Sunday, January 6, 2013

Comparing Old and New Testament Salvation

Deuteronomy 30:6 “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live."

We have been exploring the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Birth/ Regeneration/ Born Again experience these past several days.  Fundamentally the scripture asserts that in order for true salvation to occur, it must come from God, bring a change of heart and include faith and repentance.  Jesus was shocked when Nicodemas, a teacher of the Old Testament, did not understand what He meant when He told Nicodemas of his need to be Born-Again.  As we explore the Old Testament, you will see why Nicodemas should had been more aware of what Jesus was communicating in regards to being born again.  In today's blog we want to look further at the Old Testament background of the New Birth and the developments that prepared the way for it. 

Circumcision of the Heart - Abraham's testimony of salvation
When Abraham was called by God out of Ur of Chaldees in Genesis 11:27-12:6, he forsook his old life, and by faith trusted in God, who "credited" to Abraham righteousness. (Genesis 15:12; Romans 4:3) Joshua 24:6 tells us that Abraham had been an idolater, and that he turned or in biblical terminology, "repented" from that idolatry.  Circumcision was a practice that God ordained for Abraham and his male descendants back in Genesis 17.  It was to be the "sign" of the Covenant "promise" of salvation God pledged to Abraham, never being intended to be the means of attaining salvation itself.1  Abraham, like the New Testament believer, was saved by grace alone through faith alone in the Lord alone. In this brief sketch of Abraham's salvation experience, we can see the following:
1. The Call of salvation came from God
2. A change of heart was included, since Abraham forsook his old way of life
3. Faith and repentance were included in Abraham's salvation

Circumcision of the Heart was the proto-type of the New Birth
The best way the Old Testament could describe this change of heart, was to picture it by the physical rite of circumcision given to Abraham - hence the term "circumcision of heart".  The "circumcision of the heart" was God's proto-type of salvation for the Old Testament that would operate until the coming of the greater and more effective New Testament "New Birth" work of the Spirit.

The similarities between the Spirit's work in Old and New Testament experiences of salvation
By the days of Moses God's people who believed upon the promises of salvation were saved in the same manner as Abraham - by grace through faith.  And just like him, they experienced a level of the Spirit's working in their heart that accompanied their faith and repentence.  Deuteronomy is an interesting book, since it spells out most clearly in the earliest part of the Old Testament what exactly the Spirit was doing in salvation. 

Deuteronomy 10:16 states - "Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer."  Just like Jesus talking to Nicodemas in John 3, God through Moses is appealing to the people to "circumcise their hearts".  This demand for change, though different in form from the New Birth, is the same in substance - that is, it is a demand being made upon the hearer to change their heart.  Deuteronomy 30:6, quoted at the beginning of this blog, indicates that the change being demanded by God must be supplied by God.   This "circumcision of heart" is spoken of elsewhere in the Old Testament as describing the Spirit's work in salvation. (Jeremiah 4:4) The change of heart that comes from God includes the faith and repentance of the sinner.  In fact, the Apostle Paul uses the basic argument of Deuteronomy 30:6 to highlight the greater reality of the New Birth in Romans 10:8-10, a cornerstone passage used all the time in presentations of the Gospel.

The distinctions of the Spirit's work in Old Testament and New Testament salvation experiences
In the Old Testament, this "circumcision of the heart" consituted a temporary method of God's work in salvation until the Spirit would come and establish the greater and more effective work of the New Birth in Acts 2.  It is often helpful to note the similarities and distinctions of the Spirit's work in the Old and New Testament.  We have labored to show more of the similarities - since the unity of how salvation works is essential in our understanding of scripture as a whole.  However, we must also note the clear distinctions in the Old and New Testament:

1. Out to in versus in to out.  The Spirit's work in Old Testament was outside to inside, whereas His work in New Testament was inside to outside.  John 14:17 "that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. "

2. Influence versus abiding.  The Spirit's work in Old Testament was a coming upon to influence and move a person closer to God, whereas His work in the New Testament involved a coming into and abiding in the person's heart as God.  John 16:13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come."

