Colossians 2:11-12 and Baptism

Doesn’t Colossians 2:11-12 teach adult only baptism? Besides baptized infants can still be lost!!! So, isn’t the Presbyterian Church wrong?
Colossians 2:11-12 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Thanks for your question. Let me divide my answer into parts for easy reference.

What are Covenant Signs?

Circumcision and baptism are both covenant signs. As such, they point to something greater than themselves. An example may help. In the U.S. it is common to see McDonald's signs along interstate highways. Remember those Golden Arches? As often as we used to stop at McDonalds for a quick meal, we never ate at the sign. We ate inside the restaurant itself. The sign pointed to something greater than itself — the restaurant where there was food. In the same way the signs of circumcision and baptism point to something greater than themselves — inclusion in God’s covenant where one is supposed to grow and gain nourishment (cf. Matt. 4:4; John 4:32).

A Brief Look at Colossians 2:11-12

Now understanding a little about covenant signs, let’s briefly look at Colossians 2:11-12.

First, consider Paul's emphasis on circumcision using the word three times in this text as "circumcised" (Gk. perietmethete), "circumcision" (peritome), and "circumcision" (peritome). Beyond any doubt, the apostle doesn’t want his audience to miss the relationship between the old covenant sign of circumcision and the new covenant sign of baptism. They are eternally connected, as they are both signs of being part of God’s everlasting covenant.

Why would he do this? As Dr. Richard Pratt states: "The Colossian epistle was addressed [to] Christians who had come under the influence of a false teaching that mixed elements of Greek philosophy with Judaism. " (Please see, "Overview of the Book of Colossians" below.) Paul desired to make the covenant connections between the signs very clear. He is emphasizing the continuity of the old covenant within the new covenant. This is important to grasp. That is that, the new covenant is very Jewish:

  • Its Savior is Jewish
  • It was founded entirely by Jews
  • Its first converts were all Jewish
  • Its apostles were all Jewish
  • Most (and perhaps all) of the New Testament was written by Jews

Second, while it might surprise some, paedobaptists support credobaptism when a new believer, who was never baptized as an infant and professes faith in Jesus Christ later on in their lives. And this is in part what Colossians 2:11-12 is teaching. Paul is writing to adults, that is, individuals who could read his letters and/or listen to them being read in church. Whether Jew or Greek (Gal. 3:28), adults who profess Christ should be baptized. Why? As Paul puts it, because they are professing to being circumcised "with a circumcision made without hands" (Col. 2:11). These have professed Christ as their savior (cf. John 3:1-8; Rom. 6:1-4). So, they are part of God’s everlasting covenant (which contains both blessings and curses within it), so they should receive God’s sign of the same.

Infants certainly can’t read, so Paul isn't writing to them. However, please note that Paul absolutely nowhere states that infants shouldn’t be baptized. Why? As a Hebrew of the Hebrews and one who was himself circumcised when he was eight days old (Phil. 3:5), Paul most certainly understood that covenant infants not only could be, but should be, circumcised (cf. Exod. 4:24-26; Phil. 3:5). Clearly, in reference to the new covenant, he understood that the covenant promise continued to be for both covenant adults and children alike (cf. Acts 2:39). Concerning covenant children, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:14 saying, "For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Cor. 7:14). Here the apostle emphatically includes children in the covenant if only one covenant adult is saved. And by implication, he teaches the baptism of children in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, and possibly even 1 Corinthians 1:16. (Please see, "Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?" and "What are Oikos Baptisms?" below.)

I believe a justified question to ask is, if God repealed the practice of giving the covenant sign to infants, why was it suddenly repealed without a single word? And don’t you think that the Jews in Colossae would have a few choice words for Paul if their children were no longer to be included in God’s covenant? Can't you just hear it now: "Seriously, Paul? You desire us Jews to follow you into a new covenant and leave our children without God’s covenant sign and all that it entails for them? And tell me, why is my child outside of God’s covenant? I love my children and so does God, so I’m not abandoning them by placing them outside of God’s covenant and all the blessings it entails."

