by Al Maxey

Issue #176 ------- March 2, 2005
My own belief is not rule for another.
John Wesley (1703-1791)

Not Inclined To Immerse
Is Baptism a Part of the Gospel?

Before we even begin our reflective analysis of the above question, and, indeed, integral to that journey of discovery, I would strongly urge each of the readers to take the time to carefully review two previous issues of these weekly Reflections. They will help clarify a few of the major issues involved in the debate before us. Without that foundational teaching, my response to the above inquiry may prove more difficult to understand, or even accept, for some readers. Those two relevant articles are:

Those who have taken the time to carefully consider the above articles will already have a fairly good idea of my response to the question posed in the sub-title of this issue of Reflections. However, there is an aspect of this debate that perhaps has not been addressed adequately. This is illustrated by an email I recently received from a subscriber in Tennessee, who wrote, "Al, I came across an article by Wayne Jackson dealing with 1 Cor. 1:17. I personally do not have a firm conclusion on this verse. Is baptism part of the Gospel? On the surface, it would appear not to be, at least according to this verse. Deeper down maybe it is. What is your opinion on this? Maybe you could devote a future issue of your Reflections to this matter? As for me, I'm still studying the passage!"

In 1 Cor. 1:17 the apostle Paul makes this bold statement -- "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel." There is no question but what some kind of distinction is perceived by Paul between the two. By lifting such a statement from its overall context, however, and by isolating it from that body of doctrine comprising the thinking of Paul, one can quite easily arrive at a fallacious conclusion. For example, two noted biblical scholars, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, have assumed far more from this passage than I believe is warranted. In their book, "When Critics Ask," they present the following argument -- "Paul separates baptism from the Gospel, saying, 'Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel' ... Therefore, baptism is not part of what saves us" (p. 428). They have made a huge interpretive leap here, in my estimation, reasoning that because Paul seems to recognize some distinction between immersion and the Gospel, there must therefore be no connection between the former (baptism) and one's ultimate salvation. In my opinion, they have assumed too much!

Is immersion a part of the Gospel? I suppose the answer depends to some extent on how one defines the term "Gospel." Based upon my own understanding of this term, I would have to say that baptism is not a part of the Gospel. That is NOT to say, however, that baptism has no bearing upon our salvation. Quite the contrary. But the question before us is not: "Is baptism essential to salvation?" Rather, the question is: "Is baptism a part of the Gospel?" I would answer "Yes" to the first question, but "No" to the second. Again, the distinction lies in perceiving the significance of the term "Gospel." Many biblical scholars, myself included, firmly believe there is a clear distinction between Gospel and Doctrine. I would tend to place immersion under the umbrella of the latter.

To better understand Paul's statement in 1 Cor. 1:17, we need to better understand the concept conveyed by the term Gospel. The Greek word euangelion "originally denoted a reward for good tidings; later, the idea of reward was dropped, and the word stood for the good news itself. In the New Testament it denotes the good tidings of the Kingdom of God and of salvation through Christ, to be received by faith, on the basis of His expiatory death, His burial, resurrection, and ascension" (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words). "Christians use the word to designate the message and story of God's saving activity through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of God's unique Son Jesus" (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 567).

The apostle Paul informed the Corinthian brethren that he was determined to "know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). Obviously, this would include the resurrection, in which death was defeated. "Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain" (1 Cor. 15:12-14). Thus, once again, we see that the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ was central to the preaching of the gospel. Paul told the Romans that he was "eager to preach the gospel to you" (Romans 1:15). At the very beginning of that chapter he clearly declared what that gospel was -- he was "set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead" (vs. 1-4).

Thus, it is no surprise to hear that Paul, while in Athens, "was preaching Jesus and the resurrection" (Acts 17:18). In Pisidian Antioch, during his first missionary journey, Paul declared in the synagogue, "We preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus" (Acts 13:32-33). When the disciples were scattered because of persecution, they went about "preaching the Lord Jesus" (Acts 11:20). When Saul of Tarsus was first converted, he "began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, 'He is the Son of God'" (Acts 9:20). When Philip encountered the eunuch from Ethiopia, "he opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35). Earlier, while in Samaria, Philip was "proclaiming Christ to them" (Acts 8:5). After being punished by the Council, Peter and the apostles, "every day, in the temple and from house to house, kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" (Acts 5:42).

