Is Baptism Essential for Salvation–Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 1:17

Posted: May 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

As I was reading through the first chapter of 1 Corinthians my attention was grabbed at verse 17 specifically.  I stopped here because Paul makes an interesting assertion.  He says that he has not been sent by Jesus “to baptize but to preach the gospel.”  Now, the context tells us that he is dealing with factions within the Corinthian church.  There seem to be allegiances to various spiritual leaders like Apollos, Cephas, and Paul.  Here the apostle wants the believers to move past these things and remember that they should have one allegiance and that is to be directed towards Jesus. 

So, Paul asks a series of questions.  Was he crucified for them?  Was anyone besides Jesus?  Were they baptized in the name of Paul, Cephas, or Jesus?  All of these questions are meant to point them to the one who was crucified for them and whose name they had been baptized in.  In the midst of pointing them to Jesus he makes a statement that illuminates the relationship, at least in my mind, between baptism and salvation.

Before diving into the text let me answer a question:  Why do I raise this issue?  Well, simply because I have a number of friends who attend and are associated with Christian churches (by Christian churches I mean those of who are of Campbellite descent).  Not only do I have friends that are members of Christian churches but it is a fact that there seems to be a growing number of Americans that attend these congregations.  Now, Christian churches are usually, but not always, churches that hold to the theological idea that one must be baptized to be saved.  This can be traced to the founder of their movement, Alexander Campbell (thus, Christian churches are sometimes referred to as Campbellite churches).  And because I disagree (vehemently) with the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation, the fact that I have friends that attend these congregations, and due to the increase in membership within most Christian churches, my mind immediately ran in this direction when seeing this verse.

Here is how I see verse 17 undermining the theological position that says baptism is necessary for salvation.  First, Paul says that he was not sent to baptize.  That is, his mission was not ultimately about putting people in water and putting them under.  His mission as an apostle was to “preach the gospel.”  Here is the key.  Paul evidently does not see the gospel and baptism as things that, at least in one sense, go together.  The gospel for Paul is the good news of God’s forgiveness through faith in Jesus.  The gospel is that we are dead in our sins, cannot save ourselves, but that God has sent Christ to pay our debt and reconcile us to God.  As Paul would make clear in Romans 5, we are “justified by faith in Jesus Christ.”  Our justification happens at the point of our repenting from our sins and placing our faith in Jesus.  Nothing else is needed for that judicial act to be a reality.  We are justified, made right with God, through faith alone.

Baptism is the act that proclaims to the world around us that we are now followers of Jesus.  It, when practiced properly (read immersion), tells the story of one who has died to sin and been raised to walk in newness of life.  It does not finish or complete our salvation.  It plays no part in our legal standing before God.  If it did, then it is part of the gospel.  And if it is part of the gospel, then Paul was misguided when he created the dichotomy in 1 Corinthians 1:17.

I think this is an issue that is far more than secondary.  We can reduce the discussion around the proper subjects of baptism, the mode of baptism, or the right administrators of baptism to second tier issues (see Dr. Alber Mohler’s argument for theological triage here).  But I do not think this fits in the second tier.  It is my growing conviction that this is a gospel, thus first tier and essential, issue.  If we say that baptism is necessary for one to be saved then we no longer have sola fide (faith alone).  We have faith plus something.  And that equation always equals lostness. 

Now, there are a number of rejoinders that I am sure would want to be offered.  I am willing to listen if anyone wants to set them forth.

*NOTE:  There is a sense in which baptism and the gospel are connected.  Although baptism is not something that contributes to justification, it is something that must be submitted to.  It is a command of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And per John 14, those who love Jesus and have believed the gospel will obey His commands.


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