But we don’t read anything of the sort in Scripture, do we? Why? Because the apostles taught and the people understood that the new covenant still contained some old covenant realities. They understood that Abraham had the gospel preached to him (Gal. 3:8), that new covenant Christians are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:29), that Abraham's covenant is everlasting [1] (Gen. 17:7, 19; cf. Luke 1:55; Gal. 3:6), and therefore the promise in the old covenant is still a reality in the new, as Luke stated, "to you, to your children, and to those far away — all who have been called by the Lord our God" (Acts 2:39). And yes, to make a point I wrote a run-on sentence so as to demonstrate that the one covenant is still running on and on. (Please see, "The Re-Newed or New Covenant?" below. Glory to God, a covenant family’s children are still in God’s covenant.)

As John Calvin stated, "Infants cannot be deprived of it [baptism] without open violation of the will of God" (Inst. 4, 16, 8). And as J. I. Packer reminds us, "The transition from the 'old' to the 'new' form of God's covenant . . . did not affect the principle of family solidarity in the covenant community" (Concise Theology, Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993). Why? Because, from conception, Jewish children were considered holy seed — that is separated unto God and his covenant (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:7; 11:19; Psa. 78:4; cf. Rom 9:4-5; Eph. 6:4). We recall that in Malachi 2:15 God condemned the divorcing that was taking place in Judah because divorce jeopardized the "godly offspring." Thus children were heirs to the covenant and distinguished from the children of the heathen. For this and other reasons, the children of the new covenant should be considered holy as they also differ from the unclean seed of idolaters (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14). So, it logically follows that if infants share the covenant status with their parent then they too should receive its outward sign.

Infant Repentance and Faith are Unnecessary for them to be Baptized

Where in the Old Testament do we find Isaac and Jacob believing and repenting before being circumcised? You may look as you may, but you will never locate a single reference. Both were circumcised by the command of the Lord before they had either the gift of repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Rom. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25; 2 Pet. 3:9) or faith (Acts 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:1). And God emphatically told Moses that he’d better circumcise his child as well! (cf. Exod. 4:24-26). As Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:14). So, as in the old covenant with its sign of circumcision, new covenant family infants don’t have to express repentance or faith prior to being baptized.

Why is this? The efficacy of baptism — that is, its ability to communicate God’s grace — is not necessarily tied to the time of its application to an individual (WCF 28.6, On Baptism). The Bible clearly teaches that God’s Spirit works when and where and how he pleases (John 3:8; cf. Dan. 4:35). Therefore, the grace promised through baptism is given according to the counsel of God’s own will (cf. Acts 2:38-41). In the fullness of time, God will apply mercy (cf. Tit. 3:5) to those whom he has appointed to eternal life (cf. Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:4-5, etc.).

Baptized Infants Can be Lost?

Yes. And so, can baptized adults! Was circumcised Ishmael lost? (Please see, "Was Ishmael saved?" below.) Are false circumcised or baptized teachers of the church lost? (cf. Ezek. 13:3-4, 9; Matt. 7:15; 16:11; 24:24; Acts 20:29-30; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; Tit. 1:10-11; 2 Pet. 3:16; 1 John 4:1, etc.). "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us" (1 John 2:19). Were these baptized church members saved? The Bible teaches that it’s possible to have been circumcised or baptized and still be lost. As Paul says in Romans 2:25-29,"… For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God."

Let’s revisit the McDonalds example for a moment. Just because there may be a McDonald's sign off the interstate, it doesn't mean that there is necessarily an actual restaurant there (i.e., new construction, burned down, problem with permits, etc.). And just because an adult or infant is baptized, it doesn’t mean they are saved. The Bible teaches that it’s possible to be a covenant member and still be lost and therefore come under the covenant’s curses instead of its blessings.

In Conclusion

So, I believe the paedobaptists are correct on the baptism issue. The sacrament of baptism should be applied to both those who profess faith in Christ, as well as to the infants of one or both believing parents (Acts 2:39; Col. 2:9-12; 1 Cor. 7:14). As shown above, this is based on the continuity of the covenants [1], particularly with respect to the connection between circumcision and baptism, the God-ordained unity of the covenant family, and the continuity of the one church throughout the ages. (Please see, "The Old/New Testament Church" below.)


[1] Each of the covenants were initiated by God and were gracious gifts from him. They ultimately each have the same focal point of faith — Jesus Christ (cf. Gal. 3:8; Heb. 11:1-12:2).

