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Paul Didn't Baptize, or Did He?

It is easy to take one verse and make an interpretation from it. But when another verse or many other verses contradict that interpretation, we get in trouble. For example, many people quote 1st Corinthians 1:17 when making an objection to the necessity of water baptism for salvation. They say “Paul didn’t come to baptize, therefore baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.” Is that the right interpretation of 1st Corinthians 1:17? Or is there more to it?

First, if Paul said that baptism is not necessary for salvation in the aforementioned passage, then he contradicted many other passages that say baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38; 22:16; Gal. 3:27; 1 Pet. 3:21).

Second, context is always important when interpreting any text of the Bible. In Paul’s case, his statement in 1st Corinthians 1:17 is easily explained by the context. Verses 14-17 say,

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. (1 Cor. 1:14-17)

Paul did baptize some people, but that was not his priority. His priority was to preach the gospel, which did involve baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Rom. 6:1-7). He was glad that he did not baptize many people because they would have boasted about being baptized in his name. Therefore, 1st Corinthians 1: 17 is an elliptical sentence. It could be read as follows: "for Christ did not send me to mainly baptize, but to mainly preach the gospel." Paul just wanted people to follow Jesus, not himself.

In conclusion, interpreting a text must be done by not only examining the immediate context, but the sum of God's Word (Psa. 119:60). Paul only said that he did not come to baptize so that the Corinthians would not boast about their baptisms. Baptism is essential to salvation and there is not a single text that says otherwise.

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