Circumcision and Baptism

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11–12; ESV)

There are two mistakes to be avoided in reading this passage. The first is to miss the connection between baptism and circumcision. The second is to overstate the connection. This passage shows a connection between circumcision and baptism as Paul’s thought moves from the one to the other but they are not utterly identified. The connection is the cross and Christ’s death for his elect.

First, to whom is he speaking? He’s speaking to Christ confessors. He wrote this epistle “to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (Col 1:2). In chapter 2 he is warning them against those who would “delude” (Col 2:4; ESV) them with “plausible arguments.” Plausible in what way? To what end? About this there has been considerable debate among commentators. Whatever it was Paul called it a “philosophy and empty deceit” which is not “according to Christ” but rather “according to human tradition” and the “basic principles of the world.” There is a good argument to be made that the “stoicheia” (στοιχεῖα) here are laws or the basic law principle of “do this and live” (see Gal 4:3). If so this would best explain why he turns to circumcision in v. 11. He’s addressing Judaizers, i.e., those who were attempting to put Christians back under the Mosaic law as a condition of justification. This move may also have been combined with certain proto-gnosticizing tendencies to downplay or deny the hypostatic union and/or the humanity of Christ. This connection, which developed more fully in the 2nd century, would explain two of the major themes (Christology and legalism) in this chapter.

What we should notice, however, in vv. 11-12 is the way Paul connects circumcision and baptism. His point here is not directly to say, “baptism replaces circumcision” but neither can we ignore the clear connection between them: Christ’s death. When Paul thinks of circumcision he thinks of death. This is because circumcision was a ritual death. It was a type and shadow (ὑποδείγματι καὶ σκιᾷ; Hebrews 8:5; 9:23) pointing forward to the circumcision of Christ, for us, on the cross, when he was cut off for us outside the city walls (Hebrews 13:12), when all the Mosaic codes were nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). Circumcision makes him think of the cross and the cross makes him think of baptism, an unbloody, ritual death which is retrospective. It looks back to the reality of Christ’s death.

In both cases, circumcision and baptism, the recipient is identified (not united to, contra the FV) with Christ’s death. Those who believe receive what the sign/seal promises. Those who believe are elect, but the promise is administered in redemptive history to both those who believe and to those don’t believe because the visible church is always a mixed assembly. Nothing about the new covenant, even though it is superior to the Mosaic/old covenant (Jer 31; 2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10) changes that (Rom 2:28). Thus, in Paul’s mind, the prospective sign/seal of circumcision is linked to the retrospective sign/seal of baptism because they refer to the same thing. They are linked conceptually.

For the purposes of this argument, it doesn’t matter whether our circumcision (“you were circumcised”) is subjective or objective. If it is the latter, it refers to our identification with Christ in his circumcision for us on the cross. If it is the former then it refers to a subjective change in the one circumcised, in fulfillment of Jer 31. This reading is possible because of Paul’s reference to a handless, if you will, circumcision. In other words, it’s not the circumcision done by a Mohel/Rabbi. It’s not the thing which the Judaizers were urging upon the Christians. Rather, it is something that quite transcends anything they had in mind. The same thing is true of the phrase, “circumcision of Christ.” If it is subjective, it refers to a change wrought in us or if it is objective it refers to what happened to Christ on the cross. The latter reading seems more likely. It seems best to read this passage as saying that the subjective change in us is grounded in what happened objectively to Christ, for us.

In either case, circumcision and baptism and undeniably and irrevocably linked because they speak to the same thing. Both refer to a death. Circumcision refers to a bloody death and baptism refers to drowning (as in Noah’s flood!). We were “buried with” Christ. When? In baptism. This is only a way of saying to the Colossians that just as circumcision was a ritual prospective (looking forward in history) identification with Christ’s death to come, so Christian baptism is a retrospective (backward looking) identification with Christ’s death. This is the same doctrine found in Rom 6:3. Christians have been baptized “into,” i.e., identified with Christ’s death (See also 1 Cor 10).

Christ  was circumcised for us. He was cut off for us. He became unclean for us. He was also baptized for us. He underwent and was overwhelmed by the flood of God’s righteous judgment for us.  Both the old sign, circumcision and the new sign, baptism, point to the same reality: Christ’s death for his people.

Christ, however, did not remain dead. Romans 6 and Col 2 both also say that he was raised for us who believe. Thus, both the old sign and the new point to transformation. The circumcised person became ritually clean, outwardly a new man.The same is true of baptism.

Yet, contra Rome and the Federal Vision, neither sign worked magically or ex opere operato (by the working it is worked). The administration is real. All the circumcised were and all the baptized are, outwardly, in the one covenant of grace but  not all who were circumcised were “in Christ.” Esau was never “in Christ.” He was identified outwardly with the people of God and with Christ. The Israelites who went through the Red Sea “on dry ground” were ‘baptized into Moses” (1 Cor 10) but they were not all united to Christ. Only the elect are united to Christ and they only receive the benefits of Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They are only brought to life by the Spirit who operates through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10). Not all Israel is Israel. Some have only an external relation to the covenant of grace. There are not two covenants of grace or two baptisms. There are, however, two ways of relating to the one covenant of grace.

Circumcision is not baptism, but both point to the same reality. Thus they are conceptually linked in Paul’s mind. For Paul to think of circumcision is to think of the coming death of Christ, in redemptive historical terms. For him to think of Christ’s death/circumcision/baptism for us, is to think of our baptism which testifies to the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 17. All the types and shadows have been fulfilled. The reality has come. The bloody has given way to the unbloody but there are still signs/seals and we’re not yet in heaven. The covenant of grace must still be administered. History abides. There continue to be elect and reprobate together in the administration of the covenant of grace, both of them receiving the signs and seals. The elect will receive the benefits of Christ (justification, sanctification, glorification) sola gratia, sola fide and the reprobate will not.

In this conceptual framework we should not be surprised that Peter said, “for the promise is to you and to your children…..” (Acts 2:39). The new covenant is new relative to Moses (2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10; Gal 3-14) not Abraham, the father of all believers (Rom 4).


