Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
—Matthew 28:18-20, NIV
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
—Acts 2:38a, NIV
The question is, when we baptize people, shall we say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins,” or should we say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”?
Notice in Acts, there is no occasion where one person says to another, “I baptize you in Jesus’ name.” Every time Acts mentions a baptism in Jesus’ name, the phrase characterizes the baptism, it does not record what the baptizer said. It means the baptism was in Jesus’ name, under the authority that Jesus gave them. It was the way they distinguished what sort of baptism they were doing. They were not performing a Jewish baptism (called a mikvah bath) for a convert to Judaism, nor were they performing John’s baptism (mikvah bath) for repentance, they were doing the baptism that Jesus commanded. Jesus’ commandment for doing baptisms is in Matthew 28:19.
Therefore the phrase “baptism in Jesus’ name” means nothing more and nothing less “Christian baptism,” but the words in Matthew 28:19 are what the baptizer says during the baptism in Jesus’ name.
All churches, east and west, that have a continuous existence that began on or before the year 1500 have that position, and all ancient Christian documents agree that it was done that way. The practice of baptizing by saying “I baptize you in Jesus’ name” is very recent. Since that is not the way the ancient church baptized, older churches do not recognize that sort of baptism as correctly done.
To review, the bare essentials of a baptism in Jesus’ name are as follows:
- The baptizer intends to perform a valid Christian baptism. It isn’t strictly necessary for the baptizer to be a member of the clergy or even a Christian for that matter. However, it is best for a member of the clergy to do it, because it is much more likely that they will do it properly.
- After the candidate professes their faith, the baptizer uses water, baptizing by immersion. Since the first century, if immersion is not possible, other methods of applying the water are acceptable. In a modern scenario, this might happen if the person who is being baptized is bedridden.
- The baptizer says the words in Matthew 28:19, applying the water three times: once after the words “in the Name of the Father,” again after the words “and of the Son,” and finally after the words “and of the Holy Spirit.” The baptizer is free to say other things, but it is essential to quote Matthew 28:19 without modification.
If the these conditions are met, then the baptism is valid in all churches. The person counts as baptized, and the anointing can happen later.
Now let us imagine a situation where two friends are baptized by the same preacher on the same day in the same baptistery. In both cases, the preacher intends to perform a valid Christian baptism. In both cases, they are immersed three times.
When Bill is baptized, the preacher says, “I baptize you in Jesus’ name,” but when Betty is baptized, the preacher says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
After many years, Betty and Bill decide to become members of the Greek Orthodox Church, which, by the way, has existed continuously since the apostle Paul founded its original congregations. Both Betty and Bill remember their baptism with crystal clarity. The church accepts Betty as a baptized Christian, but they require Bill to be baptized, because his baptism did not include the words in Matthew 28:19.
What does Jesus consider a valid baptism? You have to make up your own mind. However, I think it is best to do what the ancient church did and submit to baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There are cases when a person isn’t sure they are baptized, usually in cases when they were baptized as an infant and there is no certificate, or the person can’t remember how the preacher did it. If that is the case for you, you cannot do the water part again, because that implies that God doesn’t keep His promises. But you can ask for a conditional baptism in which the baptizer applies the water while saying, “If you are not already baptized, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The Scriptural Witness Reexamined
So far, we have only been concerned with modern views. Have we really read Scripture closely enough? From my reading in the Orthodox Study Bible, I think we have not.
The Baptism of Jesus
There are three accounts of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-22.
John says that his baptism is with water for repentance and preparation; in other words, it is a Jewish mikvah bath. In a mikvah bath, people immerse themselves and customarily come out of the water praying, just as we see in the passages I just cited. John also says that when Jesus comes, He will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John hints that there are two parts to Christian baptism; water and the Spirit, and that is exactly what happens when Jesus is baptized.
Jesus underwent John’s baptism, even though He had no sins to repent. Jesus says that His baptism is to fulfill all righteousness—that is, to make things fair. His purpose was to undergo every experience that we have, so that we cannot accuse Him of requiring us to do things that He is unwilling to do Himself. So Jesus goes under the water, but then something else happens: the Holy Spirit descends upon Him like a dove.
