Does God Require A Specific Verbal Formula To Be Said By A Baptizer To Make Baptism Valid? Part Three: Where Do We Go From Here?  

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

In the first two articles in this brief series, we noticed that the Bible does not teach that there is a specific verbal formula which a baptizer must pronounce over the person who is being baptized into Christ.

We observed that while the early second century Christians had the custom of saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” there was nothing to suggest that this was mandatory.

Indeed, it was not until the rise of the false teachers of modalism (the belief that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the same Person) that these matters became an issue, since the modalists would insist upon pronouncing the verbal formula, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus only,” over their converts (thus in effect denying the Bible doctrine of the Trinity in such a statement).

When this practice began to emerge, it became commonplace for the Christians of the second and third centuries to make the verbal baptismal formula of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mandatory over the ones whom they baptized.  

When we consider the complicated and complex history of these situations, we are able to understand why the subject of “baptismal formulas” has become so controversial over the years.

It has, indeed, led us to that point in our investigation where we must try and make application of all that we have learned. To that end, I would like to suggest some important principles to be kept in mind by any Christian and/or preacher of the Gospel regarding this subject.

One: Remember That The Bible Does Not Make A Baptismal Formula Mandatory At The Time Of Baptism  

The only “statement” which needs to be made at the time of baptism is by the baptized person himself. Scripture is clear that a believer needs to be make the “good confession.”

An example of such is found in the Book of Acts, with the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. We read:

Acts 8:35-37-35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” 37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

The Bible tells us here of how Philip preached Jesus to the eunuch, beginning with where the eunuch was reading from the Scripture (Isaiah 53).

How I wish I could have heard every detail of that sermon!

Can you imagine the thrill of the eunuch as he learned of the Son of God Who loved him and gave himself for him (Galatians 2:20)?

Can you see the fire in his eyes as he learned that there was a plan of salvation that he needed to submit to in order to have his sins forgiven (Mark 16:15-16)?

Can you feel the reverent astonishment as he learned of the Messiah’s resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-8)?

It was as this sermon was unfolding that the eunuch, in a fit of excitement and no doubt humility, exclaimed, “See, here is what water! What hinders me from being baptized?” Notice that it was at this point that he was told that if he believed with all of his heart, he could be baptized.

The eunuch then confesses, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

Let us notice that the “good confession” of the eunuch actually happened, and is part of the inspired text.

Many claim that this statement was added by later editors to the Book of Acts, but such is not the case.

How may we be sure of this?

For one thing, some of the earliest Christians outside the Book of Acts quote and allude to this passage (such as Bede).

However, it is important to realize that many other passages bear out the need for this confession.

For example:

1 Timothy 6:12-13- 12 Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed the good confession before Pontius Pilate,

McGarvey’s comments on this passage are enlightening:

“The fact that such a confession as is here put in the mouth of the eunuch was uniformly required by the apostles, is evident from other passages of Scripture. It is quite certain that it was confessed by Timothy. Paul says to him: “Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold on eternal life, into which you were called, and did confess the good confession before many witnesses.” [151] This confession was made at the beginning of his religious career; for it is connected with his call to eternal life. It is the same confession which is attributed to the eunuch; for Paul immediately adds: “I charge thee before God, who gives life to all things, and Jesus Christ, who bore testimony under Pontius Pilate, to the good confession,” etc. Now, what is here called “the good confession” is certainly the confession that he was the Christ, made before the Sanhedrim, under Pontius Pilate. But this is identified, by the terms employed, with the confession which Timothy had made, which is also “the good confession.” Timothy, then, made the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the same attributed to the eunuch. Moreover, this confession was so conspicuous, at the time of Paul’s writing, that it was known as the confession, and so highly esteemed as to be styled the good confession.” (J.W. McGarvey, Commentary On Acts, 2629-2641 (Kindle Edition)).

Again, the Apostle Paul spoke of the “good confession” that the Romans had made (beginning at the time of their baptism, and continuing on in their Christian life as they continued to believe in and proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord publicly):

Romans 10:9-10-9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

Paul here is not telling non-Christians how to be saved; indeed, the “you” of the passage contextually is applied to Christians, not to non-Christians.

Indeed, Paul is here reminding of the good confession that the Romans had made when they were being baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3-4), and which they needed to continue doing in their daily Christian life.

