Is a “Word Formula” Required in Administering Baptism?
“A friend of mine contends that Matthew 28:18-20 does not apply to us today (i.e., baptism into name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). He says that from the day of Pentecost onward, baptism was administered only in the name of Jesus. Would you comment on this?”
There are several things to be said in response to this unwarranted assumption. The gentleman obviously is under the impression that there is a particular word-formula that must be recited when the rite of baptism is being administered. This misconception is at the heart of the error he espouses. We offer the following observations regarding this matter.
- It is irresponsible to contend that the Lord instructed his apostles to baptize “into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), then to contend they never did this, and that to practice precisely what the Savior said to do would be wrong. Did Christ command baptism “into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”? Yes he did. Did the apostles obey him? One must assume they did. If they did obey him, when did they do so? Was such confined exclusively to that ten-day period between the Lord’s ascension, and the day of Pentecost? There is no evidence at all supporting the view that the Commission, as framed by Matthew, was temporal in nature. The fact is, the blessing attached to the charge (“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”) clearly argues for the Commission’s long-term duration.
- No passage in the New Testament, which mentions baptizing “into” the “name” of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (or “into” Christ, or “in” his “name”), has reference to what is being said at the time of the immersion. Each text depicts what is being done with slightly different emphases, depending upon the grammatical construction. There is no allusion whatever to a formalized “language code” that is required in order to validate the immersion.
- It is very obvious that there is no precise phraseology associated with baptism, even in terms of what is being done. The texts relating to this matter are varied in the original language.
Matthew says “baptizing them into (eis) the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Luke uses such phrases as “baptized in (epi) the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38), “baptized into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16), “baptized in (en) the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48), or “baptized into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).
If one assumes that the New Testament is inspired of God, and thus without contradiction, then each of these texts is correct. They are not in conflict but simply are discussing the relationship of baptism to the divine Godhead from slightly different angles. In none of these texts is a “word formula” being prescribed (see J.H. Thayer’s discussion of “name,” Greek-English Lexicon, Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1958, p. 447).
The issue has been well summarized by Harold Mare and Hobart Freeman.
“The meaning of baptism in the name of Jesus varies slightly according to the Greek preposition used. In Acts 2:38 Peter exhorted the Jews to repent and be baptized in or upon (epi) the name of Jesus Christ, resting upon His authority and being devoted to Him. Later Peter instructed Cornelius to be baptized in (en) the name of Jesus Christ, acting on His authority [Acts 10:48]. Three passages use eis (Mt. 28:19; Acts 8:16; 19:5) plus the parallel phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27). A study of these verses along with the verb baptizo and eis in 1 Cor. 1:13; 10:2; 12:13 indicates that the one baptized is identified with Christ (or Paul or Moses) and passes into new ownership or partnership with Him, with new loyalty and fellowship” (Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, C.F. Pfeiffer, H. F. Vos, John Rea, eds., Peabody, MA, 2003, p. 1176).
The fact of the matter is, if one is immersed “in the name of Jesus,” i.e., by his authority, then his baptism must be “into the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” for this is precisely what Christ himself authorized (Matthew 28:19). Again, though, it must be stressed that this does not refer to any spoken word-formula, but rather emphasizes the aim or goal of the baptism.
Finally, if the expression “in the name of” represented a verbal pattern that is required in the pronouncement of those exact words, then one would have to repeat that phrase every time he did anything, for Paul commands that “whatsoever you do, in word or in deed” must be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17).
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.