Bible Studies


Biblical Differences About Baptism Do Not Undermine Biblical Infallibility

An honest look at the New Testament data confirms that there are different methods of baptism recorded there. For example, Jesus never told us to baptize in his name; he told us: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 28:19.) However, as we survey the rest of the New Testament, we discover something quite different: people were baptized in the name of Christ, other times in Christ Jesus, or the Lord Jesus. (Acts 2:38; 8:16; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27)

What is the solution to these discrepancies? There are several ways that people have tried to resolve this.

1. This is a contradiction. I would reject that completely. After knowing the Lord Jesus for over forty years and having become a daily Bible student for thirty-nine years, having taken seven years of Greek and three of Hebrew and reading the Bible in the original languages for many years, I can testify that I have never found any reason to doubt that the Bible is infallible or that there is anything in the Bible that could not be reconciled.

2. The verse in Matthew 28 is a description of the titles or roles of the one person, Jesus; the other verses are explicit commands about how to baptize. This view assumes that in Matthew 28:19 we are given the titles or roles that the one person, Jesus, fulfills. Just as Sandy Vincent is a wife to me, a daughter to her father, a mother to our five children and a grandmother to our six grandchildren, so were we to baptize in her name we would say, “I baptize you in the name of Sandy.” But we could also refer to this as baptizing in the name of the one who is wife, daughter, mother and grandmother.

There are several problems with this view.

2.1. The book of Acts is the Spirit inspired description of historical events, as well as the statements about baptism in Romans and Galatians, but Matthew’s words are the literal and exact command of the Lord Jesus Christ himself. So the weight should be given to what is an explicit commandment of our Lord, rather than to historical descriptions of how that was carried out.

2.2. This view presupposes the Oneness Pentecostal view that the one person Jesus functioned at times as a Father and sometimes as a Son and that God’s name is Jesus. However, “Jesus” is not the name of the Father or the Holy Spirit. God’s name is Yahweh, and when we speak of Yahweh, we are speaking of the one God, who eternally exists in three persons.

Jesus is the name that the Son of God was given when he became a human being. It is called the Father’s name, simply because it is the Father who gave him that name. I have my mother’s name, because she named me “Robert.” As I point out in the article about God’s name, the name “Jesus” and the name “Joshua” are identical in both Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; it was a very common name for Jewish boys, because it uses God’s proper name, Yahweh, and combines it with the Hebrew word for salvation: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21.)

Therefore, when Jesus explicitly commanded us to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he could not have been commanding us to baptize in the name of Jesus.

2.3. This view also rests on the Oneness Pentecostal view that there is no distinction between God the Father and the Lord Jesus.

2.3.1. I have a lot of friends who are United Pentecostals. Most do not understand what Trinitarians actually believe and think that Trinitarians are tritheists. (tri, “three,” combined with theos, “god”.) The Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) believe the Father and the Son are separate gods, but they are polytheists (poly, “many,” combined with theos, “god”.), not Trinitarians. Trinitarians believe in only one God, because that is what the Bible teaches, as is stated in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD.”

Revelation 4 and 5 is a vision of God’s throne room, and much is beyond our minds’ ability to grasp, but there is clearly a distinction between the One who sits on the throne, the Lamb and the seven Spirits of God, “sent forth into all the earth.” Consider, for example, Revelation 4:2 (“And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.”) and Revelation 5:6. (“And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth.”)

This distinction is brought out even more clearly by our Lord in the Upper Room, before he was crucified, especially in John 14:15-27.

“I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, (16) . . . Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (17) I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. (18)

“At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.” (20)

“If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (23)

“These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” (25, 26)

What are some of the things that we can learn from John 14:15-27?

First of all, it is very obvious that more than one person is in view: there is Jesus, who is the speaker, then there is the speaker’s Father, who is distinct from Jesus. Jesus refers to himself and the Father as “WE” in verse 23. Furthermore, in verse 26, the Lord tells us about yet a third, distinct person, “the Comforter,” which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name.”

Secondly, we discover that each believer is indwelt by each of these three persons. Not only will Jesus dwell in us, but he adds, “my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (23) Then he tells us that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, “shall be in you.” (16, 17.)

2.3.2. But before we look at that more closely, we need to be sure of our terms. What is a person? When we speak of persons, we often are referring to human beings. But God in eternity is not a human being. Different angels are different persons, just as different humans are different persons, and so are different demons. Not to be overly simplistic, but personhood is “the composite of characteristics that make up an individual personality.” We may even say that my dog, Hamilton, is one person, while my wife’s cat, Edgar, is another.

The above Scriptures make it plain that we are dealing with three distinct persons, and each of these three persons fulfills a distinct function in securing salvation. We can see this clearly in 1 Peter 1:2, where each of these three persons takes on a different role: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.” These Scriptures make it plain that it is not one person fulfilling different roles and relationships the way, as I said above, my wife does: daughter, wife, mother and grandmother. That is not the case with what we read about in the New Testament; there each of the three persons plays a distinct role, and we do not have Modalism, with one person playing three different roles, as in the old Peter Sellers’ film, “The Mouse that Roared,” where the late Mr. Sellers played most of the major characters.