Such biblical testimony could be continued for quite some time, but the point is rather evident. The gospel message was fully centered on JESUS! His birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection. God had lovingly purposed from the very beginning to bring redemption and salvation to mankind via a gracious, loving sacrifice: the sacrifice of His beloved Son. This phenomenal event, and both its temporal and eternal impact upon us, is the GOSPEL message. It is the ultimate "good news." Thus, the term euangelion, as generally used in the New Testament writings, "refers to the word of salvation made available to the world in and through Jesus Christ" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 521). "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). This is the Gospel in a nutshell.

Baptism is NOT a part of the Gospel message. Rather, it is one of the aspects of our response of faith TO the Gospel message. Baptism would fall under the category of Doctrine: critical teaching to which one who has heard the gospel must be immediately exposed so as to know how to respond to God's gracious offer contained in the Gospel. Salvation enters the equation in that God's gracious offer spurned results in condemnation. The "Gospel" is the message of what God has done for us through the gift of His Son's self-sacrifice for our atonement and redemption. Our response to that offer will determine our eternal fate. If we choose to accept that gift of life -- and baptism is a demonstration of that accepting faith -- then we shall receive immortality. If we refuse His gift, our fate will be an everlasting forfeiture of life. Thus, immersion is clearly NOT a part of the Gospel, but is rather an integral part of our response to it.

"Preaching was the spearhead of the Christian mission; only when evangelistic preaching had done its work would men, already convinced, penitent, and believing, seek baptism" (Dr. C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 49). Immersion, therefore, is not technically part of the gospel itself, but is rather the response of penitent believers to the gospel. However, there is obviously some degree of overlapping of Gospel and Doctrine here, as those who hear and believe the Gospel will obviously seek to know "What must I do to be saved?" This will immediately be addressed by presenting critical Doctrine (teaching) to them. Thus, the two work hand-in-hand. Geisler and Howe were very much mistaken in their interpretation of Paul's statement in 1 Cor. 1:17, declaring incorrectly, "Therefore, baptism is not part of what saves us." They were correct in noting that Paul made a distinction between baptism and the gospel; they were incorrect in the assumption they drew from this fact: i.e., immersion has no real bearing on salvation.

But, that leaves us with the troubling impression that Paul, in 1 Corinthians, seems to indicate he was glad that he had NOT immersed some persons in Corinth. If baptism is indeed a vital aspect of our response to the Gospel message, then why would Paul make such a statement? One would think he would be anxious to immerse as many as possible! Why did he say, "I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius" (1 Cor. 1:14). Paul thanks God that he did NOT baptize some of them? In vs. 16 he even seems to indicate that he couldn't remember those whom he had immersed -- "beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other." Don't all gospel preachers keep records?!! Aren't awards even given out by brotherhood periodicals to those ministers and congregations who perform the most baptisms per year? Apparently, Paul didn't play those games. Why not?! He even indicates that performing baptisms was not his primary function in service to the Lord -- "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (vs. 17).

Here is where the context provides us with the necessary information to understand Paul's teaching on this matter. The rise of Partyism was evident among many of the members of the church in the city of Corinth. There was a spirit of arrogance and exclusivism taking hold of their hearts, causing them to say, "I am of Paul," and "I am of Apollos," and "I am of Cephas," and "I am of Christ" (1 Cor. 1:12). Paul had been informed of this lunacy "by Chloe's people" (vs. 11), and was also made aware that it was generating "quarrels among you" (vs. 11). When Paul realized that groups of disciples were beginning to band together based upon the one who had immersed them, Paul thanked God he had not baptized any more of them than he had, "that no man should say you were baptized in my name" (vs. 15). Thus, Paul sought to downplay his role as the one who immersed them, and instead bring their focus back upon what was truly important -- the Man (Jesus) and the Message (the Gospel).

The Corinthian brethren had lost sight of what was of greater spiritual significance, and were focusing more upon the aspects of their response than the eternal Truths to which they had responded. "The present tense of the verb euangelizesthai stresses the priority of Paul's continuing task of preaching the gospel; baptizing was a consequence of preaching and was of secondary importance" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 193). Please don't misunderstand here! This resource is not saying that immersion is unimportant or unnecessary. It is simply stating a fact -- baptism accomplishes nothing unless submitted to in response to the gospel message. Therefore, Paul correctly understood his primary mission for the Lord was to proclaim the Man and the Message. His secondary mission for the Lord, once he had faithfully discharged the primary mission, was to assist penitent believers to respond to that gospel message.

