Q.

Please comment on 1 Corinthians 1:17. Doesn’t it seem that Paul was giving credence to the idea commonly held today that baptism is unimportant?

A.
In this verse the apostle Paul stated, “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.”

As always, we must consider the context of the passage. Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, a church that had lots of unwarranted division. As carnal, babyish Christians, the Corinthian believers were dividing themselves into factions over a form of hero worship. Some idolized Paul, others Apollos, and others Peter (Cephas). Still others had formed a super-pious group who outdid everyone else by claiming they were of Christ!

We can see that this hero worship could easily carry over into braggadocio concerning who had baptized them. In fact, some scholars believe this issue set the Corinthians on the factional course they were taking. Consequently, Paul’s mission was to help the Corinthians put their focus where it should be: on Jesus Christ and the gospel (good news) concerning Him. Instead of dividing over men with their feet of clay, the believers were to unite over the things of Christ. Verses 30 and 31 read, “But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption—that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord!’ ”

Paul wasn’t trashing baptism. Rather, he pointed out some people by name whom he had baptized, thus showing that he believed in baptism. Christ likewise didn’t baptize (John 4:2), yet Christ commanded in the Great Commission that the church go into all the world and “make disciples. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded” (Matthew 28:19, 20). Just as Jesus left the baptizing to His disciples, the apostle Paul for the most part left the baptizing to his associates such as Timothy and Silas. Paul considered winning people to Jesus, not baptizing them, his main work.

Importantly, this passage refutes those who believe in baptismal regeneration. Otherwise, Paul would have indicated that baptism saves, and he would have emphasized his own ministry of baptism. Instead, he showed the elevated position the gospel takes over baptism, the latter of which is a mere picture and act depicting the real thing.

Paul noted that—aside from the few he named—he could not remember anyone else he might have baptized. He didn’t count numbers or brag about the number of people he had baptized.

Baptism should not puff up the person doing the baptizing (e.g., “I baptized __ people this year”). Baptism is not for the purpose of making a name for oneself. Paul’s boasting was based on the Lord and His grace (Romans 3:27, 28; Ephesians 2:8, 9). Throughout 1 Corinthians (as well as Paul’s other writings) are references to the fact that Paul led people to salvation, which comes through Christ alone. (See 1 Corinthians 4:15; 9:1; 15:1–19 as examples.) Salvation does not come as a result of a person’s act (baptism), an act intended for the believer.

Through the centuries, Baptists have been accused of putting too much emphasis on water baptism. Actually, the opposite is the case. We view water baptism as a public declaration that a person has experienced the new birth and now belongs to Christ. The ones who overemphasize baptism are those who believe that it goes beyond that and has saving merit, or is a “means of grace.”

Since the Corinthian church was marked by division, a word should be said about unity. Ecumenists and even some born-again Christians are lamenting that Christendom has so many groups. We agree that the sinfulness of man causes divisions within Christianity. However, we also insist that the sinfulness of man makes various groups necessary. Unity must never come at the expense of truth. Ecumenism inevitably waters down Bible doctrine until there is so little left that nothing offends anyone.

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (October 1999).
© 1999 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.