Do the Words of Baptism Matter?
To give us God’s name, the name that is above every name, Christ gave us the exact words to say at baptism: the name of the triune God who is three persons, one God: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
It does seem a little dangerous to be baptizing infants. The little tykes seem unfocussed; their hearts are going toward mamma’s breasts, and they seem inattentive to the Christian way of life. But baptism is not the moment God judges our true, inner hearts. He already knows all about that, and it isn’t good. Baptism is salvation from sin, and salvation is by faith—alone.
The words that tell us what baptism gives are clear: “He saved us! Not by righteous works we do, but by his own mercy in the washing of new birth and making new by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). The words that actually “do” baptism to us are also clear: “go into all the world, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
When the moment comes for you to be baptized, your heart and mind don’t rule. God’s word is the only power. When the baptizer says the words, it is those words that make the faith. Before the words there was no faith and afterward, there is faith! Amazing! Faith is not there first, and then the words add spice. Faith is made by God like any new birth: out of nothing and merely by God speaking. But God likes to make new birth through things—and in this case, it is a word put into water and applied to the person (or the person applied to the water/word and “dunked”). New faith then clings to the words through the water, since faith is always believing in something. The thing that faith believes in is the word of God in the form of a simple – first and final – promise: “shall be saved!” (Mark 16:16, or as in Titus 3:5 “He saved us!”) That baptism/word is not trivial or interchangeable with some other words we may prefer. The words are specific, personal, and powerful. They are “clingable” words, especially in times of trial and temptation when we discover who our god really is. The words of baptism give us the true God to hang onto so that we finally fulfill the first commandment – no other gods!
Baptism is not the moment God judges our true, inner hearts. He already knows all about that, and it isn’t good.
Baptism uses these words: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” in order to give you the hidden name of God. How would you know his name if it was never given to you? Likewise, baptism uses your own, personal “Christian” name given to you by God (through parents!): “John Jacob I baptize you…” At that moment, God names you. Then in the next moment, God gives you his own holy and majestic name. He doesn’t do that for everyone! When we have that name, we also fulfill the second commandment: do not misuse the name of your God! How do you avoid misuse of God’s name? First, you need to know his name. Second, you use the name in fear and love—not to curse, swear and practice magic with it, but to pray to God alone in every time of need and give your thanks only to him.
One of the greatest promises of Scripture is Joel 2:32: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” When Paul describes baptism, he explains it this way: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” You know about the beautiful feet of those who preach the good news. Now you also know that “faith comes by preaching, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). To give us God’s name, the name that is above every name, Christ gave us the exact words to say at baptism: the name of the triune God who is three persons, one God: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Calling on that name is your salvation.