Baptism and Circumcision According to Colossians 2:11-12

What follows is taken from a larger essay, “A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism:”

What is the Connection Between Circumcision and Baptism?

The connection between baptism and circumcision is quite clear in Colossians 2:11-12. The connection is not direct, but indirect and the point of contact between them is Christ and baptism is the sign and seal of that circumcision. In v.11 Paul says “in him [i.e. in Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision done by Christ” and in v.12 he says exactly how it is that we were circumcised in and by Christ: “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith….” For Paul, in the New covenant, our union with Christ is our circumcision. In baptism, we are identified with Christ’s baptism/circumcision, as it were, on the cross. Neither baptism nor circumcision effects this union (ex opere operato), rather God the Spirit unites us to Christ, makes us alive and gives us faith.

The point not to be missed is that, in Paul’s mind, baptism and circumcision are both signs and seals of Christ’s baptism/circumcision on the cross for us. By faith, we are united to Christ’s circumcision and by union with Christ we become participants in his circumcision/baptism. Because circumcision pointed forward to Christ’s death and baptism looks back to Christ’s death, they are closely linked in Paul’s mind and almost interchangeable. Paul’s point here is to teach us about our union with Christ, but along the way we see how he thinks about baptism and circumcision and his thinking should inform ours.

One of the reasons that Paul so strongly opposed the imposition of circumcision upon Christians by the Judaizers is that, by faith, we have already been circumcised in Christ, of which baptism is the sign and seal. We were already identified as belonging to God and we have undergone the curse in Christ. So actual physical circumcision is, in the new covenant, unnecessary. Paul tells those who wish to circumcise themselves, to go the whole way and emasculate themselves.

Acts 2:38, 39 also links circumcision and baptism. In Acts 2:38 the Apostle Peter calls for repentance, faith in Christ and baptism by Jews who are hearing his preaching. In v.39 he gives the reason for this action: “the promise is to you and to your children, and all who are far off….” The Apostle Peter consciously uses the same formula in his preaching as the LORD himself used when he instituted the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17, which the Jews listening understood precisely.

What are the Relations Between Faith and Circumcision?

Romans 4:1–8, 13–25 teaches that Abraham was justified by grace alone, through faith alone and not by works and yet God required that Abraham take the sign (mark) of circumcision. Romans 4:11 says that circumcision was a sign and a seal of “the righteousness that he (Abraham) had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” Circumcision was a sign of God’s covenantal relationship to Abraham and to Abraham’s children, all who believe in Christ. The meaning of circumcision was spiritual and not just outward. Circumcision as a sign of faith and entrance into the covenant people as a member was also applied to children.

What is the Relationship Between Faith and Baptism?

Acts 2:38, 39 says,

Repent and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and for your children and for many who are-for all whom the Lord our God will call.

For adult converts, baptism is a sign of what Christ has done for them, forgiven them and washed them. Adult converts are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is through faith in Christ. Baptism is a sign of our new standing with God through faith. Notice, v.39 “The promise (of salvation to those who believe) is for you and for your children.”

Our faith is in the Christ who died for us. Like circumcision, baptism is a sign of being united to him in his death by faith. Peter says that the flood waters of Noah symbolize baptism, because baptism is a sign of dying to sin, the washing away of sin by Christ’s blood, and living by faith in Christ.

Everyone, (adults and children), who has been baptized must be united by faith to Christ for salvation. Unbaptized, adult converts, profess their faith before baptism. Children of believers who received the sign in infancy profess their faith as soon as they are able. Both are responsible before God to be faithful to the grace represented by the sign and seal they have received.

That, however, has always been true. No one has ever been accepted by God except by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Christ and his benefits were illustrated by a forward-looking sign and seal under Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets. In Christ the fulfillment has come and we no longer have need of the bloody illustration. It has been fulfilled and replaced by an unbloody, sign and seal that looks back to Christ’s finished work. The promise that God made to Abraham, however, is explicitly repeated in the New Covenant by the Apostle Peter. Therefore that promise (the promise is to you and to your children) does not belong to the illustration (Abraham, Moses et al) only. Rather, the promise is also part of the covenant of grace. The administration of the promise included adults and children under Abraham and, according to Peter, it includes them in the New Covenant as well. This is why the Apostle Paul links circumcision and baptism via Christ’s death.

