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Doctrinal Matters: Baptism

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Does Baptism Replace Circumcision?

by  Eric Lyons, M.Min.

One reason some religious groups within Christendom baptize babies instead of believers is because they believe baptism is (in the New Testament) what circumcision was (in the Old Testament). Allegedly, since “those born into Jewish households could be circumcised in anticipation of the Jewish faith in which they would be raised.... [I]n the New Testament, those born in Christian households can be baptized in anticipation of the Christian faith in which they will be raised. The pattern is the same” (“Infant Baptism,” n.d.). One biblical text that certain advocates of infant baptism frequently cite to support this position is Colossians 2:11-12. In this passage, the apostle Paul wrote about spiritual circumcision, saying:

In Him [Jesus] 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 (Colossians 2:11-12).

Numerous proponents of infant baptism (sometimes called pedobaptists) believe that Paul’s reference to baptism and “the circumcision of Christ” implies that New Testament baptism and Old Testament circumcision are equivalent. Some time ago, I received a letter insisting that these verses prove “baptism replaced circumcision,” and since “circumcision was done to infants,” infant baptism is a biblical practice. Furthermore, “If Paul meant to exclude infants,” we are informed, “he would not have chosen circumcision as a parallel for baptism” (“Infant Baptism,” n.d).

First, to allege that Paul would not have chosen circumcision as a parallel for baptism if babies were meant to be excluded as candidates for baptism, is like saying that Jesus would not have compared His disciples to serpents (Matthew 10:16) if He did not want them to act like the devil, “the serpent of old” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2; cf. Genesis 3:1; 2 Corinthians 11:3). By reasoning in such a way, a person might assume Christians are supposed to be senseless, because several times Jesus compared His followers to sheep (Matthew 10:6,16; 18:10-14; etc.). Or, someone might attempt to justify the consumption of intoxicating wine on the basis that Jesus once spoke of “old wine skins” (Luke 5:37-39). To argue in support of infant baptism because Paul paralleled spiritual circumcision and water baptism in his letter to the church at Colosse is to err. One cannot assume that a Bible writer approves of other points of comparison when only one point of comparison is made. Jesus once compared the actions of God to those of an “unjust judge” (Luke 18:1-8), yet that does not make God unjust (Zechariah 9:9; Psalm 11:4-7), nor does it mean that Jesus approved of the unjust judges of His day. Jesus was using the unjust judge in this parable only to compare His vindication of the widow to the vindication God will give His people (Luke 18:7-8). Similarly, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul used the word circumcision to illustrate how a person “cuts off ” sin at baptism. The comparison between circumcision and baptism had nothing to do with the age of the ones who were baptized.

Second, nowhere in Colossians 2:11-12 (nor anywhere else in the Bible) do we learn that “baptism replaces circumcision” (“Questions Often Asked,” n.d.). In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he merely stated that when they became Christians they were “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh” (2:11). Paul mentioned circumcision, but only to make the point that when the Colossians obeyed the Gospel, they circumcised themselves spiritually. (Moses had used this same kind of language 1,500 years earlier when he commanded the Israelites, saying: “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer”—Deuteronomy 10:16, emp. added.) Because of the work of Christ on the cross, sinful people (i.e., those old enough to transgress the law—1 John 3:4) have the opportunity to cut off their body of sin. Furthermore, those in Colossae were old enough to know and understand “the body of the sins of the flesh” that was “cut off ” of them by Christ at their baptism, and to have “faith in the working of God.” One must admit that babies who are baptized have knowledge of neither sin nor God. Thus, by implication, babies actually were excluded, not included, by Paul in this passage.

Finally, notice some other reasons why it is fallacious to teach that “baptism replaced circumcision”:

  • “The covenant of circumcision” (Acts 7:8) was confined to descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and those converted to Judaism (Genesis 17:12-13; Exodus 12:48); baptism is for all nations (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8).
  • Circumcision was confined to males; baptism is for both male and female (cf. Galatians 3:28).
  • If “baptism replaced circumcision” as some allege, people who already were circumcised according to the law could not be baptized. As J.W. Shepherd stated: “If the one came in the place of the other, the two could not exist at the same time in the same person. But all the Jews that had been circumcised on believing in Christ were baptized” (1929, p. 17). It was God’s will that the Jews, who heard John the Baptist, Jesus, and/or one of His disciples, be baptized regardless of their circumcision (Luke 7:30; John 3:22-24; 4:1-2). If baptism replaced circumcision, how could they both be in effect at the same time, among the same people, and under the same covenant (Brents, 1874, pp. 345-347)?

Truly, infant baptism cannot logically be defended using Colossians 2:11-12. Simply because Paul used the word circumcision in a spiritual sense to illustrate the time when non-Christians “put off ” sin and become Christians (at the point of baptism—Colossians 2:11-12; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27) does not make babies candidates for baptism. Moreover, Paul was clear that the Colossians “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands” were conscious of both sin and God; babies, however, are aware of neither.

REFERENCES

Brents, T.W. (1874), The Gospel Plan of Salvation (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1987 reprint).

“Infant Baptism,” (no date) Catholic Answers, [On-line], URL: http://www.catholic.com/library/infant_baptism.asp.

“Questions Often Asked and Answered” (no date), [On-line], URL: http://www.scborromeo.org/truth/q4.htm.

Shepherd, J.W. (1929), The Church, the Falling Away, and the Restoration (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1973 reprint).




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