While trick photography can give the illusion of one actor playing two or more roles at once, real life does not. In real life, water can be three different forms: ice, a solid; water, a liquid; or steam, a vapor. But the same molecule of water cannot exist in these three modes at one and the same time. In real life, at the same moment when Jesus was baptized on earth, his Father spoke from heaven, and the Spirit of God came down. (Matthew 3:16, 17.)

The Lord Jesus spoke of himself not only as one with the Father (John 10:30), but also as different from him—even saying, “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28.) As we compare the different role of the Son from the Father, the Son takes the inferior role, the role of the Servant of the Father; the Son becomes the Suffering Servant who does the will of God even unto death. (Cf. Philippians 2:5-11.) And Jesus purchases the Holy Spirit, whom he pours out on the Church. (Acts 2:33.)

2.3.3. The real difficulty comes when we discover that each of these three persons is God.

First of all, the New Testament clearly speaks of the Father as God; take, for example John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.”

Also, it is clear that the Holy Ghost is not only God, he is more than a force—inanimate objects cannot feel pain, but the Holy Spirit can be “grieved.” (Ephesians 4:30.) He has intelligence and a distinct personality; his distinct personality is to bring honor to the Son of God: “He shall glorify me.” (John 16:14.) As we read above in John 14:26, “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost . . . shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” In Acts 5:3, 4, he is lied to and called God: “Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost . . . thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” (By the way, contrary to some teaching, the Holy Ghost and the Holy Spirit are identical and refer to the same person. For some reason, the translators of the King James Version translated the same Greek word, pneuma, sometimes as “ghost” and sometimes as “spirit.”)

2.3.4. The most difficult of these three persons to comprehend is the Lord Jesus, because in him we are confronted with someone who is both like us and yet altogether different. Jesus of Nazareth is presented to us as a truly human person who had emotions and intelligence similar to ours. He felt pain and loneliness, just as we do. And even though he never sinned, he wrestled with the same kinds of temptations we all face: pride, self-pity, fear, doubt, dishonesty, hate and the misuse of his human sexuality. (Hebrews 4:15.) When a close friend of his died, he “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled;” he wept. (John 11:33, 35.) He knew fatigue, hunger and thirst. (John 4:6; Matthew 4:2.) He even confessed ignorance regarding the time of the end of the world, saying that only his Father knew when that would happen. (Matthew 24:36.)

At the same time the New Testament presents this person, Jesus, as someone altogether different from other people. He is called God (John 1:1-3; 20:28.) and identified as Yahweh, the God of Israel. (Hebrews 1:10-12 with Psalm 102.) He declared, “Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58.) His religious contemporaries understood the implication of what he said—in effect “making himself equal to God”—and “so they picked up stones to throw at him.” (John 5:18; 8:59.)

2.3.5. So, as I said above, the difficulty comes when we discover that each of these three persons is God—not three gods, as in tritheism—but God, the one true God. “I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me . . . I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:5-7.)

2.3.6. What do we do with the biblical data? Do we emphasize the three-ness of God at the expense of the oneness, as do tritheists? Or, do we emphasize the oneness of God at the expense of the three-ness, as do the Unitarians (many of whom reject the deity of the Lord Jesus and view him as a mere human being.)? Or, do we say that God is both one and three in the exactly the same way, which is a logical contradiction? I submit that we confess what Christians confessed long before the time of the Roman emperor Constantine: There is only one God, and he eternally exists in three persons, not two or four: the Father, the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

3. When the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, told the gathered apostles to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he meant that exact thing, those actual words, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” and not the words, “in the name of Jesus.” The rest of the New Testament describes what often took place, namely, that people did not always follow our Lord’s explicit commandment.

Immediately we must ask the question “why?” -- Why would Peter say “be baptized . . . in the name of Jesus Christ,” when the Lord Jesus Christ explicitly commanded the apostles to baptize people in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

3.1. The Bible didn’t come to us the way that Mohammed claims he received the Quran, out of the blue, without human involvement. As the Lord Jesus is both fully God and fully human in his one person, so the Bible is both fully God’s word and yet also a fully human document, too. This does not take away from the Bible’s being infallible, because just as Jesus is without sin, so the Bible is without error. Therefore, the Bible is a divine instruction book, but it is more than that: it is the Holy Spirit’s, infallibly guided, human interpretation of God’s mighty acts. As such, it unfolds in a specific historical context, and its revelation is progressive: we gain more and more insight into the nature of God and his dealings with us as the history of redemption unfolds.

