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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
According to Matthew 28:19 believers are to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But in Acts it says new believers were baptized in the name of Jesus. Is there a contradiction here?
There are several ways to answer your question. The easiest would be to conclude that different baptismal formulas were used in the apostolic church and therefore there is no reason to try to harmonize the two. That is possible, but very unlikely if Jesus, as Matthew indicates, gave explicit guidance on the subject. Besides, it appears that the phrase used in Acts is not a baptismal formula. If it is a formula, it would be an abridged version that does not deny the existence and use of the full formula. Here are a few more comments.
1. The Trinitarian Formula: In Matthew 28:19 Jesus gave to His disciples very specific instructions concerning the need and the way to make disciples. The use of the trinitarian formula is part of that instruction. The person being baptized is fully united to the Godhead through Christ (cf. John 17:21).
Why is the trinitarian formula used? Why is it not enough to say, “In the name of Jesus”? The most probable answer is found in the baptismal experience of Jesus Himself. During His baptism the three persons of the Godhead were present. The Father’s voice was heard, the Spirit’s presence appeared through the symbol of a dove, and the Son, God in human flesh, came out of the water. Jesus’ baptism became a model for Christian believers. He represented the experience that those who will become His disciples will experience. At His baptism He revealed that only through Him can we enjoy fellowship with the Godhead, full union with the heavenly Trio. For Jesus, being baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was a public recognition of the saving power of His life and ministry through which we are united to the heavenly family. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that the trinitarian formula became the baptismal formula in the Christian church. This is biblicalIy sound; it was done—and continues to be done—in obedience to our risen Lord.
2. The Christologjcal Formula: In the book of Acts we find the expressions “be baptized…in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38*); “he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:48); “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (19:5).
Several things can be said about these passages. First, all of them relate to the work of evangelism; people were invited to be baptized in Jesus’ name. This is theologically important because it indicates that they were being asked to place their trust in Jesus as Savior. In Acts the name of Jesus is the only name by which we can be saved (chap. 4:12). Since the emphasis is on Jesus as Savior there was no need to refer to the full trinitarian formula.
Second, and closely related to the previous point, the purpose of the phrase “be baptized in the name of Jesus” is not to indicate that people were being baptized using the formula, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus.” In fact, during baptism the new convert actually confessed Jesus’ name in a personal commitment to Him. We read “Be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). The phrase “calling on his name” goes back to the Old Testament, where calling on the name of the Lord meant trusting Him, worshipping Him, and confessing that one belonged to Him (cf. Gen. 4:26). When people were invited to be baptized in the name of Jesus, they were not only asked to acknowledge Him as Savior but also as worthy of worship, trust, and as their Lord.
Third, the passages in Acts in which baptism in the name of Jesus is mentioned were not intended to describe the formula used in the act of baptism. The passages were not describing how baptism took place, but, what was expected from the new convert. The statement “be baptized in the name of Jesus” was not, properly speaking, a baptismal formula.
*Bible texts in this column are quoted from the New lnternational Version.