In Jesus' Name:
An Examination of the Oneness Pentecostal Baptismal Formula

by Jason Young


In the early beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, a "New Issue" arose.1 This new issue was concerned with the proper "formula" for baptism. Several Pentecostal ministers had begun to teach that proper baptism was to be done "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" instead of "in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." 2

For these new "Jesus Only" Pentecostals, the singular word name in Matthew 28:19, was key. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not names, but titles. Furthermore, if these titles were meant to be understood as names, Matthew would have written names not name. They further supported their case by pointing to the Book of Acts, where the recorded instances of baptism were invariably done in Jesus' name. 3

This new understanding prompted a number of ministers in the newly formed Assemblies of God to be re-baptized. In his book United We Stand, Arthur Clanton wrote that at first, the Assemblies of God displayed a tolerant attitude towards the new teaching. The officials of the Assemblies of God called a General Council meeting in 1915 where "a mild statement was passed, more or less leaving the baptismal formula up to the individual."4 Clanton goes on to explain, however, that some Assemblies ministers wanted the issue "settled once and for all." At a Fourth General Council in 1916, a statement of faith was passed that effectively forced Oneness ministers from the organization. Clanton quotes S.C. McClain as writing, "After fellowship was completely broken ... there seemed no other way out but to form a Oneness organization."5

Over the next several decades, numerous Oneness church organizations were established, followed by a series of schisms and mergers. Today, the largest Oneness Pentecostal organizations are the United Pentecostal Church, International, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the Assemblies of the Lord Jesus Christ, respectively.6

This "Jesus Only" controversy has been a source of division within Pentecostalism and within the broader evangelical movement for nearly a century. While to some, the issue of what is spoken over a baptismal candidate during immersion is a secondary concern, Oneness Pentecostals today typically believe that a repentant believer with genuine faith receives forgiveness of sins through the act of baptism.7 Therefore, since baptism is only valid when Jesus' name is actually spoken over the baptismal candidate, any believer who has been baptized without Jesus' name being spoken over him or her is not saved.

The teaching that the only valid baptism is one in which the name of Jesus is verbalized raises a number of important questions. What is the correct baptismal formula, biblically speaking? What do the biblical authors mean when they use the phrase "in the name?" Is it correct to assume that if the name Jesus is not spoken during baptism, that the baptism is invalid? If so, and if baptism causes the forgiveness of sins, is it correct to assert that one who has experienced an invalid baptism is eternally lost?8 What are the other implications of such a teaching and what else should be considered? The purpose of this paper is to answer these questions and to evaluate the Oneness Pentecostal position on baptismal formula from a biblical perspective.

The Oneness argument rests on the notion that the Scriptural phrase "in the name" includes an implicit command to utter an actual phrase.9 Hence, in Acts 2:38, where Peter commands those gathered to "repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ," Peter would be commanding them to be baptized while having the phrase "in the name of Jesus Christ" spoken over them. If those gathered were baptized, but did not have "in the name of Jesus Christ" (or some similar phrase which included Jesus' name) spoken over them, then they would have been disobedient to Peter's commandment and their baptism would not have been in Jesus' name. In light of this notion, an examination of what the Bible means by in the name is in order.

Numerous texts throughout the Old Testament use the phrase in the name. Some representative examples include Deuteronomy 18:5, which reads, "For the Lord your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the name of the Lord." Here the Levitical priest has been chosen to stand and minister "in the name of the Lord," meaning he has been chosen to be God's representative and to do his work. Note that the priest stands and ministers in the name of the Lord, not because the priest makes any sort of verbal claim, but because God has chosen him. He ministers in the name of the Lord whether he verbally declares this fact or not. Deuteronomy 18:22 states, "when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously." A prophet "speaks in the name of the Lord," not by verbally declaring, "I speak in the name of the Lord," but by virtue of the fact that he, like the Levitical priest, has been ordained by God to do so. He speaks in the name of the Lord by virtue of the fact that God has given him authority to do so. Verbally declaring that he speaks in the name of the Lord is not relevant. Deuteronomy 21:5 says, "Then the priests . . . come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to ... bless in the name of the Lord." Once again, a spoken phrase is not in view here. Here, to bless in the name of the Lord means to bless by means of the gift and calling one has been given by God. The priest blesses in the name of the Lord each and every time he does God's work, whether he utters a spoken phrase or not.

