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. (Col 2:11-12)
The idea of what’s spoken of in this passage appears to clearly be of a spiritual nature, similar to Romans 6:3-4, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, and 1 Peter 3:21. We can see that in the immediate context of the passage. The believers were circumcised with the circumcision “made without hands.” It was this spiritual circumcision (cf. Rom 2:28-29), “the putting off the body of the sins of the flesh”, that Paul called “the circumcision of Christ.” Now, if the circumcision that saved believers and put off their sins was done “without hands” shouldn’t we conclude that the baptism that Paul was speaking of was “without hands” as well? It would be strange for Paul to stress that one physical ritual wasn’t what put off the sins of the flesh but that it was a physical ritual of water baptism that united a person truly with Christ in His resurrection.
Secondly, this is yet another passage where the word “baptism” is used but there is no mention of water. It is an erroneous presumption to think that every time the word “baptism” appears in scripture that it refers to water baptism. The word baptism simply signifies ‘immersion into a given thing.’ And as we have noted already in previous daily teachings, the scriptures speak of more than one kind of baptism (See Mk. 10:38-39, 1 Cor. 12:13). Thus, the baptism spoken of in Colossians 2:12 appears to be the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the act whereby the Holy Spirit savingly immerses a person into spiritual union with Christ.
Also, notice how faith is the operative term in this passage. Paul wrote, “you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God…” Faith was (and is) the divinely appointed means through which the Spirit immerses a person into the spiritual life that Christ procured for them. Moving beyond this passage into the larger context of the book, we can see that faith and not baptism was the divinely selected instrument to secure and preserve a person’s forgiveness and eternal life. In the opening greeting of his letter Paul gave thanks to God when he heard of the Colossians “faith in Christ Jesus” and the outworking of that faith, their love for all the brethren (Col. 1:4). Then, after declaring the preeminence of Christ, Paul wrote how believers are indeed reconciled to Christ through the blood of His cross (vs.20); and that God did this so that believers would be presented holy, blameless, and without reproach in His sight (vs.22); and here was the key by which every professing Christian in Colosse could know that such exoneration was their eternal destiny:
“if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard…” (vs.23a)
Continuing in the faith and not moving away from the hope of the Gospel was the foundational means of Christian assurance that they were to have.
So, without referencing all the verses in the Book of Acts and Paul’s epistles where he teaches justification by faith and not justification by baptism, we can see that Colossians 2:12 does not teach salvation through the physical act of water baptism. Instead it teaches that believers are united to Christ by way of the spiritual work of the Holy Spirit. He, the Spirit of God, performs the circumcision made without hands and He savingly immerses believers into spiritual union with Christ.