In Scripture, we observe one covenant expanding throughout redemptive history. Similar to viewing a tree in its life-cycle, in the pages of the Bible the stages of God's one covenant are unfolded for us in redemptive history. And as a maturing tree may be called by different names throughout its life-cycle (such as, "seed" [conception]; "sprout" [birth]; "seedling" [infancy]; "sapling" [juvenile]; and "mature" [adult], etc.), the one covenant is referred to by different names (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, Christic) to help further define its development to full maturity.

As a tree matures certain elements of its infancy and youth disappear (Heb. 8:13; 10:1) and the new elements of its maturity appear in all their glorious splendor (Heb. 8:6). However, it's still the same tree. So, though the people of God are now more so defined by Christ and not Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it's still of the same "seed" working (Matt. 1:1-17; Luke 3:24-38; Gal. 3:16, 29; cf. Gen. 50:24; Exod. 3:15; Acts 7:32, etc.). And though the Promised Land is now defined by the entire creation (Matt. 5:5; Rom. 4:13; cf. Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1), rather than some smaller track of property on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (cf. Gen. 15:18-21; 26:3; 28:13; Exod. 23:31; Num. 34:1-12; Deut. 1:8; 19:8-9, etc.), it's the same growing tree ("seedling") at work. After all, as a tree gets larger its branches cover more territory. And though the temple of God is no longer defined in terms of a brick and mortar structure (cf. 1 Kings 6; Ezra 1:1-6:22) but rather of Jesus and his people (John 2:21; Acts 7:48; 1 Cor. 3:16; Eph. 2:21), it's still the same "sapling" standing in redemptive history. And though the ceremonial laws are now defined by the once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice of Christ (cf. Rom. 6:10; Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 14, 25-26; 1 Pet. 3:18) rather than the blood of bulls and goats (cf. Heb. 9:11-10:11), it's still the same eternal covenant now in its inaugurating "adulthood." Same tree. Same root. Same covenant.

The "everlasting" old covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:7-8, 13, 19) was renewed under Moses (see below), David (2 Sam. 7:12-13; Psa. 89:35-36), and lastly in Christ (Heb. 13:20-21).

Throughout the old covenant we observe some of the strongest language available in the Hebrew tongue to reveal that in many ways the Mosaic covenant is "eternal." For instance, in regards to the Old Testament, we see references to the eternity of the Sabbath (Exod. 31:16-17) and the festivals (Passover [Lev. 23:5; cf. 1 Cor. 5:7]; Unleavened Bread [Exod. 13:17; Lev. 23:26-32; cf. John 6:35; 1 Cor. 11:23-26]; First Fruits [Lev. 23:10; cf. Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:20]; Pentecost [Lev. 23:16, 21; Acts 2]; Trumpets [Lev. 23:24; cf. 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16]; the Day of Atonement [Lev. 16:29, 34; 23:21, 27; cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-4]; and the Booths [Lev. 23:34, 41; cf. John 2:19, 21]). And the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28) who lives forevermore (cf. Rev. 1:18) is the fulfillment of each of these festivals.

We could add to this the "eternal" priesthood (Exod. 29:9; 40:15; Num. 25:12-13), their vestments (cf. Exod. 28:29, 43), and even temple vessels (basin [Exod. 30:21; cf. Heb. 1:3]; menorah [Lev. 24:3; cf. John 8:12]; trumpets [Num. 10:8; cf. 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16]; shewbread [Lev. 24:8; John 6:35; 1 Cor. 11:23-26], etc.) all of which find their eternal fulfillment in the everlasting High Priest, Christ Jesus (Heb. 7:3, 17, 20, 24, etc.), et. al.

And this is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Evidence is overwhelming for the continuity and unity of the covenants. So, while there are certainly differences within the various covenants, there is also a divine unity, continuity, and cohesiveness among them, so much so that we can easily view these as one covenant with different administrators.

Finally, it is noteworthy to point out that John Calvin taught a retroactive new covenant. He viewed the old covenant and the new covenant both equally as the eternal covenant of grace:

The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs (Inst. 2.10.1-2).

Related Topics

Overview of the Book of Colossians
What are Oikos Baptisms?
Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?
The Re-Newed or New Covenant?
Was Ishmael saved?
The Old/New Testament Church
Is infant baptism a real baptism or just a dedication to the Lord?
Mark 16:16 and baptismal regeneration?
Explaining Baptism in Children's Language
Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
What is Sola Scriptura vs. Tota Scriptura?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).