This pattern continues throughout the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 18:32, one reads, "and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord." This passage records Elijah constructing an altar in the name of the Lord. No sensible person would read this verse and conclude that it means that Elijah spoke the phrase "in the name of the Lord" with each stone he laid. Even if he did, it would not be his saying "in the name of the Lord" that caused the altar to be built in the name of the Lord. This verse means that Elijah built the altar out of love, obedience, respect and reverence for God. This is what the phrase in the name of the Lord means here. Similarly, in Psalms we read, "All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off" (Ps 118:10). Surrounded by enemies, the Psalmist declares, "I cut them off." He does not do so in the name of the Lord by speaking a phrase-that is not what is meant here-but by doing battle by the power and authority of the Lord. This has nothing to do with speaking a certain phrase.

An examination of the use of the phrase in the name in the New Testament shows that it carries the same range of meaning. Jesus said, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me" (Matt 18:5). One does not have to say to a child, "I receive you in Jesus' name" in order to receive that child in Jesus' name. Jesus is speaking of receiving a child out of Christian compassion and love. Jesus said in John 14:26, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you." Of course, this passage also has nothing to do with the Father speaking a phrase. Finally, Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, writes, "And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col 3:17). Paul is not advocating that we say, "in Jesus' name" each and every time we do something as Christians. Instead, his point is that as Christians, that we do all things in a Christian manner, "giving thanks to God the Father through him."

Dozens of other passages in both Old and New Testaments use the phrase in the name in similar ways. This phrase has a wide-range of meaning, as the examples cited above illustrate, but generally could be defined as doing something within God's given authority, or out of love and obedience towards him, or doing something to further his purpose on earth. What is clear is that doing something in the name of the Lord does not depend upon someone speaking the phrase, "in the name of the Lord."

Apparent from the examples given is that when the Bible uses the phrase in the name of the Lord or in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and similar phrases, it is not referring to the utterance of a particular phrase. Instead, to do something in the name of Jesus means to do it out of the authority he has given us, out of love and obedience towards him, or to do something to further his purpose. Therefore, to baptize in Jesus' name means to baptize by the authority and power given us as followers of Christ, thereby furthering the purpose of the Gospel. To be baptized in Jesus' name means were are baptized out of love and obedience towards him.

David Bernard, president of the Urshan Graduate School of Theology (a Oneness Pentecostal seminary) and author of the book The New Birth, defends Jesus-only baptism by arguing from the example of a sheriff saying, "Open, in the name of the law." Bernard concludes from his example that by saying "in the name of the law," the sheriff "invoke[s] the authority of law as well as its power."10 What Bernard misses here is the fact that it is not the sheriff's verbal declaration that gives him the power and authority of the law. The sheriff possesses the power and authority to act on behalf of the law whether he verbally declares it or not. The sheriff's verbal invocation of his power and authority in this regard is inconsequential and beside the point. The same is true of baptism. A Christian baptizing a new convert baptizes in the name of Jesus, whether he verbally declares it or not. Why? Because the Scriptures demonstrate that the meaning of in the name is to do something out of loving obedience to the Lord, by the Lord's authority, or to fulfill His purpose. A verbal declaration is not required in order to do something in the name of the Lord.

Bernard does seem to recognize that to do something "in the name of the Lord" does not always require a spoken phrase. In regard to Colossians 3:17 (cited above) he writes, "Of course, we do not orally utter the name Jesus before every statement or act in our lives. The verse primarily means to say or do everything with the power and authority of Jesus." Inexplicably, however, he does not apply this same reasoned exegesis to verses pertaining to baptism. He continues, "When it comes to specific spiritual acts that require the invocation of God's name, however, this verse applies literally . . . water baptism is no exception."11 Bernard provides no further explanation. He never explains why baptism requires the invocation of God's name, but all other acts of "word or deed" do not. The dozens of Scriptural examples where in the name has nothing to do with a verbally-invoked phrase Bernard either fails to notice or ignores.

