Was the Physical Circumcision of Christ Part of Christ’s Righteousness?

The Fatal Flaw, by Jeffrey Johnson, Free Grace Press, 2010

I very much recommend this new book. It is an excellent study of various covenant theologies and also an argument against infant baptism. But I still want to quibble . I quote Johnson:

“The covenant of works that Christ was obligated to fulfill could not have been the covenant of creation. Why ?Because this covenant had already been broken and its death penalty issued upon Adam’s fallen race. Thus Christ had to be born outside the broken covenant of creation…He could not be born under the federal headship of Adam. As Wisius explains, ‘That the surety was not from Adam’s covenant, not born under the law of nature, and consequently not born under the imputation of Adam’s sin.’

Johnson continues: “The law justifies but before the law men could not merit salvation by works, because there was no covenant….If all this is true, then the Mosaic covenant had to be a covenant of works; our salvation depended upon it. If not, there would be no covenant to reward the man Christ Jesus for His obedience.”

I have of course not quoted the entire argument. I encourage you to buy the book and read the discussion beginning on p 146 an ending on p162. What do I disagree with in the above argument? I agree that Christ was not born under the federal headship of Adam. I agree that the Mosaic covenant was a legal conditional covenant.

I even agree with Johnson’s larger point, which is that the Mosaic covenant cannot be seen as an “administration of the covenant of grace”. But I go further and question even the idea of any “the covenant of grace.” Which covenant is “the covenant of grace”? Is it the Abrahamic covenant? Is it the new covenant? Are both those covenants one and the same? Are both those covenants administrations of “the covenant of grace”?

Johnson is very good in showing that the Abrahamic covenant had both its unconditional and conditional aspects. At one point (p215), he even refers to Bunyan’s idea that Christ kept the conditional aspect of the Abrahamic covenant, that had NOT been kept by anybody else. When Gal 3:16 explains that the promise was made to Abraham and his seed, and then explains that Christ is that one seed, why not see Christ alone as obeying the Abrahamic requirement for blood?

Why does Johnson think he needs to see the Mosaic covenant (instead of the Abrahamic legal aspect) as the covenant of works Christ kept? Isn’t circumcision a requirement of not only the Mosaic but also of the Abrahamic covenant? Does not physical circumcision point to the need for the blood not of animals but of Christ?

Make no mistake. I believe and rejoice in the federal headship of Christ. My objection is to the idea that the Mosaic covenant is the condition of the agreement of God the Father, Son and Spirit to redeem the elect. Why must the “covenant with Christ” be conflated with either the covenant with Adam or the covenant with Moses?

I am not disagreeing that there is legal covenantal arrangement with Adam. Even though as a supralapsarian, I do question language about what Adam “could have earned if he had passed probation”, I do not at all question the federal imputation of Adam’s sins to the human race, including to the elect. And I also agree that the Mosaic covenant is conditional.

I am only questioning why Johnson must locate the legal conditions of Christ the covenantal surety in the terms of the Mosaic covenant. His answer is that Christ was not under Adam. But why not say that Christ was under the Abrahamic conditions? Why not agree with Bunyan in saying that Christ kept the Abrahamic requirements so that the promise would be unconditional to all those promised salvation by the Abrahamic covenant?

Johnson does not really answer this question, and I would love to have a talk with him about it. Were the Gentiles (for example, those addressed by some of the prophets) ever under the curse of the Mosaic law? I am only asking a question here. Please don’t call me a dispensationalist for asking the question! My hope in the gospel has everything to do with Christ legally paying off (satisfying) the curses of God’s law against the elect. But my hope in the gospel does not depend on me identifying God’s law with the Mosaic law.

On page 163, Johnson seems to give away his case for the Mosaic covenant being the “covenant of works”. In a footnote, he acknowledges that Gentiles were not under the Mosaic covenant, but then says “nevertheless they were still under the covenant of works” and then quotes Romans 2:14 (a law unto themselves). But doesn’t this show that you can be under a covenant of works and not be under Moses? And if so, doesn’t this show that Christ could have been under a “covenant of works” for His elect without that being the Mosaic covenant?

To say that Christ died “for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant” in Hebrews 9:15 does mean some of the elect were under the Mosaic covenant. But it does not prove that the gentile elect were under the Mosaic covenant.

As James Haldane suggests in his commentary on Hebrews (p245, Newport Commentary Series, Particular Baptist Press), the solution to the problem of the first covenant is not to find a better mediator for that first covenant. If a former covenant is infringed by one of the parties, satisfaction is given by making a second covenant.

If we are going to make distinctions within the Mosaic law-economy, why not be consistent in thinking about these distinctions when we think of Christ legally satisfying the Mosaic law? Was Christ keeping the ceremonial laws of Moses when He shed His blood? Were we Gentiles under the curse of the Mosaic law for our failure to keep the ceremonial law?

