1 Corinthians 1:17, Baptism, And The “Not-But Construction”


Notice the following scriptures:

Matt. 10:34—I did not come to bring peace but a sword.

Matt. 20:28—The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.

Mark 9:37—Whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.

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.

John 6:27—Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.

One should be able to see that these passages are not prohibiting or denying the first item. Instead, they are emphasizing or prioritizing the second. With this in mind, let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 1:17, which reads:

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.

Now, if Paul wasn’t arguing that “baptism isn’t a part of the gospel,” as many of our denominational friends contend, then what? Simply this: his mission as a minister of the gospel was not to do the baptizing per se, but to preach the gospel, which was, by far, the more important of the two. Along with those passages mentioned previously, 1 Corinthians 1:17 is an example of the classical “not-but” grammatical construction, a construction specifically designed to emphasize the latter without totally negating the former (a.k.a. an “elliptical” [i.e., “not only this but also that” and “a second degree comparative [i.e., “not only this, which is less important, but that, which is more important]).

For example, from Luke’s recording of Peter’s statement that Ananias had “not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4), it is clear that Peter was not trying to say that Ananias had not lied to men, for as the context teaches, he certainly had. Instead, the thing that was more serious (i.e., lying to God) was being emphasized at the expense of the lesser. Another example is found in John 12:44, where Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me, but in Him who sent Me.” How can anyone miss the Lord’s point here? He was not saying that one who believed in Him didn’t really believe in Him, which would be both illogical and untrue, but that those who believe in Him are demonstrating their faith in the Father who sent Him.

Thus, it is safe to conclude that Paul was not, at all, excluding baptism from the gospel. Instead, he was emphasizing the more important role of preaching the gospel, for if the gospel wasn’t preached, people would know nothing about the need to be baptized (immersed in water) for the remission of their sins. Incidentally, I have taught the gospel to many hundreds of people both here and abroad, but I have personally baptized very few, as such was mostly done by others (cf. 1 Cor. 1:13-16). Does this mean that I don’t believe baptism is a part of the gospel? Certainly not! Consequently, the fact that Paul did not personally baptize many—especially as it was preaching, not baptizing, that was his primary task—serves to demonstrate that 1 Corinthians 1:17 does not teach what many of our denomination friends think it does.

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