Abraham was not Moses

Resources on Infant Baptism

Abraham, Moses, and Baptism

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. This was very helpful. Actually, I’ve read all of your other posts on baptism, and this is the most compelling presentation you’ve done. It seems that as long as circumcision is only seen as a paternal-familial marker, with no connection to Christ’s work, then the credo v. pedo debate remains at an impasse. As such, the credobaptist side does not recognize the “shadow” of baptism in circumcision. And, I say this as someone oscillating on this issue.

  2. zwingli drew on the analogy of circumcision to defend infant baptism. as the jews circumcised their infants as a sign of their inclusion in the people of God (which inclusion they could of course repudiate by disobedience) so too baptism of infants is a sign of the hope that they too will become a part of the people of God.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for the post, this is certainly helpful as I wrestle through this issue. Maybe you (or another reader) could interact with this credobaptist argument and give some response or link to one:

    I could honestly go either way on baptism right now, and it is a pressing issue since I have a young son with another on the way.

    • Jed,

      The basic questions are these:

      1) Are we still Abraham’s children? (yes) 2) Has the substance of the Abrahamic promise changed? (no) 3) Has God revoked his promise “to be a God to us and to our children”? (no) 4) Has Christ, in the NT, re-affirmed that promise? (yes) 5) Is the new covenant new relative to Abraham or Moses? (Moses) 6) is the new covenant so eschatological as to prevent, a priori, the administration of the covenant to children? (no) 8) Was the Abrahamic promise administered in a mixed (believers and unbelievers) community? (yes) 9) Is the new covenant administered in such a mixed community of Christ confessors? (yes) 10) What changed? The types and shadows (bloody sacrifices and circumcision) of the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace have been replaced by the reality and unbloody signs/seals. 11) What about Moses? Well, what about him? The Mosaic covenant was a temporary, national, pedagogical covenant imposed by God at Sinai 400 years after Abraham which changed nothing about the Abrahamic promise. That’s the major point of Gal 3! The Mosaic covenant was nailed to the cross at Golgatha. It was obsolete, fading etc. These things are NEVER said about the Abrahamic promise and covenant which was renewed in Christ and which continues to be administered in the new covenant.

    • Jed, Welty writes at the link you mentioned:

      “Paedobaptists, while rightly affirming the fundamental and underlying unity of the covenant of grace in all ages, wrongly press that unity in a way that distorts and suppresses the diversity of the several administrations of that covenant in history. To put it another way, paedobaptists rightly emphasize the inner continuity of the various administrations of the covenant of grace, while wrongly neglecting the various external discontinuities which exist between those administrations. To put it in still a third way, paedobaptists rightly stress the unity of redemptive history, while wrongly ignoring the movement of that redemptive history. Thus their error is fundamentally one of biblical theology, of understanding the progressive unfolding of God’s redemptive purposes in history.”

      Here is an article that helped me very much about the basic hermeneutical difference between the paedo- and credobaptist viewpoint, as stated by Welty:

      • I think the points I gave above DO, in summary fashion, address the movement (discontinuity) of redemptive history AND the unity of redemptive history. The unity is in the covenant of grace. The discontinuity is in the nature of the signs/seals.

        There’s nothing inherently typological or shadowy about initiating children into the visible covenant community. There is something inherently shadowy and typological about shedding blood (circumcision). The movement there is not from infants to adults but from bloody to unbloody. The movement in RH is not Abraham vs Christ but from promises made to Abraham and realized in Christ.

        Only in this framework do the words of Acts 2:39 really make sense: “For the promise is to you and to your children”

        What promise? The promise God made to Abraham. That promise persists. Abraham saw Jesus’ day and he rejoiced (John 8:56).

        What Baptists don’t understand is that the discontinuity is not between Abraham and Christ, but between MOSES and Christ. This is why I keep saying that Abraham is not Moses.

        This is basic.

        Once a Baptist accepts fully that Abraham is the father of all believers AND that the Abrahamic covenant is the fundamental covenant (Gal 3) then infant baptism seems inevitable.

        In order to preserve the overly-eschatological (heavenly) character of the new covenant, the Baptist must treat Abrahami as if he were Moses so that both can be left behind.

        • Thanks Dr. Clark. Many of the paedobaptist arguments that I have read have not taken the development of redemptive history into account. So far as I have been able to sift through to this point, it seems that much of the debate hinges on the issue of continuity and discontinuity in RH. You’ve given me much to think about.

    • Jed (and Kevin),

      I would highly recommend Meredith Kline’s “By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism.” Unfortunately, it is out of print, but you can obtain a copy via interlibrary loan.

      In my estimation, it contains the best argument for baptism (including the baptism of infants) I have ever encountered. That is because he takes ecclesiology (as it pertains to the membership of the Church/New Covenant) more seriously than others have. In other words, Baptists often cry “foul” at arguments for infant baptism because the Reformed theologian is starting from an explicitly *Baptist* ecclesiology (covenant and election are co-extensive) and then proceding to claim that infants should be baptized. Kline takes this problem seriously.

      As I see it, the real debate is over ecclesiology (membership). Whoever wins that debate, wins the debate over whether infants should be baptized or not.

  4. “The Mosaic covenant was nailed to the cross at Sinai.”

    Is this supposed to say, “at Calvary”? Or am I missing something?

  5. Jim wrote,
    “…so too baptism of infants is a sign of the hope that they too will become a part of the people of God.”

    This description sounds a lot like the description of a baby dedication where the parent is hoping that someday something will happen to make the child part of the church? I have never seen a Reformed book of church order speak of infant baptism this way.

  6. Jim,

    I should have phrased this more clearly by asking at the end, is this how Zwingli viewed baptism as a future hope of inclusion but not a present one. I had not read him that way in the past. Sorry for my quick reply finger…

    • no worries. zwingli is quite specific in asserting that baptism is not salvific. peter stephens does a masterful job of explaining zwingli’s view in his magisterial ‘the theology of huldrych zwingli’. he devotes, in fact, the entirety of chapter 10 to the subject.

