Trinity Versus Baptism In Jesus Name? How To Talk To Oneness Pentecostals

by Bobby Gilles

in Exhortations And Musings

I grew up in a small church that was part of an anti-Trinity movement within Pentecostalism. This movement has splintered into many different denominations, fellowships and churches, but they share a common belief that Christian baptism should not include the phrase “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) because the Trinity is an Anti-Christ concept.

They believe that when Peter said, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38), he was acting on a revelation from God that Matthew 28:19 was more or less a riddle – one that can be answered by those who receive a revelation that “Jesus Christ” is the “name” of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This teaching is a form of Modalism, an ancient heresy wherein “Father, Son and Spirit” are not three persons, but rather three “modes,” or offices of God. While Oneness (also called “Jesus Only”) practitioners often say that this is an “end time” revelation that God has given them, Modalism dates to the third century C.E. teaching of Sabellius (“Sabellianism” is another name for Modalism).

What do you do if someone in your church wants to be baptized, and they’ve been caught in this teaching? Obviously, they need instruction on the Trinity, but you’re unlikely to get anywhere with them until you walk them through the issue of baptism. It’s even possible that they’ve come to accept the Trinity, but still prefer the Oneness baptism formula. After all, what is the alternative? Was Peter wrong? If the Oneness harmonization of Matt 28:19 and Acts 2:38 is wrong, then what’s right?

Let’s walk through it, step by step:

 Are Titles Different Than Names?

The argument typically begins, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit aren’t names; they are titles.” This is simply incorrect in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament writers. Names and titles are indistinguishable. The Greek word for “name” is “onoma.” It represents what we would consider proper names as well as titles like “Father,” and it indicates power and authority.

Sometimes “onoma” means “reputation,” as in Revelation 3:1

I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

We still use “name” this way in contemporary English:

“Stop, in the name of the law!”

“Stop in the name of love / before you break my heart.”

And according to Revelation 19:13, “The Word of God” is a name:

He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God.

 Name or Names?

Next, Oneness proponents claim that since Matthew wrote “name” instead of “names” in 28:19, he must be referring to one noun, not three. This turns 28:19 into a riddle, where we need to figure out what singular name represents the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Their answer, of course, is “Jesus Christ.” This is ironic because using their own logic, “Christ” isn’t a name. It’s a title.

Nevertheless, this insistence that Matthew would have used the plural “names” if he’d meant for people to be baptized into three names is incorrect in Greek and English. Consider this sentence:

“Rain poured down, striking the head of Bill, and Cindy, and Raul.” Is this sentence correct? Yes. If I’d have written, “… striking the heads of Bill, and Cindy, and Raul,” I’d have been wrong unless I was claiming that Bill, Cindy, and Raul each have multiple heads.

Here’s an example from Exodus 23:13

Now concerning everything which I have said to you, be on your guard; and do not mention the name of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth.

Exodus links the singular “name” with the plural “gods.” See also Deuteronomy 18:20 and Joshua 23:7-8.

What Does “In The Name Of …” mean?

Oneness proponents have a simplistic view of what it means to be baptized “in the name,” as if there is a specific magic incantation that must be uttered in order for baptism to “work” and the person to truly be saved.

Colossians 3:17 says:

Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Does this mean you rise out of bed and, all day long, you say:

“I wash my face in the name of Jesus.” I put on clothes in the name of Jesus. I eat my Captain Crunch in the name of Jesus …

Or maybe Colossians 3:17 just means that you do everything under the authority — and in worship of — Jesus.

It’s the same with prayer. Praying, “in the name of Jesus” means praying as directed and authorized by Jesus (as in the Lord’s Prayer, which does not include any reference to God the Son). You don’t have to literally say, “In the name of Jesus” for God to hear your prayer (not that there’s anything wrong with saying, “in the name of Jesus”).

In 1 Corinthians 1:14-15, Paul writes:

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name.

Paul wasn’t worried that anyone would have accused him of literally saying, “I now baptize you in the name of Paul.”  He meant, “No one can accuse me of baptizing under my own authority, instead of Christ’s.”

Baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38) means baptism as commanded by the risen Lord (in Matthew 28:19), not something different.

 Matt 28:19 for Baptizers/ Acts 2:38 for Baptizees

Don’t forget the difference of perspective between Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 and Peter’s words in Acts 2:38. In Matthew, Jesus tells “baptizers” how to baptize. In Acts, Peter tells unbaptized people that Jesus is the authority they are to be baptized under. It is the baptismal candidate (the baptized person) who is to call on the name of the Lord. Acts 22:16 sheds more light:

Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’

The grammar of the passage shows that the one being baptized is to call on Jesus’ name. It is what we call the “confession of faith.”

At my church, right before we baptize, the baptizer asks, “What is your sacred confession?”

The baptismal candidate responds, “Jesus is Lord.”

Then the baptizer says, “Upon your confession of faith, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

In this way we fulfill the intent of both Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38.

How Did The Early Church Really Do It?

First, these are not magical incantations. Baptism is not hokus-pokus salvation. Those who insist that Acts 2:38 must be recited in order for the baptism to “work” are guilty of turning baptism into a spell.

But what did the first Christians say as they were baptizing converts? Oneness/Jesus’ Only practitioners say that the book of Acts proves their claim. But if Luke, the writer of Acts, had intended to record word-for-word the exact phrase the baptizer was to utter, then why didn’t he write it the same way every time?

  • Acts 2:38 “… in the name of Jesus Christ …”
  • 8:16 “… in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
  • 10:48 “… in the name of Jesus Christ.”
  • 19:5 “ … in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
  • 22:16 “… calling on His name.”

One would think that if there is a precise formula of words that needs to be said in order for baptism to “work,” Luke would have been careful enough to record it that way every time. Luke didn’t report a formula, liturgical phrase, or incantation that was said before every baptism. He noted that these baptisms were performed under the authority of Jesus.

The emphasis in every verse is on the person being baptized, not the one doing the baptizing. This is why we don’t read “they were baptized by Paul, who said, ‘in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’”

But consider Acts 19:2-3. Paul comes to some disciples at Ephesus:

He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.”

Isn’t it odd that Paul answers the admission, “we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit,” by blurting, “Into what then were you baptized?”

His response would make no sense, except that Paul can’t understand how they could have heard the baptizer say, “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and yet claim they’d never heard whether there is a Holy Spirit. As soon as they confess their ignorance about the third Person of the Trinity, Paul knows that something was amiss with their baptisms.

Next, consider the Didache, a church manual written perhaps as early as 60 A.D., which circulated throughout the ancient churches in the Roman empire. It says, “… baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”

Of course, the Didache isn’t in the Bible. But the New Testament epistle writers dealt with major heresies and problems in the churches. Paul, Peter, James and other apostles likely lived a few years after the writing of the Didache, while John lived decades after. If the formula for the Didache was a grievous error, wouldn’t somebody have denounced it?

Is Oneness/Jesus Only A New Revelation From God?

Oneness/Jesus-only proponents will often say that this is a new revelation that came sometime during or after the Azusa Street Revival of 1906, which is generally regarded to be the birth of modern Pentecostalism.

But the argument that Jesus Christ is the secret answer to the riddle, “What is the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” did not come by revelation to any 20th century prophet. It came from a fifth century Monophysite monk named Shenoute.

And the ancient gnostic heretic Marcion first said, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ” (see Cyprian, Letter 72,4). Marcion did not use Matthew 28:19 because he did not accept Matthew’s Gospel. Nor did he accept the Old Testament, because he believed Jehovah was a false god. His “bible” only contained a greatly edited version of Luke’s writings and Paul’s letters.

There is nothing new under the sun.

So there you have it. The Oneness/Jesus Only version of baptism doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Further, it stems from a denial and misunderstanding of the Trinity. To be baptized in this formula is to reject the authority of Jesus himself — it is, in fact, to reject Peter’s Spirit-inspired command to be baptized “in the name (under the authority) of Jesus Christ.”

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