IS BAPTISM A PART OF THE GOSPEL?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, September 28, 2012 at 2:13pm
QUESTION: I know someone who argues that baptism cannot be related to salvation because (a) salvation comes via the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16), and (b) baptism is not part of the gospel (1 Cor. 1:17). Therefore (c) baptism has nothing to do with salvation. What do you think about this argument?
ANSWER: This is a bit of a twist on the usual Zwinglian (faith-only) argument against baptism for salvation based on this Corinthians text. I have briefly discussed and refuted this argument in my book, Baptism: A Biblical Study, chapter one, “Matthew 28:19-20” (see the first section, “Unique Importance”).
This present argument is a bit more subtle than the usual one, as it tries to separate baptism from the preaching of the gospel. The key is a right understanding of 1 Corinthians 1:17, where Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” As is the case with all matters of interpretation, we must be sure to pay attention to the context of this statement.
In the first chapter of First Corinthians, beginning with verse 10, Paul is addressing the issue of division in the church at Corinth. The church was dividing into sectarian groups, based on allegiance to different church leaders (e.g., Paul, Apollos, and Cephas [Peter]). Paul is appalled that some are elevating him above other leaders and seem to be creating a sect around his name (v. 12). He suggests that it is close to blasphemy to claim loyalty to any name other than that of Jesus Christ (v. 13). In order to show the “great divide” between Jesus (on the one hand), and himself or any other human being (on the other hand), he asks pointedly, “Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The obvious answer is NO! Only Christ was crucified for you, and you were baptized in the name of Christ.
Does this diminish baptism? No. In fact, it magnifies the importance of baptism that it should be brought into such close connection with the cross of Christ. Why would Paul bring up the subject of baptism at all, especially in conjunction with the momentous event of the crucifixion of Christ, if it were not among the most vital and serious aspects of the very existence and life of the church? How could he so forcefully and in the same breath remind them of who was crucified for them and of the name in which they were baptized, if baptism were not in some sense worthy of such a conjunction?
But does not Paul say (vv. 14, 16) that he is glad he did NOT baptize the converts at Corinth (except Crispus and Gaius, and the household of Stephanus)? Does this not show that baptism is insignificant? Absolutely not! In fact, it shows just the opposite, when he explains why he is glad he did not do the actual baptizing of most of the converts: “so that no one would say you were baptized in my name” (v. 15). I.e., because of how important baptism is for salvation, and because he did not want anyone to think that their salvation was special because he—the great Apostle Paul—had baptized them, he was happy that he had left the actual baptizing to his helpers.
When Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (v. 17), he is not diminishing baptism itself, but the one who is doing the baptizing. He is saying, “It does not matter who does the actual baptizing; everyone who is baptized in the name of Christ receives the same salvation and the same status before God.” Paul always had helpers traveling with him who usually did the baptizing; Paul’s specific task was to preach the gospel.
This same practice was followed by Jesus and his disciples, who baptized people with John’s baptism (John 3:25-30; 4:1). However, “Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were” (John 4:2).
We should also emphasize that there is a difference between preaching or teaching about baptism (on the one hand), and performing the act of baptizing someone (on the other hand). Paul does not say that he never preached or taught about baptism; he simply expresses thanks that he never actually did the baptizing of his converts at Corinth (with some exceptions). We know that when Peter preached the gospel on the Day of Pentecost, he taught about baptism (Acts 2:38). We know that when Philip preached the gospel to the Samaritans, he taught about baptism (Acts 8:12). When he preached the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, he taught about baptism (Acts 8:35-36). When Ananias preached the gospel to Saul of Tarsus, he taught about baptism (Acts 22:16). And what about Paul himself? When he preached the gospel to Lydia and her entourage, he taught about baptism (Acts 16:14-15). When he preached the gospel to the Philippian jailer and his household, he taught about baptism (Acts 16:30-33). When he preached the gospel to the Ephesian disciples of Apollos, he taught about baptism (Acts 19:1-5).
Are we supposed to assume, then, that Paul preached a different gospel in Corinth—one that excluded baptism? Of course not. The statement in 1 Corinthians 1:17 says nothing at all about the contents of the gospel he preached. He simply separates his commission to preach the gospel from the act of baptizing people. He did not have to do the latter in order to do the former, since his companions could do the actual baptizing.
The false argument cited in the question above shows how easy it is to be deceived by the Great Deceiver (see 1 Tim. 4:1). It shows how easy it is to make a clearly false doctrine sound plausible when the context and the total teaching on a subject are ignored.