  7. The basic difference between paedobaptism and credobaptism is that in the latter the sign is viewed as a sign of faith; in the former it is viewed as a sign of the promise of God. Where credobaptism is subjective and highlights our response to God, paedobaptism rightly articulated highlights God’s objective promise to us. Excellent article Scott.

  8. RSC: Very nice essay! I particularly appreciated your discussion of the transition from circumcision to baptism through the common linkage of death. The circumcision of Christ in His death fulfilled external circumcision and made it obsolete as an external sign of God’s covenant. The fulfillment of external circumcision in Christ does not, however, leave His people without an external sign of God’s covenant today. Rather, because external baptism also speaks of death, it now takes up the testimony that external circumcision made to Christ’s death, and external baptism testifies to the fulfillment of external circumcision in His death. In short, external baptism has now taken over the role formerly played by external circumcision. Interestingly, as you indicate, the transition from external circumcision to external baptism does nothing to revoke the principles of God’s covenant. There is no accompanying transition on the principles of covenant membership from “believers and their seed” to “believers only.”

    • “There is no accompanying transition on the principles of covenant membership from ‘believers and their seed’ to ‘believers only.'”

      It is a wrong paedobaptist assumption to say that the “principles of covenant membership” under the Abrahamic Covenant was “believers and their seed.” It wasn’t. It may have meant that for ABRAHAM (Romans 4:11), but it is an unwarranted generalization to say that it meant that for everybody. It didn’t. In fact, many Israelites, who were not true believers, gave the sign of covenant to their children. The principle of covenant membership under the Abrahamic Covenant was not “believers and their seed.” It was all males who were born in the house of Israel and for any foreigner who was purchased by a house in Israel (and, of course, their families). In other words, the following argument for paedobaptism will not work:

      1. There is an essential continuity between the Abrahamic and New Covenants
      2. The covenant sign of circumcision (under the Abrahamic Covenant) is parallel to baptism (in the New Covenant)
      3. Infants of believers were given the sign of circumcision under the Abrahamic Covenant
      4. Therefore, the infants of believers are to receive the sign of baptism in the New Covenant

      Premise 3 is unwarranted. Infants of believers AND non-believers were given the sign of circumcision under the Abrahamic Covenant. There is no justification for reducing the principle of covenant membership to “believers and their children.”

      • Aaron,

        Paul accounts for this in Rom 2:28 and Rom 9. Not all Israel is Israel. There are two ways of being in the ONE covenant of grace, externally only or externally AND internally.

        That principle was at work under Abraham and it remains in force today.

        This is one reason why Paul calls Abraham the father of new covenant believers.

        The covenant has to be administered and the promise was (Gen 17) to believers and to their children and that promise remains in effect (Acts 2:39) and it is expanded to include Gentiles.

  9. Thanks Dr. Clark. Paedobaptism has, and continues to be, my major stumbling block in moving to a purely Reformed position. I have needed clarification on the Colossians passage in particular, so this has helped. In studying this, I would agree that the discontinuity between the covenants is the root issue (in fact it is Piper’s main argument).

    I had a couple of other questions. First, I have listened to the debate between Schreiner and Van Drunen, and the issue of the language of the New Covenant described in Jeremiah 31 came up. Specifically, whether the “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (ESV), can legimately describe children who may (or may not) be actual believers. It didn’t get much time in the debate though, and so I was wondering if you had a perspective on that (or perhaps know of a good written resource that deals with this?)

    Second, I have wondered about the historical basis of paedobaptism. Obviously, Scripture is the ultimate norm, so history isn’t sufficient in and of itself; but it certainly helps. Recently I have been reading some secondary patristic literature, and the early church pattern seemed to be a period of intense catechesis before baptism. Is this accurate? How strong is the patristic evidence (either way)?

    Again, thanks for the post and any other help you are able to give.

    • Hi Carter,

      Be careful what sort of hermeneutic you use to interpret OT prophecies or you may end up breeding red heifers in your back yard and sewing up priestly garments for use in the new temple.

      You take my point?

      Jeremiah 31 is a prophecy of the new covenant, as contrasted with the old, Mosaic covenant. It is a characterization of the old covenant and a characterization of the new covenant. In the nature of that sort of discourse it is not a detailed road map: “Go to Nahum and take a left. Go 200 meters, through the inter-testamental period, take a right.” There was no GPS in the ancient world.

      Just as the prophecies concerning Christ are cast in old covenant/ typological language, so too the prophecies of the new covenant are cast in the same sort of language. That’s why I said what I did above. When people fail to observe the nature of the prophecies about Christ, they end up saving money to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem etc. Those of us who read the Bible like Christians, as Paul and Jesus taught us to read the Bible, know better. Well, we have to apply the same approach to prophecies about the new covenant.

      What we should notice about that prophecy is what is IS the old covenant?

      “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

      First of all, according to the NT, not all Israel is “Israel.” In other words, there has always been two types of people in the visible covenant community. That happens in the typology, under Moses, and it happens under Christ. The NT itself makes clear (e.g. see Jude and 2 Peter or Rev 1-3 or all of 1 Cor) that there are, in the new covenant, hypocrites and there are believers. If that is so, then when Jer 31 says “with the house of Israel” we understand that, from the NT, to refer not only to literal Israelites, but to the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16).

      Notice please the contrast. It is between “the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” and “he covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days….”

      The first covenant mentioned is that which the NT calls “the old covenant.” It is the Mosaic covenant, the national covenant, the temporary covenant. It is the obsolete, fading covenant.

      Notice how the new covenant is characterized, not only by the inward writing of the law, but it is also characterized with the very sort of language God used in the Abrahamic covenant: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This is the language of Gen 17. In other words, the promise of interiority, if you will, has to be taken as hyperbolic way of characterizing the renewal of the covenant of grace, the Abrahamic covenant, in the new covenant. If it is a renewal, then it isn’t absolutely new is it?

