Abraham, having been justified by faith before his circumcision, was later circumcised as a ‘sign’ or a ‘seal’ of his justification and is ‘the father of all those who believe’ (Romans 4:9-12). Since baptism replaced circumcision under Christ’s new covenant (Colossians 2:11-12), doesn’t it follow that a person is justified by faith before he is baptized and his baptism is simply an outward sign of the justification he has already received?
Remember that Paul’s epistle to the Romans was written to believers who had already been baptized (6:4). In the context of Romans chapters 2, 3, and 4, Paul was establishing the fact that the Jews now have no advantage over the Gentiles -- all are guilty of sin and stand before God on equal terms (cf. 2:6-11; 3:9, 22-23, 29-30). There was no need for Gentile Christians to be circumcised (or obey any other requirement of the Law of Moses), and the Jewish [circumcised] Christians needed to understand that works of the Law (3:20), including circumcision (2:25-29; 3:1), could not save them. To illustrate, in chapter 4 Paul showed that Abraham was not saved by the Law of Moses (v. 13) but by faith. And yet Abraham’s faith was an obedient faith (cf. Hebrews 11:8-19; James 2:21-24), and all of Abraham’s spiritual descendants exhibit the same kind of faith (Romans 10:17; 6:16-18; Acts 10:34-35; Hebrews 11:6; 5:9). To be “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” now requires an obedient faith which includes baptism (Galatians 3:26-29). Any conclusion to the contrary is a misapplication of Paul’s teachings.
It is true that Abraham was justified prior to his circumcision (Romans 4:10), but circumcision was not a requirement at the time of Abraham’s initial justification and he was never under the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 5:1-3) wherein circumcision was a fundamental element. However, for the Jews who were amenable to the Law of Moses, as long as the Law was in effect, circumcision was essential (Genesis 17:9-14; Leviticus 12:3).
The purpose of Romans 4 was to show Jewish Christians that we are no longer bound to the Law of Moses (including circumcision), but this has nothing to do with gospel obedience in general or baptism in particular. And Paul addresses an entirely separate issue in Colossians 2, so to indiscriminately mix these two passages together in an attempt to prove a point is to distort Paul’s arguments. In Romans 4 Paul was addressing physical circumcision under the Law of Moses. In Colossians 2:11, Paul talks about spiritual circumcision, “made without hands,” under the law of Christ. While Paul links baptism with spiritual circumcision (Colossians 2:11-12), nowhere does the Bible suggest that baptism was a replacement for physical circumcision. Baptism is for all accountable persons who believe (Matthew 28:19; Acts 16:15, 33), while physical circumcision was only for male Jews (Genesis 17:2). The only similarities between OT circumcision and NT baptism are: (1) each was/is deemed essential for those amenable (Genesis 17:14; Mark 16:16); (2) each was/is considered necessary to be in a covenant relationship with God (Genesis 17:9-14; Galatians 3:27-29); and (3) failure to obey result[ed/s] in condemnation (Genesis 17:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; John 3:5).
Paul affirms in Colossians 2:11-13 that “faith in the working of God” is demonstrated when we are buried and raised with Christ in baptism, by which we put off “the body [of the sins] of the flesh,” become dead in our trespasses, and are made alive with Christ through forgiveness of sins. We cannot be saved in our sins (Romans 6:16, 23). We can only be saved, by God’s grace, when our sins are forgiven and removed. This takes place when we exhibit our obedient faith through belief, repentance, and water baptism (Acts 2:37-47). We have this new life, free from sin, after (not before) we are buried and raised with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:3-5; Acts 22:16). The Bible never describes baptism as an alleged “outward sign of the justification already received.”