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The Great Baptism Formula Debate: Matthew 28:19 or Acts 2:38

Jesus’ final designation to His followers states:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (NLT)

Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (GNT)

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (NLT)

And teach them to obey everything I have commanded you. And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (GNT)


Baptizing into the Name

Baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit….I baptize you in Jesus name…I baptize you in Christ name

Is this a formula? And if it is a formula, what if these exact words are not used?

According to Richard Hollerman of TrueDiscipleship, “This traditional “triadic” formula is found in the second century church manual of discipline known as the Didache (ca. AD 120-150). The unknown writer of this work directs those who would baptize a convert: “Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. After you have spoken all these things, ‘baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ in running water” (7:1). Justin Martyr, writing in the mid-second century, also describes baptism as practiced in his day: “For at that time they obtain for themselves the washing in water in the name of God the Master of all and Father, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” It might be noted that Justin did not consider the exact wording of Matthew 28:19 essential as long as all three (God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit) were recognized. Later in the same century, about AD 190, Irenaeus writes that “we have received baptism for remission of sins in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became incarnate and died and was raised, and in the Holy Spirit of God.” Tertullian, a few years later, writes substantially the same: “The ‘paths are made straight’ by the washing away of sins, which faith obtains, sealed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Check as well, the practice among historic denominations – “The Episcopal Church would hold the same view: “As a sacrament Baptism is not valid unless it is administered ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ as commanded by the Lord himself in Matthew 28:19.” The “Confession of Faith” of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church states: “The outward element to be used in this sacrament is water, wherewith the party is to be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, by an ordained minister of the gospel.”The Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention states: “Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Finally, the “Statement of Faith” of the Pentecostal Church of God states that their members believe in “water baptism by immersion for believers only, which is a direct commandment of our Lord, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”(Hollerman, 2020).

Regardless of the practice, one must seek to be biblically accurate on the issue. Consider the original text and the context:

“Baptizontes autous eis to onoma tou patros kai tou huiou kai tou hagiou pneumatos.”

Translation (Greek text):  “Immersing them into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

In New Testament days, “the phrase eis (to) onoma tinos is frequent in the papyrii with reference to payments made ‘to the account of any one’…(Hollerman).

As part of the transaction, the person concerned is “the possession of and comes under the protection of the one whose name he bears; he is under the control of the effective power of the name and the One who bears the name, i.e., he is dedicated to them” (Hollerman). Cottrell (1989) states, “a person’s name was considered to be intrinsically related to the person himself, representing his qualities, his character and his nature”(p. 16). Baptism therefore signifies union with God (taking on His name); one becomes an acquired property (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 1 Pet. 1:18-19); sealed with Christ, marked as His property (Eph. 1:13; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:12).

Note – “the baptized disciple is united with, enters into a relationship with, becomes the possession of, and becomes a disciple of the person who is referred to as the object of the preposition” (Hollerman).

Regarding the word “name” (of) – Greek word onoma, it refers to:

1.       Reputation: “And King Herod heard of it, for His Name had become well known” (Mark 6:14). “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man” (Luke 6:22). “A good name is to be more desired than great riches” (Prov. 22:1a). “A good name is better than a good ointment” (Eccles. 7:1a). 2. Authority: “By what power, or in what name, have you done this?” (Acts 4:7). “Your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake” (1 John 2:12b). “You were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). “I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him” (John 5:43). “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled. . .” (1 Cor. 5:4a). 3. Character: “And James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means ‘Sons of Thunder’)” (Mark 3:17). 4. Rank or category: “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:41-42). 5. Person or Personality: “A gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons [names] was there together” (Acts 1:15b). You have a few people [names] in Sardis who have not soiled their garments” (Rev. 3:4a; cf. v. 5; 11:13). 6. Titles or Descriptions: “And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6b; Isaiah 7:14). [Hollerman].

The Practice of Baptism

Given the weight of the above documentation, it is difficult to argue using the “formula” of Mat. 28:19. The argument is that recorded acts of baptism are merely “descriptive” (as in visual model; baptism in action; cf. Acts 8:15, 10:47, 19:5; Col. 2:12), not “prescriptive” (explicit language as in Mat. 28:19). Are we saying therefore, that to be orthodox one has to follow the prescriptive language of Mat. 28:19?

The move to the prescriptive language of Mat. 28:19 began around second and third centuries.

 Oneness Theological Position

Water Baptism is foundational (essential to salvation) to the life of the church as modeled by Jesus (Mat. 3:16-17; Acts 2:38)

o   Baptism was prefigured in the Old Testament (1 Pet. 3:20-1; 1 Cor. 10:1-5)

o   Baptism signifies union with Christ (Eph. 4:5; Gal. 3:28; Rom. 6:4)

o   Baptism is part of Christian initiation. It is obedience to God’s Word and Faith in Jesus

o   The name of Jesus must be invoked at baptism – identifying with the atoning work of Christ, His saving power, and the authority given (Mat. 28:19-20). Theologians Luther and Zwingli affirm the historic use of “Jesus name” at baptisms

o   Matthew 28:19 does not reflect a Trinity – it correctly reflects a “threeness” that is a manifestation of the Godhead (Col. 2:9)

o   Matthew 28:19 was not originally understood to be prescriptive. It was not until the second and third centuries that there was a departure from the normative practice of invoking “Jesus name, in the name of Christ” at baptisms.

o   Rebaptism is acceptable based on precedent (Acts 19:5)

Trinitarian Theological Position

Matthew 28:19 is prescriptive

o   The formula was used in the Didache (became the standard practice of the church)

o   Matthew 3:16-17 describes the “threeness” and serves as the reasoning for Jesus’ prescriptive command in Matthew 28:19 – an interaction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism signifies entry into a union (Father declared love for Son; Holy Spirit descended upon Son as witness of Father’s love)

o   Use of “Jesus name” is not discounted in the biblical accounts of baptism. Rather, “Jesus name” invoked brings a Christological focus to the occasion (Rom. 6:1-5)

o   There is no conflict between the two formulas. “God does not bind us to precise formulas, nor is God limited by them in the divine freedom to bless us in our acts of faith by God’s grace.”[2]

[1] Jack Cottrell, Baptism, College Publishing (1989), 15.

[2] Oneness Trinitarian Pentecostal Final Report 2002-7. Retrieved from https://web-b-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=b4624c4f-ff83-46ec-af2a-3f81714d4362%40pdc-v-sessmgr04


Written by Kevin A, Hall



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