The Baptismal Formula

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This article is one in a series of studies on baptism - you are currently on the topic that is in bold:

The Question

We have received a number of questions that specifically relate to the baptismal formula (the words said over the person being baptized). Here is an amalgam of some of the questions we have received:

No one was ever baptized by the Apostles in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. If it was permissible then surely there would be some record in scripture that baptism could or should be in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But this does not exist.
If I am not wrong, Apostle John died in 100 AD and first evidence of baptism in the in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit was that of Justin Martyr who was also born in 100 AD.
By that time the Church started to drift away from the original teaching of the Apostles. Polycarp the direct disciple of John the Baptist fought against it tooth and nail. The feast of Passover was changed to the festival of Good Friday and Easter. Polycarp opposed it and finally was killed.
Change in the mode of the formula to Christian Baptism is seen right after the death of the Apostles and many changes in the faith and teaching of the Apostles were also made during that period. And that is how the baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit was introduced in the Church.
Show me at least one Scripture where the Apostles have baptized the believers in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. There is none. And hence it can not be a part of our teaching and faith.
The name of Jesus is given to us, as the meaning of this word is “Jehovah is My Salvation.’ Words as Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not mean that, “Jehovah is My Salvation.’ And hence you have to take the name of Jesus while baptizing a person. Now there are many persons in the Bible who had name Jesus but there is only one Jesus who is Lord and Christ that is our Lord Jesus Christ and hence you must add Christ or Lord to the name of Jesus. That is why Apostle Paul said in Colossians 3:17 - 'And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.'

This article attempts to answer this question.

Answer

I do not believe that a person being baptized in a sincere attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus can be excluded from the body of Christ solely on following Matt 28:19 rather than the examples outlined in the book of Acts. What is important is not the exact words that are said. Rather, it is that it is clear that the person is making a public declaration of their faith in Jesus Christ through water baptism. It is important to understand that:

  1. water baptism is not the means of salvation. The basis of condemnation is unbelief only.
  2. Baptism is "the promise made to God from a good conscience. It saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone to heaven and is at the right-hand side of God, ruling over all angels and heavenly authorities and powers.[1]
  3. Both the Acts 2:38 formula and the Matthew 28:19 formula are acceptable because they are both based in scripture.
  4. While baptism in the name of Jesus Christ (or a similar variant) may be the preferred method of baptism for some, those espousing the Acts 2:38 formula cannnot exclude those baptized in accordance with Matthew 28:19. If someone comes to faith in Christ, publicly declares that faith, and is then baptized in the Matthew 28:19 formula as shown in example #2 above, there is no basis to excluded from the church on any reasonable grounds. "Man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.[2]

We deal with this in more detail below.

The Scriptural Witness

Matthew 28:18-20

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”[3]

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.[4]

Acts 8:14-16

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.[5]

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.[6]

Acts 19:5

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.[7]

Romans 6:3

Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?[8]

Examples

Here are a few examples from personal experience.

Example #1

I attended a baptismal service in Hawaii a number of years ago and was asked to assist in the baptism of several new converts. I was astounded by the baptismal formula that this pastor used. As the individual was immersed in water (in the ocean) the pastor said these words:

I now baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. I baptize you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I baptize you in the name of Adonai Yeshua HaMashiach.

I told the pastor after the service that he had definitely covered all the bases. No one could ever take exception to how he baptized people.

Example #2

I was later at a baptismal service at a Mennonite Brethren church. As each person came to be baptized, they said a few words of testimony regarding their new faith in Jesus and then were asked a series of questions each of which was answered in the affirmative and then they were baptized. The dialogue when something like this:

Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving of eternal punishment, and that you can do nothing to earn God’s favor by your own efforts?
I do
Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is God’s one and only remedy for your sin, and the only provision for your salvation?
I do
Do you acknowledge that by your identification with Christ by faith you died to sin and were raised to newness of life in Him?
I do
Is it your intention to live a different kind of life because of your trust in Jesus and the new life He has given you?
It is
On the basis of your profession of faith in Jesus Christ, it is my privilege to baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Given the whole focus on confirming the new convert's faith in Jesus Christ, I have no problem with how this church baptized people.

Example #3

We were at a baptismal service in a message church where a person was baptized by one of the deacons in the name of the Jesus Christ. After the baptism was over, the pastor stood up and required the deacon to immediately rebaptized the person in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Such actions demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of water baptism. There are no "magic words" that are required to be pronounced over the person being baptized. Baptism is "the promise made to God from a good conscience. It saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who has gone to heaven and is at the right-hand side of God, ruling over all angels and heavenly authorities and powers.[9]

Derivation from a Oneness Christology

When I left the message, I discarded everything that I had been taught while in the message. I started from scratch and decided to fully embrace "confessional orthodoxy" - the doctrines which the church has always believed. Because message theology was strongly influenced by the Oneness Pentecostal movement, there is a tendency to hold onto some of those same beliefs.

