Does God Require A Specific Verbal Formula To Be Said By A Baptizer To Make Baptism Valid? Part One: The Scriptures

Many religious groups teach that in order for a baptism to be valid, the baptizer must pronounce a certain verbal formula at the time of the baptism.

It is claimed that unless this specific formula is spoken, then the baptism is thus invalidated and made of no effect (in other words, the baptized person is not saved, even though he has as a believer repented of his sins, confessed his faith in Christ, and been baptized as Christ commanded).

One of these religious persuasions is known as the Oneness Pentecostal groups.  

“According to the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (DPCM), “Oneness Pentecostalism (OP) is a religious movement that emerged in 1914 within the Assemblies of God (AG) of the early American Pentecostal movement, challenging the traditional Trinitarian doctrine, and baptismal practice with a modalistic view of God, a revelational theory of the name of Jesus, and an insistence on rebaptism in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Hank Hanegraaff, The Bible Answer Book: Volume Two, 1170-1174 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

However to be fair, I have heard much of the same from my own brethren (i.e., there are some among the churches of Christ who claim that unless the baptizer says a specific formula at the time of baptism, then the baptized person is just getting wet).

What are we to make of this?

Let’s turn our attention to the Scriptures.

The Disputed Texts

Within the New Testament, we read many texts that attach the idea of being baptized with the phrase “in the name of.”

Please notice a few of the passages:

Matthew 28:19-Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them IN THE NAME OF the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

Acts 2:38-Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized IN THE NAME OF Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 8:16-16 For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized IN THE NAME OF the Lord Jesus.

Acts 10:48-48 And he commanded them to be baptized IN THE NAME OF the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Acts 19::5-When they heard this, they were baptized IN THE NAME OF the Lord Jesus.

Here are (most of) the texts under consideration.

Now we need to ask ourselves some very important questions as we examine this subject.

First, did the phrase “in the name of” have reference to a specific formula that had to be spoken by the baptizer?

Second, what did the early church (outside of the Bible) say about this matter?

Third, why did this “issue” become such a controversial matter?

In the interests of brevity, this article will only deal with the specific meaning of the phrase “in the name of.”

What Did The Phrase “In The Name Of” Actually Mean?  

When we carefully examine this phrase, I believe that we can determine that the phrase “in the name of” did not have reference to a specific verbal formula.

Notice three things.

First of all, the Bible tells us what the phrase “in the name of” means.

In Acts chapter four, we are told:

Acts 4:7-And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, “By what power or by what name have you done this?”

“In the name of” simply mean “by the authority of.”

Indeed, this is what the linguists of the New Testament Greek language have candidly acknowledged:

“(II) for all that a “name” implies, of authority, character, rank, majesty, power, excellence, etc., of everything that the “name” covers:…in recognition of the authority of (sometimes combined with the thought of relying or resting on),” (W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 45134-45151 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers)

“In Scripture, names were generally descriptive of the person, of his position, of some circumstance affecting him, hope entertained concerning him, etc., so that “the name” often came to stand for the person…In the New Testament onoma has frequently also the significance of denoting the “character,” or “work” of the person, e.g. Mt 1:21, “Thou shalt call his name Jesus; for it is he that shall save,” etc…..The “name of Jesus” represented His “authority” and “power,” e.g. working miracles in His name (Mt 7:22; Mr 9:39; Ac 4:7, ‘by what name (or “power”) have ye done this?’), and it is contrasted with casting out evil spirits by some other name or power (Ac 16:18; 19:17). The gospel, of salvation was to be preached “in his name,” by His authority and as making it effectual (Lu 24:47); sinners were justified “through his name” (Ac 10:43; 1Co 6:11); sins were forgiven “for his name’s sake” (1 Joh 2:12); men “called upon the name” of Jesus, as they had done on that of Yahweh (Ac 9:14, 21 (compare Ac 7:59); Ro 10:13, 14).” (W.L. Walker, ‘NAME,’ in James Orr, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 122131-122198 (Kindle Edition); OSNOVA)

When we turn our attention to the New Testament, we find that the phrase “in the name of” simply meant “by the authority of.”

An action could be done “in the name of” a person without that person being verbally referenced.

We are studying the Scriptures together in the name of the Lord (i.e., by His authority-2 Timothy 2:15), even though we did not actually say the words at the beginning of this article, I AM STUDYING IN JESUS’ NAME.