      What is happening here is that Yahweh is promising an end to the failed Mosaic covenant and a renewal of the new covenant marked by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, all of which was fulfilled by the complex of events from the crucifixion to Pentecost.

      Nothing here, however, requires us to think that the new covenant will be so new as to exclude an external administration.

      • Point taken 😉 Thank you very much for the reply, it certainly fits more of the pieces of the puzzle in for me.

        Back to the drawing board for now.

        • Hi Carter,
          Jer. 31 was one of the passages that kept me from becoming a paedobaptist for a long time. Richard Pratt has a chapter in A Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism that I found to be really helpful.
          Basically, he points out that Old Testament prophets were looking forward to the Messianic kingdom, not seeing Christ’s Two Comings. They spoke about the kingdom in a way that made the return to the holy land and the inauguration of the new covenant contemporaneous. Basically, they spoke of the full realization of the new covenant blessings in their prophecies (cf. Ezek. 36:28-35; Isa. 2:1-5). Once we get to Pentecost, we realize that the prophecy is partially realized right now and not fully realized until the new creation. Therefore, it is an over-realized eschatological expectation to think that all the new covenant members will “know the Lord” right now. That will take place at the consummation, when the new covenant blessings are fully realized and Christ has separated the wheat from the chaff, leaving no difference between the inward and outward members of the covenant.

          Hope that helps!

    • Rich,

      Long time fan here. I’ve loved your critique of NCT since the time when I was still a Baptist. 🙂

      Does the fact that the phrase “the body of the flesh” in Col. 2:11 appears in 1:22 in reference to Christ’s body tip the scales in favor of the interpretation that sees “the body of the flesh” in 2:11 as Christ’s body of flesh rather than the believer’s?

      • Brian,

        Good question. I don’t think so. I discuss this on pp. 4-6 of the paper. In brief, the circumcision of this text is made without hands, as opposed to made with hands. Physical and spiritual (handless) circumcission are being contrasted at this point (see my discussion). The body of the flesh that is removed is understood as the renovation of corrupted human nature by many commentators – including some paedobaptists (cf. Col. 1:13, “the uncircumcision of your flesh”). This would mean that Paul is talking about what has been done to and in the Colossian believers, not for them. It is an ordo salutis text at this point, not historia salutis. This leads me to understand “by the circumcision of Christ” as something Christ does to us and in us (ordo salutis), not for us (historia salutis). Paul discusses what Christ did for (historia salutis) the Colossians in vv. 14 and 15. Verses 11 and 12 discuss what happens in the Colossians and to them. Hence, I see this as Chrisitan circumcision – something performed by Christ in the souls of all those he died and rose for.

        I think we can all agree with this: In context, this text is displaying the completeness believers have in Christ.

        Have a great Lord’s Day!

    • I’m no exegetical or Greek scholar (so I skipped most of the paper) but one of your conclusions seems to directly contradict the ESV text.

      Compare your conclusion (emphasis added):

      “Burial and resurrection with Christ is not equivalent to but CAUSALLY SUBSEQUENT to spiritual circumcision.”


      “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, HAVING BEEN BURIED WITH HIM IN BAPTISM, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point, but I take you to be saying that spiritual circumcision results in being buried with Christ in baptism. Yet the ESV seems to state it the other way around, i.e. that spiritual circumcision is the result of HAVING BEEN buried with Christ in baptism.

      • wjhinson,

        Here is the discussion about your question from my paper:

        The subsequent option would translate Col. 2:12a as “you were circumcised before being buried with Him in baptism.” This view is best for the following reasons. First, according to Dana and Mantey, aorist participles subordinate to aorist verbs can express subsequent action.33 Second, the burial referred to in this verse is subsequent to the death of the old man in v. 11, effected by circumcision. Eadie says, “It is plain that the spiritual circumcision is not different from regeneration, or the putting off of the old man and putting on the new.”34 Though Paul does not use the same terminology as Eadie in this text, “the removal of the body of the flesh” effected by the “circumcision made without hands” does transform the old man into a new man, and thus implies the death of the old man (Col. 2:20; Rom. 6:6-7; Tit. 3:5). Third, this view maintains the death, burial, and resurrection motif of other Pauline texts (Col. 2:12, 20; 3:1, 3; Rom. 6:3-8). Fourth, this view comports with the rest of the verse, which sees faith as the means through which resurrection with Christ is effected (see the discussion below). Fifth, this view does not get one into the difficulties mentioned above in the other views. This argues for a causal relationship between circumcision and burial with Christ in baptism. The burial with Him in baptism was brought about causally subsequent to the circumcision. The subsequent, spiritual concomitant or attendant to spiritual circumcision, therefore, is burial with Christ in baptism. Burial with Christ in baptism came to the Colossians after being “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands.”
        33 H.E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1955), 230.
        34 Eadie, Colossians, 151.

        • While I’m inclined to say the passage teaches that your putting off the body of the flesh (your circumcision) was accomplished by Christ’s death (circumcision) and this was realized in you when you were united to Christ by faith (or sacramentally speaking when you were buried with him in baptism), I think we commit the second error Dr. Clark mentioned at the beginning of his post (i.e. we overstate the connection between circumcision and baptism) if we claim the text teaches their chronological connection and then seek to build a case for either credo or paedobaptism on that.

          It seems to me that both orders may be taught in the text. That is, in one sense our circumcision precedes our baptism (it was accomplished by Christ before we were baptized), but in another sense our circumcision was brought about in our baptism, for that is when Christ’s work was applied to us (again speaking sacramentally).

          The point of the passage seems to be that Christ is sufficient. Christ has accomplished the removal of the body of the flesh (the true circumcision) and union with him brings about this reality. He is all you need. The only connection between circumcision and baptism that we can safely glean from this passage is the death of Christ.

  10. It cannot be denied that circumcision and baptism both relate to the same reality of Christ’s bloody death for the elect. It is, howevever, a stretch to then infer that the similarity of circumcision and baptism mean that they should be administered the same way to both the New and Old covenant communities.