If one leaves the message and does not re-examine all of their "message tainted" beliefs, it is likely they will be at odds with some of the beliefs that the church has always held.

According to oneness teaching, the only valid baptism is in “Jesus’ name” and not “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Trinitarian baptism is seen as a Roman Catholic error that was forced on the church in the Nicaean Creed in A.D. 325. Therefore, anyone who received Trinitarian baptism was not fully Christian.[10]

Please go to our article on Oneness theology for detailed information on specific doctrinal issues.

If you use the wrong formula are you out?

What is the status of those who have been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in accordance with Matthew 28:19?

Are they unsaved? Do they have reduced status? According to William Branham, they can't received the gift of the Holy Spirit. If they are out, then the list of people who would be excluded from Christianity would include:

  1. John Wycliffe, d. 1384
  2. Jan Huss, d. 1411
  3. William Tyndale, d.1536
  4. Martin Luther, d. 1546
  5. Menno Simons, d. 1561
  6. John Foxe, d. 1587
  7. Jacob Arminius, d. 1609  
  8. John Bunyan, d. 1688
  9. Isaac Watts, d.1748
  10. Jonathan Edwards, d. 1758
  11. George Whitfield, d. 1770
  12. John Wesley, d. 1791
  13. John Newton, d. 1807
  14. Francis Asbury, d. 1816
  15. William Wilberforce, d. 1833
  16. William Carey, d. 1834
  17. Elizabeth Fry, d. 1845
  18. Adoniram Judson, d. 1850
  19. Phoebe Palmer, d. 1874
  20. Charles Finney, d. 1875
  21. Catherine Booth, d. 1890
  22. Charles Spurgeon, d. 1892
  23. George Müller, d. 1898
  24. William Gladstone, d. 1898
  25. Dwight Lyman Moody, d. 1899
  26. James Hudson Taylor, d. 1905
  27. Clara Swain, d. 1910
  28. William Booth, d. 1912
  29. Harriet Tubman, d. 1913
  30. Fanny Crosby, d. 1915
  31. Oswald Chambers, d. 1917
  32. Fanny Crosby, d. 1915
  33. Pandita Ramabai, d. 1922
  34. Billy Sunday, d. 1935
  35. C. S. Lewis, d. 1963
  36. Billy Graham, d. 2018 

These are just a few of the giants of the Christian faith who were baptized "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

If you can't exclude these people, why would you exclude anyone baptized currently in the "Trinitarian baptismal formula"?

Our view is that you can't.

What does the scriptural witness tell us?

What is clear from the scriptural references is that there was no "magic formula" for water baptism. There are no exact words that are required to be spoken. As opposed to what William Branham taught, there is certainly no requirement that when a person is baptized, the words must be spoken over them... "I baptize you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ."

There are a couple of additional points of interest.

When Jesus stated “...baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...”, it is not “in the names of” but “in the name of.” The Greek is very clearly singular. There is only one name referenced. “The name” is used of Jesus and God in many places in the NT. This is the name of the one God, much as it says in Phil 2.9: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name”

The second is that the text uses “eis” (usually “into”) rather than “en” (usually “in”). This fits with the point that there are no magic words. It is not as if a specific formula for baptism is in mind. That would have required “en”. While “eis” can have the meaning of “en”, it has more the flavor of an almost directional movement into fellowship with the entity referred by “the name.”

I think there is good textual reason for the conclusion that Matt 28:19 is not an alternative to the baptismal statements elsewhere in Acts but rather is entirely consistent with them. Baptism is “into” the fellowship of “the name.”

Finally, it is not very likely that Matt 28:19 contains the exact words of Jesus, of course, because he normally spoke in Aramaic not Greek, but we can assume that the translation was made as it is for good reason.

It is also interesting to note that only in the book of Acts are there actual references to the baptismal formula. We can't really know what any of the other apostles said when they baptized converts. What did Matthew say? We don't know.

When did the baptismal formula change?

When was the first person baptized in the Trinitarian baptismal formula? We don't know. But it was certainly hundreds of years earlier than the date proposed by William Branham. Could it have been that some were baptizing in the Trinitarian formula during the time of the disciples? That is definitely possible. Again, we just don't know and it is impossible to arrive at any definitive conclusion.

