Continuing his argument for Christ’s sufficiency in reconciling us to God and making us holy from Colossians 1:1–2:10, Paul gives us in today’s passage a vivid explanation of why Jesus is all we need for life and godliness. In 2:11, the apostle argues that believers are “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands . . . by the circumcision of Christ.” This is not the old covenant sign and seal of physical circumcision (Gen. 17) but an inner reality anticipated in it. Israel was not to be only physically circumcised; they were also to be circumcised in the heart, an inner transformation marking the community as faithful to God (Deut. 10:12–22). While this inward circumcision was a reality for many Israelites before Christ came, the nation as a whole was uncircumcised in heart; thus, the prophets looked for the Lord to intervene and circumcise the hearts of His people (30:1–10; Ezek. 11:14–21).
Colossians 2:11–12 refers to this inward circumcision, which is accomplished by our union with Christ. Through this circumcision, the people of God “put off the body of the flesh,” not the removal of the physical body but the Spirit-given liberation from slavery to sin (Rom. 8:1–11). Moreover, Paul says this circumcision and union are tied to baptism (Col. 2:12). But how can that be, since the apostle’s teaching on justification by faith alone means that no work, not even the rite of baptism, can bring us into a right relationship to God (Gal. 2:15–16)?
First, during the New Testament period, baptism and conversion were so closely related in time (Acts 2:37–41; 8:26–40) that the term baptize was often shorthand for the entire complex of events associated with becoming a Christian — regeneration, conversion, justification, water baptism, joining the church. Paul uses baptize this way in tying spiritual circumcision to baptism (Col. 2:12), revealing that people are set apart as holy and enabled to serve God willingly when they believe in Jesus. Yet since the sacrament of baptism is a means of grace for those who trust Christ alone, Paul is not only using the word baptize as shorthand for a series of events but also to show the link between baptism and salvation. As the Westminster Confession of Faith 27–28 explains, the Lord really gives grace through baptism to those who believe, but its reception is not necessarily tied to the moment the sacrament is administered.
Baptism may, at its administration, mysteriously “increase the grace of God in the heart, if present, but may also be instrumental in augmenting faith later on, when the significance of baptism is understood” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 642). Believers who are baptized for the first time as adults have no doubt received its grace, which bolsters their faith. Baptized infants receive baptism’s grace if and when they later come to faith.