I am not denying that Christ was cursed by God’s law for the sins of the elect. I am only questioning the idea of pointing to the Mosaic covenant as that law or as that “covenant of works” for Christ. If you want to use the language of a covenant of works for Christ our federal Head, why not go to the Abrahamic covenant for that? Or even better, why not refer to a “covenant of redemption” which is neither the Mosaic nor the Abrahamic (especially in its conditional aspects, like the duty of the physical children of Abraham to be physically circumcised)?

Hebrews 13:20—“the God of peace brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant.”

I am not denying that Christ was physically circumcised, but I am questioning if that circumcision was a vicarious law-keeping for the elect. Since we Gentile elect were never commanded to be physically circumcised, how then we can be blessed because Christ was physically circumcised?

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18 Comments on “Was the Physical Circumcision of Christ Part of Christ’s Righteousness?”

  1. reyjacobs Says:

    “I am only questioning why Johnson must locate the legal conditions of Christ the covenantal surety in the terms of the Mosaic covenant.”

    Because Paul calls him “born of a woman, born under the Law”. Hence being born under the Law, obliged to keep the Law.

    • markmcculley Says:

      The question is not about if Christ was born under the Mosaic law, or was obligated to obey the Mosaic law. The question is about why the Mosaic law has to be the specific “covenant of works” by which Christ gains salvation.
      Why couldn’t the legal aspects of the Abrahamic covenant be that “covenant of works” kept by Christ? My guess is that folks don’t want to see any conditional aspects to the Abrahamic covenant, but clearly they are there. One example—if you don’t circumcise a child, that person will be cut off.

      • reyjacobs Says:

        I’m not getting how the two questions are different. I would say the Mosaic covenant had to be the covenant he was justified in because it was the one he was born in. As to the Abrahamic covenant, it was simply a promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as the sand of the sea and would inherit the land of Palestine. Therefore, anyone not circumcised being cut off from that covenant just means their descendants would be cut off from the promise of the inheritance. Only the Law, which is given after they are on their way to the land and is more about how to be righteous can have anything directly to do with justification.

      • markmcculley Says:

        John Owen–We must grant distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant. We must do so, provided
        always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the
        substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow,if reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenants, but by virtue of the old covenants,
        then they must be the same for substance with the new covenant But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenants, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenants https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/heidelcast-i-will-be-a-god-to-you-and-to-your-children/


  2. markmcculley Says:

    Romans 4:12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Romans 4:16 —not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Galatians 3:7
    Know then that it is those of faith who are the children of Abraham.

    Galatians 3:14
    so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the
    Gentiles, so that we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.

    Galatians 3:16
    Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to seeds,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your seed,” who is Christ.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    We might, protest that Abraham’s covenant had conditions also, such as circumcision Yes, Abraham was required to circumcise Isaac, but had God not already fulfilled His promise to give Abraham
    descendants, there would have been no Isaac to circumicise. So Abraham’s circumcision of Isaac was not a condition of getting Isaac, but it was a condition for Isaac staying in that covenant.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    Collateral Covenants Fulfilled and Terminated

    By R.B.C. Howell

    In Genesis 12, we have the original promise made to Abraham: “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” In this simple narrative, we have the pledge that the Messiah shall come of his family. Abraham was seventy-five and received the promise with faith, and promptly complied with the command which the promise was associated. “Into the land of Canaan they came. And Abraham passed through the land to the plain of Moreh” and built an altar unto the Lord, who there again appeared to him, and said, “To you will I give this land.” Paul explains in Galatians 3:8-9; “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He said not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to your seed, which is Christ.”

    Promises of the land of Canaan were indeed (so important was the separate national existence of Israel regarded) included also in the Genesis 15 covenant and also, as we shall see, in the subsequent “covenant of circumcision”. The land covenant was inaugurated. The family of Abraham was separated from all others, and made a distinct nation. A specified territory was prescribed, where they were to remain under the divine government and protection. In that land they were to reside, a peculiar people and an isolated people, until Christ would come and establish His claims, and by one offering perfect forever all them that are sanctified.

    The second collateral covenant was also made with Abraham, and is known as “the covenant of circumcision”. The first covenant separated Israel as a nation from every other people. This second covenant distinguished them as individuals. The covenant of circumcision was made with Abraham when he was ninety-nine years old; eighteen years after the covenant of the land, and twenty four years after the “the covenant of promise in Christ.”

    Genesis 17. “This is my covenant which ye shall keep between me and you, and your seed after you; every man child shall be circumcised.” “And my covenant shall be in your flesh, for an everlasting covenant”. “And the uncircumcised man shall be cut off from his people.”