Based on this insight, the statement of Paul in 1 Cor. 1:17 becomes much more understandable. "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel." Paul's special gift from above was in sharing the good news; he had special God-given insight that he had been commissioned to impart to those seeking souls whom he encountered. Yes, he did indeed seek to bring about the necessary response to this message -- an obedience of faith -- and he undoubtedly assisted those who sought to make that response -- but his commission from Christ was with regard to the proclamation of the gospel, not to the particulars of the response of those who heard. Undoubtedly, he wisely allowed many others to assist those responding to experience the joys that would come with their visible demonstration of faith (immersion). The apostle Paul did not confuse baptism with the gospel, something I fear many brethren may be doing today. Immersion is merely a visible response of faith to the marvelous message of the Gospel. To make it more is to confuse God's message with man's response. This can quickly lead not only to confused disciples, but also to convoluted doctrine.

Reflections from Readers

From a Church in Alabama:

Al, Our Sunday night study group at the ------ ---- Church of Christ has decided to take your Reflections articles and use them for our weekly Bible studies. Each member will be subscribing. We'll let you know how the group likes your Reflections. Thanks so much for your good work!

From a New Reader in Missouri:

I thought I would write you a note after having surfed to your website. I grew up in the Church of Christ, quite a conservative one, and spent two years at ACU. I just wanted to tell you that I appreciate very much your more "progressive" (for lack of a better word) stance as a Church of Christ minister, and I am sorry that your thinking was not the norm 30 or 40 years ago!! I now attend a Christian Church. I do admire you for sticking with the Church of Christ, although I personally resent what it taught me and would never want my own son to be involved in one. But, I do not judge you in any way, and only pray for your continuing success, and also for the continued spiritual growth of your congregation.

From a Minister/Author in California:

Bro. Maxey, Appreciate "Abandoning Our Assembling." For years I have been "marked and avoided" by the leaders of the one cup, no Sunday school party for, among other things, teaching that a legalistic interpretation and application of Hebrews 10:25 is wrong. Once I was even "written up" on the front page of the "Old Paths Advocate," the main party journal. I was not permitted to reply with equal space. The interpretation you place on the verse in the latter part of your essay relating to division and unity is an interesting one. Hadn't thought about the verse in that connection before, which merely reveals my limitations. What you say makes sense, and may be right.

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Al, Thanks for your support, prayers, and resource information on MDR. When one has believed a "no-remarriage theology," as I have for half a century, it is difficult to feel "okay" about remarriage -- especially when almost all the religious sects have been teaching against remarriage for almost 2,000 years. However, the theology that you and Rubel Shelly preach seems to "make sense" when the Bible is studied as a whole. May God bless you in His service!

From a Minister in Colorado:

Al, I wish this deacon (whom you quoted in your last Reflections) could have had the experience I had. I was in a similar class taught by one of our elders. The same subject came up: instrumental music. I suggested we have one of our talented members in our class, who plays a guitar and sings, bring one of his spiritual songs to the class the next Sunday morning and sing it. He did, and it was well-received. As a result of this class, our congregation now is able to have an instrumental number in our Sunday morning service when it fits into the overall lesson and worship theme. We still have a long way to go, but I am thankful for the progress we have made. Thanks to our elders, who are willing to study issues and keep an open mind, we have been able to look at many traditions as being just that -- traditions, and not laws that affect our salvation. I hope the deacon to whom you alluded in your article will not lose heart. It has taken our congregation a lot of prayers, study and patience to get where we are today.

From a Minister in Kentucky:

Thank you so much for your well-timed article on Antagonists in the Church. Our elders are currently dealing with a handful of antagonists in our congregation. These elders will be greatly encouraged by your current issue of Reflections. Thanks!

From a Reader in California:

Al, Once again ... on my way to bed way too late ... I read a wonderful article on antagonistic people in the church. Based on my years of experience with such, I found the murmurers, grumblers, complainers, faultfinders and disgruntled persons in the church were not always those who were opposed to the leaders and their vision, but were often actually the leaders themselves who had no vision!! Thanks for the article. As usual, I emailed it about. I hope you never start charging for this, for I will surely be in serious trouble!!

