My Take on Baptism in Acts of the Apostles

In my first post, Theophilus….

Ok, that was a bad idea. For the record, that was a joke based on the way St. Luke begins the Gospel of Luke, and then begins the Acts of the Apostles. St. Luke wrote both books, so when I say “Acts says,” it means both “what St. Luke wrote here.”  And of course also ” what God said here.” This is Scripture.

So, seriously, this is “part two of two” on my posts about baptism in the Acts of the Apostles. Click HERE to read my lengthy analysis of the question. Here I will re-post the question in its briefest form, and then start to give for an answer what I think are my very small insights into Scripture.

Question: Why does the Acts of Apostles only describe baptism as “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” when (in Matt 28:19) Christ commanded us to baptize “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”?

Some preface notes for my answer. 

First is to say openly that my ideas are somewhat of a response to the Protestant conceptions of salvation. Particularly I believe this very scriptural issue requires a response to the kind of systems that Protestantism has adopted for receiving the salvation of Christ. To say that this is an issue at all is a response to the Protestant systems, which are said explicitly to supersede and replace the Catholic sacramental system. To spill the beans, I believe the Acts of the Apostles presents baptism in a very particular, objective, and salvific sense, which is exactly what Catholic sacramental theology claims for baptism, and has always claimed for baptism.

Second preface is the obvious point for those who read (or may read for the first time) the Acts of the Apostles: Acts in no way denies the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are clearly all spoke of, and all affirmed as divine. Likewise, when Acts consistently says “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” instead of baptized “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit” it is not claiming to give any credal formula, nor is it explicitly quoting any baptismal ritual script. Therefore I confess I do overstate the problem when I speak as if this question seems like a matter of utter contradiction existing in the Scriptures, or of mental instability on the part of its Apostolic authors. This analysis is not an immediate clarification of core Christian doctrine. But, along with my first proviso where I have already “spilled the beans,” I will say that a good insight into this question may in fact clarify a Christian doctrine that has in fact been divided and contradictory the last 500 years.

Now for my answer let us start to go through parts of Acts. I proceed first by interpreting some verses as they might seem to be interpreted in a Protestant system. [Proviso number three, there is of course no one singular Protestant system. Politely skipping any survey of the contradictions among Protestants, I say that I am responding to any of those systems whereby Protestants operate under some recognizable swap-out of traditions. Where the Catholic Church puts baptism, they put the intentional invocation of Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior, either vocally or silently but intentionally. Where the Catholic Church puts the sacrament of confirmation, they, practically speaking, put baptism. ]

Let us pretend you have been given a Bible by a Christian friend, who has already encouraged you to pray to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. You have just read the whole Gospel of Luke, and it was pointed out that the story continues in “part two.” You start to read Acts, inspired by the hope that you have found, that Jesus will give peace, and that there is such a thing as the forgiveness of sins. You read some strange business about finding a replacement for Judas, someone to have a “share,” in some kind of ministry. But you don’t really understand that, so you get passed the verse about having a replacement for “Apostle #12,” and… BAM! you are at the exciting events of Pentecost. The presence and effects of the Holy Spirit are impressive. But there is not much there to inspire a personal hope for salvation, until you start reading a sermon by St. Peter that elaborates on the promises of some ancient prophet. Even if you can’t match up the words of the Prophet Joel with the current events, the last line of Joel that St. Peter quotes in this sermon might catch your ear; “On that day whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!” (Acts 2:21, Joel 2:32).

Here you have the promise of promises, eternal life, that given to the repentant criminal on Calvary. St. Peter obviously would build upon this great promise. And he does. He proceeds to prove, via a quote of the 16th Psalm, that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the long expected Christ, as proved by his resurrection. Lest they missed his greatest point, St. Peter quotes one more Messianic Psalm about the resurrection, and then states the grand conclusion, “know assuredly, that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!” (2:36).