    The primary fault (that i see) with Paedobaptism is not so much about the meaning and definition of the sign of baptism, but rather with the wrong assumption about the similarities between the New and Old Covenant communities. We are not to conceive of the Church as a visible community merely. Everything visible in the New Testament is ultimately signifying something spiritual. Likewise, the visible church, is to be a portrait of the true and spiritually authentic invisible church. And while it is true that not everyone in the visible church is truly and spiritually reborn, nevertheless, the Church is to be constituted and gathered with the INTENTIONS to portray this.

    Jesus Christ does not only fulfill the Abrahamic Covenant in the “bloody signs” but he is also the true offspring (Galatians 3:16). Paul says that the offspring spoken of in the Abrahamic Covenant is Christ. Moreover, those who are Christ’s are truly Abraham’s offspring. If this is the case, does it not show that when the sign was to be given to Abraham and his offspring, it TRULY and ULTIMATELY meant that the true offspring of promise (i.e. believers like Abraham their Father) were to receive this sign (i.e. like Isaac – Galatians 4:21-28) and not merely the offspring of the flesh (i.e. like Ishmael). However, the fact that both did receive the sign, should tell us that God’s covenantal dealings with Israel prior to the New Covenant were slightly different. Same promise, same substance, same God, different conception of the covenant communities. Now that Christ has come, it is no longer fitting to administer the sign of covenant as though they were merely a visible gathering. Rather, the sign is to be given to what the Old Testament might call – the faithful remnant. The Church is to be a portrait of the true and faithful remnant – the spiritually authentic Israel (Romans 9:6).

    • Aaron,

      Once more, Abraham was not an “old covenant” figure. He was a typological figure but not all typology = old covenant. See 2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10 where “old covenant” = Mosaic covenant. Paul makes this distinction in Gal 3-4 also.

      This is why I keep saying, “Abraham was not Moses.” See that post linked above.

  11. i understand that the new covenant relates to the mosaic covenant. that is not my issue. i’m merely using “old covenant” language to generally refer to that which was prior to the new covenant. you can insert abrahamic covenant into my post and the same point holds sway. the issue of christ being the offspring has not been responding to.

    so i agree, in the technical sense, that the new covenant relates to the mosaic or old covenant. this, however, does not then mean that it is the mosaic covenant alone that has seen fulfillment. paul clearly shows, in galatians 3-4, that the coming of christ and the new covenant dispensation relates to the abrahamic covenant as well. and how so? answer: he is the offspring. and those in him are the true seed of promise. the church is to be conceived this way (galatians 4:28).

    saying this does not then imply that the abrahamic covenant has been abrogated in any way, it merely says that it has been fulfilled. the essence of which, however, is still the same, namely, “i will be a god to you and you will be my people.” this covenantal promise is realized in christ, who has now come. of course, in progressive revelation it was fitting to give the sign of covenant to the fleshly offspring.

  12. Hi aarond,

    Just out of curiosity, have you read the chapter in Calvin’s Institutes on infant baptism? He addresses this counter-argument of the seed being fulfilled in Christ and the elect, as this was an argument the Anabaptists were making. Just wondering if you have read it.

    Take care,

    • Hello Brandon,

      Thanks for the response. I have read Calvin’s retort to that objection. To be sure, are you referring to Book Fourth, Chapter 16, Section 12? I assume so. Calvin totally missed it. If anything, he committed a fallacy of ad hominem by attacking his opponents – saying they have erroneous “giddy spirits” because they were able to make a decent objection.

      He basically said, about his opponents, “They’re on to something, but they didn’t quite hit the nail on the head.” However, he does not then go on to correct the “mistake.” He merely calls it a mistake. He then proceeds to throw in some red herrings by asking some rhetorical questions that don’t immediately deal with the objection. I was completely dissatisfied with Calvin’s response.

      Thanks for directing me towards that text.

      By His grace,

  13. Hi Aaron,

    Section 12 is important to this issue, but I had in mind sections 14-15. I am sorry that I was not more specific. What would you say to Calvin’s charge that credobaptist hermeneutics reduce covenant theology to mere allegory? And what of his discussion of Romans 15:8 and its implications for the relationship between fulfillment and administration? Thank you for your interaction.


    • Hello Brandon,

      With the first point, I don’t think Calvin’s charge holds. For it is not the credobaptist’s “hermeneutics” which reduce covenant theology to mere allegory in saying that Christ is the true offspring. The apostle Paul himself writes this! Furthermore, it is not in any way a reduction, rather it is a proper understanding of the concept of fulfillment.

      It is erroneous for Calvin to say that the credobaptist’s hermeneutic abrogates the principle of inclusion. He faults on two points: 1) That objections only holds if you first assume the paedobaptist view that the New Covenant community and the community under the Abrahamic Covenant are to be conceived the same way. For if they are not to be conceived the same way, you cannot speak about abrogating a principle that shouldn’t be in effect in the first place. 2) Again, it is fulfillment of which we speak, not abrogation. Christ fulfills the offspring, and in his fulfillment it becomes to improper to give the sign to those of the flesh.

      As far as Roman 15:8 goes, I think the context clearly speaks in favor of my earlier post on Galatians 3 & 4. Romans 15:8 says that Christ became a servant/minister of the circumcision…in order to confirm the promises given to the fathers. And what were the promises? Well, the context goes on to tell us about the gathering of the Gentiles into the family of God. If then, the promises are about the gathering of the Gentiles into the covenant community, it only further proves that Paul has SPIRITUAL promises in mind here, namely, that those of faith, from every nation are the true children of Abraham (e.g. Romans 4:16-17). And how are they true children? Answer: by their union with the true seed who is Christ. In this case, it still stands, that the Church is to be conceived as a visible community which represents true invisible and spiritual authenticity. And the Church can only intend to be constituted that way by administering the sign to those who profess faith in Christ.