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Al, "Murmuring Members" could not have been presented at a better time. As one who is currently under attack by a few murmuring members, it hit home and offered the good advice I needed to just keep plugging away. Seems to me that shepherds who were really interested in the flock would come to the defense of a sheep under attack, rather than just looking the other way. Just today I reread your article on Reciprocity and found myself needing to truly forgive these antagonists, as I still want God to fully forgive me of my sins. Keep up the good work; I need the encouragement that your work gives me.

From a Reader in California:

Al, In your latest article you mentioned the leprosy Miriam received for being critical of Moses. Thought you might get a chuckle out of the following. Our small group is currently engaged in a review of the Old Testament (we meet in our home). At the last session we covered the leprosy given to Miriam following her condemnation of Moses for marrying a Cushite (Black). The leprosy made her "like snow." My wife remarked that it was as if God was saying to Miriam, "Since you like white skin so well, I'll give you white skin!" There was considerable laughter from our group ... which is composed of white, black, Filipinos, Latinos, Indonesians, and Indians (from India).

From a Minister in Florida:

Al, Thanks for reflecting on the disgruntled. In a class setting, I have found that asking questions properly, and expository preaching/teaching, covers a multitude of misguided interpretations. For example, few of our brethren are willing to look honestly at the real context of Ephesians 5:15-20 as a backdrop for understanding why the instrument has caused so much contention. It is ironic that the people who shout "truth" the loudest, are the same people that refuse to consider it.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

Brother Al, you give us all courage to fight for the truth. I have been very discouraged at times, and at times have grown weary and thought about giving up. If others are unwilling to listen, why fight the battle? But then I look about me, and I realize that these are good people. It's not their fault that they were taught legalism. Nor, was it necessarily the fault of those who taught it to them. It has been passed down from generation to generation, but the truth must eventually prevail. And it won't happen overnight. It probably won't even completely happen at my congregation during my remaining lifetime. But I'm making progress. It's little by little. We are starting to use NIV bibles now, and openly read and study from them. We now openly acknowledge the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. So things can change, but you have to use diplomacy and inch them along.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

I love the term "religious Rottweiler." And those of us who have been on the receiving end know exactly what it is like to have one of those church "watchdogs" latch on and not let go. Heaven forbid that you should say something that they take out of context, or misinterpret, or just simply misunderstand, because in their tunnel vision of the Scriptures they will label you and tout it all through the brotherhood! Thanks, Al, for another insightful and challenging article. I sent it to my home church and to my Sunday school class.

From a New Reader in Illinois:

Al, I want to thank you for adding me to the distribution list for your Reflections. In perusing the archives, I've found your writings to be uplifting and encouraging. I'm in my mid-30's and have in the past few years returned to faith after a long period of unfaithfulness. I was raised in a Church of Christ, in the Indianapolis area, on a steady diet of the "One True Church" and hell, fire, and brimstone sermons born out of the CENI hermeneutic. As I look back, I realize that my faith was thin and fear-based. I am struggling now to deal with a growing, deep-seated anger that I have for the Church of Christ tradition in which I was raised. However, I know that the Stone-Campbell tradition has many commendable aspects -- your writing reminds me of that, and so I thank you for it. I've started working on a MA in Theology and am finding joy in encountering the Scriptures again. I want to take the Bible seriously, and I'm trying to break out of that CENI hermeneutic. I want to figure out a more consistent approach to learning and thinking about God and his Word. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your writings and your views.

From a Minister in Mississippi:

For some time now I have been enjoying your dialogue in your weekly Reflections. As a minister in Mississippi I have been overwhelmed by what God has allowed me to do through exegetical preaching. I have simply introduced my people to the grace of God -- and they have embraced it -- and it is amazing to see God work in their hearts. What we who have been freed must learn is to love those brethren who are still enslaved to the Old Paths. Thank you so much for your weekly Reflections, and for the concepts you explore.

From an Elder in North Carolina:

Al, I did a review of your Reflections article -- Murmuring Members -- at the area wide luncheon we had today for all congregations in the area, and it was very well-received. Thanks!

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