There is an unfortunate trend that is popular among professing Christians these days where so-called Christians aggressively deny & preach against the expressly stated purposes of Christian baptism as they are found in the pages of the New Testament. Professing Christians brazenly & openly dare to oppose, devalue and disparage the very ordinance ordained by Jesus to enroll people in the school of Christ (Matt 28:18-20)! But God gave this “sacramental-ordinance” to the Church for us to USE it–and we are to use it for the purposes for which God has clearly stated and meant it to be used for. Does the New Testament teach that baptism is merely for looks or for show? Is baptism of any real importance according to the New Testament? Are we safe to just dispense with it altogether? Did the apostles place a high value on it or did they devalue it?
Well, in considering just a few of the purposes of Christian baptism that are discernable in the New Testament, people are baptized in order to have their sins washed away (Acts 22:16), to get into Christ (Rom 6:3), to put on Christ (Gal 3:27), to be added to the church (Acts 2:41) or to be placed into the one body (1 Cor 12:13), to receive initial salvation (Mark 16:16, 1 Pet 3:21, Tit 3:5), to be buried with Christ and raised with Him (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12), to obtain initial forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), and it was also very closely linked with receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, John 3:5, Tit 3:5, etc.) as well as initial justification and initial sanctification (1 Cor 6:11).
The purpose of baptism according to the New Testament itself certainly makes it sound like it is very important in the spiritual life of the Church. Yet, some would have us to believe the apostle Paul minimized or downplayed the importance of baptism, as if it were no big deal–and they often appeal to 1 Corinthians 1:17 as their proof-text, where Paul wrote:
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”
However, when people use this verse or any other passage of the New Testament to support the idea that baptism is not essential or necessary for salvation, they often believe that they are simply asserting what Christians have always believed. But this is incorrect! People who assert that baptism is not essential to salvation usual make chronological errors in their reasoning. For instance, it makes no sense to appeal to Zacchaeus as someone who was saved without Christian baptism because at the time of his personal encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus was still living under the Mosaic Law and Jesus had not died yet! A person can hardly be required to be baptized into the death Christ before the Christ has died!
Besides making such a Scriptural chronological error, people who believe that baptism is merely symbolic and who believe that this is simply what the Church has always taught are also making a historical chronological error, meaning that they are in error concerning church history or historical theology. This is because this whole notion that baptism is merely symbolic and can therefore be safely written off as being unnecessary for initial salvation did not even really begin to be propagated among professing Christians until after about 1700 A.D.!
Prior to around 1700 A.D., generally speaking, Christians just took it for granted that baptism was necessary and that it was part of the new birth–being born of water & Spirit. And even when we take a hard look at the immediate Scriptural context of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:17, looking at 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 (especially verse 13), and then also consider the wider context of Paul’s ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:1-18, especially 18:8), it quickly becomes obvious that Paul indeed preached baptism–especially if we consider what he wrote to other churches, too. Therefore, his comments in 1 Corinthians 1:17a should not be taken out of context & used as a weak justification to depart from the original Christian faith on this issue (the only people in the 2nd century who were disparaging baptism or saying it was unnecessary were the Gnostic heretics).
Concerning Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:17, let us note that Paul was addressing a specific problem at Corinth concerning the attitude of the members of the congregation there toward their spiritual leaders & preachers. In the first chapter of 1st Corinthians, we see that the people of that congregation were divided (v. 10-11) & that their division was a result of “preacher-itis” (v. 12). They were calling themselves after their favorite preachers & teachers, saying things like “I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” etc. They were thinking too highly of some preachers, who may have baptized them (v. 13)!
The attitude of the Corinthian believers who were dividing over and identifying themselves according to who their favorite preacher was indicated that they were carnal (1 Cor 3:3-4)! But their various spiritual leaders were simply their fellow servants (1 Cor 3:5-9), & we are NOT to find our identity or to boast in men (1 Cor 3:21-23). But it is not uncommon that some people just get too attached & devoted to their favorite preachers or to those who first brought them into the faith—and who may have even baptized them into Christ.
And this is exactly why Paul was glad that he had personally baptized only a few of the Corinthians. He was thankful that he had only baptized Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas lest any should say that he was baptizing in his own name (1 Cor 1:14-15). He was not trying to make Paulicians! So, Paul was addressing a problem at Corinth. It wasn’t that Paul was saying baptism was unnecessary. He taught that it WAS necessary! In fact, Paul’s preaching resulted in MANY baptisms–and these baptisms were done for a purpose (they were not just for looks).
Consider how Luke records details in the book of Acts (18:1-18) about Paul’s work at Corinth. Luke wrote about how Paul worked with Aquila & Priscilla (Acts 18:1-3); how he reasoned in the synagogues & testified that Jesus is the Christ! Luke wrote about how Paul persisted in his work despite being rejected by unbelieving Jews (Acts 18:4-7).
