Everybody in the early church was baptized. If one was to express the fact that they were a Christian, or perhaps even the mechanism by which they became a Christian, they went through the process of water baptism. For the sake of discussion, this essay will ignore the question of whether water baptism, in and of itself, is an essential prerequisite to salvation. Rather, I will focus on the view of the Oneness Pentecostal Movement. They teach that went one is water baptized, the person conducting the baptism must recite the words “in the name of Jesus.” If those words are not recited, the baptism is illegitimate and that person cannot be saved. Are they right? Should we baptize only in the name of Jesus?
This is in contrast with the view of most Christians, who follow the baptismal formula that is prescribed in the Great Commission. Jesus told the disciples to go and baptize, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). In response to this command, the Oneness Pentecostal Movement will emphasize that he commanded them to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The name of these three, the argument goes, is Jesus Christ. Thus, when one baptizes, they are to baptize “in the name of Jesus.”
The Oneness Pentecostal Movement has championed itself, Apostolic Pentecostalism, suggesting that theirs is the stance of the first apostles. Thus their primary argument comes from the practice of the disciples that one finds in the book of Acts. Every time a water baptism was performed, they will argue that it was in the name of Jesus. That is to say, that the water baptizer recited the words “in the name of Jesus,” according to the Oneness Pentecostal Movement. From this, they conclude that we should also only baptize in the name of Jesus. Are they right? Should we baptize only in the name of Jesus?
What is the problem with titles? The Oneness Pentecostal Movement asserts that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all just roles that Jesus takes, or titles ascribed to him. Thus we cannot baptize by the title, but the name. But why not? Jesus said the phrase “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and, according to them, he was referring to the name Jesus. According to them, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is Jesus. It therefore would make sense that baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit would be baptism in the name of Jesus. In light of that, it seems difficult to make sense of this objection.
Further, and interestingly, the disciples baptized with only titles at certain times too. There were even times that they did not bother saying the name “Jesus.” They just said “call on his name.” (Acts 22:16). If it is okay to say “call on his name,” then how can one be faulted for saying “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”? To press the issue further, the disciples, in a few places, only recited the words “in the name of the Lord.” (Acts 10:48). Why should there be difficulty with one title (Lord), but not another? The apostles often used different titles when describing their baptism. There was not consistency by any means.
Was “in the name of Jesus” a baptismal formula? A baptismal formula is the words that one recites before baptizing. The Oneness Pentecostal Movement suggests that “in the name of Jesus” is the precise baptismal formula that one recites just before baptizing somebody. The problem, as I suggested above, is that there are a number of different formulas, some of them not even including the name “Jesus.” But if it is a formula, one would expect consistency. But there is none.
The apostles describe their baptism as “in the name of Jesus Christ,” (Acts 2:38), “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (Acts 8:16, 19:5), “in the name of the Lord,” (Acts 10:48) as just “his name,” (Acts 22:16). I would expect there to be a consistency in a baptismal formula, but there is not one. There is inconsistency, different words, and sometimes using just titles. It seems to me that if the early apostles would be condemned by the Oneness Pentecostal Movement as reckless baptizers. They would probably feel the need to re-baptize those who had been baptized “in the name of the Lord.”
What does it mean to baptize in the name of Jesus? I would like to suggest that when the baptizer recites the words “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” they are being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. This is because the phrase “in the name of,” is not a line to be recited. But rather, it is an idiom. It is like saying, “in the name of the law.” It is a statement of authority and power. That is how the Jews understood it when they heard it. That is why they asked, “by what power, or in what name have you done this?” (Acts 4:7).
If an executioner chops a mans’ head off, he does so “in the name of the king” even if he does not recite the kings’ name. It is a statement of authority. A police officer does not arrest a man in and of his own authority, or in his own name. He arrests a criminal in the name of the state, under their power. The phrase “in the name of,” is an idiom meant to indicate power and authority. Thus when the the apostles stated that they baptized in the name of Jesus, they were indicating power and authority. That is the biblical definition for this phrase “in the name of” (Acts 4:7).
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