Upon this your public confession before these witnesses, we baptize you into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for the remission of your sins. As she was being immersed, the sister was shocked. What was this Trinitarian formula that had just been pronounced? She had spent years being convinced of the first principles of the truth and now, at a climatic moment, something seemed to have gone wrong as the words spoken echoed her former wrong beliefs.
A major passage in trinitarian literature
We should not be surprised at our sister’s reaction as Matthew 28:19 is frequently cited by trinitarians to support their teaching. In a booklet for Roman Catholics, the writer notes: “Perhaps the most striking of the Bible’s explicitly Trinitarian passages is Matthew 28:18-19…Notice that the Lord uses the singular form ‘name,’ not the plural ‘names,’ when he gives this directive. This usage implies the unity of the Three divine Persons in the Trinity.” In the Annotated Bible, J.H. Blunt comments: “The use of the word ‘Name’ in the singular number for the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity is one of the many indications given in Scripture of their Divine Unity.”
And writing for the International Standard Bible Encycylopaedia, on “Trinity,” Benjamin Warfield has extensive comments on this passage:
The nearest approach to a formal announcement of the doctrine of the Trinity which is recorded from Our Lord’s lips…is embodied in the great commission which the resurrected Lord gave His disciples…‘Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’…This is a direct ascription to Jehovah, the God of Israel, of a three-fold personality, and is therewith the direct enunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity…What we are witnessing is the authoritative announcement of the Trinity as the God of Christianity by its Founder, in one of the most solemn of His recorded declarations.
Raised with this exposition of the baptismal formula, it’s no wonder those who come to us from the major denominations are often confused by our use of it when baptizing.
A right understanding
Rightly understood, our Lord’s words are actually a condensed and wonderful summary of the doctrine of God manifestation. The purpose, words and character of the Heavenly Father were revealed in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This manifestation was accomplished through the power of the holy spirit. Thus we would appropriately pronounce and explain the baptismal formula if we said: “we baptize you into the name of the Father manifested in the Son through the power of the holy spirit.”
As we might expect, Bro. John Thomas has a very useful exposition of the point specifically when commenting on the baptismal formula. The following is extracted from Eureka Vol. i, Section ii, writing on the “Mystery of Godliness” and conveniently summarized on page 98 of the 1935 Christadelphian magazine.
The name is a divine manifestation. The Eternal Increate manifested in Jesus by holy spirit. This manifestation is expressed in the formula of ‘the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19) This is the name which is above every name; and embraces everything attributable to the Father and the Son. To become an ‘Eloah,’ a believer of the right stamp must be immersed into this name. He will then be ‘in the name;’ and, consequently, ‘in Deity the Father and the Lord Jesus Anointed.’ A multitude may be in this name contemporaneously. They in Deity, and Deity in them, by faith and obedience. Thus the name which comprehended only two in the beginning, becomes ‘a great multitude which no man can number.’
Thus when we grasp its significance, the baptismal formula becomes a magnificent expression of God’s purpose to manifest Himself in a multitude of glorified human beings of which the baptismal candidate now seeks to become a part. But, considering the background of the audience, we may find that many have not yet come to this level of understanding and we may be better to use an alternative.
A biblical option
Throughout the rest of the New Testament, the Lord’s wording is not used. Instead we find the following:
- Acts 2:38: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ….”
- Acts 8:16: “For as yet it was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
- Acts 10:48: “And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.”
- Acts 19:5: “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
- Romans 6:3: “…so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ…”
- Galatians 3:27: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ…”
Accordingly, there is nothing inappropriate or unscriptural in saying: “…we baptize you into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…” In fact, such phrasing is preferable if the candidate or the audience will be confused by using “…we baptize you into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
If we do choose the wording from Matthew 28:19, we suggest it will be helpful to add the words of explanation as suggested above by saying: “we baptize you into the name of the Father which was revealed in the Son through the power of the holy spirit.” Such wording will continue to remind us of the great hope before us of being included in that great Name with the saints of all ages.
A further note
No doubt alluding to the words of John the Baptist and those of Peter, we will frequently say the person is being baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins” and leave it at that. As we recognize, there is much more happening than this one aspect of our blessings in Christ. Upon baptism we become:
- Heirs to the promises made to the fathers.
- Part of the body of Christ, the temple of the living God.
- Adopted into the family of God, becoming hopeful heirs of eternal life.
- Reconciled to the Father, entering the status of friends of the Almighty.
- Fellow-citizens with the saints of the coming Kingdom of God.
- Participants in the grace of God and the continuing forgiveness of sins.
- Part of the new creation in Christ, having put off the old man with his ways.
While the actual performance of baptism obviously does not allow for reciting all the blessings which will flow to the participant, it is suitable to at least acknowledge there is more involved than the forgiveness of sins. Perhaps this can be indicated by saying: “we baptize you…for the forgiveness of your sins and the hope of eternal life.” The rest of the blessings can be suitably covered in a baptismal prayer or in the baptismal address.
With these considerations before us, an appropriate baptismal formula would be either: “…upon this your public confession before these witnesses, we baptize you into the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins and the hope of eternal life.” Or we could say: “…we baptize you into the name of the Father which has been manifested in the Son through the power of the holy spirit for the remission of sins and hope of eternal life.”
This is a momentous event in the life of the participant. We need to ensure the words are such that the person is not confused but is heartened by the greatness of the blessings now entered through the grace of God.