11 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, 12 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.
From the time of Abraham, God’s people were handed a profound, yet simple ritual that would serve as a physical picture of a deep spiritual truth. Circumcision, the removal of flesh from the body, shows what God would do in the heart of His people. On the 8th day, as a sign of continuing Sabbath rest with God, the people of God would circumcise every male. This simple sign would then mark them as permanently in covenant relationship with God. Circumcision was a symbol of a greater spiritual reality. As Paul explains in Romans 4, it is not those who simply bear the physical mark of circumcision that are part of God’s people, but those who are obedient to Him from a clean heart. Circumcision is first and foremost a matter of the heart.
Those who trust in Christ have been circumcised spiritually. The flesh (referred to in some translations as the sinful nature) has been removed in Christ’s death and replaced with a new nature that is clean before God. You see, every person is born with a “flesh nature.” This nature is bent towards sin and is mastered by sin. In Romans 7:1-6, Paul uses the illustration of a marriage to describe this mastery of the law of sin over the flesh. He explains that a marriage contract is not nullified until one party dies. So it is with the law. The flesh is bound to the law of sin and death until one party dies. It is not the law that dies, but the flesh. Those who have trusted in Christ, have been crucified with Christ, effectively killing the flesh and bringing the “body of sin to nothing” (Romans 6:6, c.f. Galatians 5:24).
The identity of a Christian is no longer wrapped up in the flesh. The flesh has been cut off and removed. It is difficult to grasp the nuances of this truth in most English translations. The English language can give the impression that this verse is indicating that “putting off the body of flesh” is something that Christians accomplish of their own will and effort. However, this is not the case. The only verb in verse 11 is the verb for circumcise. The phrases that follow are descriptors of what it means to be circumcised. The phrase, “by putting off the body of the flesh,” could better be translated, “in the putting off of the body of the flesh.” When Paul makes his statement about the flesh, he is clarifying what circumcision is. He is explaining that circumcision is the removal of the nature that has bound a man to sin. Before trusting in Christ, every person is bound to sin by a nature that is enslaved to it. In Christ’s death, that nature dies and is replaced by a new nature that is bound to righteousness through the gentle guidance of the indwelling Holy Spirit (c.f. Romans 6).
Christians are no longer bound to sin and death but have been given new life. In Christ’s death, all true believers have died (that is, their flesh natures have died) and, in Christ’s resurrection, all true believers have been given a new nature. (Paul will visit this more in chapter 3:1-10). Like circumcision, baptism now serves as the symbol of this deeper spiritual truth. A believer has been buried with Christ in Baptism and raised to walk a new life (c.f. Romans 6:1-5). It is not the physical act of being dunked in water that changes the nature of the believer, but the removal of the flesh nature and the appeal to God for a clean conscience (1 Peter 3:21). So when a Christian is Baptized, he is symbolically displaying the spiritual reality of what has happened in his soul.
Consider this truth for a moment – Christians no longer have a flesh (sinful nature) for it has been removed by Christ. His work on the cross freed you from that which once bound you to sin and death! When Christ died, the flesh died with Him. When He was raised, a new nature was raised with Him. Now you can walk in obedience! You are no longer tied down to sin and death. If you have trusted in Christ, you are free from the sinful nature and have been raised to walk in new life! A new life that is born out of trust in the sovereign God of all things. This is Christianity. You have been changed. You have been reborn. You are no longer bound by what you once were.