      I think Calvin wrongly appropriates this text; as paedobaptists often do (i.e. Acts 2:39, 1 Corinthians 6:14, Matthew 19:14, etc.). None of these text talk about the infant baptism and its administration to infants as covenant members. However, they seem so sold and committed to their position, that anytime the New Testament even hints at covenant language they automatically use it to justify their presupposition. I don’t think that’s responsible hermeneutics.

      Thanks man,

      • Hi Aaron,

        Thanks for your provocative thoughts on this; I enjoyed reading them. In response to Calvin’s critique, a Coxe-ian probably would want to hunker down in Galatians 4 and Paul’s allegory just as you did. But I think it’s a legitimate question whether Nehemiah Coxe was doing something different with that allegory than Paul intended. Paul seems to ‘use’ the allegory mostly just to illustrate the differences between Abraham and Moses that he has described at length in Galatians 2-4. But that is a point that can be disputed at another time.

        Also, while I do understand the credobaptist Coxe-ian argument that children were never embraced in the Covenant of Grace in the OT because only the elect are in the CoG, credobaptists should appreciate the irony that by making this argument they are liable to the very same hermeneutical criticisms they charge paedobaptists with having. Paedobaptists are faulted for seeing every passage in the NT that deals with children as really being about infant baptism. But meanwhile covenantal credobaptists (generally-speaking) treat every passage in the OT that deals with God’s covenantal, saving mercy to children as really being about election or adoption in Christ. This seems to me to be a double-standard.

        I also appreciate your point about the covenant not being abograted, but fulfilled in Christ. But I am troubled by the direction that some Reformed Baptists scholars have tended to go with this, it usually results in heavy demolition on the ‘visibility’ of the New Covenant.

        Ultimately, in my opinion it is a fair question as to whether Hebrews 8 and Gen. 17 are simply being treated too reductionistically by Reformed Baptists, and I believe that Calvin’s critique of Anabaptists is important precisely because he brings this issue to light.

        Thanks again for your thoughts and interaction!

        Peace in our Lord,

  14. Do you have some resources you could suggest for the identified vs. united distinction that you made in your terminology contra Rome and the FV. Is this historic terminology? I think I understand the distinction you’re making and if so it’s essential, but I’m wondering about the terminology since Paul in my english translation writes in Romans 6:3-5:

    “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into CHrist Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death… if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

    I believe this would be an example of the “spiritual relation” or “sacramental union” spoken of in WCF 27.2 whereby “the names and effects of the one (the thing signified) are attributed to the other (the sign).” So perhaps it is proper that in clarifying and systematizing matters we distinguish that the thing signified is what unites us to Christ, but the sign only identifies us with Christ. After all, the thing signified is inward and vital, the sign is outward and sacramental.

    It does seem to me that a large part of the FV challenge rests on its claim to promote more biblical terminology in theology. Has this challenge been addressed in any depth before?

  15. Good article and discussion! As a credo-baptist, I am loving the point that Abraham is not Moses. Truly I do. Indeed, I would say much the same thing. Dr. Clark, I would only say that I identify, and that the church is to identify, with believing Abraham, not Ishmael. In other words, we are children of Abraham precisely because we are faithful, not because of physical descent. The context of Colossians 2 does not speak of a people who are “externally related” to the saving faith that Abraham had, but rather of a people who are fully related and enjoy the fullness of those promises. Would you also apply Col 2:13-14 to infants as well?

  16. Circumcision indeed involved a threat not only of spiritual death in the case of unbelief but also of bloodshed by execution where the individual concerned had sinned wilfully, presumptiously and grossly against the Ten Commandments and was duly convicted of such a sin-crime.

    In such cases there was no ritual sacrifice for the sin but the offender’s blood was on his/her own head and excommunication (cutting off) was by execution. See e.g. Hebrews 10 and Numbers 15. The theonomists do not take this into account in their calculation of the ongoing general equity of the criminal and penal law of Moses.

    In the New Covenant mediatorial church-nation we have church disciplne and the threat of being drowned/whelmed/baptised in perdition replacing execution – leaving aside any implications for modern non-mediatorial states for the time being – and baptism in the place of the blood-shedding circumcision.

    Temporary threats of physical death and bloodshed have fallen away to concentrate minds on the antitypes which these foreshadowed. A return to circumcision and the use of the death penalty as the theonomists envisage it would be a return to Mosaic shadows.

    Thankfully there is also a positive side to both circumcision and baptism, and grace was/is more prominent in these symbols than the threat of judgement, although the warning of judgement is there.

  17. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. (I Timothy 6:9, KJV).

  18. My old pastor, Rev. David Paterson of Knox Free Church Perth, called baptism the “Boomerang” Sacrament, because of just the kind of considerations presented here by Prof Clark.

    If you forget about it, it will come back and hit you eventually, sooner or later.

  19. Hi There – I’m not usre if anyone is reading this blog anymore but I was doing a study on 1 Corinthians 10:2 and somehow came across this blog about infant baptism and believers baptism. I was interested in how the discussion above swayed on maintaining the continuation of the promises given to Abraham and also the fading away of the external regualtions given to Moses to make way for the new covenant in Christ.

    My questions are these… The Abrahamic Covenant was instituted between God and Abraham before he was circumsized. Circumcision was a seal of this covenant that was a clearly ‘Commanded’ response for any male in Abraham’s household to show a connection, obedience and inclusion with this covenant (Genesis 17:10). I find it interesting that circumcision is regarded as an everlasting (vs 13) covenant and I also take note that God uses it as a ‘confirmation’ of the initial promises – not as the instigation of them.

