Sometimes it is easy to misunderstand passages of scripture and especially so if we are getting all kinds of help doing so. Because of Paul's statement in 1 Cor. 1:17 where he says, "Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (NKJV) some have been inclined to believe Paul felt baptism was not essential. A careful reading of the context should make one reconsider. Just four verses earlier Paul had asked the Corinthians to whom he was writing, "were you baptized in the name of Paul?" (1 Cor. 1:13 NKJV) Paul knew they had been baptized, in someone’s name, for if they had not been the question is nonsensical. The Corinthians to whom he wrote were a baptized people.
What is Paul saying in 1 Cor. 1:17? Is he saying that Christ does not care whether or not disciples are baptized as some so believe? Is he saying it is unimportant and makes no difference to one's salvation whether or not a person is baptized? It is the purpose of this article to show the folly of taking that kind of stance based on this scripture.
Let me begin by asking a question that must be answered if one is to take the position that baptism does not matter and that Paul was teaching that in this passage. Here is the question--if it did not matter, if it has nothing to do with salvation, if Christ did not want Paul to baptize why did Paul baptize? He says in verses 14 and 16 that he baptized Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanas. In Acts 19:1-7 Paul came to Ephesus and found 12 men there that had not been baptized properly and he baptized them. Why? Why if Paul felt it was unnecessary? One also finds others who were baptized either by Paul or by a companion of his as a result of Paul's teaching on the subject--Lydia and her household (Acts 16:14-15), the Philippian jailer and his household (Acts 16:29-33).
Why if Paul felt baptism was unnecessary did he teach baptism in Rom. 6:1-7, 1 Cor. 6:11, 1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:26-27, Eph. 5:25-26, Col. 2:11-12, Titus 3:5, and if Paul wrote Hebrews as many believe he did in Heb. 10:22?
If baptism does not matter and Paul did not care whether people were baptized or not then why was Paul baptized? Was more required of Paul than anyone else in becoming a Christian? The command to Paul by Ananias, a man sent directly by the Lord himself (see Acts 9:10-16) to Paul (at that time called Saul), was "arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins." (Acts 22:16 NKJV)
Most today, if they were to be consistent in what they teach, would have to tell you that Ananias was mistaken and could not possibly have meant what he said about Paul having sins to be washed away for they say a man is saved from his sins at the point of faith and thus Paul had no sins to be washed away so they know more about it than the man sent directly by the Lord himself to Paul. They also would have to tell you, because they believe man has no part in his own salvation other than faith, there was nothing Paul could do to help himself contrary to what Ananias told him.
One also has to ask another question if one is to interpret 1 Cor. 1:17 as teaching that baptism does not matter to Paul or to Christ. Actually, two questions. (1) Why was Paul, an apostle, exempt from the command Jesus gave to the other apostles just before his ascension to heaven in Matt. 28:19-20 where the command was, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, 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 you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age"? (NKJV) Is he some kind of special apostle who was exempted from this command to baptize? Did the disciples made by Peter, John, and the other apostles have to be baptized but not those made by Paul? I hope you do not believe that. What Peter, John, and the other apostles were commanded to do Paul was also commanded to do or else he was not required to fulfill the Great Commission as they were and who believes that?
(2) Which disciple was it in Matt. 28:18-20 that Jesus said would not need to be baptized? I might add the disciples that were made were to be taught "to observe all things I have commanded you" which was what--to go make disciples and baptize them. Matthew 28:19-20 settles the matter of whether baptism is essential to salvation by itself, no other passage is needed unless, of course, one can deliberately disobey Jesus and still be saved. But, there are many, many other passages teaching the same necessity of baptism as essential to salvation.
Paul in 1 Corinthians was writing to the church that he established there. He says of it "I planted" (1 Cor. 3:6 NKJV); "I have laid the foundation" (1 Cor. 3:10 NKJV); "For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15 NKJV).
The record of the establishment of the church at Corinth is found in Acts chapter 18. As a result of Paul's preaching the text says, "And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized." (Acts 18:8 NKJV) Were the converts Paul made left unbaptized because Paul thought it was unimportant and did not teach it? Not according to this text. He said in his letter to the church at Corinth he was not sent to baptize but it is certain he taught it or else how did the Corinthians learn about it and why were they baptized? If Paul did not do the actual baptizing (and he did not do it according to 1 Cor. 1:17) then it is certain some of his helpers or assistants did on his behalf.
According to the Acts 18 account the Lord spoke to Paul telling him he had many people in Corinth (verse 10) and directing Paul to not hold his peace but to speak up in preaching the gospel (verse 9). Paul spent 18 months in Corinth preaching (verse 11).
In 1 Cor. 6:11, after speaking of sins that will prohibit one from inheriting the kingdom of God (verses 9 and 10), Paul says to the Corinthians, "And such were some of you. But you were washed … ." (NKJV) Now what kind of washing would it be that would make a difference in one's salvation (as this one clearly did)--that would cleanse one? Might it not well be the same washing Paul had when he was baptized? "Now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." (Acts 22:16 NKJV) Yes, washing (baptism) makes a difference in that it spiritually speaking washes away sins in obedience to the command of God.
But, that is not all Paul has to say to the Corinthians on the subject of baptism. In 1 Cor. 12:13 he says to them, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." (1 Cor. 12:13 NKJV) That body, the only body that matters with regards to one's salvation, is the body of Christ of which he (Christ) is the Savior (Eph. 5:23). Now read Paul's words carefully here. He says "we were all baptized into one body." The word "all" means every one of us, no exceptions. How many disciples did Jesus say should be baptized back in Matt. 28:19? None were to be exempted, not a single one. In New Testament times there was no such thing as a Christian who had not been baptized. That has not changed with time despite the howls and protests of many if not most.
Did Paul personally do a lot of baptizing in Corinth? No! Did he preach it and see that it was done? Yes! Why did he not do a lot of the baptizing himself? The answer is he had those working with him who could and would do the work.
Just as Jesus is said to have made and baptized more disciples than John (John 4:1) and we then read in the next verse, "though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples" (John 4:2 NKJV) just, in the same manner, we can surmise that in Corinth though Paul himself actually baptized very few personally (1 Cor. 1:14-16) yet the work was done through helpers of his and through other preachers and teachers. "And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized." (Acts 18:8 ESV)
Paul's primary mission was to preach the gospel as an inspired man. An uninspired man can baptize another but in the days before they had a written New Testament it took inspiration to preach the gospel and thus it is easy to understand why an inspired man's first duty would be to preach. Such a man could always, or nearly always, find help to do the baptizing. As already shown 1 Cor. 12:13 and Matt. 28:19 proves that every Christian at Corinth was baptized (see also again 1 Cor. 6:11).
Paul most certainly did not mean that Christ sent him out into the world to preach that baptism was a non-essential and that none need to be baptized for it was Jesus himself who said, "he who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16 NKJV) and that "unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5 NKJV) and it was Paul who was commanded to "arise and be baptized" to have his sins washed away (Acts 22:16 NKJV). One can also read the passages Paul wrote on the subject of baptism listed but not discussed earlier in this article (Rom. 6:1-7, Gal. 3:26-27, Eph. 5:25-26, Col. 2:11-12, Titus 3:5) to see Paul's teaching on the subject and the importance he placed on it.
(Originally written in 2011, revised in 2022 – Denny Smith)
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