Did St. Paul Downplay Baptism??

St. Paul
St. Paul

This is the sort of post that I’m massively interested in writing but you’re probably not the slightest interested in reading.

Joke (but not really).

In today’s post I’d like to address a particular verse of scripture that some protestants will offer when arguing against the necessity of baptism.

The verse comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga’ius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Steph’anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) 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” (1 Cor. 1: 14-17. Emphasis mine).

The key phrase some Protestants point to is the one in bold, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” If Baptism is necessary for salvation, they will say, then why is Paul distinguishing it from the gospel, which he later says—in the same letter no less—saves us? (1 Cor. 15: 1-2) [1] The conclusion drawn is that while baptism is important, it is not necessary for salvation.

I will respond to this objection in two ways.

Context, Context, Context

My first response would be to say that a text without context is often a pretext for a proof text.

It’s irresponsible (not to mention silly) to read a text without taking into account the context of the entire text (that was a mouthful).

I would share with my protestant brother an example. Suppose I said that Luke 18:19 proves that Jesus isn’t God, because Jesus says to the rich ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” That would seem to suggest that Jesus isn’t God right?

Well, taken out of context, maybe, but taken in context, not at all!

(Here’s a few NT verses that seem to say that he is God: Matthew 28:17; John 1:1;14; John 5:17,18; John 5:23; John 8:24; John 8:58; John 10:30; John 14:6-7; John 14:9-11; John 20:28; Acts 4:12; Philippians 2:5-7; 1 Timothy 3:16; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:8,9; 2 John 1:7; Revelation 1:8; Revelation 22:13;16).

In a similar way, even if I found 1 Corinithians 1:14-17 problematic, I wouldn’t find it so problematic that it would explain away the passages in Scripture that seem to say that Baptism is necessary for salvation. Consider the following three:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. – John 3:5

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” – Mark 16:16

“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 3:21

See also: Matthew 1:21, 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-17; Luke 24:45-47; John 3:5, 5:43, 14:26, 20:20-23; Acts 2:38, 4:10-12, 8:16; 10:36-48; 1 Peter 3:20-21; Acts 9:18, 16:15-33, 18:8, 19:1-6, 22;16; Romans 6:1-5, 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:1-21; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 2:9-12, 3;17; Titus 3:5)

“Not . . .But” Construction

To answer the objection directly, I’d invite my Protestant brother to reflect upon the line, For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.”

We see here what’s been called a “not…but” construction that is used elsewhere in Scripture. When it is used it isn’t used to denigrate the former but to emphasize the latter.

In John 6:27 Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (emphasis mine…obviously). Now, you should ask your Protestant friend, does Jesus mean that we ought not labor for food? Obviously not.

Or what about the following verses:

Matthew 10:34 – “I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” Did he not come to bring peace?

Matthew 20:28 – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Are we not to serve him?

Mark 9:37 – “Whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Is Jesus saying if we receive him we wont receive him?

John 12:44 – Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. (This is getting comical.)

John 1:13 – “Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” You get the point.

John 11:4 – “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.”

Acts 5:4 – “You have not lied to men but to God.”

Romans 8:9 – “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God

dwells in you.”


When we take into account the context and this “not . . . but” construction we see that Paul wasn’t downplaying baptism at all. Rather he was emphasizing the truth of the Gospel to the Church at Corinth whose theology of baptism had become perverted.

He writes, earlier in the same chapter, “it has been reported to me by Chlo’e’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 Apol’los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (11-13).

It in this context that the following line makes sense, “I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga’ius; lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name” (14-15).

The “not . . . but” construction in this case, it seems to me, indicates that what the Church at Corinth needed was the unperverted truth of the gospel. That Christ is not divide, that it was Christ and not Paul who was crucified for them (13).

Elsewhere we see Paul demonstrate a very clear understanding of the salvific nature of baptism:

“he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

(See also: Romans 6:1-5, 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:1-21; Galatians 3:26-28; Colossians 2:9-12, 3;17;)

Want to learn more? You should listen to my hour radio interview on Catholic Answers Live, and read my article, Baptismal Confusion, which examines some Protestant objections and looks at what the earliest Christians after the Apostles had to say on the matter.



[1] Now I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast — unless you believed in vain.

4 thoughts on “Did St. Paul Downplay Baptism??

  1. Hello, this is entirely unrelated to this post, but after seeing your conversion story on The Journey Home and following this blog for some time, I would like to ask you to pray for me. I used to be Catholic but now I consider myself an agnostic. I love Catholicism but I have so many doubts and qualms that I have ceased to go to Mass altogether. I’m going through those difficult teenage years and I yearn to have a relationship with God but I don’t understand any of this. If you could keep me in your prayers I would certainly appreciate it. I’m so lost and feel quite alone. God bless you and keep writing because your blog is extraordinary.

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