John Calvin on circumcision (commentary on Colossians 2:11-12)

[The following is John Calvin’s commentary on Colossians 2:11-12. John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 183–186.]

11. In whom ye also are circumcised. From this it appears, that he has a controversy with the false apostles, who mixed the law with the gospel, and by that means made Christ have, as it were, two faces. He specifies, however, one instance by way of example. He proves that the circumcision of Moses is not merely unnecessary, but is opposed to Christ, because it destroys the spiritual circumcision of Christ. For circumcision was given to the Fathers that it might be the figure of a thing that was absent: those, therefore, who retain that figure after Christ’s advent, deny the accomplishment of what it prefigures. Let us, therefore, bear in mind that outward circumcision is here compared with spiritual, just as a figure with the reality. The figure is of a thing that is absent: hence it puts away the presence of the reality. What Paul contends for is this—that, inasmuch as what was shadowed forth by a circumcision made with hands, has been completed in Christ, there is now no fruit or advantage from it. Hence he says, that the circumcision which is made in the heart is the circumcision of Christ, and that, on this account, that which is outward is not now required, because, where the reality exists, that shadowy emblem vanishes, inasmuch as it has no place except in the absence of the reality.

By the putting off of the body. He employs the term body, by an elegant metaphor, to denote a mass, made up of all vices. For as we are encompassed by our bodies, so we are surrounded on all sides by an accumulation of vices. And as the body is composed of various members, each of which has its own actings and offices, so from that accumulation of corruption all sins take their rise as members of the entire body. There is a similar manner of expression in Romans 6:13.

He takes the term flesh, as he is wont, to denote corrupt nature. The body of the sins of the flesh, therefore, is the old man with his deeds; only, there is a difference in the manner of expression, for here he expresses more properly the mass of vices which proceed from corrupt nature. He says that we obtain this3 through Christ, so that unquestionably an entire regeneration is his benefit. It is he that circumcises the foreskin of our heart, or, in other words, mortifies all the lusts of the flesh, not with the hand, but by his Spirit. Hence there is in him the reality of the figure.

12. Buried with him in baptism. He explains still more clearly the manner of spiritual circumcision—because, being buried with Christ, we are partakers of his death. He expressly declares that we obtain this by means of baptism, that it may be the more clearly apparent that there is no advantage from circumcision under the reign of Christ. For some one might otherwise object: “Why do you abolish circumcision on this pretext—that its accomplishment is in Christ? Was not Abraham, also, circumcised spiritually, and yet this did not hinder the adding of the sign to the reality? Outward circumcision, therefore, is not superfluous, although that which is inward is conferred by Christ.” Paul anticipates an objection of this kind, by making mention of baptism. Christ, says he, accomplishes in us spiritual circumcision, not through means of that ancient sign, which was in force under Moses, but by baptism. Baptism, therefore, is a sign of the thing that is presented to us, which while absent was prefigured by circumcision. The argument is taken from the economy which God has appointed; for those who retain circumcision contrive a mode of dispensation different from that which God has appointed.

When he says that we are buried with Christ, this means more than that we are crucified with him; for burial expresses a continued process of mortification. When he says, that this is done through means of baptism, as he says also in Rom. 6:4, he speaks in his usual manner, ascribing efficacy to the sacrament, that it may not fruitlessly signify what does not exist. By baptism, therefore, we are buried with Christ, because Christ does at the same time accomplish efficaciously that mortification, which he there represents, that the reality may be conjoined with the sign.

In which also ye are risen. He magnifies the grace which we obtain in Christ, as being greatly superior to circumcision. “We are not only,” says he, “ingrafted into Christ’s death, but we also rise to newness of life:” hence the more injury is done to Christ by those who endeavour to bring us back to circumcision. He adds, by faith, for unquestionably it is by it that we receive what is presented to us in baptism. But what faith? That of his efficacy or operation, by which he means, that faith is founded upon the power of God. As, however, faith does not wander in a confused and undefined contemplation, as they speak, of divine power, he intimates what efficacy it ought to have in view—that by which God raised Christ from the dead. He takes this, however, for granted, that, inasmuch as it is impossible that believers should be severed from their head, the same power of God, which shewed itself in Christ, is diffused among them all in common.

John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 183–186.