Nowhere in the New Testament do we find either a command to baptize infants or even an instance of babies being baptized. No verse hints at this practice in the first century church.1 So, Christians who hold to this ritual try to forge a link between Jewish circumcision and Christian baptism. The lone New Testament passage they can find that could possibly be read to make this connection is Colossians 2:11–12.
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
However, Colossians 2:11–12 is no loophole, allowing for infant baptism. Here are six reasons why.
1. Those Baptized Already Put Their Faith in Christ
Colossians 1:12 links baptism with faith.2 Baptism pictures what happened at conversion. This verse looks to the past when those baptized were “raised with Him through faith.” Infants cannot put their faith in the working of God. Parents cannot believe on behalf of their child. Therefore, Colossians 2:11–12 cannot allow for infant baptism.
2. Those Baptized Already Had All Their Sins Forgiven
As Paul continues in the context, he describes the spiritual changes pictured in baptism. At conversion, the believer was buried with Christ and raised with Christ. With this comes “forgiveness of all sins,” according to verse 14. Paul is not describing the potential for forgiveness of all sins. The tense of the verbs and participles all indicate a reality that happened in the past, not the future. An infant has not yet believed on Jesus and, consequently, has not yet received forgiveness. Therefore, Colossians 2:11–12 cannot allow for infant baptism.
3. Those Baptized Already Were United with Christ
Colossians 2:12–13 describes union with Christ as being “buried with Him,” being “raised with Him,” and being “made alive together with Him.” Baptism symbolizes this union. Only born-again believers experience union with Christ (Romans 6:1–6). Christ does not unite with those still dead in sin (2 Corinthians 6:14–17). No one, including an infant, who has not yet believed on Christ is united with Him. Therefore, Colossians 2:11–12 cannot allow for infant baptism.
4. Those Baptized Experienced Immersion
Like Romans 6:3–4, Colossians 2:12 reveals the symbolism of baptism. Believers were buried with Christ and risen with Him. The physical actions in baptism reflect the spiritual realities Paul is teaching. Going under the water pictures the believer’s burial with Christ. Coming up out of the water illustrates rising with Christ. The consistent testimony of Scripture through the Gospels and Acts shows baptism occurring at rivers and lakes where the repentant could be immersed. Infant baptism by sprinkling shatters this picture. What Paul describes in Colossians 2 looks nothing like the infant baptism practiced today.3 Therefore, Colossians 2:11–12 cannot allow for infant baptism.
5. Baptism Is Not Said to Replace Circumcision
Colossians 2:11–15 describes two aspects of the change that occurred the moment a person believes the gospel and becomes “in Christ.” The two main clauses of the passage state, “you were also circumcised” (2:11) and “you also were raised” (2:12). In essence, Paul is saying, “Off with the old, and on with the new. Leave your life of sin behind. Don’t go back to man-made rules and traditions, not mandated by Scripture. You don’t need them. You are complete in Christ.”
The Circumcision of Christ
To communicate this truth, Paul uses circumcision as an illustration. He is not referring directly to the Old Testament practice of physical circumcision of Jewish males but to “circumcision made without hands” (2:11). This is a spiritual circumcision not unlike other biblical references to circumcision of the heart, cutting away anything that would come between God and the believer and cause his heart to be insensitive to God. In Colossians 2:11, what is cut away is “the body of the sins of the flesh.” Now that a believer is in Christ, he must not go back into sin. That life has been cut off. Paul returns to this idea in Colossians 3:5 where he exhorts believers to put sin to death in their daily lives.
Believer’s Baptism, Not Infant Baptism
This cutting away of sin is also pictured in baptism. The believer is buried with Christ and risen with Him through faith. The old life of sin is behind him. The new is now. All his sin is forgiven. The rules and rituals that had no power to save are nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). Jesus Christ won the victory over all that would enslave them (Colossians 2:15). The believer should never go back. An infant has not yet crossed from the old to the new through faith in Christ. To read infant baptism into this passage cuts at the heart of the message of this text and the meaning of baptism.
No Equivalence or Replacement
These verses do not teach that baptism replaces circumcision. In context, the references to circumcision and baptism illustrate spiritual realities of the change that occurs the moment someone puts their faith in Christ for salvation. Using these verses to equate circumcision and baptism goes beyond what is stated in the text.
Furthermore, nowhere in this passage is baptism portrayed as the entry ritual into the people of God similar to how circumcision functioned in the Old Testament for Israel. In fact, Colossians 2:11–15 shows baptism reflecting spiritual realities that had already occurred in the past at the moment of salvation. The believer already had become part of the people of God the moment he believed, and his baptism afterward merely proclaims this fact. The idea that infants could join the people of God through baptism even though they have not yet put faith in Christ for salvation is foreign to the passage. Therefore, Colossians 2:11–12 does not allow for infant baptism.
6. Inserting Infant Baptism into Colossians 2 Misses the Point of the Passage
The point of Colossians 2:11–15 is that all believers are complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10). They have been set free from the rituals of the old covenant, not tied to these practices in a theological attempt to uncover continuity with the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Furthermore, believers must not replace the Mosaic system of rituals with any other system of observances, regardless of how attractive it may seem (Colossians 2:23). Paul exhorts believers to live their lives, rooted and built up in Jesus Christ, not man-made practices added to the revelation of Scripture (Colossians 2:6–7, 21–23).
Conclusion: No Loophole for Infant Baptism
Examined in context, Colossians 2:11–12 provides no loophole for infant baptism. No other New Testament passage substantiates the practice by teaching or example. Therefore, infant baptism is a tradition of man, not a biblical mandate. At best, it belongs in a category with other traditions not mandated in Scripture but often practiced by professing believers. These might include celebrating Advent or observing Lent. Some professing Christians may find these practices meaningful. However, these traditions do not belong on the level of doctrine because they do not come from Scripture. Attempts to biblically validate infant baptism require its proponents to go beyond Scripture or to force ideas foreign to the context into passages like Colossians 2. The foundation for our beliefs and practice must be God’s Word first, not tradition or a system of theology.
1 Some would contend that the household passages hint at infant baptism (for example, Acts 16:31–34). However, infants are never even mentioned in any of these passages. For an excellent discussion of these passages that fairly explains and then critiques the pedobaptist view, see Peter Goeman’s book, The Baptism Debate: Understanding and Evaluating Reformed Infant Baptism.
2 Consistent with the rest of the New Testament teaching and examples, faith in Jesus Christ always precedes baptism. The first chapter of Peter Goeman’s book (mentioned above) makes an excellent biblical case for the consistent link between belief and baptism in Scripture.
3 One exception to the sprinkling of infants would be the Greek Orthodox Church which actually fully immerses infants.
Dr. Conrad serves in urban Asia. He, his wife, and their four children squeeze into a 700 square-foot apartment where he seizes rare moments of quiet to write amidst homeschooling, a cacophony of musical instruments, and the steady stream of visitors they so enjoy having in their home. He enjoys birding, board games, and basketball. He is the author of, so far, two books.