That this passage teaches of the good confession that believers made as they were being baptized into Christ is clear from the context, as well as from some of the earliest Christian commentators on this text:

“AUGUSTINE : This condition is fulfilled at the time of baptism, when faith and profession of faith are all that is demanded for one to be baptized. T HE CHRISTIAN LIFE 13. 63 AUGUSTINE : This profession of faith is the creed which you will be going over in your thoughts and repeating from memory. THE CREED 1. 64 AUGUSTINE : We who expect to reign in everlasting righteousness can only be saved from this wicked world if while for our neighbor’s salvation we profess with our lips the faith which we carry about in our heart, we exercise a pious and careful vigilance to see that this faith in us is not sullied in any point of belief by the deceitful snares of heretics. F AITH AND THE CREED 1. 65” (Thomas Oden, iAncient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Romans, 12467 (Kindle Edition); New York, N.Y.; Routledge Taylor & Francis Group)

Thus, what the Bible teaches as essential regarding a “formula” is very simply that the baptized confess Jesus Christ as God’s Son before baptism.

By this confession, he is acknowledging his belief in Jesus Christ (specifically, His atoning death, burial, and resurrection on the third day as mainly deduced from Isaiah 53).

Further, by this confession, he demonstrates his repentance (i.e., that he is turning away from sin and turning to Jesus Christ and making Him Lord of his life).

We know this for at least three reasons.

First, the word “Christ,” (Greek, christos), literally means “Anointed One,” and equates to “Master” or “Lord.”

Second, the repentance is implied in both the statements of Romans 10:9-10, as well as from the passage in 1 Timothy 6 (where Paul is reminding Timothy of the way he had made the same confession that Jesus Himself had made, i.e., that He is KING or LORD).

Finally, that repentance is suggested by the good confession is made clear from the overall meaning of the word “confession” itself.

Literally, to ‘confess” means to “say the same thing.” So, when we are confessing Jesus Christ as God’s Son, we are saying the same thing about Jesus that Jesus Himself says: that He is Lord (cf. 1 Timothy 6:12-13).

Thus, the good confession of the one being baptized into Christ is where the focus on “verbal formulas” is to be found; not on what the baptizer says when he is baptizing someone into Christ.

Two: There Is Danger Involved In Elevating The Name Of Jesus Christ To The Position Of A Holy Charm  

I know many who believe that using the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ” is akin to using a magic charm of sorts.

Oh, they would never SAY that they consider the name of Jesus as such; yet they often demonstrate this unspoken belief by the way in which they use the name of Jesus.

It is, of course, good and right to treat the name of Jesus with reverence (cf. Exodus 20:7).

However, there is a difference between keeping the name of God holy and using it as some kind of magic charm.

This is powerfully demonstrated by an incident in the Book of Acts:

Acts 19:13-16-13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14 Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so. 15 And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” 16 Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.

Please notice what happened in this account. Some of the Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of Jesus as a magical charm or formula.

This is, in some ways, the way that many people try to use the name of Jesus. We must be careful not attach a “magical” aura to the “name” Jesus.

Lest we forget, the name “Jesus” (i.e., Yeshua) was a common name in Israel during the first century. The power of Christ is not in the name itself; rather, it is in the Person Whom the name stands for.

In the same way, we must be careful not to make the phrase “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” into a magical charm.

Three: When Baptizing A Convert, Do What You Can To Honor Their Conscience  

Twice in my ministry, I was requested by persons I baptized to say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ.”

I had no problem doing so, as long as they understood the following.

First, that saying the phrase “in the name of” such and such is not a requirement of valid baptism.

Second, that by saying “in the name of Jesus Christ,” I was not advocating modalism (followed by an explanation of what modalism is, since they had never heard of such!)

Third, that saying ‘in the name of Jesus Christ” meant the exact same thing as “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” i.e., by the authority of God.

Some might ask, “Why would you do this, Mark?”

My reasons are relatively straightforward and simple.

First, because there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that any verbal formula is required when baptizing someone.

Thus, could I make a law regarding such?

Second, because doing so violated no tenant of Scripture.

Indeed, such statements would seem to fall into the realm of expediency.

Third, because doing so eased the conscience of the ones being baptized into Christ. Lest we forget, the Bible does teach us that we need to strive to honor the consciences of our fellow man (see 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 for great examples of this).

