Paul opens up his letter to the Corinthians thanking God for the good work of grace begun in them, but quickly moves to admonish them on their internal conflicts. There were cliques in the Corinthian church, and this was dividing up the one Christ. Paul is even willing to rebuke the group of Paul-cheerleaders. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). Of course not. Paul is willing to chastise all factions, even those formed in the name of Paul.
Paul next explains that he carefully conducted his own ministry to avoid factions. That’s why he says what he does about baptism (“I thank God that I baptized none of you…” in 1:14-16). Paul is not diminishing the importance of baptism when he says that. He simply knew, from a human perspective, that some people are tempted to tie spiritual importance to the person baptizing them. So Paul painfully avoided baptizing people because he did not want spiritual significance attached to himself as the baptizer rather than the Name into which they were baptized. If people do that (attach significance to the baptizer rather than Christ), they are undermining Christ.
So what is Paul’s solution? In 1:17, he says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Paul did not want anything, even good and necessary ministry, to distract from the message of the gospel. Truly, it is necessary for new disciples to be baptized. But when people approach us to baptize them, and we know people might be tempted to say, “I was baptized by so-and-so,” we ought to consider not baptizing them. They are trying to attach special grace to their baptism through us instead of Christ. That is spiritually poisonous. It is pulling away from Christ, dividing him, and putting him in second place rather than first place. The significance of baptism is Jesus, not the baptizer.
As it is with baptism, so it is with preaching. Preaching is a good and necessary ministry. However, the significance of preaching is Jesus, not the preacher. The crucial problem is that by attaching significance to the baptizer or the preacher, the cross of Christ is treated as essentially powerless.
But from this important point Paul transitions to an even more important point. Not only do some ways of “doing ministry” (i.e., baptism) distract from Christ, but also some ways of proclaiming that very gospel distract from Christ. Here Paul points to “words of eloquent wisdom.” Paul did not want unbelievers (or believers) to be attracted to the gospel of Christ because of the eloquence of the message. That too emptied the preaching of the gospel of its power, for the ultimate issue became the way the message was delivered rather than message of the cross and its glorious power to deliver sinners from the divine wrath of a just God.
What Paul says in 1:17 is astonishing. The implication is that when men rest on eloquence, it empties the cross of Christ of its power. When you give the message of the cross a crutch, the message never stands by itself. When we allow ourselves to think that relevance is in any way necessary for people to believe the gospel, we are in effect trying to put make-up on Jesus, like he just isn’t pretty enough by himself. The sad truth is that we hand the gospel all kinds of crutches. Sometimes it’s our slick visitor packets, or our electronic church sign, or our exciting programs. We put make-up on Jesus all the time, thinking our church’s friendliness, music, or website will make Jesus easier for the unbeliever to swallow.
I am not arguing for the eradication of all these things from the church. Nor is this to say that we should be careless in how we say things. On the contrary, I believe we ought to strive to speak clearly and intelligibly. We must work at clearly communicating the gospel so that in its clarity people understand what Jesus did for them on the cross and his resurrection. (I am not willing to concede, however, that all that Christians do in corporate worship must be immediately accessible or intelligible to unbelievers.) Moreover, speaking with such clarity takes work. But the moment we think that our clarity in proclaiming the message actually does something for making the message more easily received, we should hop in the get-away car, because we just robbed the message of the cross of its power.