All of this, of course, is not to say that "in the name of the Lord" should not be spoken when doing things in Jesus' name. As Bernard mentions, Christians often verbally invoke that name of Jesus in prayers, for example.12 Furthermore, Acts 3:6 records Peter saying "in Jesus' name" when he healed a lame man, and Paul too utters the same phrase when he exorcised a demon from the fortuneteller in Acts 16:18. What if, however, a born again believer prays for the leaders of the world and closes the prayer only with "amen" and not "in Jesus' name?" Would it be reasonable to argue that the believer's prayer was not done in Jesus' name? Who would argue that God would ignore the prayer because simply the believer did not close the prayer "in Jesus' name?" Yet that is the position that those who argue for baptism in Jesus' baptism are forced to take.

Bernard recognizes the argument similar to the one made in this paper that the phrase in Jesus' name does not describe a formula to be recited over a baptismal candidate. However, it seems he cannot imagine baptism without a formula. He argues that baptism without a formula is "very unlikely in light of the importance of baptism, the need to distinguish Christian baptism from other types of baptism, and the common sense reading of the passages in question."13 Why Bernard believes that the importance of baptism means that a phrase must be spoken over a baptismal candidate is unclear. It is also unclear why Bernard believes that a spoken phrase is needed to distinguish Christian baptism. It would seem that a baptismal candidate's testimony of faith in Jesus, the fact that baptism is typically conducted by a Christian minister, and the visual picture of Christ's death, burial and resurrection represented in immersion, sufficiently distinguishes it from pagan or Jewish baptisms. Furthermore, it is difficult to see how Bernard believes that a common sense reading of baptismal passages leads the reader to conclude that there is a specific formula for baptism. An examination of all the passages in the Bible where in the name is used clearly demonstrates that a spoken phrase is not what is intended - that, it seems, is the "common sense reading."

Bernard continues, "If there is no formula, or if the formula does not matter, why did Paul re-baptize John's disciples in the name of Jesus?"14 His essential argument is this: John's disciples were re-baptized; the only reason one would be re-baptized is if the original formula was wrong; therefore a specified formula must exist. His thinking is flawed here, because it depends on the existence of the very thing he is attempting to prove exists, which is circular reasoning.

Apparently, Bernard can conceive of no other reason why John's disciples would be re-baptized other than a matter of formula. The re-baptism of John's disciples is described in Acts 19:1-4. The text itself explains why John's disciples were re-baptized:

And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' And they said, 'No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.' 'Into what then were you baptized?' They said, 'Into John's baptism.' And Paul said, 'John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.' On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Italics added)

The disciples of John had been instructed to believe in the one who was to come after him. It appears they did not know that Jesus was this one, because upon Paul telling them it was Jesus, they were re-baptized. These disciples were re-baptized, not because John had used a baptismal formula that was now out-of-date, but because they had not yet placed their faith in Christ, which is the prerequisite to Christian baptism. Submitting to baptism as a result of placing one's faith in Jesus and out of obedience to him is precisely what baptism in Jesus' name means, regardless of the formula used.

It should also be pointed out that nowhere does Scripture record an actual phrase being spoken over a believer at baptism. Bernard seems to recognize this because he mentions Acts 22:16 where Saul (the baptismal candidate) is instructed to call on the Lord while he is being baptized, not the baptizer. Yet the scripture does not record what Saul actually says at baptism either. At any rate, it is Saul who calls on the Lord, not the one who is baptizing him. Recognizing this problem, Bernard makes an admission of sorts: "The baptizer normally invokes the name, but the candidate may also call on the name of Jesus as well, for baptism's validity depends on the candidate's faith, not on the baptizer's faith."15

