The Catholic Church teaches that baptism is “necessary for salvation” (CCC 1257). Some Protestants like to use 1 Corinthians 1:17 to claim that this teaching contradicts the Bible. Paul writes, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Those who appeal to this verse argue that Paul dissociates baptism from the gospel. And if baptism is not part of the gospel, it can’t be necessary for salvation.
In my book Meeting the Protestant Challenge, I offer three ways we can meet this challenge. Let’s take a look at them here.
First, the challenge confuses the duty to administer the rite of baptism with baptism being essential to the gospel.
Paul doesn’t say that baptism is not essential to the gospel. What does and doesn’t constitute the gospel is not Paul’s concern here. Rather, he is concerned with the administration of baptism.
Paul is addressing a problem that arose in the Corinthian church, where some were identifying themselves with particular ministers and causing division within the community. Paul writes,
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 1:11-12).
In subsequent verses, Paul gives a hint as to why the Corinthians were identifying themselves with different ministers:
[W]ere you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name (vv.13-14).
Apparently, the Corinthians were adopting religious affiliations based on the minister who baptized them. Consequently, Paul was grateful that he hadn’t baptized more people than he did among the Corinthians, lest they affiliate themselves with him.
It is within this context that Paul says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). His intent is not to separate the sacrament of baptism from the gospel but rather to clarify his own part in the administration of the actual rite of baptism among the Corinthians.
Even if we conceded, for argument’s sake, that Paul wasn’t sent to baptize in a strict, general sense, it doesn’t follow that baptism is not essential to the gospel. His preaching of the gospel could have included the necessity of baptism for salvation—with the administration of the actual rite of baptism left to other ministers. Someone other than Paul performing baptism wouldn’t preclude baptism from being essential to the gospel message that Paul preached.
But as we’ll see in our next two ways of meeting the challenge, we have good reason to not take Paul’s statement in a strict sense.
A second way to meet the challenge is point out that Paul is using hyperbole, and he’s using it to emphasize two things: 1) it doesn’t matter by whom you’re baptized, and 2) his apostolic role is not restricted to administering baptism but also involves preaching the gospel.
We know that Paul’s statement, “For Christ did not send me to baptize,” is hyperbolic because Jesus commanded all the apostles to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them (Matt.28:19-20). And since Paul is an apostle, it therefore belongs to his ministry to baptize.
Moreover, if Paul weren’t sent to baptize in a strict sense, then he would have acted in disobedience when he baptized Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas, which he tells us about in verse 14. Do we want to say that the great apostle Paul was disobedient to Jesus’ instruction?
With this hyperbolic speech, Paul is stressing that it doesn’t matter by whom you’re baptized. Whether it’s Apollos, Cephas, or Paul who baptizes, we’re all incorporated into the same “fellowship of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9).
The use of hyperbole is similar to Jesus’ teaching in John 12:44: “He who believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me.” Of course, Jesus doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t believe in him. With the “not . . . but” formula, he is merely emphasizing the importance of the Father’s authority with which he is sent and consequently that we shouldn’t believe in Jesus alone but also in the Father.
This is the same kind of language that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 1:17. Other examples include John 6:27 and 12:44; 1 Cor. 15:10; 1 Peter 3:3,4; Mark 9:37; Matt. 10:20; Acts 5:4; 1 Thess. 4:8; Gen. 45:8; and Titus 3:5.
Finally, we can meet this challenge by showing how the assertion that baptism is not essential to the gospel is inconsistent with Romans 6, in which Paul introduces baptism as the experience of death and resurrection in Christ:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
Paul goes on to articulate the effects of this baptismal death and resurrection:
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin (6-7).
What’s interesting about this passage is that the Greek doesn’t say “freed from sin.” The Greek word translated “freed” is dedikaiōtai, which means “justified.” So the text can literally be translated, “justified from sin.”
Modern translations render it as “freed from sin” because the context is clearly about sanctification. For example, in the verse before Paul speaks of baptismal death, he speaks of those in Christ as having “died to sin” (v.2). As quoted above, Paul speaks of those who have died the death of baptism as “no longer enslaved to sin” (v.6).
In verses 17-18, Paul actually uses a form of the Greek word for “free” (eleutheroō) in relation to the freedom from sin that we receive in Christ:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free [eleutherothentes] from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
This tells us that, for Paul, justification can include sanctification, which is the interior renewal of the soul whereby the objective guilt of sin is removed. If justification and sanctification are essential to the gospel, which they are, and for Paul baptism justifies and sanctifies, which it does, then it follows that for Paul baptism is essential to the gospel.
Given Paul’s teaching elsewhere that baptism justifies and sanctifies us, his use of hyperbole in the passage in question, and the fact that the challenge doesn’t work even if we take him literally, the appeal to 1 Corinthians 1:17 fails as a challenge to the Catholic belief that baptism is an essential aspect of the gospel and thus necessary for salvation.