For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel … (1 Corinthians 1:17a)
Does Paul disparage baptism in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians? When Paul says that God didn’t send him to baptize but to preach the gospel, is he denying the role of Christian baptism in God’s economy of salvation? In other words, is Paul’s understanding of baptism non-sacramental?
Taken in isolation, that might be one way to understand Paul’s words. Baptism doesn’t save; faith in the gospel saves. Faith is an inner response to the message. These outward rites don’t really matter all that much and don’t accomplish God’s ultimate purpose.
Paul, however, does not intend here to contrast baptism as an outward ritual with inward, saving faith. Paul’s concern is with the unity of the church. The fact that there are different agents of baptism and different schools of thought and different approaches to the Christian life within the church should not create a partisan atmosphere. Paul, Apollos and Cephas may have different roles in the church and perhaps even teach some things differently, but there is no Church of Paul or Church of Apollos. There is only the Church of Jesus Christ, and all who have been baptized into Christ belong to it.
God’s gift of baptism is a foundation of unity within the church and should not be a source of division. As the Nicene Creed says,
We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.
Or as Paul puts it:
Has Christ been divided?
Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
(1 Corinthians 1:13)
Paul’s argument for Christian unity here is built on an essentially sacramental understanding of baptism. Paul’s three-fold rhetorical question puts three dimensions of the Christian life in parallel: belonging to Christ, receiving the benefits of Jesus’ crucifixion and being baptized into the name of Christ.
This is precisely the sacramental understanding of baptism. Those baptized into the name of Christ belong to him and receive the benefits of his saving work.
Where is faith in all of this? A living faith is essential from beginning to end. Baptism is the God-given, visible sign of the covenant relationship between Christ and his church. The church baptizes by faith in the word of God. Christians receive their baptism by faith in the promise of God. Even if my baptism occurred long ago – perhaps even before I am able to remember it directly – I know that God has promised himself to me in the waters of my baptism. He has united me to Christ so that I may belong to him and receive the benefits of his saving, sacrificial work on my behalf.