Before he ascended back into heaven, Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). After this, in about ten days’ time, the apostles baptized the first of their converts. Luke mentions “in the name of Jesus Christ,” (Acts 2:38, for example) but not “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
Does the Lord’s command in Matthew 28:19 demand that a specific “formula” be spoken at the time of baptism? Must the administrator of baptism speak certain words in an exacting way in order for the immersion to be scripturally valid? Did the disciples carry out Christ’s command of Matthew 28:19?
Mentions in the book of Acts
- Acts 2:38 be baptized...in the name of Jesus Christ
- Acts 2:38 baptistheto ekastos humon epi to onomati Iesou Christou
- Acts 8:16 they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus
- Acts 8:16 bebaptismenoi huperchon eis to onoma tou Kuriou Iesou
- Acts 10:48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord
- Acts 10:48 baptisthenai en to onomati tou Kuriou
- Acts 19:5 they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus
- Acts 19:5 ebaptisthesan eis to onoma tou Kuriou Iesou
- Acts 8:37-38 I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God...and he baptized him.
- Acts 22:16 arise, and be baptized… calling on the name of the Lord.
- Romans 6:3 baptized into Jesus Christ
- 1 Corinthians 1:13, 15 …were ye baptized in the name of Paul?...lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name.
- Galatians 3:27 baptized into Christ
The Didache (an early writing similar to a “church manual”) in 7:4 says, “But concerning the baptism [immersion], thus immerse; having stated all these things, immerse into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” [i]
Tertullian, writing “Against Praxeas, Chapter 26” circa AD 216, said, “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.”[ii]
Cyprian of Carthage (Epistle 72:18, circa AD 253) also invokes baptism under the Trinitarian formula, writing, “Finally, when, after the resurrection, the apostles are sent by the Lord to the heathens, they are bidden to baptize the Gentiles in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost…Christ Himself commands the heathen to be baptized in the full and united Trinity?”[iii]
Intriguingly, in Summa Theologicae (circa AD 1265–1274), Thomas Aquinas argued that “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” was the suitable form of baptism and that “in the name of Jesus” was only valid in the primitive church: “It was by a special revelation from Christ that in the primitive church the apostles baptized in the name of Christ.”
The 1644 London Baptist Confession does not mention the formula of names used in baptism. The Standard Confession of 1660 advised “to Baptise (that is in English to Dip) in the name of the Father, Son, and holy Spirit, or in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” However, the more influential London Baptist Confession of 1689 and Philadelphia Confession of Faith of 1742 assert, “The outward element to be used in this ordinance is water, wherein the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
The New Hampshire Confession of Faith of 1833, once in widespread use in the United States, declares, “We believe that Christian Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, into the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Some denominational groups, such as the United Pentecostal movement, use the Acts passages as a baptismal formula – that is, the words spoken when baptizing a person. United Pentecostals are Unitarians rather than Trinitarians, so that the “Trinitarian formula” of Matthew 28:19 is inimical to their theology. To them, “Jesus Christ” is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. E. W. Bullinger, an ultra-dispensationalist theologian who finds the origin of the church after the end of the book of Acts, believes there are two different formulas. In Matthew 28:19-20 he finds “the commission of the Jewish ministry at the end of this age” and then “the baptism ‘in’ or ‘into’ the name of the Lord Jesus in Acts, &c, was the continuation of John’s baptism for a while, i.e. during the transitional period of Acts until the mystery was openly revealed and fully proclaimed. Then, the baptism of Eph. 4:5 supervened and still maintains.”[iv]
Some views of “the baptismal formula”
- “In the name of” means “by authority of” (as in, “Stop, in the name of the law!”)
- Baptism “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” and “in the name of Jesus” mean the same thing. Both/either is valid.
- Only baptism when the administrator says “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” is valid.
- Only baptism when the administrator says “In the name of Jesus” is valid. “When Jesus said to baptize ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ he was referring to his own name.”
- The formula, or words spoken, should (or may) combine both ideas, such as, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, and into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
[ii] Tertullian advocated “trine immersion,” continuing, “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.”
[iii] Cyprian seems to hold baptism as a means of salvation: “How, then, do some say, that a Gentile baptized without, outside the Church, yea, and in opposition to the Church, so that it be only in the name of Jesus Christ, everywhere, and in whatever manner, can obtain remission of sin…”
[iv] Bullinger, “The Formulae of Baptism in Acts and the Epistles (in relation to Matt. 28:19, 20),” in The Companion Bible, Appendix 185, p. 206.