Question:

In baptism, the church I go to does a good confession by saying “Jesus is Lord” and there are scriptures that supports it like Romans 10:9.  How can we be sure that we are doing it the way the early christians did?  Did the 3000 baptized in Acts 2 undergo the same practice as we do in my church today?   We ask those who are candidate for baptism questions like “do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who died on the cross and on the third day he rose from the dead for the forgiveness of your sins?” and ” what is your good confession?”. Are there historical accounts about these practices?  Another thing; after asking these questions of the candidate for baptism, the one who will baptize says “because of your good confession I now baptize you in the name of the Father, & of the Son, & of the Holy Spirit & your name will be added in the book of life”. My question is, do we have the right or authority to declare that the name of the one who is going to be baptized will be added in the book of life?

Answer:

The answer is that we cannot be sure exactly what “formula” was used during baptisms in the first century. We do have some information about the ceremonies used in the second century. The Didache is a very early Christian writing from about the end of the first century or very early second century which scholars believe was used to prepare catachumens for baptism. They were told to fast for three days. There is no mention of a ritualistic statement that “Jesus is Lord” by the one being baptized, but this does not prove it was not done. By the second century, from writings by Tertullian and Hippolytus we know that the one baptized was immersed three times in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as well as being annointed with oil to receive the Holy Spirit. We also have what is known as the Old Roman Standard, which has the one to be baptized confirming doctrines about Jesus being the Son of God and affirming the resurrection of Jesus before baptism.  This was not a uniform practice in the church in the second century, but the formula was used in many curches.

Here is the bottom line: There is no biblical formula for what ceremony ought to be observed before baptism. I come from the point of view of faith.   My faith informs me that if it was essential to go through a particular formula before baptism, then God would have seen to that formula being clearly established in the New Testament. I conclude that it is useful to have some sort of pre-baptism ritual, but that the ritual is not a matter of doctrine and, therefore, ought not to be argued over. We should be careful not to do something anti-biblical, but there is no biblical mandate for what is said. Apparently, you have been exposed to the tradition of giving a “good confession,” which is perhaps taken from 1 Timothy 6:12-13. This seems like a good idea, but it is not necessary for salvation. It is not even clear that Paul is talking about what Timothy did at his baptism in 1 Timothy 6. I believe that Romans 10:9 is a good justification for asking people to literally say with their lips that “Jesus is Lord.” at their baptism. However, I do not believe that a baptism is invalid if a person makes Jesus Lord before baptism, but does not actually say those words at the time of the baptism. I really have no idea if people who were baptized in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (as described in Acts 2) made an oral confession that “Jesus is Lord.” I would not be at all surprised that they did, but I cannot prove that they did. Again, I believe that if this was essential, it would have been mentioned.

Questions before baptism such as, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died on the cross and on the third day he rose from the dead for the forgiveness of your sins?” seem like a great idea, but this is a tradition and we should not make this an essential to salvation. Again, it is not stated that we should do so in the New Testament and the earliest evidence we have from early church writings is that, although they did have a ceremony, these particular questions were not part of their tradition.

On the authority issue for the one baptizing, we should remember that this is a ritual and is not prescribed in the Bible. If one is biblically baptized, then one is added to the book of life (Revelation 20:12), but it is not the person doing the baptism or going through the ritual that determines the efficacy of the baptism. I think it is absolutely fine to invoke the authority of the scriptures at a person’s baptism, and to say “Your name will be written in the book of life,” but as I said above, this is just a ceremony and all the power is in Jesus, not in the one doing the baptism. For all we know, when we do a baptism, the person may be totally faking it and not have any faith in Jesus at all. The words being said have no power in and of themselves. If there is authority and power in a baptism, it is in the scriptures and in Jesus, not in the one performing the ceremony.

Interestingly, we have two different descriptions with regard to whose name we are baptized in. Matthew 28:18-20 has the person being saved baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, while Acts 2:38 has them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Some have tried to prove that baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is the only valid baptism, when we have a different formula in Acts 2:38!!! This is foolishness, unbiblical, and divisive. The fact that we have two different formulas is evidence that in the very early church there were two different traditions, or perhaps there was no well-formed tradition at all. Let us put aside worrying about the exact formula used in performing a baptism!!! Let us stick to the plain and simple biblical truths, which are that baptism is for forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38) and that the one to be baptized must be cut to the heart, believe in Jesus as resurrected savious and must repent of sins before baptism (Acts 2:36-38). Let us not worry about the exact formula used when a person is baptized into Christ.

John Oakes

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