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What’s In A Name?

(Are there right or wrong words to use during baptism?)

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We get many questions asking us for the “correct words” to use during a baptism. We reply that the key to the baptism has to do with the heart of the person who is getting right with God, not the precise words being said. (Words are important, but there is no “formula” that must be stated exactly.) Still, we realize that most people would like more proof than the fact that we said so. Therefore, like always, we will turn to the Bible and see what it reveals.

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus said,

    “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,”

In Acts 2:38, the apostle Peter said,

    “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Based on these two passages, it looks like a person can be baptized into either “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” or “the name of Jesus Christ.” Now, we will throw you a curve:

Acts 8:12-17 describes the actions of three men: Philip, Peter and John
      when dealing with a group of Samaritans, and a Samaritan named Simon.

    12 But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.
    13 Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.
    14 Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them,
    15 who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit.
    16 For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
    17 Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

To understand this passage, you should know that the Samaritans were a group of Jewish people who intermarried with Gentiles (non-Jews), and were therefore considered “half Jews.” For that reason, the Jerusalem Jews considered the Samaritans to be second-class citizens, and were not sure if they could receive the Holy Spirit. Philip (not the apostle Philip but the Philip ordained in Acts 6:5) was a Greek-speaking (Hellenistic) Jew, whose use of the “pagan” language made him a second-class citizen also.

If the Samaritans got right with God through Philip (only), their salvation would not have been accepted by the “Jewish” Christians, since Philip was not “one of them.” (Even though the miracles Philip performed proved his approval by God.) Therefore, God withheld the Holy Spirit until Peter and John (two leading “Jewish” apostles) went to investigate (verse 14). God then made it clear that the Samaritans were accepted by Him, through a miraculous sign in the presence of the “correct people.”

So, was being baptized in “the name of the Lord Jesus” somehow ineffective compared to “the name of Jesus Christ?” Not at all, which we will prove a little later. The temporary “lack of effectiveness” was caused by the need for a sign to bring the first non-Jews into Christianity. This is further confirmed by the next passage:

Acts 10:44-48 describes another baptism by the apostle Peter.

    44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.
    45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
    46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered,
    47 “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
    48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.

Here the people were baptized in “the name of the Lord.” Although this is a fourth phrase, the passage indicates that everyone got right with God. As in the case of the Samaritans, notice that God gave a special sign, proving that the Gentiles could get right with Him. (Gentiles were an even lower class people in Jewish eyes than Samaritans.) This astonished “the circumcision” (“Jewish” Christians) in verse 45.

The continuation of this passage, Acts 11:1-18 (not listed), shows that Peter had to defend himself for baptizing Gentiles (also referred to as the “uncircumcised men” in that passage). If God had not first baptized them with the Holy Spirit, it seems doubtful that the “Jewish” Christians would have accepted baptized Gentiles at all. Further, the passage almost leads us to believe that “the circumcision” would have kicked Peter out of the church for daring to baptize Gentiles—if God had not intervened.

In Acts 19:3-6, the apostle Paul has a different experience:

    3 And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”
    4 Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”
    5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
    6 And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

Here, the apostle Paul baptized people in “the name of the Lord Jesus.” Notice how Paul used the same phrase that did not seem to work initially in Acts 8:16. Is God changing His mind? No, as we explained before, the situation was different for the first Samaritans, when God had to prove that the Holy Spirit was for people besides Jews. After that, the baptism worked fine using the exact same words.

In Acts 22:12-16, the apostle Paul (whose name was changed from Saul
      to Paul after becoming a Christian) later tells about his own baptism:

    12 “Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there,
    13 came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him.
    14 Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth.
    15 For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.
    16 And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’ ”

Here, the apostle Paul himself is baptized in “the name of the Lord,” just like the Gentiles in Acts 10:48—yet Paul was Jewish (to the extreme), and he became saved just as the Gentiles had been.

A Summary

We have seen four phrases applied to six different situations, and everyone ended up “Getting Right With God.” This brings us to our point. There is no “special wording” required in the baptism ceremony. The key is the heart of the person being baptized. There is no “incantation” that makes baptism effective, baptism is effective because of the work done by Jesus Christ almost 2,000 years ago.


All Bible passages were taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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