But Luke also writes (in Acts 18) about the success of Paul’s preaching at Corinth! He wrote about how Crispus, ruler of the synagogue & his household believed on Jesus and it is reported that Paul baptized them (v. 14; Acts 18:8). Indeed, “many” of the Corinthians believed & were baptized (Acts 18:8). It is very clear that baptism played a significant role in Paul’s preaching, so we shouldn’t twist Paul’s words to the Corinthians (in 1 Cor 1:17) to make it sound like he is implying that baptism is not necessary.
In fact, when we closely examine Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:13, we can see that his words there actually demonstrate the NECESSITY OF BAPTISM. Let us consider Paul’s reasoning when he asked:
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
According to these words, in order for a person to call himself after Paul (or any other man), it would have required two things. First, Paul would have to be crucified for the person (v. 13), and secondly, the person would have to be baptized in the name of Paul (v. 13). Neither of these things happened, of course, which is why the Corinthians should NOT be calling themselves after men—such as Paul, etc.
Likewise—according to Paul’s reasoning in 1 Corinthians 1:13—in order to be called after Christ, two things are required. First, Christ would have to die for the person (which, of course, He did), and secondly, the person would have to be baptized in the name of Christ!
Dear reader, if you’ve not been baptized in the name of Christ, you can’t really be said to be a Christian. But of course, being a Christian also refers to a person who follows Jesus & orders their life according to His teachings, so let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that as long as we have been baptized in the name of Christ that it does not matter how we live (see 1 Cor 10)!
And so, considering all that has been presented so far, how should we understand Paul’s words that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel”? Well, the answer is that Paul was emphasizing his role as an APOSTLE. As an apostle (i.e. “a sent one”), Paul’s role was to proclaim the gospel. He told the Ephesians that he had been given the task of preaching “the unsearchable riches of Christ” among the Gentiles (Eph 3:8).
Therefore, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Gal 1:11-12), Paul preached! He lifted up his voice like a trumpet and proclaimed the good news that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Paul did not just go from town to town doing friendship evangelism. And although Paul’s preaching resulted in baptisms (cf. Acts 18:8), it wasn’t necessary that he himself do all the baptizing! Others could easily do the baptizing (such as his traveling companions), which did in fact happen at Corinth, because while many people were indeed baptized there, Paul personally baptized only a few.
So, in saying “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach,” Paul was not only emphasizing his role as an apostle, but he was also just using a common style of speech. For example, let us note the words of Jesus in John 6:27:
“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life.”
Jesus was obviously not saying here that people shouldn’t work. Rather, He was emphasizing the high importance of seeking after spiritual food over physical food. It is is in this same way or a very similar way that Paul is expressing himself when he says in 1 Corinthians 1:17a…
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.”
Now, by expressing himself in this way, Paul was NOT saying that he shouldn’t be baptizing any people or that baptism was unnecessary! He was simply saying that his apostolic role of preaching the gospel was more important than him having to perform all the baptisms. Someone else could baptize the people who wanted to become followers of Jesus!
This understanding of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:17a is not at all new or uncommon. Just consider how some well-known evangelical commentators & scholars have understood Paul’s words in the verse in question:
1. Albert Barnes (on 1 Cor 1:17): “That is, not to baptize as my main business. Baptism was not his [main] employment, though he had a commission in common with others to administer the ordinance, & occasionally did it.”
2. Frederick Farrar (on 1 Cor 1:17): “According to Semitic idiom, ‘not so much to baptize, as…’. The word ‘sent’ involves the meaning ‘made me an apostle’. The primary function of an apostle was ‘to bear witness’.”
3. Matthew Poole (Annotations, 1 Cor 1:17): “Baptism was not his principal work, not the main business for which Paul was sent. It was part of his work, otherwise he would not have baptized Crispus, or Gaius, or ‘the household of Stephanas,’ but preaching was his principle work.”
4. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Baptism in The New Testament, p.181, on 1 Cor 1:17): “…bearing in mind Paul’s other utterances about baptism, v. 17 is to be interpreted in the light of the Semitic manner of laying stress on an issue: Christ sent Paul to preach the gospel rather than to baptize. But this is no depreciation of the value of baptism.”
In conclusion, no Christian should ever twist Paul’s words or dare to trumpet the false & heretical notion that the “converting ordinance” of baptism that was given to the Church by God Himself is not necessary or is of little value. Shame on anyone who opposes the work and the words of Christ by saying such things! Whatever spirit is motivating these “anti-baptism preachers” to proclaim their deceitful message regarding baptism’s importance, it is certainly not the Holy Spirit! They are certainly not speaking by the Spirit of Christ!
It is more likely that the case is just as Irenaeus wrote of long ago (c. 180 A.D.) in his book entitled Against Heresies, in which he was writing against the Gnostic heretics…
“…this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith…For the baptism instituted by the visible Jesus was for the remission of sins…”
NOTE: the Irenaeus quote above was taken from ANF Vol. 1, p. 345; and MUCH of the material that was used above was borrowed by permission from: https://executableoutlines.com/textual_series/1corinthians/1co1_14.html]