    I consider Abraham’s promises to be fulfilled in Christ – not continued on in the same fashion. Much like a seed sprouting into a flower. God’s Word of promise to Abraham was a seed word that pointed forward to a fulfillment in Christ not a continual continuation of the same – otherwise we would all need to be circumsized. On what premise can we then assume that this seal of circumscision be replaced with baptism? Circumcision, as an external regulation, is definately not to be part of our faith walk as Galatians clearly teaches ,so why should we look to reintroduce circumcision as something else? As Christians we are introduced into the promises that God gave to Abraham through having the same faith as Abraham had (the faith he had before circumcision ever came along – Romans 4:11) and our being baptized is a seal of this faith. Baptism in Scripture is often called a baptism of repentance and very closely related to it (Acts 19:4, Acts 2:38, Mark 1:4) in fact the sadduccees and pharisses missed God’s purpose for them because they did not get baptized (Luke 7:29 & Matthew 3:7) they instead trusted in their geneological connection with Abraham which would’ve been sealed with circumscision Matthew 3:9-10). Why do we want to revamp circumscision and call it paedobaptism? Baptism is a seal and expression of our faith in Christ and repentance from sin. Circumcision was an external regulation that all natural members of Abraham’s house had to obey – or be cut off. I see similarities between circumcision and baptism and by all means anyone who is of Jewish descent should feel it their privilege to be circumcised (as Paul allowed Timothy who was of Jewish descent to be circumcised) – but as an external regulation it does not relate to the faith condition of the heart. Baptism was introduced as a specific response to a repentant heart. Can anyone give more weight to the idea of paedobaptism? As it is difficult for me to marry a baptism of repentance with something that is mimicing circumscision.

    Thanks for any input


    • Matiu,

      Your response strikes me as rationalist. You knew a priori that that there CAN’T be any connection between circumcision and baptism when it has been shown that there IS a connection. Your job is to give a better explanation of what that connection is not to deny it altogether.

      I’ve addressed 1 Cor 10 here on the HB but cannot find the post — so I can’t fault you for not reading it but 1 Cor 10 strikes me as a strong affirmation of infant initiation. They all went through the Red Sea “on dry ground” and yet Paul says that they were all baptized (into Moses). That’s infant baptism! Keep reading. Paul appeals to the Israelites, in this instance, not to show the discontinuity between the church under Moses and the NT church (which exists) but to show the continuity. That’s his whole point there: in significant ways we are no different than Israel wandering in the wilderness. They were redeemed by the sovereign grace of God through a marvelous exodus from bondage and so have we been in the NT. They were redeemed in community and so are we. That community fell into gross sin and so do we.

      The great problem with the Baptist hermeneutic is that, because of its a priori conviction about the super-eschatological nature of the church in the NT it cannot account for the genuine continuities that exist with the Mosaic church and especially with the Abrahamic church and thus it cannot have infant initiation because that would spoil the super-eschatological nature of the church. The fundamental problem is the over-realized eschatology of the Baptist view.

      As to Abraham, you’ve done what Baptists always do: tried to make Abraham into Moses. The NT won’t let that happen. Please read the related posts I linked above, where I address this issue.

      I think the other posts linked above address your other points.

      See also:

      Thanks for reading.

  20. Nobody is explaining all these complicated details in the New Testament. Are we overlooking something in biblical communication that would be simpler and and more congruent with Jesus’ teaching?
    Could the Colossions 2 passage be using “baptizo” as a reference to Christ’s “pass-through” (death) which we are united to by faith in Him?


    • Jams,

      1. See the comments policy

      2. What do you mean “no one is explaining all these complicated details”? I just did!

      Paul is appealing to circumcision and baptism as illustrations of death. That’s what they were and are: ritual deaths. Circumcision was an anticipation of Christ’s death, a sacrament, a sign and seal, looking forward to Christ’s death.

      The reality of of the sign was Christ’s actual death.

      Baptism is a sort of re-enactment, retrospective a sign and seal of Christ’s death. The thing that unites them all is death and that’s Paul’s actual theme is Col 2: what the old Reformed theologians called “mortification” or death to the old man.

      What we cannot miss here, however, is that in the course of his teaching about sanctification and the Christian life is his appeal to circumcision and baptism.

  21. Dr. Clark, you wrote: “In this conceptual framework we should not be surprised that Peter said, ‘for the promise is to you and to your children…..'(Acts 2:39).”

    Every detailed treatise on infant baptism that I’ve seen, and virtually every infant baptismal liturgy that I’ve heard, quotes Acts 2:38–39 as being an important and especially meaningful proof-text for the practice. But is this really what Peter was teaching? I believe there are a number of reasons why the answer must clearly be, “no.”

    In order to satisfactorily determine what this passage indeed conveys, it would seem that three things need to be reliably established: (1.) What is the promise given? (2.) Who is the promise given to? (3.) When, or how is the promise bestowed (or, are there conditions for receiving it)?

    (1.) What is the promise given? In the most specific terms, the promise being referred to is evidently “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). This appraisal is corroborated by going back to the beginning of the chapter where Peter plainly establishes the prophetic and theological foundation of his speech. In verses 17 and 18, he quotes Joel 2:28–29, which is the promise of God to “pour out His Spirit” in the last days. Peter clearly identifies the extraordinary behavior of the believers at Pentecost as resulting from the specific fulfillment of that part of Joel’s prophecy (v. 16f.). Verse 33 again rather plainly denotes that the Holy Spirit is the “promise” in view (cf. John 14:16–17, 26; Galatians 3:14). Of course as Peter went on to indicate, this promise was indeed being realized in the new covenant church of his day, and is directed toward and available to certain subjects—whom he then goes on to identify.

    (2.) Who is the promise given to? The subjects of the given promise are also plainly stated: “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off.” In that Peter’s immediate audience was largely Jewish (vs. 5, 14, 22), the general consensus among biblical scholars is that the “you” primarily refers to the Jewish people. This especially makes sense when one considers that “[those] who are far off” is a contrastive phrase that was specifically used in reference to Gentiles (cf. Isaiah 57:19; Acts 22:21; Ephesians 2:11–21). Additionally, in verse 23, Peter distinguishes the “you” from “lawless men,” a phrase which could also be rendered “those not having the law,” again meaning the “Gentiles” (in this specific case, the Romans). It is also plain from the syntax here that the word “children” refers to the physical offspring of the “you”—i.e., that of Peter’s Jewish audience. There is some disagreement among scholars, however, as to the precise implications of this phrase. Some maintain the proper emphasis is that the promise has a “continuing genealogical” aspect to it. Others see the emphasis as an indication that the promise has “enduring generational” applicability. Without getting into a detailed discussion of these distinctions, I would suggest that the term likely implies both (although I believe similar phrasings such as that used in Acts:13:32–33 tend to accentuate the latter.) In terms of our present inquiry, the main point is that the physical offspring of Peter’s listeners were indeed said to be included in the promise—provided, naturally, that they also met any specific requirements that were attached to it.