    This covenant excludes from that family everyone who shall be found uncircumcised. Its general bearing is explained by Paul, who says: “I testify again, to every man who is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. “ This rite was observed by his descendents until the object which is proposed, had been effectually secured. Christ came; its design was accomplished; the covenant, as all the others of like temporary character, ceased to exist. The gospel now reigns, under which “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God.”

    The third and last of the collateral covenants is known as the covenant of Sinai. This covenant gave to the people of Israel their peculiar national government. It was not made with Abraham, but “with the fathers, when God took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.

  7. markmcculley Says:

    “anyone not circumcised being cut off from that covenant just means their descendants would be cut off from the promise of the inheritance.” yes, that’s law. Look at Genesis 17

    NCT, Gary Long, p 52—“Jeffrey Johnson’s Fatal Flaw is still somewhat hampered by differentiating between “the covenant of grace” and the new covenant, as do the Reformed Paedobaptists, when he asserts that ‘in the new covenant dispensation, the covenant of grace was manifested in its fullness’. Succ teaching can be easily misunderstood to be in harmony with the twofold administration of one overarching covenant, instead of one saving purpose.”

  8. markmcculley Says:

    The idea of ‘the one covenant of grace” was invented by Zwingli and Bullinger in response to anabaptists. Paul Jewett, “Paedobaptists have erred in truing the analogy between circumcision and water baptism into identity. In their scheme Israel becomes the church and the church becomes Isreal.” (1978, p 104) After Israel was no longer Israel, then only Jesus and His elect are Israel. But even John Gill ignores the Bible and talks about “the one covenant of grace, with different administrations.”

  9. markmcculley Says:


    Barcelos: In his book Tablets of Stone, Reisinger argues that the Old Covenant was for Israel alone and also, contradicting himself, that Christ fulfilled its terms for New Covenant Christians. Owen teaches that Christ fulfilled the terms of the Adamic covenant of works for Christians . Owen taught that obedience or disobedience to the Old Covenant in itself neither eternally saved
    nor eternally condemned anyone and that its promises were temporal and only for Israel while under it. According to Owen, what Christ kept for us was the original Adamic covenant of
    works, not the Mosaic covenant.

    Coxe deals with the covenants from the covenant of works
    through the Covenant of Circumcision. Owen deals with the Mosaic and New Covenants in his Hebrews commentary. Both may have held to the ‘each covenant has its own positive law’
    motif, though if so, they applied it differently when it came to the subjects of baptism. But neither used it to eliminate the Decalogue from the New Covenant.

    Radical antinomians eliminate the Decalogue because it is law. Doctrinal antinomians eliminate it because it is Moses’ Law and not Christ’s. This has detrimental implications for the identity of the Natural Law, the basis of the covenant of works, the perpetuity of the Moral Law, the Sabbath, and the imputation of the active obedience of Christ–indeed, the gospel itself

  10. markmcculley Says:

    Brandon Adams—–Jeffrey Johnson correctly notes “Importantly, the Mosaic Covenant did not replace, alter, or add to the condition placed upon the physical seed of Abraham in Genesis 17. It merely gave clarity to what was already required by circumcision. In other words, the Mosaic Covenant grew out of and codified the conditional side of the Abrahamic Covenant.” This is a point that is ignored by modern paedobaptist proponents of republication.

    John Murray “The obedience of Abraham is represented as the condition upon which the fulfilment of the promise given to him was contingent and the obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished. There is undoubtedly the fulfilment of certain conditions… the idea of conditional fulfilment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.”

    Brandon Adams—John Murray greatly erred in transferring this principle to the New Covenant, yet he was faithful to the Old Testament text.

  11. markmcculley Says:

    Exodus 3:6 And God said to Moses—“Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me and said: I have paid close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 And I have promised you that I WILL BRING YOU UP OUT the misery

    Exodus 4: 4 On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it really happened that the Lord attempted to put Moses to death. 25 So Zipporah his wife took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw the foreskin at Moses’ genitals. Then his wife said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So the LORD let Moses alone.

    why had Moses not circumcised his son yet?

    trying to fit in with strangers?

    Moses wasn’t there to do the circumcision?
    Moses was there, but unwilling to do the circumcision?


    Adam was there, but unwilling to eat the forbidden fruit (yet)?

    if a wife can do circumcisions, then can she preach also?

  12. Mark Mcculley Says:

    The life that mother Mary was carrying inside her for nine months was fully human and fully God.   Is the active obedience of Jesus  between his conception and his birth imputed to us?  In  the nine months after his conception in Mary by the Holy Spirit, was Jesus believing for us or was Jesus obeying the law of Moses for us? 

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