Paul’s argument in Colossians 2:11-12 assume the following three things:
- Believers are baptized.
- Those who are baptized are believers.
- Baptism is immersion.
Allow me to briefly elaborate on each of these assertions.
1. Believers are baptized
You’ll notice in this passage, as Paul addresses the Colossians, he can assume all of them have been baptized (“you been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him”). It was assumed that believers were baptized, such that Paul can readily appeal to their baptism as part of his argument here. Paul, along with the rest of the New Testament, has no category or conception of an unbaptized believer.
The New Testament closely associates baptism with faith and repentance, and thus salvation. Biblically speaking, Baptism is a part of the “conversion package.” If faith and repentance are the internal means by which we appropriate Christ, we might say, baptism is the external and public expression of appropriating Christ. This is why Baptism then can even be spoken of as the instrumental means of salvation in New Testaments passages like Col 2, Rom 6, 1 Pet 3, Acts 2, etc. (notice the “by baptism” or “baptized for” language in these texts). To be clear, it’s not that the mechanism of baptism itself saves or is necessary for salvation. Paul makes this clear in Col 2 when he adds, “through faith” (or Peter, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” – 1 Pet 3:21). In these instances, “baptism” comes to function metonymically for the whole of conversion, since it’s so closely bound to it in the scriptural pattern.
Note also the parallel between baptism and circumcision—as circumcision was the entry rite into the Old Covenant people of God, so baptism is the entry rite, that which marks off the people of God, today in the New Covenant.
In short, the New Testament has no category for an unbaptized believer as a normative thing. Biblically speaking, believers are baptized.
2. Those who are baptized are believers
Paul assumes those who have been baptized have actually experienced what it symbolizes. He describes them as those who have faith (“through faith”). They are those who participate with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Some object: But in the OT circumcision was given to infants, before they would have been old enough to have faith in the promises. That’s true. However, circumcision was forward-looking. One of the things it symbolized was the need for transformed hearts (Deut 30:6). The sign of circumcision didn’t assume that all who received it were circumcised in their hearts as well. In fact, God says quite the contrary. “Don’t just circumcise your flesh, but circumcise your hearts!” (see Deut 10:16). Paul sees baptism, in contrast, as pointing backward. It symbolizes a heart circumcision already accomplished (“you have been circumcised” – Col 2:11).
Paedobaptists would see baptism as replacing circumcision as the entry rite for the people of God today. And since circumcision was given to the offspring, so we should baptize our children, so the argument goes. However, although Paul does connect circumcision and baptism (they are both entry or initiatory rites), the connection between the two is not a straight line. As we already alluded to, physical circumcision symbolized and anticipated the need for spiritual circumcision (e.g., Deut 30:6)—a spiritual circumcision that has now arrived in Christ. As literal flesh (the foreskin) was cut off the male genitalia in circumcision, so our sinful “flesh” has been cut off in Christ (Col 2:11-13). And how has this “circumcision” of our sinful flesh happened? Our sinful flesh has died with Christ in his death through faith, as depicted in our baptism (Col 2:12).¹ In other words, quite importantly, baptism doesn’t directly correlate to physical circumcision (which was applied to infants), but to spiritual circumcision (which is only true of those who believe).
Israel in the OT, as an ethnic nation, was a mixed community of believers and non-believers. The people of God today though participates in the New Covenant, in which God has fulfilled its promise to circumcise our hearts. To be in the New Covenant is, by definition, to be a believer (Jer 31:31-34)—and so too then belief precedes receiving baptism as a sign of that New Covenant.
3. Baptism is immersion
Immersion (as opposed to sprinkling) best captures the intended symbolism of baptism as Paul describes it, burial and resurrection with Jesus. As we are “buried” under the water, so we are seen as buried with Christ. As we are raised from the water, so we are risen (resurrected) with Christ from the grave. This is the same way Paul speaks of baptism in Romans 6 as well, as burial and resurrection with Christ.
¹ Thus, I think we have the legitimacy to refer to baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, in a similar way to how the rainbow is a sign of the Noahic Covenant, circumcision the Abrahamic Covenant, and Sabbath the Mosaic. Baptism symbolizes our spiritual death and resurrection in Christ, our “spiritual circumcision,” which according to the OT prophets, is one of the things promised to be fulfilled in the New Covenant (see Deut 30:6; Jer 31:33; 32:39-40; Ezek 11:19; 36:26, 27; cf. Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; 6:10; 9:26; Ezek 44:6-9; Acts 7:51; Rom 2:25-29; Gal 6:15; Eph 2:11; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11-13).
This designation of baptism as a New Covenant sign is further corroborated by the fact that the Lord’s Supper, the other sign given to the church, is clearly designated a sign of the New Covenant (Jesus says of it, “this is the New Covenant in my blood” – Luke 22:20). Thus, I’m partial to the typical Reformed understanding that the two bloody signs in the prior era, circumcision (initiatory) and Passover (continual), give way to two unbloody signs of the New Covenant, baptism (initiatory) and the Lord’s Supper (continual)—the Lord’s Supper being instituted within and thus superseding the Passover meal, comparable to how here Paul links circumcision to baptism.