What’s in a Name? The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula

A blue graphic with the words Trinitarian Formula in bold. It also includes content from the blog.

Most everyone knows the Great Commission by heart: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).

But why make disciples, and why baptize using that formula? Why did Jesus commission his church to make disciples in this way?

All authority

Jesus provides the reason in the preceding verse: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt 28:18). The authority of Jesus was given him by God, since he is the eternal begotten Son of the Father, God’s Word made flesh for us and our salvation (John 1:1, 14).

So we make disciples because of Jesus’s command. We obey not just because we have to, but because we want to. He is the head of his body, the church, and Christians are members of his body, the church. As legs and arms are the organic limbs of the human body, controlled by the head, so every Christian is intimately linked with Christ Jesus by faith and carries out the work he has given us to do (1 Cor 12:12–27).

Baptizing and teaching

But there’s more. Not only has Jesus given his church his work to do on earth, but he has also provided the process by which disciples are made: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19b–20a). What that means in this case is that baptizing and teaching are the two ways disciples are made and nourished.

All that Jesus commanded

The content of the teaching, Jesus says, is “all that I have commanded you.” Of course, he’s not speaking narrowly of the ten commandments, but rather everything that he taught his disciples during their three-year apprenticeship. The teachings of Jesus are recorded in the New Testament Gospels and expounded in the epistles.

In the name of the Trinity

But what does Jesus mean when he says baptism is done “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? On face value, this implies that no matter who does the baptizing, it’s not a human baptism. It is done at the beck and call of God the Holy Trinity. In a very real sense God himself is the one doing the baptizing.

If I start a bank account in the name of one of my grandchildren it belongs not to me, but to her or him. It’s as though it’s my grandchild who is making the investment. Likewise, when I baptize in the name of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, it is actually God who does the baptizing.

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The sign of baptism

Ironically, though Christians unanimously stress the central importance of baptism, they are sadly divided when it comes to what baptism means. Some denominations call it an ordinance, others a sacrament. They agree that it’s a sign, but not about what that sign signifies. Is baptism God’s action or man’s? Does it give or bestow anything, or merely point to the faith of the one baptized?

These important questions are beyond the scope of this brief essay, but several things can and should be pointed out:

First, to be baptized in God’s name means to be baptized by God, not merely a human being. Speaking to the factionalism that divided the congregation at Corinth, Paul asks rhetorically: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:13). The Corinthian Christians were baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, and so they belonged to him, not any one of his ministers.

Second, to be baptized in the name of God the Father, Son, and Spirit means to be baptized into him. That is, the baptized are intimately linked with God spiritually. Paul uses this picture frequently throughout his letters. He writes that the people of Israel were joined with Moses by sharing in the dramatic Red Sea deliverance: “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Cor 10:2). He explains that, likewise, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:17). Concerning the Christian walk, he writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3–4)

Finally, baptism inaugurates a lasting identity for the baptized. Paul likens baptism to circumcision, the sign of God’s covenant:

In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col 2:11–12)

Though circumcision was performed only once, it had ongoing significance for the circumcised. It was a continual reminder that they lived under God’s covenantal grace. Likewise, baptism is more than a one-time spiritual experience; it is a reminder that a new life has begun and continues for all the baptized.

It’s a good habit for baptized Christians to begin and end each day in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Since he has baptized us into his powerful name, we belong to him and he to us.

Long ago, Noah and his family were dramatically saved by water from the destruction of the deluge. According to Peter, that rescue continues:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 3:21)

The name of the Father, Son, and Spirit

What’s in a name? Not much. Unless it’s the name of the Holy Trinity, that is. In baptism God gave you the gift of himself. God grant that you can say each day with joy:

Now my life is new and holy: I am baptized into Christ!
Clothed in him, he lives within me and I am alive in him.
For the sin and death I carried now within his grave lies buried;
Since by grace I’m dead to sin, now by grace I live in him!

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Written by
Harold L. Senkbeil

Dr. Senkbeil is the award winning author of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart (Lexham, 2019) and many other books. He's served as a Parish Pastor (1971-2002), an Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary (2002-2008), and is currently the Executive Director Emeritus of DOXOLOGY:The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel.

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Written by Harold L. Senkbeil
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