Nobody in the early Church had a copy of the Bible the way that we do today. It is true that local churches may have possessed hand-written copies of the Hebrew Old Testament, probably in the form of its Greek translation, the Septuagint, but it would be rare that individual believers possessed a complete copy of the Old Testament. They would also have hand-written copies of various New Testament books, as these were written, circulated and hand-copied, but it would be the end of the first century before those books were complete, and it would be after A. D. 1455, when Gutenberg printed the first book on a movable type printing press, before a complete copy of the whole Bible would become affordable to any but the richest individuals. When Peter spoke on the day of Pentecost, he did not have a copy of Matthew’s Gospel, containing our Lord’s explicit instructions about baptism, nor did he have the Gospels of Mark, Luke or John. But what he had was adequate for the needs of the fledgling, New Testament Church: what he had was the Holy Spirit who guided him into all truth, bringing to his mind the things that the Lord Jesus taught. It’s simply that the Holy Spirit did not see fit to lay down an explicit and rigid liturgy that had to be absolutely followed in all circumstances. So as we study the Bible, we discover that revelation is progressive: Isaiah had a greater revelation of God than did Moses, and John, writing near the end of the first century, had a depth of understanding beyond some of the other apostles, in part, because he lived almost thirty years beyond Peter and wrote near the end of his life.

3.2. There are some basic differences in the Old Testament way of worship and that of the New.

3.2.1. While people are saved the same way in the New Testament as they were in the Old, God administered these two Testaments differently. That is especially true with regard to the different rituals that are laid out in the two Testaments. Things simply are not as spelled out in the New as they are in the Old. Under the Law, everything that is to be done in worship is given in the most minute detail, and no variation was tolerated. Blood was to be sprinkled seven times, not six or eight, on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant on the Day of Atonement. The first time it must be blood from a bull, then blood from a goat. Even the kind of underwear that is to be worn in worship is explicitly commanded. (Leviticus 16:4.) The whole structure of Tabernacle, and later Temple worship is to impress people with the enormous barrier between them and God. When the Lord Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, thereby removing the barrier between sinful humanity and a holy God. (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 6:19, 20.) The ancient and fearful rites, which if performed incorrectly brought death (Leviticus 10:1 ff.; 2 Samuel 6:6 ff.), now pass into a new form, one marked by life and freedom. So it is, when we come to descriptions of New Testament worship, we find the covenant community experiencing freedom and spontaneity under the leadership of the Holy Spirit within the structure of biblical revelation. The Bible gives the structure and is normative, but the details are not so delineated. Very different from the Old Testament’s rigid structure of worship is the picture one gets about New Testament worship from reading passages such as Acts 20:7 ff. or 1 Corinthians 14:26 ff. This is why God’s standard for worship works out very differently in the two Testaments.

3.2.3. In the Holy Spirit guided evolution of doctrinal emphases, the prophets stress the importance of the heart, not external ceremonies: “rend your heart, and not your garments.” (Joel 2:13.) That emphasis is given full voice in the preaching of the Lord Jesus: “the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” (John 4:23.) It is echoed by his apostles: “we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” (Philippians 3:3.)

This emphasis on the heart and freedom within biblical structure can be seen with regard to such things as the words that are used with the sealing ceremonies of the New Testament. For example, as we lift the cup, should we say, “This cup is the new testament in my blood,” as Paul and Luke have it? (1 Corinthians 11:25; Luke 22:20.) Or, should we follow Matthew and Mark and say, “This is my blood of the new testament”? (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24. If we get the formulae wrong, will we turn the bread into mouse flesh or the wine into urine? Such ridiculous thoughts are more fitting for Medieval folk, rather than for serious students of the New Testament message.

3.3. The important thing is always God’s act, not man’s. It is what God does in baptism, not my superstitious conformity to a religious group’s view of ceremonial purity. It isn’t how I am baptized but that I am baptized that is important. And always it is a matter of the intention of the heart.

3.4. Since people sometimes dropped dead from a misuse of the Lord’s Supper, (1 Corinthians 11:30.) and we never read about such a thing happening in baptism, surely God is not less concerned with the words we use in the one ordinance than he is in the other. So, just as people didn’t use exactly the same language when they observed the Lord’s Supper, neither did they use exactly the same language when they baptized people.

It is for that reason when we come to the descriptions of New Testament baptism we do not find a clear and uniform picture of how it was done. Sometimes it is by pouring and sometimes by immersion. (Acts 1:5; 2:33; Romans 6:3-5.) Sometimes it is in the name of Christ, other times in Christ Jesus, or the Lord Jesus. (Acts 2:38; 8:16; Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27.) And, of course, we have the Lord Jesus’ explicit command in Matthew 28:19 to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

3.5. To put it succinctly, the New Testament isn’t focused on strict observance of rituals, especially on the exact use of specific words, as if they were magic formulae. It’s focus is the heart, and we do not get a picture of the various congregations of the New Testament era following an exact liturgy: they sang different songs with different tunes, met at different times, had different length services, had different styles of worship and celebrated the Lord’s Supper and baptism differently. Undoubtedly, people were baptized in different ways, at different times and places, as I pointed out above. In time, especially, as Christianity began to focus more on the world of the gentiles after Acts 11, and especially after Acts 13, the Gospel summons was not so focused on a Jewish audience, confessing Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, but on the gentiles turning to God from their false gods. By the end of the first century, Matthew’s formula, quoting our Lord’s explicit command became more and more the standard.

Bob Vincent