Colossians 2:11-12: “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.” (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).
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