The omission of a verbal formula does not change the fact that we are studying in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Second, when we carefully examine the aforementioned texts, we see that they do not have reference to a specific verbal formula: for each one uses a general statement and not a specific formula to be repeated.

For example, we have people being baptized “in” (Greek, into) in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19); people being baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38); the Samaritans being baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 8:16); Cornelius and his household being baptized ‘In the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48), etc.

All of these use different phrases, which clearly shows that Luke is not describing a specific formula to be verbally spoken at the time of baptism!

When we use this phrase to try and justify a specific formula being recited as a magical charm at the time of baptism, then we are going well beyond what is written.

One author has joined together these first two thoughts powerfully in the following study:

“The phrase “in the name of” was a common one in Jewish religious circles and had a wide variety of applications. It could mean simply “in relationship to,” as when a slave who was being set free would be ceremonially immersed “in the name of freedom.” Obviously “freedom” is not here a proper name. The phrase could also mean something like “with respect to its intention,” as when an offering would be slaughtered “in the name of . . . the offering . . . the offer . . . God . . . the altar fires . . . and the sweet savour.” Note that the singular “name” is followed by a multitude of things, including God. Does this singularity mean there is one person to whom all these things apply? Of course not. [1] Again, the phrase “in the name of” could simply mean “with an obligation towards” or “in the authority of,” as when the Samaritans would circumcise their young men “in the name of Mount Gerizim,” or when a disciple would teach or do a work “in the name of” a principle of behavior, a truth, or perhaps his master or rabbi…..The Oneness Pentecostals are right about one aspect of their interpretation of Matthew 28:19: namely, that there is no indication that Jesus intended his baptismal command to be taken as a precise liturgical formula. To perform an act “in the name of” someone (or something), we have seen, does not mean that one must verbally repeat the name of this person (or thing) when doing the act. Oneness Pentecostals fail, however, to apply this same insight to their interpretation of the baptismal passages of Acts. Because the Semitic phrase “in the name of” could have such a wide variety of meanings, there is no more reason to take the Acts phrase “in the name of Jesus” as an audible liturgical formula than there is to think that the Matthean formula was to be taken like this. When Paul says that the Christian is to do everything “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17), does he mean that we must pronounce his name before each and every one of our activities? Of course not….Further evidence that we are not dealing with a rigid formula invested with saving significance in the Book of Acts is to be found in the flexibility with which the supposed “formula” is identified. Literally, Acts 2:38 has “on [ epi ] the name of Jesus Christ”; Acts 8:16 and 19:5 have “into [ eis ] the name of the Lord Jesus”; and Acts 10:48 has “in [ en ] the name of the Lord,” with some manuscripts adding “Jesus Christ” or simply “Jesus.” This hardly sounds like a fixed formula upon which all eternity hangs! [3] There is simply no evidence before the fourth century that the words spoken over a candidate at baptism were any big deal. Thus, to take the phrases in Acts and make them into a magical incantation upon which God s forgiveness rests is to grossly misunderstand the phrase and, consequently, grossly misportray the kind of God whom Scripture reveals.” (Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals And The Trinity, 142-145 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Consider multitudes of examples in the New Testament regarding prayer “in the name of” Christ.

Jesus Himself told His Apostles to pray “in His Name” (John 14:14), and the Apostles certainly prayed “in the name” of Jesus (Ephesians 3:14-21).

Yet did this mean that they had to attach the phrase “in the name of” Jesus to their prayers?

Of course not!

Just research the prayers of the Apostles (cf. Romans 15:13; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Galatians 6:18; Philippians 1:9-11; 4:233, 23; Colossians 1:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 13:25; etc.).

At the risk of overemphasizing this point, please notice: these prayers were offered “in the name of Jesus Christ” even though the specific verbal phrase “in the name of” Jesus Christ was not used.

Finally, that the phrase “in the name of” did not have reference to a specific verbal phrase is made clear from what Paul stated in Colossians:

Colossians 3:17-And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

If “in the name of” had reference to uttering a specific verbal formula, then we really have a problem; for this says that we must do everything (specifically in the assembly of the saints-verse 16) in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Obviously, this shows that the phrase “in the name of” does not have reference to a specific formula to be recited.

Part Two of this study will examine what the post-Apostolic church taught regarding these matters, and why this subject became so controversial.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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