In my previous two articles, we explored how the concept of baptism must be understood in light of the entire biblical story. In 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-11, we saw how the apostles Peter and Paul, respectively, employed this view and interpreted the flood and Red Sea crossing as typologically pointing to baptism—that is, baptism is the “fulfillment” of those previous events in redemptive history. In looking at the Bible as a whole, we can see another element of the old covenant that God orchestrated to correspond to baptism: the act of circumcision.
In Colossians 2:11-14, Paul says, “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. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” The depth of meaning packed into this passage is too great for a single article, but I hope to at least give an adequate and defensible explanation of the correspondence Paul draws between circumcision and baptism.
Circumcision was the sign of Yahweh’s covenant with the descendants of Abraham (Gen. 17:1-14). Its mandatory execution was described by God in an unforgettable way: one either cut off the flesh of their foreskin or be “cut off” from God’s people (v. 14). This sign in the flesh physically marked one as a member of Israel. But Moses later warned Israel to “circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut. 10:16). Moses knew the physical act of circumcision did not remove the stubbornness that had characterized Israel as a people; this stubbornness could only be removed by “circumcising” the heart—that is, cutting off the sinful aspects of their fleshly nature. Moses also recognized that “circumcising” the heart was impossible for them to accomplish themselves, and could only be accomplished by God (Deut. 30:1-10, esp. v. 6). In similar fashion, Jeremiah mentions circumcision of the heart being a requisite for avoiding Yahweh’s wrath, implying that the physical circumcision of foreskins didn’t necessarily mark those within Israel whom God would save from judgment (Jer. 4:4). Moses and Jeremiah both recognized the ultimate inadequacy of fleshly circumcision for identifying the faithful in Israel who would inherit God’s promises. In other words, they anticipated the physical sign pointing to something greater.
What are Moses and Jeremiah speaking of by describing a “circumcision of the heart,” and how is it accomplished? This is where Paul’s statements in Colossians 2:11-14 are so illuminating. Paul reveals that the new covenant’s circumcision of the heart, “made without hands,” is the act of putting off the entire fleshly self by putting it to death, burying that fleshly self in baptism, and being raised with Christ through faith (see also Rom. 6:1-11). This is the “circumcision of Christ”—the removal of our flesh by putting to death our fleshly nature. This act isn’t something we can accomplish ourselves, as Moses indicated, but can only be accomplished by the “powerful working of God” (Col. 2:12). The “circumcision of Christ” (v. 11) is what the fleshly circumcision of Abraham was always pointing towards, the physical sign preparing the way for the new covenant reality in Christ.
Unlike the physical sign of circumcision which couldn’t mark those who truly belonged to God’s faithful remnant, the “circumcision of Christ” does indeed mark those who are truly members of God’s covenant people—those who have had their debt canceled and been made alive with Christ (vv. 13-14). The flip side is that those who have not put off their fleshly selves in baptism—who have not undergone the circumcision of Christ—are not counted as members of God’s Israel. Paul makes this clear by telling the Colossians that before they were raised through faith in baptism, they were counted as those “who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh”—that is, they were still living as fleshly people condemned to die with their fleshly bodies (v. 13).
Regardless of whether we are speaking of the old or new covenant, the removal of the flesh is the sign of being a member of Yahweh’s Israel. Under the new covenant, we remove our “flesh” by “putting to death” our fleshly selves in baptism. Thus Paul reveals in Colossians 2 that baptism doesn’t merely replace circumcision, but serves as the new covenant fulfillment of circumcision. This sign of the covenant marks us as members of Abraham’s offspring through faith in Christ, the “children of promise,” who will be the recipients of God’s promises (Gal. 3:29; 4:21-31; also Rom. 9:6-8). To argue that one becomes a member of “Abraham’s offspring” before being baptized is to argue that one becomes a member of the covenant community before undergoing the sign of the covenant, as well as arguing that one has removed the flesh before putting the fleshly self to death. This is clearly antithetical to Paul’s thinking expressed in Colossians 2, and fails to understand the correspondence between circumcision and baptism within the overarching biblical story. In short, to argue against baptism is to argue against God’s plan of removing the flesh as a sign of entrance into His covenant community.