August 21, 2023
“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”
Union with Christ
In Colossians 2, Paul draws a straight line connecting circumcision to baptism. This connection reveals that the outward signs of both circumcision and baptism point towards the same inward spiritual reality. That spiritual reality is the spiritual circumcision of the heart which is the believer’s union with Jesus Christ. As William Hendrickson notes:
When [Christ] was buried, you—that is, your former, wicked selves—were buried with him. When he was raised, you—as new creatures—were raised with him. In the experience of baptism you received the sign and seal of this marvelous Spirit-wrought transformation. (1)
Therefore, those who have been “circumcised with a circumcision made without hands” have been cleansed by the blood of Christ and are given a new identity as children of God. It is by our union with Christ, that we receive the full benefits of salvation offered to us.
Union by the Spirit
How is the believer both buried and raised with Christ according to the powerful work of God? This is the Holy Spirit’s work. Thus, this passage teaches against an ex opere operato approach to baptism. That is, the act of baptism does not confer grace independent of the spiritual condition of the heart. The Spirit must replace the heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10). Therefore, the efficacy of baptism is not necessarily tied to the moment it is administered (WCF 28.6). Rather, it is tied to the providential work of God through the Holy Spirit.
Union for the Church
Believers enter into covenant with God through baptism. Christians sometimes mistakenly believe that the efficacy of baptism is restricted to the moment of administration. But the Westminster Larger Catechism reminds us that we are called to improve our baptism. The Larger Catechism reminds us that we improve our baptism by being humbled for sins, growing in assurance, mortifying our sins by the power of Christ, and growing in grace (WLC 167). Growing in grace and truth are never done in isolation from Christ and his Church. It is through our union with Christ that we are united to one another.
As the PCA moves forward, she must remember her duty to cultivate “unity and brotherly love with those who participate in the same baptism and are members of the same…branch of the visible church.” The same God that raised Christ from the dead raises us together in Christian unity and perseverance. May the Church grow in unity according to our shared union with Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Scott Edburg is the pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Troy, Illinois.
(1) Hendriksen, William, and Simon J. Kistemaker. Exposition of Colossians and Philemon. Vol. 6. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001, 117.