersessionist would argue—the recipients of:
the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises (Rom. 9:4)
All of these promises and benefits belong to Israel. And so their opposition to the gospel leads Paul to speak dramatically of his own rejection for their elections. This truth is what prompts Paul to articulate God's electing power in the history of the Jews. This will help explain why the Jews oppose the gospel and what will come when they accept God's promises as found in Christ (Rom. 11:15). But contrary to any doctrine of predestination devoid of covenant influence, Paul does not articulate that God's election negates the promises and benefits offered to the Jews. Instead, Paul speaks of them as "natural" to the olive branch (Rom. 11:24) and with regards to election (!) "loved" by God according to the Patriarchs (Rom. 11:28). Even as the Jews opposed the gospel in favor of the Law, they could not invalidate the covenant of promises made with Abraham (Gal. 3:17-18).
It is clear from Paul's doctrine that God's spoken word (Rom. 3:1-2) and promises (Rom. 9:4) remain with the circumcised of Israel so that God may "justify the circumcised by faith" (Rom. 3:30). Even amidst the inclusion of the Gentiles, God's blessing and promises are extended to generations.