Is Paul Teaching That Water Immersion Is Not Essential?
It is very clear from the Scriptures that water immersion is an essential component that is a part of how God saves an alien sinner/non-Christian from his/her sins (Mark 16:15,16; Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38; 8:35-39; 10:47; 19:1-7; 22:16; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 6:3,4; Galatians 3:26,27; 1 Peter 3:21). Some teachers though have proposed from 1 Corinthians 1:17 that Paul downplays water immersion and excludes it from the gospel plan of salvation. Is Paul teaching that water immersion is not essential?
As we read through 1 Corinthians, we need to recognize that Paul was dealing with several issues that the Corinthians were facing such as division, church discipline, abuse of the Lord's Supper, etc. 1 Corinthians 1-4 is dealing with the issue of division in the church. There were several splinter groups unfortunately that were created by these Corinthian brethren who continued to hold a carnal mindset (1 Corinthians 3:1-3): (1) Apollos, (2) Paul, (3) Cephas, and (4) Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). Some were elevating one sound gospel preacher over another. It may be that some were claiming the name of the teacher who taught or baptized them. In 1 Corinthians 1:13Paul asks some rhetorical questions that are self-answering. "Is Christ divided?" Of course not. Christ is not divided; so the Christians at Corinth should not be divided. "Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" The phrase "baptized in the name of" means "in the authority of" (Colossians 3:17). Paul himself did not have the authority to baptize someone in his own name. The only authority delegated to Paul was "in the name of Jesus Christ."
In 1 Corinthians 1:14-16, Paul states: "I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other." Paul is not rejoicing with the idea that he did not convert anyone (for he converted many Corinthians: Acts 18:1, 4, 8; in fact, Paul called his converts his "joy" in Philippians 4:1). He is not happy that few came seeking to be baptized. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul was glad that he, personally, baptized only a few because he did not want to be falsely accused of baptizing people in his own name. Paul did not keep detailed records of who he had baptized. He did not want their salvation tied to his name. The preacher does not have the power to save. The power to save is in the blood of Christ (Romans 1:16; Revelation 1:5).
In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul writes "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." Paul is not downplaying the essentiality of water baptism. The phrase "to baptize" is referencing the action of the administrator. It is not essential for the preacher who is preaching the gospel to also be the one who administers the water immersion (compare John 4:1-2). The emphasis is always on the sinner who is wanting to render their faith and obedience unto Jesus Christ.
Finally, in 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul is using a part of speech commonly known as an ellipsis. An elliptical statement is where the first element of the sentence is not negated but rather de-emphasized in order to put greater emphasis on the second element of the sentence. For example, Jesus said in John 6:27: "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life..." Was Jesus commanding us not to work for physical food? Of course not (2 Thessalonians 3:10)! Even though laboring for food is essential, in this context He was deemphasizing secular work in order to put extra emphasis on spiritual work. Therefore, Paul was simply saying that his primary reason for coming to Corinth was not to physically baptize them but to preach the gospel to them, which would then lead to the blood of Jesus washing away their sins through baptism, regardless of whether he was the one who baptized them or not.
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