We cannot say that the Holy Spirit part of Jesus’ baptism supersedes the water part of John’s baptism, because Jesus undergoes both. We cannot separate them, because Jesus is redeeming our bodies as well as our spirits. He demonstrated that at the Ascension, when He took His glorified body into heaven.
The Baptism of the Believers at Ephesus
We see this also in Acts 19:1-7. Paul arrives at Ephesus, the second-largest city of the Roman Empire, and a great metropolis. There he encounters 12 believers. They have only been baptized in water for repentance. Paul completes the baptism by adding the second part: he lays hands on them so they can receive the Holy Spirit.
Baptisms in the Ancient Church
In the last hundred years, a number of texts from the ancient church have turned up, and they have been authenticated. The one that interests us here are the letters of Egeria. Egeria was a Spanish Christian of the fourth century who traveled the entire Mediterranean basin and wrote letters to the folks back home to describe Christian rites as she observed them. Of course, no one thinks these letters have the force of Scripture, but they do serve as a witness of the practices of the ancient church.
In Egeria’s correspondence we discover that ancient baptism had two parts: the affirmation of faith with water, and then the anointing. The water was baptism for repentance, and was in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19. The anointing was for the gift of the Holy Spirit and was in the Name of Jesus. In that second part, the bishop of the church anointed them, laid hands on them, anointed them, and breathed on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” as Jesus did to His disciples in John 20:22. The purpose was to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them in their Christian life.
Therefore there are two parts to Christian baptism—or at least there should be—affirmation of faith combined with the water for repentance, and the Holy Spirit for empowerment.
- The first part is a mikvah bath, following an affirmation of faith.
- The second part is receiving the Holy Spirit.
The water constitutes God’s promise to the believer, and since God always keeps His promises, it never needs to be repeated. However, we do not always keep our promises, so we can repeat the affirmation of faith as often as we need to.
In the New Testament, a Christian baptism is called either:
Affirming faith, the administering the water, and conferring the Holy Spirit were originally combined into one rite. The water was administered in accordance with Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 28:19:
βαπτίσωμα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ
(baptism in Jesus’ Name)
βαπτίσωμα εἰς Άγιο Πνεύμα
(baptism in the Holy Spirit)
In the ancient church, the baptismal candidates had been observing a total fast for three days, so they were given a cup of water to open their stomachs, followed by a cup of milk and honey as a foretaste of heaven. Then the bishop breathed on them in accordance with John 20:22 and saying:
“βαπτίζω σε εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος”
(I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit).
“λάβετε Πνεῦμα Ἅγιον”
(receive the Holy Spirit.)
Applying the water to people while saying the words,“I baptize you in Jesus’ Name” instead of Matthew 28:19 is probably okay with Jesus, but not with mainline and historic Christian churches.
In the western church, only a bishop can confer the Holy Spirit, so the third part became detached as a separate rite and is commonly known as “confirmation.” In the eastern church, a priest can confer the Holy Spirit, so the three parts are done in one rite.
Infant baptism originated in the early middle ages under tne influence of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin; that is, the idea that we inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin at birth. Infant mortality was very high, and people panicked that their infants might go to hell without baptism.
Therefore, infant baptism split the original baptismal rite into two parts:
Parents take the baptismal vows on behalf of their children, pledging to raise them in accordance with Christian faith, and the water is applied to the children, with the baptismal formula in Matthew 28:19.
After the children are old enough to understand Christianity, they take their own baptismal vows and are anointed with oil. Since the water is God’s promise, and God always keeps His promises, the water is not repeated.
Eastern Orthodox Christians do not disagree that Adam committed the original sin (in the sense of the first sin); however, they deny Augustine’s teaching that we inherit sin from our ancestor Adam on the basis of Ezekiel 18:20. Nevertheless, they do perform infant baptism, which combines the affirmation of faith, the water, and the Holy Spirit in one rite.
One Rite or Two?
Today we realize that in the western Church, the rites called “baptism” and “confirmation” are simply two halves of the same rite, and the mainline churches are beginning to put the pieces back together. In the Roman Catholic Church, this takes the form of the Rite of Christian Education for Adults, which is presently being phased in. It calls for baptism by immersion and anointing with the laying on of hands for the Holy Spirit, all in one rite.
Ancient World Views and the Sacraments
What is a Sacrament?
How Many Sacraments Are There?