This is the third post in a series taking a closer look at the Fourth Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Parts One and Two are here.) Again, that Article of Faith reads,
We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second,Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Baptism is the first ordinance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the first outward, symbolic ritual act that shows we are accepting the Gospel of Christ and becoming members in his Church. After one has Faith in Jesus Christ and has Repented of one’s sins, one must step forward and be baptized, “by immersion for the remission of sins.” Baptism is the ordinance which completes the act of Repentance and washes away the sins of which we have repented. Where Faith and Repentance are internal, spiritual principles, Baptism is an outward sign of one’s commitment to Jesus Christ.
I find it interesting that Joseph Smith, when writing these Articles of Faith, did not just state that the first principles and ordinances were: Faith, Repentance, Baptism, and the Holy Ghost, as we often do in our Sunday School and Seminary classes when discussing these topics. Joseph Smith added a few extra, extremely important details. It is not just Faith, but Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, as I already discussed, and it is not just Baptism, but Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. Baptism must be performed in a specific way, after the manner the Lord has outlined, and that is baptism by immersion.
I do not want to put any other church down by dismissing completely their mode or method of baptism, but it is interesting to note that in the Greek Orthodox church, baptism has always been by immersion. Because it must be, because they understand the word baptism, which is Greek in origin and means, immersion. In the writings of Plato, when he talks about the mythical continent of Atlantis, he says that it was “baptized in the sea”, and I don’t think he means that the sea sprinkled a little bit of water on its head, he was describing the complete submersion of Atlantis in the sea and he used the Greek word baptism to describe that process. This just shows that God is a God of order and his holy ordinances must be performed in the manner he has prescribed.
As to the reason why Baptism must be by immersion, I like to turn to the writings of the Apostle Paul. In his epistle to the Romans, he wrote:
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. —Romans 6:3-6
And in Colossians:
Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen withhim through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses. —Colossians 2:12-13
Paul clearly explains that our baptism by immersion is symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are ‘buried’ in the water and arise out of it just as Christ was buried in the tomb and arose on the third day. Thus baptism is not just a washing away of sins, but we become “dead in [our] sins”, our old, natural man is buried in the waters of baptism and we come forth out of the waters, clean and forgiven, reborn as new spiritual creatures, sons and daughters of Christ (Mosiah 5:7, Mosiah 27:25).
And Joseph Smith himself taught this same principle in Doctrine and Covenants section 128:
The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves; hence, this ordinance was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in likeness of the dead. Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another.
The purpose of Baptism, though, is and must be the remission of sins. And this is one of my favorite things about the Gospel of Christ, the fact that no matter what I do, or how good I am, there is nothing that I can do of myself to return to my Father in Heaven. I am completely reliant upon the mercy of Jesus Christ. It is not enough for me to have faith in Christ, or to repent and pray for forgiveness, I must come unto the Father in the same way that His son did, by entering in at the gate, “which is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:17). Even our Savior, Jesus Christ, needed to be baptized by John, who was ordained to that office, “to fulfill all righteousness“. Jesus Christ, though he was perfect and had no sin that he needed to be forgiven of, no need for remission, came unto John and was baptized of him, in strict obedience to the commandments of God. “It showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he himself having set the example before them” (2 Nephi 31:9).
And if Jesus Christ humbled himself and was obedient to the commandment of God and was baptized, though there was no actual need, how much more need have we to be baptized? How can we hope to follow Christ and be like him, if we are unwilling to do what he did unnecessarily, which is actually quite necessary for us. Baptism is the gate, the first ordinance that we partake in and the first covenant that we make with our Father in Heaven. It is only the beginning of a life full of obedience and sacrifice, but it sets our feet upon the path that will eventually lead us back to heaven. If we enter at this gate, and then strive to keep the commandments of God, always remembering to keep our faith in Jesus Christ and to repent as soon as we have need, then we will one day find ourselves at a very different gate, the gate to the Kingdom of Heaven, and we will stand before the Keeper of that gate, having been baptized in his name and having taken upon us his name, he will recognize us and claim us as his own and will plead our cause before the Father, asking to let us enter, not because of anything that we have done to earn our place, but relying wholly upon the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ. I believe in Christ, and I am grateful for his mercy which makes up for my many trespasses and imperfections, and I pray that when I am brought before my savior that I may find within myself that I have lived a life where I would feel comfortable asking him to forgive me my sins, because I have known him as a brother and have strived to emulate his example. I pray that we may all learn to be more reliant upon the mercy and grace of Christ as we learn to forgive ourselves and others. Baptism is the gate, it is the beginning of the path, but it is certainly not the end.