When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12; New Living Translation)
Our language about Christian baptism has undergone subtle but significant changes since the first century.
It’s fairly common to hear folk discuss baptism and describe it as simply “an outward affirmation of an inward change.” This view dates back centuries, though not as far as the New Testament itself. In this view, baptism serves as a testimony or witness to a transforming spiritual experience that happened elsewhere and earlier.
It’s equally common to hear other folk make a small change to the key preposition in Colossians 2 (and Romans 6). To be baptized is to be “buried like Christ, and raised like Christ.”
But the Apostle Paul never uses language that makes baptism either a symbol or an analogy. For him, something quite real–and quite powerful–takes place.
Baptism, for Paul, does not symbolize new life, it instigates it. In Colossians 2, he links it directly with coming to Christ and having the old sinful nature cut away. In baptism, we aren’t just doing what Jesus did; being like Him. We are actually (mystically and mysteriously) connected with Him in this rich Christian sacrament. As Paul writes to the Colossians: “We have been buried with Him (and raised with Him) in baptism….” He espouses the same views, very clearly, in Romans 6:3-4.
Not everybody will agree with Paul, for sure. Our personal histories, religious traditions, and education have surely driven us to a variety of positions on this controversial topic. But as we study the New Testament–beyond just the words of the Apostle Paul–what other event or experience is so explicitly linked with the death of our old self and our resurrection to new life?
I understand that Christian baptism is a lightning rod in the Christian world. It’s no longer simple. Infant or adult believer? Immersion, pouring, or sprinkling? Symbol or sacrament? In the name of Jesus or the trinity? Performed by priests and pastors alone, or also by laity? And so it continues.
Colossians 2 doesn’t address all these questions, but Paul does spell out a profound reality. Christian baptism connects us with Christ, and launches us into a new spiritual reality, in a way that nothing else does.
Might the “old nature” still rule and reign in some of our lives because we’ve never buried it with Christ and been raised to newness of life? Paul did not equivocate about this special grace.