Many believers in Christ believe and teach that baptism is just a sign of a salvation that has already been received and thus whether or not one is baptized is of no great consequence as pertains to the soul’s salvation. Many see baptism in the same light they see circumcision in the Old Testament, as just a sign. Is baptism just a sign of a salvation by faith that is already in one’s possession?
In the Old Testament long before the Law of Moses it was said of Abraham that, “He believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him for righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6 NKJV) Certainly, no Bible believer would doubt Abraham’s salvation at that point in time.
Many years later the Lord appeared to Abraham and commanded him and all the males in his household to be circumcised (Gen. 17:10-14). The Lord declared it to be “a sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Gen. 17:11 NKJV)
Even though circumcision was just a sign it was not unimportant. The male child that was not circumcised “shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:14 NKJV) How seriously did Abraham take this command that was but a sign? Abraham obeyed it immediately, “that very same day.” (Gen. 17:23-27, see Gen. 17:23 specifically)
In Romans 4 Paul talks about this event and again reiterates that circumcision was a sign (Rom. 4:11) and makes the declaration that Abraham was saved, prior to circumcision, by his faith (Rom. 4:3-12, specifically v. 9-10, NKJV).
In thinking about this specific command of God to Abraham, his household, and his descendants one must keep in mind the relationship of faith to obedience. Without faith, believing God, Abraham would never have obeyed. Faith had already obtained a righteous standing before God but it was a living active faith that willingly obeyed God that kept Abraham’s standing firm before God. No one ever seems to ask the question, “what if Abraham had not obeyed?”
Faith is primary in the lives of God’s people whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Faith always has primacy for without it nothing else follows. Men do not obey nor follow after one, unless coerced to do so, without belief in the one they follow. Atheists do not seek to follow God and looking at it from their point of view we readily understand why. Why would they? Abraham obeyed because Abraham believed.
Well, how about baptism? Is baptism just the New Testament’s version of circumcision? There is no doubt about their being some similarities but just because two things are similar does not mean they are equivalent serving the same purpose. Horses and mules share similarities but it is error to not distinguish between them for there are some real differences. Mules do not race at Churchill Downs for a reason.
Circumcision and baptism share the necessity of faith for either act to have spiritual meaning. Circumcision itself had no spiritual significance for man until God gave the command at which time man (Abraham) had the option to either trust and obey or disobey. Would Abraham honor God by obedience or would he rebel? In that sense baptism shares a similarity with circumcision. As a man of faith Abraham obeyed.
One Hollywood actor can baptize another on film but it amounts to nothing before God. One can be baptized to please mom or dad, husband or wife, or even the church community but it amounts to nothing other than getting wet until such a time as the person does the act out of faith in God in obedience to God’s command.
Those who talk about people believing in water salvation are generally in error in doing so. I never knew a person who believed just going down into the water and coming up out of it saved the person who lacked faith in the command giver, faith in the God who commanded it. Without faith nothing can save a man.
Faith leads to things that by accompanying faith make faith alive and active versus the dead faith that James says cannot save (James 2:14, 17, 20, 26). Faith leads to repentance and where is the man who would deny that repentance is required for salvation? There is no motive for repentance toward God outside of faith. “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness…” (Acts 17:30-31 NKJV). “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish!” (Luke 13:3,5 NKJV)
Peter, in the first gospel sermon ever preached, in Acts 2 tied repentance with baptism,
“Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38 NKJV) He repeated himself years later in regards to baptism when he wrote 1 Peter saying, “There is also an antitype which now saves us, namely baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21 NKJV)
Peter certainly did not mean to say water will save you without faith and repentance, a water salvation, but was merely making the point he desired to make regarding baptism. Baptism is a part of God’s plan for his people in the age of Christianity as much as circumcision was a part of God’s plan for his people in Old Testament days. The failure to be circumcised in Abraham’s day and afterwards would cut a man off from God’s covenant. In the Christian era baptism is the initiatory rite by which man comes into covenant relationship with Christ for man is “baptized into Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:3 NKJV, see also Gal. 3:27, 1 Cor. 12:13)
While the bible speaks of circumcision as a sign it no where speaks of baptism as being a sign. I searched the concordances for the word sign in seven major bible translations in a context where baptism was also mentioned. Not one translation yielded a result. Man may call baptism a sign but that is man, the bible does not do so. Things may share some similarities without necessarily being equivalent, a point already made.
The one passage in the New Testament that relates circumcision to baptism is found in Col. 2:11-13:
“In him 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. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he has made alive together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” (NKJV)
Paul wrote this Colossian passage and provides the best commentary on it in something else he wrote back in Rom. 6:2-4:
“How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (NKJV)
Paul makes it clear that there is a “circumcision made without hands.” It is Christ’s circumcision. This is a circumcision that is performed on a person spiritually dead in sins, one whose sins have not yet been forgiven. That spiritually dead person is buried in baptism into death to sin but arises from his burial with Christ a new creation (Gal. 3:27, 2 Cor. 5:17), “raised with Him through faith” (Col. 2:12) to “walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:4) The circumcision of Christ is the cutting off of the person’s sins which is done in baptism when preceded by faith and repentance. Only Christ (God) can forgive sins thus it is the circumcision of Christ.
Peter says in the passage quoted earlier, the passage talking about baptism, that he now has, “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” (1 Peter 3:21 NKJV) He is a new creation, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17 NKJV) He was “baptized into Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:3 NKJV)
It is only through faith that one arises from baptism with an answer of a good conscience. Only through faith can such a person believe that old things have passed away and all is new in his life. Only through faith can he believe he has been forgiven of all trespasses.
When a person submits through faith to be baptized into Christ he is submitting himself to accept in that act of faith Christ’s circumcision. It is not a sign; it is the reality itself.
As a final note one should not confuse the “circumcision…of the heart” in Rom. 2:28-29 with the “circumcision of Christ” in Col. 2:11-13. In Romans Paul is making the point that physical circumcision alone without obedient faith accompanying it was of no avail to the Jew. God cares about a man’s heart toward God. “He is a Jew who is one inwardly.” (Rom. 2:29 NKJV) In Romans it is man who circumcisizes his own heart, it is man’s circumcision, that which he is responsible for. In Colossians it is Christ’s circumcision, what Christ does for man when man complies with God’s will by faith. Man can circumcise his heart as he possesses free will; man cannot forgive his sins. That is God’s dominion, Christ’s circumcision.
This is a teaching that was found in scripture long before Paul’s time or writings. Moses spoke of the need for the Jews to circumcise their hearts in Deut. 10:16 and the Lord spoke of the same need in Jer. 4:4. This did not mean physical circumcision was unnecessary but that more was needed than just the physical act.