During the Reformation, Protestants examined Scripture’s teaching on the sacraments and found that the church was wrong to have any other sacraments besides baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments, they argued, were directly instituted by Christ, and in the New Testament only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were instituted by our Savior. Baptism, the sacrament of initiation, is ordinarily the first sacrament a believer receives.
Today’s passage records for us the institution of baptism, and the context in which it is given demonstrates the importance of this sacrament. Before ascending to heaven, Jesus commissioned the Apostles and the church that follows them to teach the nations to observe all that He had commanded them. Since baptism into the name of our triune God is one of the things that Jesus commanded, a church is not following its commission if it does not baptize people or if it treats baptism lightly (Matt. 28:18–20). Moreover, we are in direct disobedience to Christ Himself if we refuse to be baptized.
Today’s passage reveals that the only valid method of baptism is baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. True, the book of Acts records early Christians as being “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (for example, Acts 2:38; 10:48), but Luke, the author of Acts, certainly does not want us to understand such statements as endorsing a Jesus-only baptismal formula. His remarks are shorthand for Christ’s fuller command in Matthew 28:18–20, and they emphasize the newness of the new covenant era in its explicit identification with Jesus.
In addition to being commanded by Jesus, the formula whereby we baptize people into the one name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is also a vehicle for teaching. It provides a quick summary of the Christian doctrine of God, and our doctrine of God controls every other aspect of our theology. John Calvin comments on today’s passage, “We perceive that God cannot be truly known, unless our faith distinctly conceive of Three Persons in one essence; and that the fruit and efficacy of baptism proceed from God the Father adopting us through his Son, and, after having cleansed us from the pollutions of the flesh through the Spirit: creating us anew to righteousness.”
Finally, Jesus does not give us a specific mode for baptism. The Greek word for “baptize”—baptizō —has to do with water but it does not refer exclusively to immersion, dipping, pouring, sprinkling, or any other means of applying water. All are lawful modes of baptism.