Now at this point the Catholic Church and many Protestant creeds are in agreement about how all the dots connect. Those who have listened to the Gospel should know that “they” crucified Jesus. But the crucifixion led to the forgiveness of sins. Therefore the great promise of salvation, mentioned by the prophet Joel, had been made available since the moment of the resurrection of Christ. We know… that… JESUS… IS… CHRIST AND LORD. The “name of the Lord” can be identified in none other than Jesus Christ. And St. Peter had just said, filling in the name for Joel’s prophecy, “whoever calls on the name of the Lord [Jesus Christ] will be saved.”

At this point it seems very clear that people should be led to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ. It seems clear that they should have some help using words to ask Jesus to forgive their sins. Peter should have reminded them of the words of the good thief on the cross, and told them to make some similar invocation. There should have been an altar call. This, after all, is how we “call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” is it not? We must pray a “Jesus prayer” to have our sins forgiven.

But it is exactly here where you will find things not exactly as your Protestant friend had indicated. And here also is where St. Peter’s next words give us the answer to that great Scriptural and historical puzzle about the way baptism is described in Acts. St. Peter does NOT say, “to receive the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins, repent in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and be baptized.” No. He says “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit.” Focus in and let us make that even more explicit. He does NOT say, “repent in the name… and be baptized.” He says “repent and be baptized in the name!” You see, St. Peter’s imperative about repentance and baptism here are very much a summation of the prophecy of Joel. Read his sermon again and see that Jesus’ name is the only name that has been “named” since St. Peter quoted that great promise, “on that day whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” He “named” Him when he proclaimed him both Lord and Christ. Now he “names” baptism as the key to calling upon the name. It is baptism that, to receive the promise of Joel, is done “in his name;” not the vocal prayer on behalf of the penitent.

In Acts, to be baptized is synonymous with “calling upon the name of the Lord,” that is the salvation spoken of by Joel and quoted by St. Peter. The phrase is a shorthand. But it is shorthand for the great promise that one receives, and not for any ritual prayers for baptism. This way of describing baptism does contain a double entendre. It primarily means that the baptism itself is a salvific act of “calling upon the name” Jesus Christ, who died for the forgiveness of our sins and brings us the promised salvation of the day of the Lord. This description does also include this presupposition, that “calling upon the name of the Lord” we should insist on giving and receiving baptism with the very words that the Lord, Jesus Christ, instructed us to use for baptism. Every Christian reading Acts knew the latter part, and so Acts hammers home the former, many times. If baptism gives, in itself, the salvation promised by Joel on the day of the Lord, then the reason Acts of the Apostles never says explicitly how baptism is done, is because it is so focused on what baptism is: a sacrament for the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy SpiritGo back to my questions and read the citations in Acts. It is clear in Acts that the forgiveness of sins was identified with the baptism, and not with any prayers that were expressed by the baptizee, although the two must be harmonious. 

Here in Acts the forgiveness of sins is not left to a subjective internal intention. It is identified with an objective external sign, which must match the internal intention. Such is my answer to the question of the seeming inconsistency of the exact words to use when baptizing. And if it seems like I’m trying to cram too much meaning into small little phrases from Acts, I confess it is because this is Scripture, and I can only do a very inadequate job for explaining the great truths that are here. Again, I’m sure there are some great Catholic scriptural insights out there from the good scholars.

I will mention in closing  I believe there are other corollaries to this in Acts. The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and the significance of John the Baptist in Acts, are things that have come powerfully into this picture too. Of course the idea of identifying the forgiveness of sins with the receiving of baptism needs to be put into the whole scheme of Acts, whereby the Church is actually doing much more than just going around and giving one sacrament in isolation from all other activity. There is that great issue of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which even when given by God before baptism, seemed only to highlight the necessity of baptism all the more. For the sake of brevity I had to keep myself from even using the word “covenant” here, but the whole of Acts – and the Bible for that matter – cannot be understood with that word. And, of course, the entire Acts has been called The Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and it requires a great response to His gifts to start to understand the way He operates, and the totality of what He was accomplishing in the Acts. 

I close this post with two thoughts from my small thought on baptism in Acts. 
First, given all of St. Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost, we can say that performing, giving, and receiving baptism as Christ commanded us is essentially a proclamation of the Lordship of Christ. Second, Pentecost should be a daily occurrence for the baptized believer.

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