    (3.) When, or how is the promise bestowed (what are the conditions for receiving it?) I believe the answer to this question becomes largely self-evident by simply asking another question: Is the promise something that was without distinction to be given to all of Peter’s hearers (i.e. its potential recipients)? In other words, is the gift of Holy Spirit something that all of Peter’s audience was certain or guaranteed to receive? Of course the answer to that is again, “no.” Accordingly, it is sure that the promise being spoken of is in fact conditional. The practical requirements for receiving the promise are clearly stated at the beginning of verse 38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins […and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit].” Thus, BAPTISM, along with the prerequisite of hearing the gospel and repenting, is made out to be part of the requirement to receive the promise, and is NOT the direct object of the promise itself (cf. Galatians 3:2). This conditionality is made even more certain by the ultimate requirement given at the end of Peter’s declaration: “For the promise is for…everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (v. 38). This is obviously a reference to the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit (which nonetheless presumes a perceptible human response by the elect). Scripture makes abundantly clear that such a supernatural, inner calling is the only possible means by which anyone can truly aspire to receive the gift of salvation (which is sovereignly applied by the Holy Spirit—1 Thessalonians 1:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:13–14) (Cf. John 8:47, Romans 3:10–18, 9:15–16; I Corinthians 1:20–24; Ephesians 2:3-9; Philippians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:9–10; et al). Amazingly, and gloriously, this then makes reception of the promise that is in view in this passage entirely dependent on—but also assured by—the will and grace of the person promised (i.e. God the Holy Spirit)! (See, 1 Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 5:2, 11:33–36; 2 Corinthians 9:15.)

    In light of the preceding discussion, it would seem that the following conclusions can reasonably be drawn: There is nothing that differentiates between the demands, or the potential privileges collectively assigned to the three groups of people mentioned in Peter’s discourse (i.e. the Jews, their children, and the Gentiles [and, if one pleases, their children]—who may be called by God). Thus to ascribe special status (e.g. immunity from the prerequisite of repentance) to any one of these groupings (e.g. the children) with regard to any single component in Peter’s statement (e.g. eligibility for the rite of baptism), is exegetically indefensible.

    Put in practical terms, there is nothing in this passage that implies the right of anyone to receive baptism apart from, or prior to the act of personal repentance. Therefore I have to believe that to construe it as substantially indicating something else is wrong, or at best misleading. Acts 2:38–39 is a powerful Scripture proof for the doctrine of election and how it manifests in the practical realm, not infant baptism.

    Additionally, it seems that in order for this passage to have any real applicability with regard to the Reformed argument for infant baptism, then the “children” would have to mean “the children of believers.” Therefore the “you” would obviously have to first mean “believers.” But in the context in which Peter’s message was actually delivered the “you” was clearly in reference to those who were still unbelievers, inquiring what they must do to be saved (vs. 36–37, 40–41). As such the plain and simple message here was that the Holy Spirit is promised to whosoever demonstrates their divine calling by heeding the outward call for sinners to truly repent, and then willingly obeys the command to be baptized.

    In other words, it is a simple, straightforward presentation of the gospel, as it henceforth and equally applies to every person in the world (Matthew 28:19–20; Mark 16:15–16; Acts 17:30–31). Finally, we are specifically told at the end of the account that it was in fact “those who received his word [that] were baptized…” (v.41a)

  22. Hey great! I only got a message today that there is more discussion on this since my last post. Thank you for your time and effort in your response Dr Clarke. I have read your other articles.

    I take note that you consider me a rationalist on this issue and that I have a pre determined mindset that there can be no relation between circumcision and baptism. Actually, I do think there is a relationship between the faith of Abrhaham and circumcision, and that circumcision shown here is a type (foreshadowing symbol) for the real circumscision done by the Holy Spirit on the hearts of believers in the new covenant (Romans 2:29, Colossians 2:11&12).

    The Baptism mentioned in Colossians 2:12 I regard as an act of obedience and faith, as that is how we are raised with him… I quote ‘having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God…’ NIV (I would emphasis the word faith being important in this verse – baptism without faith is just getting wet in my mind)

    I agree that Abraham is the father of our faith in that he pioneered the same faith that we all must have, to be reconciled to God and recieve God’s promises. But if the circumcision here (under Abraham not Moses) is directly transferrable into baptism in the New Testament then we should only baptise boys. Your answers for this in that there is niether male nor female in Christ (Galatians 3:28) is not quite solid enough exegesis for me to accept paedo baptism as a continuation of circumcision. But I do agree that circumcision for Abraham’s household was a picture, type and foreshadow of what Christ would do for thsoe who believe in Him… and how do we show our faith in him – by being baptised! But my concern is that you cannot easily have a clear faith in Christ whilst still being an infant (most would say definately not). Young child, yes… infant – no, I don’t think so.

    My main point is that there is a very specific and biblical link between baptism and repentance (Mark 1:4, Acts 13:24) and paedo baptism does not accomodate that. There is, I agree, a connection between circumcision and the promises that God gave to Abraham – but I would state that circumcision was given sometime after as a ‘type’ of confirmation. Baptism is given as a confirmation of our being united with Christ by Faith. But I again emphasis faith as an integral part of someone being united with Chirst and only then can a decision to be baptised be a confirmation of that same faith.

    I appreciate this dialogue as I’m sure – like the Bereans did with Paul’s teaching, we can all seek God for His clarity on Baptism. This issue could become divisive but actually does not need to be.

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