Question: "Should we be baptized in Jesus' name (Acts 2:38), or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)?"
Answer: On the Day of Pentecost, Peter told the crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). His command concerning baptism was that it be done “in the name of Jesus Christ.” Earlier, Jesus had told His disciples to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The difference in wording has led many to ask, “What is the correct formula? Are we to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; or are we to baptize in the name of Jesus alone?”
One explanation points to the fact that the Father, Son, and Spirit are “three-in-one.” Being baptized in the name of one Person of the Godhead is the same as being baptized in the name of all three. But there is a more probable explanation, which takes into account the audience for each command.
When Jesus gave the Great Commission, He was sending His followers into all the world to make disciples “of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In the pagan world, they would encounter those who knew absolutely nothing about One True God, idolatrous people who were “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). In preaching the gospel to such people, the apostles would necessarily have to include teaching on what God is like, including His triune nature. (Notice with what basic information Paul begins his address to the Athenians in Acts 17.) Those who received the gospel and were baptized would be converting to an entirely different religious system and embracing a new understanding of who God is.
In contrast, Peter was speaking on the Day of Pentecost to faithful Jewish people who already had an understanding of God the Father and God’s Spirit. The part of the equation they were missing was Jesus, the Son of God—and without Jesus, they could not be saved (Acts 4:12). In presenting the gospel to the Jews, Peter commands them to be baptized in Jesus’ name; that is, to exercise faith in the One they had crucified. They had professed the Father and the Spirit, but they needed to profess the Son. Those who received the gospel that day devoted themselves to the lordship of Jesus. They no longer rejected Him but acknowledged Him as their Messiah and only Hope for salvation.
We should probably consider the standard formula for Christian baptism to be in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Peter’s emphasis on the name of Jesus is understandable, given that he was speaking to the very same Jews who had before rejected and denied Jesus as their Messiah.
The message of the gospel is still changing lives today. Those who place their faith in Jesus Christ still receive the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Father. And water baptism is still God’s ordained method of making public profession of our faith, identifying ourselves with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.