Four: Be Careful Not To Demand Rebaptism Of Those Who May Not Be As Learned In Scripture As You  

It is a fact that there are many who are converted to Christ who do not understand much of New Testament Christianity; indeed, they are often very much in error regarding many “important” teachings of Scripture.

If we will pause and carefully consider, this should not surprise us: for we all come to the faith with misunderstandings of some kind or another.

Does not the Bible teach us that when we first become Christians, we are as “newborn babes” (1 Peter 2:1-3)?

Are we not “born again” (John 3:3-5)?

What kind of child has perfect development at the time of birth?

Of course, it is true that it is only by teaching and instruction in the Word of God that we are able to attain saving faith (Romans 10:17).

Indeed, it is only those who have heard, and been taught, and who have learned the Word that are able to be drawn to the Father through Jesus (John 6:44-45).

Yet does this mean that we must have perfect knowledge when we become a Christian?

I don’t believe so, for a whole host of reasons.

In fact, if we have to have perfect knowledge of God’s Word to be saved, then I am of all men the most miserable; for I candidly admit there is much that I do not know.

Indeed, the more that I learn from God’s Word (in nature and in Scripture), the more I realize this truth!

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus did not reject the Apostles, even though at times they had vast misunderstandings of the Savior’s teachings, being blinded by false human doctrine that prevented them from perfectly understanding (cf. Mark 9:31-32)?

Isn’t it fascinating that the Apostle Peter himself did not understand the significance of the words he had spoken by inspiration on Pentecost (Acts 2:39) until he was shown a vision years later by the Lord Himself (Acts 10:9-17)? Did Jesus reject him until he had perfect knowledge?

Isn’t it intriguing that many of the early Christians had misunderstood some important element of baptism and their Christian life (Romans 6:1-4; Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:20-21), yet were not counseled to immediately be “rebaptized?”

In all of these cases, what was required was for the disciple to continue growing in his knowledge and in his relationship with the Lord and the church.

I know of some preachers who would declare that if a person had been baptized with the preacher saying “in the name of Jesus Christ,” they must be rebaptized because they did not have proper Bible knowledge.

By the same token, I know of some preachers who would declare that if a person was baptized by a preacher who said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” they must be rebaptized because they did not have proper Bible knowledge.

When I compare this sentiment with the examples from the Bible listed above, I find quite a discrepancy.

Isn’t it interesting that the Lord and the Apostles often did not often require rebaptism of those who had improper (and sometimes even, erroneous) knowledge (cf. Acts 18:24-28)?

Now, that was not an excuse for the person who did not have correct knowledge to stay in ignorance; for the Apostles clearly called upon the people to grow (cf. 2 Peter 3:17-18).

Yet it also should be seen that a person who misunderstood some elements of Christianity was not required to be rebaptized at the drop of a hat.

Please do not misunderstand me here. I am a firm believer that one of the greatest problems in the world (and IN THE CHURCH) is a lack of knowledge regarding God’s Word.

It is for this that people end up being destroyed (Hosea 4:6).

It is because people do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God that they are mistaken (Matthew 22:29).

People need to return to the teachings of Scripture (Jeremiah 6:16).

Yet in our zeal for seeking the old paths, we must be careful lest we wander to extreme positions; for I have seen this in many ways in my life.

Indeed, I have seen it in the “rebaptism” situations mentioned above.

Let me also point out that God’s Word teaches that there are definitely times when “rebaptism” is necessary (Acts 19:1-6).

Whenever I study with friends from denominational churches who have been baptized being taught that baptism is a “show” for others that their sins have already been forgiven, I encourage them to consider being rebaptized when they come to a proper understanding of baptism itself.

Finally, let me hearken back to the eunuch one more time. The story of Philip and the eunuch shows me again the two requirements of a valid baptism: faith in Jesus Christ and repentance.

There are many who would add several things to this list: indeed, I know of some that have entire forms to be filled out, and catechisms to be completed, before a person may be “baptized.”

We must strive to not bind what God Himself has not bound, and we must take care to not require what God Himself does not.

Let us do our best to stick with the Word of God.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me encourage each one to continue studying these important matters. The things that I have learned from God’s Word on this subject have been quite illuminating to me; yet, as I have pointed out several times, I also have a lot of growing left to do.

Let’s ask for God to give us grace to better understand, and to treat with grace all those whom we encounter.

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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