16 Comments

    • Hi Mark,

      Well, I don’t think I have to choose between denying the sign and seal of covenant initiation to covenant children or being presumptuous about what necessarily happens in baptism. Historically, the Reformed Churches have rejected both. There’s no room in the Reformed Confessions for either.

      I find this 1905 statement from Synod Utrecht helpful.

      As to denying entrance to the visible church, the Belgic Confession is quite clear:

      Belgic Confession 34 says:

      For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
      And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ.

      Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”

  1. Great stuff! I have always used Col. 2:11 & 12 in reasoning with the dispensationalists in how children are brought into the covenant just like Abrahams children were children of the promise. Many are open to it if you explain it to them in that way.

    Also, the second part of it is how the Lord’s Supper has replaced the passover feast. It really gives one a continuity of how God works out His plan of redemption in the covenant of Grace.

    • Hi Gatlin!

      Fair question. An accident is that which is not essential to a thing, in this case, to the sign. How do we know what is accidental about animal sacrifice? What does Scripture say? God desires the sacrifice of the heart, as it were. So, sacrifice is not inherently temporary and typological. The blood of bulls and goats has no power per se but sacrifice does. It was the shedding of blood that was accidental and typological and inherently temporary.

      Ditto for circumcision. What is temporary and typological about the rite? It is the shedding of blood. What’s not temporary or typological? Initiation into the covenant community and the circumcision of the heart (a new nature). To anticipate an objection, that’s why infant baptism works. The bloody is the typological, part of an intentionally temporary system but there’s nothing inherently temporary about infant initiation into the visible covenant community, nothing that has to pass away. After all, there’s always administration. Even Baptists have outward administration. It’s not a question of whether but of how and to whom.

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  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for the reply. I’m trying to understand your position as best I can (Straw men are never useful)!

    Something particular that I had in mind with reference to circumcision was the command to circumcise the child on the 8th day (there are a few others I wonder about, but focusing on one seems best at the moment). Do pedobaptists baptize children on the 8th day? This time frame doesn’t seem to fall under the “shedding of blood” accident, so I’m wondering if some qualification is needed.

    • Hi Gatlin,

      I don’t quite understand this objection. It seems to me that infant initiation is one thing, blood and calendar are another. This seems like another attempt to make Abraham into Moses. Yes, Abraham is typological and so there are typological aspects to the administration of the covenant of grace under Abraham. The calendar would seem to be one of those but, if you’re willing to have me baptize your covenant children on the 8th day, I’ll take that bargain!

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I suppose my thought is this: Circumcision and baptism are called the covenant sign in essence, but there are differences between the two such that there are accidents. Since Scripture never really lists the accidents of each, it’s up to us to determine that. So, given that I don’t see the command to apply the sign and seal on the 8th day strictly enforced in baptism, I’m assuming that the “8th day” part is accidental to circumcision.

    Even though the “8th day command” was never technically abrogated. Beneath all this is this thought: How do we know that applying the sign to *infants* isn’t unspokenly accidental like the “8th day command” seems unspokenly accidental?

    I suppose you want to look to things like Acts 2:38 to dispel this notion?

    Thanks for helping me in this. I know you’re a busy man!

    • Hi Gatlin,

      Yes, I think Acts 2:39 signals what is substantial and what is accidental. “The promise” (what promise? The Abrahamic promise) “is to you and to your children and to as many [Gentiles] as are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call.”

      The rest of the NT helps us understand the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant (of grace) with the new covenant renewal of the Abrahamic covenant.

      Have you seen the essay on the New Covenant?

  5. Dr. Clark, what is meant in the confession when it says “And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of WHAT CHRIST HAS DONE FOR THEM, …” Did the early Reformed believe their children were among those ‘limitedly atoned,’ or is this just a general statement speaking of elect infants? It seems to me the concession is drawing a clear relationship between those are baptized and those who receive the benefits of atonement. Thanks.

    • Dennis,

      Baptism is not a recognition necessarily of what has been done in the one being baptized. It is a recognition that promises have been made.

      The confession means that children are included among the elect and there are children to whom covenant promises have been made and that Jesus obeyed and died for children.

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