It is the last part of this quote that is most surprising. How can Bernard on one hand suggest that if the baptizer uses the wrong phrase, the baptism is invalid, yet at the same time say the baptism's validity depends on the candidate? Bernard apparently does not notice this glaring contradiction. This highlights the most troubling aspect of the "Jesus-only" teaching - it makes one's salvation contingent upon the actions of another human being. If it is true that baptism causes the forgiveness of sins and that the name of Jesus must be spoken over the baptismal candidate during immersion for the baptism to be valid, then the person conducting the baptism has the power to permit or deny the forgiveness of sins. In other words, the baptismal candidate's forgiveness depends upon the baptizer speaking the correct phrase. If the baptizer, out of ignorance, disobedience, forgetfulness, or carelessness omits the invocation of Jesus' name, then the baptism is invalid and the repentant believer remains lost, despite the believer's innocence in the matter! How can Bernard say that the validity of baptism depends on the candidate's faith, yet maintain that believers who are not baptized with the correct formula spoken over them by another human being remain eternally lost? Whether he intends to or not, he makes the baptizer the mediator of salvation against 1 Timothy 2:5, which teaches that "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus."

In short, teaching that a certain phrase must be spoken over baptismal candidate is a misinterpretation of the meaning of the phrase in the name. The Bible provides dozens of examples where in the name is used which demonstrate that it means to do something by the authority of the Lord, to do something out of loving obedience towards him, or do to something to further his purpose. While a spoken phrase may accompany actions done in the name of the Lord, a phrase is by no means mandatory for the action to be done in the name of the Lord. Whether or not an action is done in the name of the Lord is determined by the purpose of the action, not by the utterance of a phrase.

The result of this misinterpretation is that it effectively makes a priest out of the baptizer, in that the baptizer mediates the forgiveness of sins. If the forgiveness of one's sin is dependent upon the utterance of a particular phrase, and that particular phrase is normally spoken by the baptizer, then the baptizer has the power to allow or deny the forgiveness of sins. Such a concept directly contradicts Scripture, which plainly teaches in 1 Timothy 2:5 that Christ is mankind's only mediator.

No doubt Oneness Pentecostals are seeking to be as faithful as possible to Scripture when it comes to the proper methodology for baptism. For this, they are to be commended. Unfortunately, this "Jesus only" doctrine is the essence of legalism in that it creates a rule where there is none and then ties salvation to adherence to that rule. Worse still, it ties one's salvation, not to one's own obedience, but to the obedience of another.

Footnotes:

1. Adam C Dennis, The Sound of Freedom [on-line]; accessed 2 October 2007; available from http://www.upci.org/historical/histnews/articles/2002Fall/soundoffreedom.htm; Internet.

2. Calvin E. Beisner and Alan W. Gomes, Jesus Only Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 7.

3. Arthur C. Clanton, United We Stand (Hazelwood, MO: Pentecostal Publishing House, 1920), 13-14.

4. Ibid., 21.

5. Ibid., 21-22.

6. Beisner and Gomez., Jesus Only Churches, 7.

7. David K. Bernard, The New Birth (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1984), 21-22.

8. Ibid., 131.

9. David Bernard and others, Meet the United Pentecostal Church International (Hazelwood, MO: Pentecostal Publishing House, 1989), 66.

10. Bernard, The New Birth, 161.

11. Ibid., 162.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., 171.

14. Ibid., 169.

15. Ibid., 167.

Bibliography:

Beisner, E. Calvin and Alan W. Gomes. Jesus Only Churches. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.

Bernard, David, C. A. Brewer, P. D. Buford, Dan Butler, Gary Erickson, J. L. Hall, T. M. Jackson, Edwin Judd, Ralph Reynolds, and Dan Seagraves. Meet the United Pentecostal Church International. Hazelwood, MO: Pentecostal Publishing House, 1989.

Bernard, David K. The New Birth. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1984.

Clanton, Arthur C. United We Stand. Hazelwood, MO: Pentecostal Publishing House, 1920.

Dennis, Adam C. The Sound of Freedom [on-line]. Accessed 2 October 2007. Available from http://www.upci.org; Internet.

Word Aflame Press. Why We Baptize in Jesus' Name. Tract no. 6109 [on-line]. Accessed 10 October 2007. Available from http://www.upci.org; Internet.


This writing is the copyright of Jason Young and is posted with his permission. View all of his available articles here.


Page added August 17, 2015

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