Baptism and 1 Corinthians 1:17

1 Corinthians 1:17 is a key passage that some have used to deny the necessity of baptism in connection with salvation.  It is claimed that if such was essential for salvation, then this passage would say that Christ sent Paul to baptize.  But, instead it says, “For Christ did not send  me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…”

In response, let me suggest that this may be a “relative negation.” In a relative negation the  “Not… but…” construction is used to demonstrate a contrast in priority, with the more valuable priority or emphasis being upon the second clause, but not implying that the first clause is sinful, or intending to totally negate it. The Bible contains many relative negations. For instance: (1) John 6:27 reads, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life…”  Question,  is it sinful to labor for the physical needs such as meat?  Absolutely not! (cf. Genesis 3:19; Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10, etc.).  The point is that there is something far more important than physical needs (Matthew 4:4; Mark 8:36-37; Luke 12:18-21).  (2) Matthew 6:19-20 says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”  Question, is this forbidding every type of laying up of physical things?  Answer – Absolutely not (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 12:14).  Question, is this forbidding us to prepare ourselves for the future physical needs of ourselves and our families?  Certainly not!  Consider the instructions of 1 Timothy 5:8, 16 which says that we are to “provide” for our own.  The term translated “provide” means to literally, according to Thayer, “to perceive before, foresee.”  There is not one thing wrong with preparing for the future ( Proverbs 6:6-11; 10:4-5; 19:14; 20:4; John 12:6; John 13:29; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 12:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 5:8; James 5:7; etc.).  The emphasis is upon what is lasting; what is eternal. This is what should be treasured.  (3) 1 Peter 3:3-4, “Do not let your adorning be merely outward – arranging the hair, wearing of gold, or  putting on fine apparel – rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”  Note the term “fine” is not in the original text. If the first clause be taken literal then this teaches that wives should never wear clothing on their bodies!  Absurd!  No, this passage is setting forth where one`s emphasis needs to be.  It needs to be upon the inner man and not upon outward appearance.  People need to see the Christ-like spirit within us, more than they need to see the latest fashion upon our bodies.

Further, let me also suggested that this may be an elliptical statement and that the meaning is “For Christ did not sent me to baptize (only), but (also) to preach the gospel.” This is also a possibility. There are other examples of the ellipses in the Bible. (1) Genesis 45:8, “So now it was not you (alone) who sent me here, but (also) God…” (2) Mark 9:37, “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me (only), but (also) Him who sent Me.” In reality, there is little difference between an ellipses and a relative negation. A relative negation may be viewed as a type of ellipses.

1 Corinthians 1:17 must be either a relative negation, or an ellipses. Consider: (1) If this teaches that baptism is non-essential to salvation, then it conflicts with many others passages ( Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21 etc.). Such cannot be (Galatians 1:6-9). (2) If Paul was not to baptize at all, why did he do such? He baptized Crispus and Gaius (1 Corinthians 1:15-17). Did he dare do that for which he had no authority?

Let’s consider the text.  Jealous and prideful divisions were occurring in the church at Corinth over who was baptized by whom (1 Corinthians 1:11-15; 3:3-6).  They were exalting men.  Paul’s point was this – let me paraphrase – “I was sent not just to baptize you in water, but I was sent to preach the Gospel, revealing the truth about Christ, and the cross, and the power of God.” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:17-31).  “I was sent not just to teach you about water, but primarily to teach you about Christ.”  If all they learned was about water they missed the main point.  Look at Romans 6:1-4.  Baptism symbolized something (the death, burial, and resurrection).  Look at 1 Corinthians 1:13- “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The original wording is “into (eis) the name of Paul.”  Proper baptism makes one a Christian. {Brother Ed Wharton says, “eis to onoma, ‘in the name of,’ or more correctly ‘into the name of’ does not mean that we are to be baptized ‘at the command of’ or ‘on the authority of’ [as in Acts 2:38 where the phrase is different, (epi to onomati)]…’into the name’  was a common phrase for transference of ownership… They were Christ’s  possession, not Paul’s… Paul is saying that they do not belong to him” (The church of Christ, pp.46-47). Note: Matthew 28:19; Acts 19:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 1:13 are similar in wording. Arndt-Gingrich “through baptism…the one baptized becomes the possession of and comes under the protection of the one whose name he bears” (p. 572)} Paul’s point seems to be that he was sent to teach them, so that they might be converted and truly belong to Christ.  He was not sent just to baptize. He was sent to preach. The message was much bigger and more important than the act of baptism. It definitely was more important than who administered baptism. The message, if properly heard, pointed people to Christ and not Paul ( 1 Corinthians 1:23-24; 2:2; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Ephesians 3:8; Colossians 1:27-28).

Another point for considering – some today seem to believe that one of the primary duty of the preacher is baptize.  Paul’s primary duty was to reveal God’s truth, especially unto the Gentile people (cf. Acts 22:21; Romans 11:13; Ephesians 3:1-8; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11).  Furthermore, I do not read anywhere in scripture that the preacher’s primary task is to baptize. However I do read that he is to proclaim God’s will (2 Timothy 4:1-2; Titus 2:15),  and reveal the good news (Romans 1:14-16; 9:16).  If he does such, those with good and honest hearts will respond (Luke 8:15). Let us preach the word. God will give the increase.

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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