Vol. 4, No. 8
Since You Asked
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A little over two decades ago, I appeared on a televised panel of preachers in west Tennessee. It was our mission to field religious questions, for which we were to provide biblical answers. One of the questions that made its way to me was, "What must the preacher say at a baptism?" My answer sparked several viewer complaints. Yet, if the answer I provided was biblically accurate then (and it was), of course, the same answer is just as valid today.
Essentially, the question is, "What does the Bible teach that one must say when baptizing a person?" The Bible, especially the New Testament, is the sole basis of authority for anything and everything any human can do or say in the realm of religion (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:3). What, then, does the New Testament teach that one must say when administering baptism to some soul? Please note that there is a subtle difference between "must say," "must do" and "must do and may say."
Doubtless whoever posed the original question had in mind one or two specific passages, such as Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 2:38. The former reads, in part, "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" and the latter reads, in part, "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins." Looking closely, one notices that neither passage says anything about what one administering baptism must say. In Matthew's account, Jesus instructed his apostles what they were to do; not a word appears in Jesus' discourse concerning what they were to say while doing. Matthew 28:18-20 does not reveal a single word that anyone administering baptism must say. Likewise, the Acts reference addresses what those responding to Peter's sermon must do and why they must do it. Acts 2:38 does not reveal a single word that anyone administering baptism must say.
Strictly speaking, then, the New Testament does not reveal any particular combination of words that a preacher baptizing someone must say. Rather, it has become a custom (and not a bad custom at all) that when a preacher baptizes someone that he says something like, "I now baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for the remission of yours sins." (Often, the preacher holds one hand high in the air for no particular reason of which I am aware while saying this.) Therefore, whenever someone does something differently than the way we have customarily done it for generations, despite the activity is something not taught in Bible book, chapter and verse, people sometimes become unnecessarily alarmed, and suppose that the offender is a heretic. (Similarly, occasionally someone will become uneasy when the order of worship services is changed or less than all stanzas of some hymn are sung.)
Notwithstanding, to allay complaints and to ensure that everyone present understands what is transpiring when we baptize someone, it is prudent to announce (as we customarily do) precisely what we are doing when we baptize people. After all, the apostle Peter observed that though baptism (because it is immersion) may appear to be a bath, baptism cleanses the conscience, not the flesh (1 Peter 3:21).
Shortly after I began preaching nearly 30 years ago, I labored with a congregation that used a long, narrow galvanized stock-watering trough for a baptistery. This necessitated the preacher to stand outside the baptistery while lowering the candidate into the water, which is a great strain on one's back. For no good reason, on that occasion I was saying what we preachers say while I was lowering an adult male into the water. I dropped him! Promptly, I stopped saying what we say and went fishing for the one who was now lying flat on the floor of that galvanized tub. I did not re-immerse the poor soul. I did not need to and he did not need to be re-immersed because we did what Matthew 28:18-20 required me to do and what Acts 2:38 required him to do. There was no other reason for which we were going through that exercise. Everyone present understood why we were immersing that gentleman. Irrespective of what I said or what I did not say, I baptized that man "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit for the remission of sins."
Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 2:38 teach what the baptizer and the one being baptized are to do, but they do not mention anything that the baptizer must say. However, it is wise and advisable to say what we are doing when we baptize someone. Yet, we need to be careful not to make religious rules where God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the apostles and other inspired New Testament writers have not.
The word "disciple," meaning "pupil" or "learner," appears 29 times in the Bible, all in the New Testament. The word "disciples" from the same Greek word appears 243 times in the New Testament. "Disciples," meaning "learned" or "taught," appears once in the Old Testament. The word "Christian" appears twice (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16) and the plural "Christians" appears once (Acts 11:26) in the New Testament. In addition, several other words have been used in both testaments to identify the people of God (e.g., children, sons, brothers, brethren, saints, believers, etc.).
Some years ago, a brother who was about to teach one of my books in a class tracked me down to argue that I had erred in my text when referring to "Christians" as "disciples." His contention was that the name "disciple" was never applied to a "Christian" after that new name was bestowed (Isaiah 62:2; Acts 11:26). He supposed that we are not to be known by any of the names by which God's people were known previously once the new name "Christian" was given. Obviously, the new name Christian has a special significance, but does that mean Christians are no longer disciples, no longer children of God, no longer sons, no longer brethren, no longer saints, no longer believers, etc.?
On the heels of Acts 11:26 where disciples were first called Christians, Christians are referred to in Holy Writ as "disciples" (vs. 29). Numerous times throughout the remainder of the Book of Acts the word disciple is applied to the Christian. Likewise, the other terms by which God's people were known are used for Christians after the new name Christian was given. Similar to the way in which "elder," "pastor," "bishop," "overseer," etc. are applied in our English Bibles to the same function, the various terms by which God's people are addressed in the New Testament portray different subtleties regarding the same persons.
Our scholarship, especially among those who would teach, needs to have a greater depth than shallow assumptions (James 3:1). The purpose of teaching is edification (1 Corinthians 14:12), which does not happen without adequate general and specific preparation. Failing as teachers and preachers is catastrophic for the teacher and the would-be learners (Romans 16:17-18).