Why did the baptismal formula change?

If the primary formula for baptism changed, it was likely that it had to do with counteracting false teaching on the Godhead.

There was error around when the apostles were still on the earth. However, those false teachings later developed into false doctrine and the church counteracted that with "orthodoxy", which simply means "right teaching."

Some of the more significant heresies prior to the Nicene Council were:

  • Gnosticism
  • Sabellianism
  • Adoptionism
  • Arianism
  • Marcionism
  • Ebionism

Cyprian (c. 210 – 258 AD) was a bishop of Carthage in North Africa. He wrote the following:

Since, therefore, from the preaching and testimony of Christ Himself, the Father who sent must be first known, then afterwards Christ, who was sent, and there cannot be a hope of salvation except by knowing the two together; how, when God the Father is not known, nay, is even blasphemed, can they who among the heretics are said to be baptized in the name of Christ, be judged to have obtained the remission of sins?[11]

The Historical Record of the Church

The Didache

The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didachē means "Teaching" in Greek) is a brief early Christian treatise, dated by most scholars to the late first or early 2nd century.[12] Some even date it as contemporary with the books of the New Testament (c. A.D.40-60).[13]

However, because of references in literature from the early 4th century, no scholars date the Didache as later than the 3rd century, which is prior to the Nicene Council.

With respect to water baptism, the Didache states:

And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...

Church Fathers

Baptism has been in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at least from the end of the 1st century. Some passages in Acts (2:38, 10:48, and 19:5) speak of Baptism ‘in the name of (the Lord) Jesus (Christ)’, but whether this formula was ever used has been questioned.[14]

But what is the proof behind this statement?

Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165 AD)

JUSTIN, the Martyr, having spoken of the preparations of the applicants for baptism, adds: “they are then conducted by us to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated, after the same mode of regeneration, wherein we ourselves were regenerated, for they then are washed in the water, in the name of the Father and Lord God of all, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Ghost.[15]

There is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed, calling him by his name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.”[16]

Tertullian

After his resurrection he promises in a pledge to his disciples that he will send them the promise of his Father; and lastly, he commands them to baptize into the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, not into a unipersonal God. And indeed it is not once only, but three times, that we are immersed into the three persons, at each several mention of their names" (Against Praxeas 26 - A.D. 216).

Origen

"The Lord himself told his disciples that they should baptize all peoples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit . . . for indeed, legitimate baptism is had only in the name of the Trinity" (Commentary on Romans 5:8 - A.D. 248).

Reference to Polycarp

It is true that Polycarp did get embroiled in the dispute over the date which Easter should be celebrated (see our article on the Controversy over the Date of Easter).

However, this is strange given Paul's admonition in Colossians 2:16:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.[17]

Some baptismal formulas that would not be acceptable

It is clear that someone baptized in the name of William Branham (yes, it happens) would not have undergone Christian baptism.

I would also have significant reservations if someone were baptized as follows:

Given that you believe that God sent William Branham, the last prophet to the last age, I now baptize you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ."

If is clear that such baptism is not based on faith in Jesus Christ but rather in faith in William Branham as a prophet. This is not what baptism is for.


Footnotes

  1. American Bible Society, The Holy Bible: The Good News Translation, 2nd ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1992), 1 Peter 3:21–22.
  2. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Sa 16:7.
  3. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 28:18–20.
  4. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ac 2:38.
  5. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ac 8:14–16.
  6. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ac 10:48.
  7. The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Ac 19:5.
  8. New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Ro 6:3.
  9. American Bible Society, The Holy Bible: The Good News Translation, 2nd ed. (New York: American Bible Society, 1992), 1 Pe 3:21–22.
  10. Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901–2001 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 141.
  11. Cyprian of Carthage, “The Epistles of Cyprian,” in Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 383.
  12. The Apostolic Fathers: The Didache, 2006, Draper, J. A., The Expository Times, Vol. 117, No.5, pp.177–81
  13. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (SCM Press 1976)
  14. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 151.
  15. Basil of Caesarea, A Treatise on Baptism and A Treatise on Confirmation, trans. Francis Patrick Kenrick (Philadelphia: M. Fithian, 1843), 107.
  16. Wri. of Justin, pp. 59, 60. Clark’s Edi. as quoted in R. Ingham, A Handbook of Christian Baptism: Subjects, vol. II (London: E. Stock, 1871), 429.R. Ingham, A Handbook of Christian Baptism: Subjects, vol. II (London: E. Stock, 1871), 429.
  17. The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Col 2:16.


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