A Closer Look – Circumcision, Baptism and Col. 2:11,12

baptismFrom Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, CHAPTER 15, “An Exegetical Appraisal of Colossians 2:11-12,” Richard C. Barcellos, Ph.D.

Baptism does not replace circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. We have seen clearly that spiritual circumcision, not baptism, replaces (better, fulfills) physical circumcision. Baptism in Colossians 2:12 (i.e., vital union with Christ) is a result of spiritual circumcision. Burial and resurrection with Christ is not equivalent to but causally subsequent to spiritual circumcision. Physical circumcision has been replaced or fulfilled by spiritual circumcision under the New Covenant. The correspondence between the two, however, is not one-to-one. Paul tells us this by saying that New Covenant circumcision is “a circumcision made without hands.” Though physical circumcision and spiritual circumcision are related they are not equivalent. One is physical and does not affect the heart; the other is spiritual and does not affect the body (at least not initially). Both are indications of covenant membership, though not necessarily of the same covenant. But only the circumcision of the heart guarantees one’s eternal destiny, for all the regenerate express faith and “are protected by the power of God through faith” (1 Pet. 1:5).

We must take issue with those who argue from this text that baptism replaces circumcision. The Lutheran scholar Eduard Lohse asserts, “Baptism is called circumcision here… The circumcision of Christ which every member of the community has experienced is nothing other than being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.”[1] We have seen, however, that the only “replacement” motif in this text is between physical circumcision and spiritual circumcision. Spiritual circumcision is not equivalent to baptism. Baptism (i.e., union with Christ) is the sphere in which burial and resurrection with Christ occurs, which is effected through faith, and a result of spiritual circumcision.

The Reformed commentator William Hendriksen says:

Evidently Paul in this entire paragraph magnifies Christian baptism as much as he, by clear implication, disapproves of the continuation of the rite of circumcision if viewed as having anything to do with salvation. The definite implication, therefore, is that baptism has taken the place of circumcision. Hence, what is said with reference to circumcision in Rom. 4:11, as being a sign and a seal, holds also for baptism. In the Colossian context baptism is specifically a sign and seal of having been buried with Christ and of having been raised with him [emphasis Hendriksen’s].[2]

We take issue with Hendriksen’s view on several fronts. First, Paul is not magnifying Christian baptism in this text. He is magnifying Christian circumcision. This is evident by the fact that “you were also circumcised” is the regulating verb to which the rest of verses 11 and 12 are subordinate. Second, there is not a “definite implication …that baptism has taken the place of circumcision.” Our exegesis has shown this to us clearly. Third, it is not true that “what is said with reference to circumcision in Rom. 4:11, as being a sign and a seal, holds also for baptism.” This is so because Paul is not arguing for a replacement theology between physical circumcision and water baptism and because the seal of the New Covenant is the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Fourth, Paul says nothing in Colossians 2:11-12 about baptism being “a sign and seal of having been buried with Christ and of having been raised with him.” He does say, though in other words, that the subsequent, spiritual concomitant of spiritual circumcision is spiritual burial and resurrection with Christ in baptism effected through faith. There is no hint of baptism being a sign and seal as argued by Hendriksen. It is of interest to note one of Hendriksen’s footnotes to these statements. Notice the concession he makes.

I am speaking here about a clear implication. The surface contrast is that between literal circumcision and circumcision without hands, namely, the circumcision of the heart, as explained. But the implication also is clear. Hence, the following statement is correct: “Since, then, baptism has come in the place of circumcision (Col. 2:11-13), the children should be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of his covenant” (Form for the Baptism of Infants in Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1959, p. 86). When God made his covenant with Abraham the children were included (Gen. 17:1-14). This covenant, in its spiritual aspects, was continued in the present dispensation (Acts 2:38, 29; Rom. 4:9-12; Gal. 3:7, 8, 29). Therefore the children are still included and should still receive the sign, which in the present dispensation, as Paul makes clear in Col. 2:11, 12, is baptism [emphases Hendriksen’s].[3]

Hendriksen’s concession that “The surface contrast is that between literal circumcision and circumcision without hands” surely sheds doubt over his initial claim of “speaking here about a clear implication.” Again, we have seen that Paul is not arguing that water baptism replaces physical circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant. It does not follow, then, that “the children should be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of his covenant.” Paul does not say or imply that the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. If there is a sign of the covenant in this text it is regeneration. All who are spiritually circumcised are buried and raised with Christ in baptism, effected through faith. Colossians 2:11-12 is about the application of redemption to elect souls and does not imply infant baptism, some of which are not elect. If it implies anything about water baptism, it implies that it ought to be administered to those who have been circumcised of heart and vitally united to Christ through faith as a sign of these spiritual blessings.

All who are circumcised of heart are buried and raised with Christ through faith logically subsequent to their heart circumcision. Regeneration cannot be abstracted from its immediate fruits. All regenerate souls are untied to Christ through faith. This is what Colossians 2:11-12 clearly teaches. Our exegesis argues for an ordo salutis as follows: regeneration, then union with Christ through faith. And this experience is that of all the regenerate and has nothing to do with the act of water baptism in itself.

This text neither teaches baptismal regeneration nor implies infant baptism. In context, it is displaying the completeness believers have in Christ. It does not apply to unbelievers or to all who are baptized by any mode and/or by properly recognized ecclesiastical administrators. It has to do with the spiritual realities that come to souls who are Christ’s sheep. It has to do with the application of redemption to elect sinners. It has to do with regeneration, faith, and experiential union with Christ. These are the aspects of completeness in Christ Paul highlights here. We should gain much encouragement from these things. They were revealed to fortify believers against error. They were written to strengthen saints, those already in Christ. They were not revealed as proof for the subjects of baptism. They were not revealed to teach us that water baptism replaces physical circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. God gave us Colossians 2:11-12 to display this fact: When you have Christ, you have all you need.

[1] Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 101-02.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 116.

[3] Hendriksen, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, 116, n. 86.