Is circumcision of the heart synonymous with regeneration? If so, does that mean that justified Old Testament saints were regenerate while they lived on the earth?
Circumcision was first instituted by God in Genesis 17:10-27 as the outward sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. This covenant was given specifically to the nation of Israel (though of course, it would find its fulfillment in Jesus Christ for all people) and thus a physical sign was given to “every male throughout your generations” (Gen 17:12) whether “born in your house or bought with your money from any foreign land” (Gen 17:12). As a national entity that had a covenant with God, God provided an external act and sign by which people could be included in that very covenant. No circumcision meant that a man would be “cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (Gen 17:14).
Yet, this external act merely brought the external benefits of being included in God’s covenant people and thus receiving God’s general providence such as protection from enemy nations and agricultural and financial blessings upon the nation. The outward sign of circumcision on the flesh did not perform any work upon the heart (See Romans 2:25-29). However, Scripture also speaks of a “circumcision of the heart”- It is mentioned in the Old Testament and illuminated a little more in the New Testament.
The first passage to deal with circumcision of the heart is Deuteronomy 10:16. God commands Israel to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” The verb for “circumcise”, מול, is found here as מַלְתֶּם, the Qal perf. 2pm form. This indicates that the Israelites are the ones who are to perform the action of circumcising their own hearts rather than being passive as the Lord circumcises their hearts.
Deuteronomy 30:6 mentions circumcision of the heart, yet we find something different here than in Deut 10:16. Here, the form of מול is מָ֨ל, the Qal perf. 3ms form. The opposite of Duet 10:16 is happening; the Israelites are now told that God will circumcise their hearts rather than circumcising their own hearts.
Jeremiah brings up circumcision of the heart as well, in similar circumstances to Deuteronomy. In Jeremiah 4:3, the people of Israel are commanded once again to have circumcised hearts; the verb here is הִמֹּ֣לוּ, the Nifal imperative 2nd person masculine plural form of מול. Literally “Be circumcised to the Lord!” This indicates that Israel is to receive circumcision of the heart from their own hands, as indicated by the next verb found in v.4: הָסִ֙רוּ֙, the Hifil imp. 2mp form of סור, which means (in the Hifil) “to remove”. [1,2]. Like in Deut 10:16, the Israelites are again told to circumcise their own hearts.
The Old Testament presents an interesting picture circumcision of the heart; the Israelites are commanded to circumcise their own hearts, yet God says that He will circumcise their hearts as well. It is clear that circumcision of the heart is a synergistic work requiring both God and man to work in some degree.
Can this really be synonymous with regeneration? Can it be merely a different way of speaking of the same work? I will argue that the scriptures answer with a resounding no.
The New Testament also speaks of a circumcision of the heart as a clear reference to the Old Testament concept. This reference is found in 2 places.
In Romans 2:25-29, Paul discusses the relationship between the Law and Jews and Gentiles. Physical circumcision, Paul says, is useless unless there is a circumcision of the heart as well (Rom 2:25, 29). This circumcision of the heart is “by the Spirit, not by the letter”. It is a work brought about by the Holy Spirit alone and is makes one a Jew. In essence, it is the circumcision of the heart that marks a person as a member of God’s spiritual covenant people, which includes both Jews and Gentiles united in one new man. This leads us to the next New Testament reference of circumcision of the heart.
Colossians 2:11-15 deals with a circumcision that is not of the flesh. Though the phrase “circumcised heart” is not mentioned, it is clear that Paul is making reference to this work due to the sharp contrast between the “circumcision of Christ”/a “circumcision made without hands” and the “uncircumcision of your flesh” (the physically uncircumcised status of the Gentiles).
Speaking to the Gentiles of Colossi, Paul describes the circumcision of Christ as one made without human hands, accomplished through putting off the body of the flesh and through baptism. It is also linked with the resurrection of Christ and the new life and forgiveness available in Him. Interestingly, this “Circumcision of Christ”, just like the Old Testament presentation of heart circumcision, involves work accomplished both by Christ (and the Spirit, e.g. “without hands”) and by man (as demonstrated by willingly being baptized, v.12). This is the same synergistic concept that we see present in the OT phenomenon of heart circumcision.
Based on what we find regarding circumcision of the heart in the Old and New Testament, I believe it is safe to say that it is the same work being done in the NT and OT. Both the OT and NT point to a spiritual work wrought in the heart by God in those who seeking it that produces a love for God and a desire to obey His commands. However, it is important to note that this is presented as synergistic; regeneration on the other hand, is purely monergistic. Thus, this expression refers to a phenomenon that foreshadowed the fullness of what would be given in the New Covenant through regeneration.
If the Spirit was not regenerating Old Testament believers while they lived on the earth, what was He doing? How did He interact with them?
- Swanson, J. (1997). Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (electronic ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Holladay, W. L., & Köhler, L. (2000). A concise Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (p. 254). Leiden: Brill.