Friday, February 14, 2014

In Whose Name Should We Baptize?

In a recent conversation with a oneness pentecostal, the following question came up: what is the proper formula for baptizing a believer? Should we follow the Trinitarian formula of Christ in Matthew 28:19-20 or the formula utilized by the apostles throughout Acts? Though on the surface it appears to be the theological splitting of hairs, but in many ways it is actually a debate between orthodox and heterodox Christianity. The most prominent voices promoting the view that we ought to baptize "in the name of Jesus" only are modalists and oneness pentecostals.

Modalism is heresy.

Biblical Evidence

To begin, let us look at the biblical evidence.
  • Matthew 28:19-20 - Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
  • Acts 2:38 - Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [1] 
  • Acts 10:48 -  And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.
  • Acts 19:5 -  When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
You will note what appears to be a major problem. Though Jesus instructed His apostles to baptize with a Trinitarian formula, the apostles clearly baptized only in the name of Jesus Christ.


How we interpret this are numerous, but I want to highlight just two. First, there is the method of oneness pentecostalism and modalism which argue that God is one who has manifested Himself in three different modes. Though this is an oversimplification, many will say that in the Old Testament God revealed Himself as Father, in the Gospels God revealed Himself as Son, and since the Day of Pentecost God has been manifesting Himself in the form of the Holy Spirit.

Often when we think of the Trinity, many use the dangerous illustration of water. Water has three modes -- liquid, gas, and solid. God, it is said, is like water. The problem with this illustration is it contradicts orthodox teaching about the Trinity. The water illustration reflects modalism, not Trinitarianism.

The question regarding the baptismal formula in the New Testament is especially important to modalists like oneness pentecostals because it seems to support their view. They would say that in Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus calls on His followers to baptize in the singular name which has revealed itself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why the apostles baptize in the name of Jesus.

The other option is to reject modalism, adopt the Trinitarian formula, and look again at what Luke describes (rather than prescribes) in Acts. This is the view taken here and defended below.


So, having rejected modalism for reasons that go beyond this post, how do orthodox Trinitarians understand this issue? Consider the following points.

1. Baptizing in the Name of Jesus Distinguished Between the Baptisms of Jesus and Others

When the apostles baptized in the name of Jesus they were simultaneously not baptizing in the name of anyone else. In the New Testament, the only other "name" (if you will) people were being baptized by was John the Baptist. Yet he was not the only baptizer in 1st century Israel.

This issue is most clearly seen in Acts 19:1-7.
It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men.
 In verse 3, the disciples say they were baptized "into John's baptism." Although they do not say they were baptized in the "name" of John the Baptist (and we have no reason to think John the Baptist ever baptized anyone in his name), it is clear that by being baptized by John, they were being baptized into his message. They were followers of John, not Jesus. Paul, then, explains that they have not embraced the full gospel. They need to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. John the Baptist prepared Israel for Christ, but only Christ saves.

In summary, by baptizing in the name of Jesus, the apostles were differentiating their message from all of the others most notably John the Baptist.

2. We cannot miss the Trinitarian formula of Acts 2:32-33.

Often Acts 2:38 is cited as one of the main text to defend oneness baptism. The problem with this is context. In Acts 2:32-33, we clearly see the Trinity mentioned:
32 This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. 33 Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.
I will not go into detail here regarding the Trinity, but it is clearly there. Each person is distinct from the other. In Acts, the saved are baptized. That does not mean, however, that baptism saves. Thus when Peter preached the gospel, he clearly preached a Trinitarian message.

3. "In the name of Jesus" means "in the authority of Jesus."

For much of the following, credit belongs to Matt Slick of Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries. This debate assumes that "in the name of Jesus" is an actual formula. Yet it is not. When the apostles baptized in the name of Jesus they were actually proclaiming the name of the one in whose authority they are baptizing.

Slick provides the following passages as proof.
  • Acts 4:7-10 - When they had placed them in the center, they began to inquire, “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health.
  • Acts 3:6 -  But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!”
  • Acts 16:18 - 18 She continued doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” And it came out at that very moment.
  • 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 - In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:11 - 11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
  • Ephesians 5:20 - 20 always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father;
  • 2 Thessalonians 3:6 - Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
It is clear from these examples that "in the name of Jesus" is not merely a formula, but a way of expressing authority. In Acts 4:7-10, Peter heals "in the name of," or by the authority and power of, Jesus. Paul does the same in Acts 16:18. Similarly, Paul exercises apostolic authority by the phrase "in the name of" 2 Thessalonians 3:6.

This is all to say that the phrase "in the name of" is much broader than a baptismal formula. For more on this argument, consider the following video:

4. The Post-Apostolic Church Practiced the Trinitarian Formula

Consider the following from the Didache 7:1
After the foregoing instructions, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living [running] water. If you have no living water, then baptize in other water, and if you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, pour water three times on the head, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Before baptism, let the one baptizing and the one to be baptized fast, as also any others who are able. Command the one who is to be baptized to fast beforehand for one or two days.
Though the Didache is not Scriptural we ought not overlook its historic importance. The formula adopted by the early church was Trinitarian.

5. Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

There are various genres in the Bible; poetry, proverbs, parables, prose, and others. It is important for the interpreter to respect these genres and interpret appropriately. Not everything in a narrative or a parable ought to be applied. Some details in parables are simply details. Some descriptions in narratives are part of the setting and plot and nothing else.

Acts is primarily narrative and thus not everything in Acts is prescriptive. This issue is one such example. Luke is describing the work of the apostles in the early church, he is not prescribing for us a baptismal formula. Matthew 28:19-20, on the other hand, is a prescriptive text. Jesus is commanding us to make disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Though there is much more that could (and perhaps should) be said on this topic, I trust it is sufficient. As is often in theology, what appears to be debates among ivory tower elites or people with too much time on their hands actually reflects deeper, more serious theological beliefs. This issue is important to modalists because, to them, it proves their heresy. The same is true with oneness Pentecostalism. Nevertheless, let us not leave here believing that a baptismal formula is mystical or powerful. There is nothing salvific in getting wet or saying certain words. What matters, ultimately, is the gospel - repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

[1] I am aware of the debate regarding baptism regeneration here (a doctrine I reject), but am not interested in debating that here.
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