3. Fluctuating work versus continuous work.  The Spirit's presence and work could fluctuate in the Old Testament, with Him taking off His restraining power and presence. (Psalm 51)  I liken the Spirit's working the the Old Testament saint's life to that of the moon on the tides of the ocean - though a daily work, the work would be stronger at times and than at other moments.  In the New Testament work of salvation, the Holy Spirit comes to be a permanent resident, providing a continuous resource of power to the child of God as a result of the greater work of the New Birth. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
Jesus would compare the Spirit's New Testament work to that of a river of living water, constantly moving and bubbling up from inside the human spirit up into the believer's soul. (John 7:37-38)

4. Looking forward versus Looking Back.  The Spirit's work in Old Testament salvation pointed saints of God to a looking foward to the cross. (1 Peter 1:10-12)  The Spirit's work in New Testament salvation points us back to the cross and the empty tomb, from whence we draw power for daily Christian living. (Romans 6:4-11; 1 Peter 1:3, 23; 2 Peter 1:3-4)

Contrary to many people's perceptions today, Old Testament people were not saved by law keeping nor circumcision. Furthermore, the Old Testament saints did not just by the bare power of their human will "will themselves" to be saved - with the New Testament teaching the Spirit's working as the basis. Both Testaments uniformly teach that God in the Person of the Holy Spirit is the Agent of the change of heart.   Though there are some surface level difference and degrees of distinction, Old Testament "circumcision of the heart" and New Testament "New Birth" testifies to the sameness of salvation throughout the Bible: by grace alone through faith alone in the Lord alone. 2

1. Salvation is from God
2. A change of heart comes with true salvation
3. Faith and repentance are included necessarily and are sufficient to receive the call of salvation. 

End Notes_________________
1. Whenever a male infant was circumcised, or a male adult for that matter, they were visibly identified with the Covenant community of Abraham, and later on Israel. Circumcision represented a losing of the old way of life and a pledge to covenant loyalty and a changed heart to the New life with God. It was a "sign" that was to signify the work that had been done already in the life of the believer. Unfortunately many of the Jews by Jesus' day had come to equate circumcision with salvation, something of which scripture never taught nor advocated. Paul would deal specifically with such error in His Galatian and Colossian Epistles.  Salvation in the Old Testament was like it was in the New: by grace alone, through faith alone in the Lord alone. 

2. When we say two items are identical in terms of the ideas behind their working, we use the term "formal distinction".  That is, the ideas that "formulate" how they work are the focus.  When the appearance or materials of two objects differ, we call that a "material distinction".  Hence in the "formal" sense, Old Testament circumcision of the heart and New Testament New Birth are formally the same types of salvation phenomena, since both:
-Begin with God
-Bring a change of heart
-Include faith and repentance

Materially both are distinct, since for example, circumcision of the heart works from the outside in, whereas the New Birth works from the inside out. 


  1. Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God's covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was "cut off" from God's promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

    "Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

    What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

    "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

    This covenant wasn't just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a "decision for God" when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

    If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time "decision for God" upon reaching an "Age of Accountability" in order to be saved.

    Therefore Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

    The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being "cut off" from God's promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

    Christ said, "He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned."

    It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    An orthodox Lutheran blog

    1. Thank you Gary for responding. As I read over what I wrote, I realized that I could had done a better job in how I worded the piece. I'm not sure where you saw me implying that Abraham and his descendants were saved by circumcision, unless its due to the ambiguity that does seem to exist where I'm writing about circumcision of the heart and the rite of circumcision itself. If that is the cause of confusion, I apologize. My whole point in the piece was to show how circumcision of the heart was a Old Testament version of the far greater and more glorious work of the New Birth that is granted in the New Covenant. Please re-read the footnotes. I probably should had placed that material in the main body of the piece. Anyhow, I would be anxious to hear your take on Sola Fide and Justification. I would like to check out your blog site to see where you're coming from so I can better understand your theological approach. I've read the Formula of Concord and and am an admirer of Martin Luther and the Reformation, and even have a good friend who is Lutheran. I am always willing to learn and be sharpened in the scriptures and hope we can interact more. Thanks for the response and God bless!