Genesis 17 closes with Abraham and the men of his household obeying God’s instructions by carrying out the rite of circumcision. Abraham believed all that God has told him (Romans 4:18-22) and responded in faith to God’s directions. But what of the others who partook of this ceremony that day? Were they, too, moved by faith in God’s promise — or were they merely acquiescing to Abraham’s wishes, since he was the master of the house? What of the young man Ishmael, Abraham’s son? He, too, possessed a very personal portion in the promises that God handed down to his father (Genesis 17:20); was he moved by faith in God to obey of his own volition the directives of God Almighty?
We brush upon a phenomenon at the closing of Genesis 17 that we have but to look around us in our own day to see is still being practiced. The unrepentant and the unconverted go through the same motions that the genuine children of God do. Ours is not to search the hearts of others and determine their hidden motives, that prerogative belongs to our Lord alone. But we do well to realize that chaff grows also among the fields of wheat and that they often perform the very same observances. Ishmael was circumcised right alongside his godly father, both in obedience to God’s commandment, yet Ishmael’s later words and actions (e.g., Genesis 21:9) would betray that he did not have the underlying faith that Abraham had.
There are two great lessons that we can learn from the circumcision of Ishmael. First, although God gives certain signs and sacraments that identify a person with God: not all who partake in that sacrament are truly servants of God. We will find throughout the Bible men who were of the circumcision that were clearly not genuine children of God. Second, we see that the sacrament itself does nothing to produce faith or righteousness in those who perform it. Abraham and the men of his household gained nothing that they did not already have once they had carried out their circumcision. Nobody’s faith was boosted by this, nobody’s eyes were suddenly opened, neither was anybody made acceptable or presentable to God by going through this. The merit in what they did was valid only when they moved in voluntary obedience to the Lord and enacted this as an outward token of an inward conversion. The rite itself could produce no inward conversion at all.
And what of our own signs and tokens that identify a person as a child of God? Does Baptism, taking of the Lord’s Supper, or even belonging to a local church body affect any change in a person? In and of themselves, no they do not. A person does not become a child of God by doing these things, a person does these things because they are a child of God. Our sacraments are of a great value to the authentic believer and serve as an outward identification that we are a member of the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ, just as circumcision served to identify people as members of the nation of Israel. But they do not produce faith in us, nor do they endear us to God when our hearts are far from Him. Ishmael went through the motions that said that he was a genuine member of God’s covenant, yet he was not. Apparently he did not truly believe God, and circumcision did not change that. If the faith does not exist before the sacrament is carried out, it will not be created by carrying it out, for faith comes not but by hearing and believing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Faith must precede sacrament for the sacrament to be of any value.