In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of your sinful nature, with the circumcision performed by Christ and not by human hands. And having been buried with Him in baptism, you were raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12 BSB)

How incredibly great is the power of God and the security of our salvation in Christ!

Here is a wonderful and powerful statement of the spiritual circumcision that Christ has purchased. The phrase “not by human hands,” was used often in scripture (Mark 14:58 and 2 Cor. 5:1 and Heb. 9:11) and it was an idiomatic way of speaking of a spiritual reality. There is a limitation as to what human hands may achieve, or, for that matter, all human effort whether done with hands or with a human voice or even human manipulation and the imposition of human will on another. Only God can remove sin, circumcise the heart and rightfully pronounce a sinner righteous. 

It says that we were “buried with him in baptism.” Though I am a Baptist and believe in believer’s baptism by immersion, following salvation, here he speaks of a spiritual baptism. Since our salvation is “not by human hands,” Physical baptism is not the means by which people are changed inwardly, and in the sight of God. For physical baptism is also done with human hands. To the degree that baptism is a confession of one’s faith, then it is useful to the person’s spiritual progress. This is the meaning I take from 1 Peter 3:21, who in drawing a symbolic parallel between Noah’s family’s salvation in the ark, said:

And this water symbolizes the baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Believer’s baptism is the “pledge of a clear conscience toward God,” in that the believer has done all that is commanded in scripture that he should do as a believer in Christ. (And I should say that some believe Peter was writing about the spiritual baptism of the believer — that is the baptism that truly saves.)

The Symbol of Baptism

But it is the inner faith in Christ that brings salvation, and though believer’s baptism by immersion pictures the believer’s association with the burial and resurrection of Christ, it is not able to save. This passage speaks of a spiritual baptism, as we read about elsewhere in the New Testament: “you who were baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27), and “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). 

Peter used Noah’s family in the ark escaping the flood (1 Peter 3:20-22), and Paul used Israel’s crossing the Red Sea escaping from Egypt (1 Cor. 10:1-6), both of them connecting them to baptism, saying that the believer, like Noah’s family and Israel, escaped an old life and entered into a new life through water. Believer’s baptism, as described in scripture, depicted this spiritual reality, so there is a spiritual baptism that every believer goes through at salvation. This spiritual baptism is as unchangeable as Noah’s family trying to return to the time before the flood, and as unthinkable as Israel trying to return to Egypt. 

Water baptism is symbolic of a spiritual baptism. Like Israel, the spiritual baptism we receive at salvation marks the escape from a life of bondage to the freedom of the Lord. Like Noah, the spiritual baptism marks the escape from an old corrupt and decaying life, and a regeneration into a new and glorious life.  Karl Barth, in his little book, The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism, gave one of the clearest explanations of how fitting believer’s baptism was in the New Testament to depict the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the believer’s identification with Him.

The Greek word baptizein and the German word taufen (from Tiefe, depth) originally and properly describe the process by which a man or an object is completely immersed in water and then withdrawn from it again. Primitive baptism carried out in this manner had in its mode, exactly like the circumcision of the Old Testament, the character of a direct threat to life, succeeded immediately by the corresponding deliverance and preservation, the raising from baptism. One can hardly deny that baptism carried out as immersion — as it was in the West until well on into the Middle Ages — showed what was represented in far more expressive fashion than did the affusion which later became customary…

Spiritual baptism in Christ is the spiritual experience that is as dramatic and lasting and eternal as the physical act of baptism symbolizes. As we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.a The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!”

Adding Something to Faith or to Christ

Paul’s point is that the empty deceptions of the Judaizers made a great deal out of outward obediences. They added things to faith and to Christ. They said to the Gentile believers that faith and baptism were not enough — they needed also to be circumcised and obey all sorts or legalistically interpreted Old Testament commands. But none of this could not change human nature. Only a spiritual power could do that, and only a spiritual power could truly forgive sin. The quid pro quo attitude of the false teachers relegated Christ to merely a good example or interesting teacher or a sad martyr, but not the Savior of the world, in whom God was at work to reconcile the world to Himself.  

So this point is clear and offers little room for debate, but still some see it differently. Then where is the debate? The debate centers in whether this circumcision of the heart happens to all believers at salvation or whether it is something that happens later on in the Christian life. 

The text favors a once-for-all experience at salvation. The circumcision of the heart was described in past tense, “you were circumcised,” and the most logical understanding of this teaching is that something was changed for eternity in the believer’s life when he trusted in Christ. It is an “aorist passive” verb which depicts a “once for all” experience. The Jameison-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary interprets this verse: 

“Ye were (once for all) circumcised (spiritually, at your conversion and baptism, Rom 2:28, 29; Php 3:3) with a (so the Greek) circumcision made without hands”; opposed to “the circumcision in the flesh made by hands” (Eph 2:11). Christ’s own body, by which the believer is sanctified, is said to be “not made with hands” (Mark 14:58; Heb 9:11; compare Daniel 2:45).

This interpretation means that in the Christian life we are constantly exhorted to live life in adherence with this new spiritual reality that God has implanted within us. We look back upon salvation and up to God and then go forward in faith, living up to the new person we are made to be in Christ. 

What Is Faith?

The other interpretation misuses the scripture to look upon the circumcision of the heart as something that only a few Christians attain as they claim that by faith. It is out there and we must reach out for it. Those who teach this emphasize the power of faith, but they make faith a power all its own. This interpretation is often based on an interpretation of Hebrews 11:1, that reads the passage (or I would say “misreads”) as “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” saying that faith is a “substance” in itself alone. So our faith becomes something all by itself. 

Certainly faith is required for salvation. It is the thing “standing under” the things promises of God we hope for. The biblical pattern of faith, however, is that faith depends on a revelation or a command of God. Faith cannot exist by itself. That is not the nature of faith. Faith must be invested in someone or some truth. Christian faith is invested in both — both the Person of God and the promises of God. And this is true from the beginning, as we read of Abraham, “He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6 and Rom. 4:3). 

There is still “something out there” that we must claim by faith, but what lies in the future has also been implanted into our hearts. We claim it because God has promised it in His Word. Spiritual generation and transformation is done through the power of Christ. Again, to quote Jameison-Faussett-Brown Commentary: 

In circumcision the foreskin only was put off; in Christian regeneration “the body of the flesh” is spiritually put off, at least it is so in its ideal conception, however imperfectly believers realize that ideal. 

The Christian life is “realizing the ideal” or living the life that Christ has placed within us at salvation. And this is the point of Paul in this and many other passages. 

Questions:

  1. When did you receive Christ as your Savior? Was that true faith on your part? What changed for you at that time?
  2. Have you had moments of spiritual relapses, times when you failed to live up to the new life of Christ?
  3. Have you been trying to live up to God’s standard by your own determination or have you been letting Christ change you from within?
  4. The secret to living the Christ life is to admit our weakness, to die to sin and self, and live for Christ and let Him live out His life in us. How much of the Christian life have you tried (and failed) to do for your own sake instead of for Christ’s?

 

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