1 Corinthians 1:17 is one of the most oft-cited passages in attempts to deny the essentiality of baptism for salvation. But is it really the silver bullet they believe it to be? What does the text say?
“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.”
Some have mistakenly assumed that Paul’s statement is somehow a refutation of the necessity of baptism (e.g., John Piper and John McArthur on their respective websites). But, looking at the context, we can see this simply isn’t the case.
For example, when one looks at verse 13, he will see that all the recipients were baptized believers. The question to all, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”, is rhetorical, meaning the answer is obvious in the question itself. The question informs us that all had been baptized, but none in Paul’s name.
This is consistent with what we find in Acts 18:8 when Paul preached the gospel there for the first time, “And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed, and were baptized.” Thus, Paul indeed was not sent to baptize, but to preach the gospel. It is not the responsibility of any evangelist to baptize, because that decision can only be made by the individual hearers (cf Mark 16:15-16).
Moreover, the argument against baptism fails to take into consideration that, by the time the epistle was written, others had followed Paul to Corinth and preached there, including Apollos (Acts 19:1). Certainly, those evangelists would have baptized those who believed the gospel, not to mention that the Corinthians would have been doing their own evangelism in their city, baptizing many who believed the gospel (cf 1 Cor 15:29).
One might also reasonably ask two more questions along these lines: 1) Why did Paul baptize if his statement indicates that baptism in not necessary and he was not sent to baptize? and 2) 1 Corinthians 15:29 shows that the Corinthians were baptizing on behalf of the dead. If Paul and the other evangelists didn’t emphasize the importance of baptism, why in the world did the Corinthians believe it was so important as to baptize for the dead?