From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2018, with permission.
Most Baptists have heard of Reformed and Presbyterian churches who baptize babies, because “the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament (OT) is replaced by infant baptism in the New.” Verses cited in support of this analogy include Gen. 17:7–8; Gal. 3:9, 14; Col. 2:11–12; Acts 2:38–39; Rom. 4:11–12; 1 Cor. 7:14; Matt. 28:19; Mark 10:13–16; and Luke 18:15.1 The challenge for those who use this analogy is that these passages either mention circumcision (Gen. 17:7–8; Rom. 4:11–12) or baptism (Acts 2:38–39; Matt. 28:19) or neither circumcision nor baptism (Gal. 3:9, 14; 1 Cor. 7:14; Mark 10:13–16; and Luke 18:15). What is required for this analogy to work is a link between circumcision and baptism.
There is only one text in the Bible that mentions both. That passage is Col. 2:11–12. Is this the missing link that connects circumcision to baptism and therefore justifies infant baptism? Before addressing this, it remains of vital importance to understand that the analogy has always been and can only be between physical circumcision (involving a literal cutting of the flesh) and water baptism. Those who use this analogy connect it to Abraham’s participation in God’s covenant with physical circumcision as the sign of this covenant (Gen. 17:1–16).
My purpose here is to demonstrate that Col. 2:11–12 makes a beautiful analogy between spiritual circumcision and water baptism. This understanding fits within the context of the passage and the New Testament (NT) understanding of baptism. In order to accomplish this, I will examine the nature of circumcision, the nature of baptism, and the context of the passage. Applications abound when the text speaks accurately.
The KJV says:
In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.
What seems obvious at once is the fact that Paul is not talking about normal circumcision as practiced in the OT. How could Abraham (or anyone else) perform a physical circumcision without using hands? However, the alternative view I am suggesting needs biblical corroboration. As a literal interpreter, I do not choose a “spiritual” understanding easily.2 Is there an understanding anywhere in the OT or NT of such an idea? There is, and it appears in both Testaments.
Spiritual Circumcision in the Bible
God spoke through Moses in the book of Deuteronomy some 700 years after the institution of physical circumcision to Abraham and his seed as a mark of their covenant relationship with God. Deut. 30:5–8 says that when they would come into the Promise Land, “the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart… to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul.” This cannot be physical circumcision, since cutting away part of someone’s heart would be fatal. What does it mean? Simply this: to be dedicated to the God who brought them there.
We can see this understanding in Deut. 10:15–17. God warned the people to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.” He loved them and chose them as His people. He wanted them pure and dedicated to Him. Lev. 26:40–42 also gives this caution with the same language.
Other OT writers wrote in this same tone. God spoke to Jeremiah pleading with the people to return to their God (Jer. 4:1–4). He asked them to repent and dedicate themselves using the same language as Moses did some 800 years earlier: “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Israel’s loving God warned them of the coming wrath and wished them to avoid it. He wanted them pure and dedicated to Him.
Is this figurative language in Scripture completely distinguishable from physical circumcision? The reality is that there are passages that mention both spiritual and physical circumcision. Jer. 9:25–26 mentions God punishing His people and the Gentiles, both those “circumcised with the uncircumcised” (v.25). Then the prophet lists the nations who have offended God, including Judah in his list: “For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart” (v. 26). The Bible provides a distinction between physical and spiritual circumcision with the corresponding desire to see God’s people repent and be dedicated to God (v. 24). Ezek. 44 also mentions those “uncircumcised in heart, and uncircumcised in flesh” (v. 7, 9).
Spiritual circumcision in the OT is not limited to a symbol of the heart. This helps make the spiritual understanding of circumcision clear. God is weary of the people’s ignoring of His warnings to repent. Jer. 6:10–11 says their ears are uncircumcised. That is hard to picture in a literal way, but God wanted them to return and be dedicated to Him.
Is this spiritual circumcision solely found in the OT? Paul’s discussion in Rom. 2:27–29 gives an answer. There is a contrast mentioned regarding a Jewish person’s standing before God. Someone can have the physical sign of covenant membership but not have the inward reality of a dedicated life to God, because “circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (v.29). Stephen also mentioned spiritual circumcision (both “in heart and ears”) in his speech before his martyrdom (Acts 7:51).
1 These are all taken from the Westminster Confession of Faith: Baptism, XXVIII:4.
2 This is not an uncommon view. Other sources that discuss a similar understanding include: See J.P.T. Hunt, “Colossians 2:11–12, the Circumcision/Baptism Analogy, and Infant Baptism,” Tyndale Bulletin 41, no. 2 (November 1990): 243-244; Thomas R. Schreiner, “Baptism in the Epistles: An Initiation Rite for Believers,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 75–79; Wellum, Stephen J., “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006): 119-124; and Shawn D. Wright, “Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2006), 239.
Ken Rathbun serves at Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary as Vice President for Academic Services and Dean of the College. He is an adjunct teacher in both the college and seminary. Previously, Dr. Rathbun served as a Baptist Mid-Missions missionary to Jamaica for 14 years, serving at the Fairview Baptist Bible College. He earned his B.A., M.A., and M.Div. degrees from Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary. He also completed an M.A. degree in the History of Religions from the University of Iowa and his Ph.D. from the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica.