The Nature and Covenant of Baptism as a Religious Rite and Sacred Ordinance

Author’s Note: This Essay is in response to two articles posted at James Patrick Holding’s Website – Tektonics Bible Apologetics. Contained in this essay are affiliate links to recommended books for purchase through Amazon.com. This essay is to address some concerns regarding the presentation of Mormonism and the nature of the sacred ordinance of baptism by providing a respective and honest approach to the scriptures, history, and evidence of the purpose, nature, and covenant of baptism by immersion. The views contained within this essay are that of the writer and does not represent any official viewpoint of any specific religious faith. It represents the common understanding and interpretation of scripture as set forth. 

Introduction

In his article – Mormons and Baptism (a derivative from a book The Mormon Defenders) – James Patrick Holding attempts to address the nature of Baptism within the context of scripture, revelation, and Christian heritage and history. He refers his readers to another article – Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation? . Holding presents his argument: 

Our basic argument, therefore, in light of our foundational essay (link 1 below), is that the Mormon teaching of covenantal nomism is an anachronism, for it views works in terms of actions that must be “kept up” for salvation to be guaranteed rather than as something that naturally flows out of the believer, and it is the latter, not the former, that corresponds to the anthropological context within which the Bible was written (i.e., the Semitic Totality concept).

His whole premise appears to be vague on the nature and understanding of Mormonism and the nature of Baptism within the framework of a Restored Soteriology concept. Holding writes: 

Mormons are often said to believe in legalism (salvation by works), and while some undoubtedly do, just as many Christians unwittingly maintain a legalistic bent, the official Mormon doctrinal view is best described as covenantal nomism, the belief that upon entering a covenant with God (which is offered by grace), one must properly respond with obedience to remain in the covenant relationship. Mormons believe indeed that one is saved by faith and through grace, but that alone will not earn a place in the celestial heaven. One may be saved by faith and by grace and achieve one of the less desirable heavens; but they must remain obedient to the covenant requirements to get to the highest heaven.

While there appears to be some vague references to other sacred ordinances within LDS Soteriology, the main focus appears to be on the covenant of baptism. However, let us first examine the reference of covenantal nomism and see if it is appropriately  applicable within the framework of Latter-day Saint teaching. 

1 – What is Covenantal Nomism and is it biased presumption?He first introduces a concept of Covenantal Nomism in relation to the Mormon Doctrinal View. And, it appears his position stems from a common presupposition of Christian Apologists: Mormons are often said to believe in legalism (salvation by works. This essay is an examination of Holdings presentation of Mormonism and the nature and sacred ordinance of Baptism. 

After introducing this terminology, he attempts to build up a case of how Mormon doctrine and Mormon Apologists appear to hold to this Covenantal Nomism. 

According to the Oxford Biblical Studies Online, Covenantal Nomism is known as: 

A term coined for the OT belief that God has chosen Israel and given the Law. God will be faithful to his promise but the nation is required to obey him. The Law provides the means for atonement which maintains the covenantal relationship.

One may see how the term Covenantal Nomism may transfer over to Mormon teaching on sacred ordinances and covenants, and how this may fit Oxford’s definition. However, there is much more to understanding the terminology than mere referencing it. At Rabbi Saul – Studies in Paul and Second Temple Judaism, the writer provides a review on the work of E. P. Sanders and Carson. It seems that the term of Covenantal Nomism stems from E. P. Sanders 1977 work Paul and Palestinian Judaism.

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David Norfleet made this observation in his paper – Covenantal Nomism vs. Variegated Nomism

Such is the case with covenantal nomism. The term originated in 1977 with the publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism by E.P. Sanders. As a result of a growing dissatisfaction among scholars with the traditional portrayals of Second Temple Judaism, as seen against the backdrop of extra-biblical sources, Sanders made a fresh review of the available first century literature. This research, his interpretation of that data, and his postulation of an over-arching pattern resulted in what Sanders called covenantal nomism. 

 Norfleet also points out that when we approach scripture, or any type of doctrine, we want to be mindful of whether we are bringing in our own biased understandings:As with any doctrine, theological or otherwise, we must be wary of potential biases. After quoting Sanders, Norfleet continues his observation:

Sanders, however, shows little awareness that this bias can work both ways. If your primary reason for investigating the literature is to exonerate Judaism from prejudicial Protestant assumptions, there is surely a tremendous pressure to validate that purpose as well. I think that can be seen in the “patternism” that Sanders employs. Even his staunchest critics agree that the covenantal nomism exists in some of the literature, but the question does it exist in all? That question in the minds of some scholars is unsatisfactorily, in their opinions, answered thus calling Sander’s motives into question. In addition to potential theological and academic biases, there have also been some allegations of racial biases as the “traditional” interpretation of Judaism is frequently viewed as being anti-Semitic 

While one may remain as objective as possible, there are going to be some personal biased interpretations of the text. Being aware of one’s own biased presumptions allows the ability to bring into mind the historical, literary, linguistic, and immediate context of passages. Maintaining appropriate hermaneutic and exegetical approach enhances greater understanding.  

Norfleet makes his second observation: 

The second concern with covenantal nomism which I wish to comment upon has more to do with language and definitions than the theory itself. Many of the definitions used on both fronts of this debate are more Lutheran or Calvinistic than biblical, and that is a significant concern. However, rather than focus on the denominational definitions of certain words or phrases, I want to momentarily focus on Sanders’ use of the term Israel” in the first postulate of his philosophical proof: “God has chosen Israel….”

Addressing the language, it does appear that Holding maybe utilizing covenantal nomism within a dual perspective of Lutheranism and Calvinistic understanding. And, I am not going to presume Holding’s particular theological position. The point of observation here is to lay down an understanding of what Covenant Nomism is, and whether it is a term to be appropriately used toward the Mormon sacred ordinances of Baptism for the remission of sin.  

If Holding is utilizing the term appropriately, it may very well stem from this perception found at Reformed Answers as it relates to Covenantal Nomism: 

Sanders incorrectly concludes that justification has only to do with “getting in”; Wright incorrectly concludes that it has only to do with “staying in.” Neither presents a definition that makes sense in the literary contexts of the uses of words like “justification” and “righteousness,” and neither acknowledges or attempts to address the Reformed doctrine which answers all questions sufficiently. The objections raised by Wright and Sanders are not to the Reformed doctrine, but to the Lutheran doctrine, to the Arminian doctrine, to reductionistic views of the Reformed doctrine, etc.

In answering the question about E.P. Sanders and N.T. Wright, the conclusion at Reformed Answers is this:

Sanders’ covenantal nomism does rightly recognize that the covenant was and continues to be conditional. Israel lost the land because they failed to keep the stipulations of the covenant. But it wrongly fails to recognize the effects of total depravity insofar as it assumes an ability on the part of individual Israelites to achieve any positive merit by their own works. Covenantal nomism also wrongly assumes that the system of atonement under temple worship was efficacious without reference to Christ. The New Testament writers make Sander’s errors abundantly clear, and their commentary on the Old Testament is authoritative and infallible.

In this instance, Holding may hold some biased presumptions in how he appropriately attributes the doctrine of Covenantal Nomism to the Mormon Doctrine of Baptism. This is based on a review of his essay that we are examining.

The justification for Holdings argument?

In accordance with covenantal nomism, Mormonism also follows in the footsteps of the Arminian branches of orthodox Christianity in not accepting the doctrine of eternal security. Mormons do not believe the saying, “once saved, always saved,” but affirm that it is possible to fall from grace and apostasize from one’s faith. Faithfulness to the covenant is required in order not to fall from grace.

The question that arises is this – are we talking about Mormonism, the Covenant of Baptism or are we discussing the doctrine of eternal security here? I ask this because the doctrine of eternal security appears to be a soft-handed juxaposition and a red-herring logical fallacy. The doctrine and ordinance of Baptism and the doctrine of Eternal Security are two separate issues. 

Yet, it appears that as the reader attempts to follow the flow of Holding’s thought, he shifts from Mormonism being a Covenantal Nomism to arguing for eternal security. Again, what does eternal security have to do with baptism? The reader may hope there is some connection. Unfortunately, Holding shifts back to the nature of baptism, which appears to be through a highly biased presumption, with the logical fallacy of begging the question

By way of application, let’s look at the question: How does baptism fit into the Mormon paradigm of covenantal nomism?

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Holding quotes Elder LeGrand Richards, A Marvelous Work and a Wonder as a means to equivocate an assumptive answer to his question: 

Remission of sins comes only through baptism when one has truly repented of his sins; and baptism without repentance is not a means by which one can “flee from the wrath to come.” 

Holding jumps to a quote from Michael T. Griffith’s work One Lord, One Faith: Writings of the Early Christian Fathers As Evidences of the Restoration

The restored church teaches that baptism is essential for salvation. By baptism the truly repentant receive a remission of their sins and are admitted into the church. No one can live with God for eternity in his kingdom without being baptized.

 Holding also quotes Stephen Robinson. This sampling quotation of Mormon Apologists appears to establish what is known as a strawman argument fallacy. Namely, it appears the biased presumption begins with Holdings initial statement: Mormons are often said to believe in legalism. Holding further quantifies this with his application to label Mormon doctrine as a form of Covenantal nomism. Does this mean that Mormon teaching and doctrines, specific to sacred ordinances and that of baptism, is of a covenantal nomism? I believe it is a misappropriate application that is highly biased. This is evidenced by the fact that the term is known to only refer to the nature and debate between Scholars on the nature of Paul and Judaism within the social and historical context of Second Temple Jerusalem and Palestine. This is related to, of course, the old Law – or Torah.

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2 – What Must I Do to be Saved? The Necessity of Baptism in Scriptural and Historical Context

James Patrick Holding appears to posit three questions: 
1. Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation? 2. What Must I Do to Be Saved? 3. What is the Biblical view of the relationship between faith and works?
Holding moves from these three questions and makes his assertion and position known in that: 

Christian apologists rightly point to numerous verses that declare that faith alone is what saves, and not any external act (John 3:16, 18, 36; 11:25-26; Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 John 5:1) 

He further establishes his position by stating:

We will show that in the Bible, works are to be understood as the inevitable product of a saving, living faith and that it is not proper to say that we must perform works to be saved, but rather, that we will perform works if we are saved. 

My contention and approach is to show that Baptism is a necessary and important sacred ordinance most Christian Apologists, like Holding, attempt to minimize and relegate as a public affirmation of saving faith. This observation is not only based on the scriptures, it is also based on understanding prevailing scholarly research within the text of the Bible, that nature of baptism by immersion, and the historical function within the Early Christian Church as established by the Church Fathers.

Holding informs his readers that the premise of sola fida (By faith alone) and sola gratia (by grace alone ) is definitive within the text of Holy Writ. And, not an invention and by product of Martin Luther, John Calvin and those of the Protestant Reformation. Unlike Holding, there is no sophistry of words or grandiose intellectual grandstanding within the scope of this essay.

Semitic Totality Concept

An interesting, and new concept for this writer, is the introduction of Semitic Totality concept. Holding introduces us to this concept:

Behind much of the thought in the Bible lies a “peculiarly Semitic” idea of a “unitive notion of human personality [Dahl, Resurrection of the Body, 59]. This notion combined aspects of the human person that we, in modern times, often speak of as separate entities. … 

Holding continues:

This line of thinking can be traced through the Old Testament and into the New Testament … and rabbinic literature. Applied to the individual, the Semitic Totality Concept means that “a man’s thoughts from one totality, with their results in action, so that ‘thoughts’ that result in no action are ‘vain’ ” [reference to Riddlebarger, Christ the Lord, p. 60].  To put it another way, man does not have a body; man is a body, and what we regard as constituent elements of spirit and body were looked upon by the Hebrews  as a fundamental unity.

The reader may continue to see where sophistry of words and grandiose intellectual grandstanding begins to appear. Therefore, since this writer researches information, the idea of Semitic Totality Concept appears to be defined here with this dissertation – Faith that Moves Mountains and Smashes Strongholds: Understanding Mountain Moving Faith by Russell G. Ellies:

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Semitic Totality is part of the Hebrew worldview. It is a way of processing concepts. It never varies. 

Regarding faith, this concept insists that if one’s faith is genuine, it will always results in works. Consider this definition: the Semitic Totality Concept means that a “a man’s thoughts form one totality with their results in action so that ‘thoughts’ that result in no action are “vain”. 

Applied to the role of works following faith, this means that there can be no decision without corresponding action, for the total person will inevitably reflect choice that is made. Thought and action are linked under the Semetic Totality paradigm. 

Thus, what we would consider separate actions of conversion, confession, and obedience in the form of works would be considered by the Hebrews to be an act in totality. “Both the act and the meaning of the act mattered – the two formed for the first Christians an indivisible unity. 

You see this principle working in James when he insists that without works, faith is dead; and when he labels people with dead faith as “vain”. Likewise, it emerges from the numerous admonitions of Paul to believers to realize their position in Christ and behave accordingly. When Paul encourages believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12) he is not telling them that they must do their part to be saved. They already possessed righteousness. What is needed is for them to come to terms with this and live consistently with it. 

Both Apostles then apply the concept of Semitic Totality when they agree that someone who does not do works clearly has no faith to speak of, none that is living. 

In a more practical understanding of this writer’s own framework is that of Cognitive Behavior Therapy in which the therapist works with the patient in identifying irrational thought patterns in order to engage in a cognitive shift with new thought processing. This is because our thoughts are tied to our emotions. These thoughts and emotions are then the motivating factors in how one engages in behavior, as well as how one’s body responds (physiological behavior) whereby the particular results come about. This is a Totality Concept. For instance, if you are frightened by something, you have an automatic thought that evokes emotions (fear) which your muscles tense and causes a behavior of heighten vigilance.

However, the question this writer asks – does Holding present this as a means to support his biased presumption and assertion as it relates to Baptism being a necessary rite of passage and sacred ordinance?

In 2006, Randy Peterman published his article, as he shares how he learned this idea from his father, makes this observation:

To put it into perspective the Gentile mind could not conceive of a God that was moral and had truth because their gods were completely immoral and were often prayed to for things like the ability to steal better. So when Paul writes in the New Testament about various things needing to be done on a moral level it is having to do with the logical conclusion of what Christ has done in the believer’s life positionally and not assumed that the Greco-Roman mind would automatically take truth and apply it. To a Gentile (non-Jew) truth was not directly related to application. They lived in a world of hypothetical philosophy wherein actually proving out the philosophical assumptions to prove them was considered below the intellectual. Thus, Gentiles would pursue philosophy and knowledge but never stoop to prove their principles due to their arrogance. The Jews could not relate to this given their view that all that was true should be applied and worked out.

Peterman appears to make this conclusion:

In short the Semitic Totality Concept is something that was cultural that helps us understand the author’s perspective. It does not necessarily represent a doctrine, but explains why the doctrines are represented the way they are.Therefore, we are able to objectively surmise that there appears to be a misappropriation of a term to help us culturally understanding the way this view comes across and not as a doctrinal construct of sorts.

The problem that one comes across (in researching to provide this response to James Patrick Holding’s argumentation) is how this defeats the established premise. This writer first happened upon Robert Boylan’s website Scriptural Mormonism where Boylan links to another critic of Holding’s article entitled The Salvific Efficacy of BaptismWe read:

If there is any argument to be made from the “Semitic Totality Concept”, therefore, it can only be that a corresponding action (in this case baptism) must follow the personal decision of an individual to accept Christ and confess his or her sins. This, in turn, merely serves to demonstrate that baptism is essential for salvation. Indeed, a profession of belief and a public confession of sin would account for little unless they were acted upon.

Turkel therefore undermines his own argument by an appeal to the “Semitic Totality Concept”, and (consequently) reaffirms the salvific efficacy of baptism.

From what the reader is able to gather, Holding inevitably shoots himself in the theological foot by making this appeal.

Regardless, the point here is to provide some foundational understanding into something that the reader is exposed to, and something this writer has learned in order to address, concerning the premise of which Holding’s argument is being established. Therefore, the remainder of my response is going to be rested on the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the Historical context of Baptism by immersion as practiced within the First Century and down through the millennia.

The Laver Basin and the Washing and Anointing of Temple Priests

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In Exodus 30:17-21, we have the description of the Laver Basin. This basin was designed so that Aaron and the Priests were to wash their hands and feet prior to entering in and ministering in the temple, as well as exiting the temple:

The Lord said to Moses, “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

This Laver was placed between the alter and the door of the Holy Place.  It’s primary use is for the washing of the priests hands and feet. What is interesting is that in Exodus 40:12-16, the initial use of this laver was to consecrate and anoint Aaron and his descendants so that they stood Holy in the Priesthood God had called them into: 

Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest. You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them, and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.” This Moses did; according to all that the Lord commanded him, so he did. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected.

Leviticus 8:1-6 further provides insight into this consecration ceremony:

 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments and the anointing oil and the bull of the sin offering and the two rams and the basket of unleavened bread. And assemble all the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” And Moses did as the Lord commanded him, and the congregation was assembled at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing that the Lord has commanded to be done.” And Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. This ceremony appears to symbolize the New Testament Baptism for the Remission of Sins and the Anointing of the Holy Spirit.

According to Matthew Henry Commentary, we read the following:

The consecration of Aaron and his sons had been delayed until the tabernacle had been prepared, and the laws of the sacrifices given. Aaron and his sons were washed with water, to signify that they ought to purify themselves from all sinful dispositions, and ever after to keep themselves pure. Christ washes those from their sins in his own blood whom he makes kings and priests to our God, Re 1:5,6; and those that draw near to God must be washed in pure water, Heb 10:22. The anointing of Aaron was to typify the anointing of Christ with the Spirit, which was not given by measure to him. All believers have received the anointing.This consecration and anointing ritual involved setting apart Aaron and His sons to minister in God’s Holy Priesthood. This consecration ceremony also involved receiving new garments, required sacrifices, and then spending 7-days within the Temple.

The importance of referencing this is to understand the nature of Biblical symbolism. There is much symbolism contained herein. However, I want to draw the attention to the very nature of the act itself.

  • God called out Aaron and his descendants to bear the Holy Priesthood and function as God’s divine appointed priests
  • Moses, God’s Prophet, was to set them apart and cleanse them through a ritual of purification, then consecrate them through a ritual of anointing oil upon them.
  • Aaron and his sons were clothed with new garments to signify their designation as priesthood holders to minister and serve in God’s Holy Temple. 
  • Aaron and his sons were to make appropriate sacrifice to officiate in their new calling. 

This symbolism parallels the process by which a person comes into faith and receives baptism for the remission of their sins. It is a sacred rite and ordinance in that:

  • God calls individuals out of their sinfulness 
  • Through proper authority, individuals are then washed (Baptism for the remission of sins) and anointed with holy oil (Receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands)
  • Clothed in new garments (Newness of life as this essay will explain)
  • Walk in obedience to God’s will and commandments as living sacrifices

Since we understand that God is a God of order and that we understand the power of symbolism within the Temple of Ancient Israel, as it manifests in the nature and person of Jesus Christ. In his work, Old Testament Messages of the Christ, Jasper Abraham Huffman makes this observation regarding the Old Testament Symbolism:

An attempt to discuss Old Testament symbolism in its completeness wold be a great task. To do justice to such an undertaking would require a large volume, for the Old Testament abounds in figures and symbolisms. Every one of these points to Jesus Christ.  

And concerning the laver Huffman writes:

As the priest approached the Tabernacle proper, leaving the brazen altar, he had to pass the brazen laver. This contained water for the cleansing of the hands and the feet of the priests, which must not be neglected upon the penalty of death. He dare not come into the presence of the Lord without being ceremonially clean. Again a very significant furnishing. They of God’s royal priesthood, will find between the alter of pardon and the Holy Place, a laver which dare not be passed by, upon the penalty of spiritual death, for “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” Heb. 12:14. He must not be only ceremonially clean but effectually so: Not only hands and feet but heart as well. Does that priest pause at the laver? What doth he behold? He finds that the laver contains for him a cleansing, yea more than water for more than water is necessary for moral cleansing. It contains for him blood, which flowed from the pierced side of him who died as a sacrifice for the world. Is it efficacious? Yea, it is really blood. As he pauses by the laver he hears a voice praying: “Father sanctify them in thy truth: thy word is truth,” and ” For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.” St. John 17:17 and 19. 

Huffman further continues the symbolism between the cleansing at the Laver by the priests of Aaron and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

He also hears another say: “Jesus also that he might sanctify the people with his own blood suffered without the gate.” Heb. 13:12. Neither does he look upon it as a demand made unjustly but as a necessary, expensive provision arising out of absolute necessity. Huffman continues with his commentary and the Apostle Paul referencing the church as the Bride of Christ in Ephesians 5:25-27.

This, being understood in the Jewish Wedding custom of the day, references the cleansing through sanctification of the bride:

The Apostle Paul…represents the church as a bride being made ready for the coming bridegroom. The ceremonial cleansing of the bride in Jewish customs is also provided for the spiritual Bride – the church – but in a real and effectual manner. Here the laver appears as the instrument of sanctification.Furthermore, Huffman references Titus 3:5 and how it refers to washing of regeneration or the laver of regeneration. He concludes that one views the symbolism of the Laver as a symbol of cleansing and sanctification. 

This is further illustrated when the reader comes to Huffman’s commentary on the priestly anointing:

Important as the sanctifying or cleansing side of the Holy Spirit’s work, symbolized by the laver, may be, there is another aspect of his work symbolized by the ceremonial consecration of the priest as well as the high priest. Both were anointed with holy oil before they were permitted to minister in the Holy Place. Ex. 30:30 and Lev. 8:30. Anointing with oil is symbolic of the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The cleansing represents the putting off, the anointing the putting on. S.D. Gordon says that “anointing” is the power word, but the positive or anointing of the Spirit has its corresponding negative to the cleansing. Both of these aspects were inseparably united in the consecration of the priesthood. To what point is Huffman observing? He remarks the laver as symbolism to the subjective side of grace and the brazen alter as the objective work of justification. He further postulates that the viewing of the laver of the Sanctuary as a symbol of cleansing or sanctification, for in a true sense, sanctification is all that work of grace which is wrought subjectively in man. And he further contends that the symbolization of the laver is the sanctification of man’s heart, wrought by the agency of the Holy Spirit, using as the means the atoning blood of Christ.

Granted, Jasper Abraham Huffman does not point to the parallel between the initial cleansing ritual of Aaron and the priests to that of the baptism by immersion. However, the connotation is clearly present in how it alludes to the nature of Baptism (as we will see) and the salvific efficacy of baptism.

John’s Baptism and Christ announcing the need to fulfill all righteousness

When we come to the preaching of John the Baptist, there are important things to take note of:

  • John called the Pharisee’s unto repentance upon seeing them
  • John was baptizing people, by immersion, in the Jordan River
  • John declaring the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand

Along with this, we have Jesus Christ coming forward and requesting to be baptized by John the Baptist. This event is contained in Matthew 3, Mark 1:1-11, Luke 3:21-24, and John 1:30-34. This is important to understand because the Apostle Paul, in Hebrews, refers to Jesus Christ as our High Priest:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

And:

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. This references back to our previous discussion of the cleansing, sanctification, and anointing of Aaron and the Priests. A symbol of the cleansing, sanctification, and anointing of the Savior as he is being called and separated for ministry.

Before we proceed further to understand the baptism of Christ as a cleansing, sanctification, and anointing of Holy Priesthood Ministry, we must understand the context of what is happening at the River Jordan.

As the people are coming forward and being baptized by John the Baptist, among the crowd were the religious leaders. Upon seeing them, John calls them out: 

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Here, we understand that John is expressing an urgent need for the religious leaders to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and then being baptized for repentance. This, again, points back to the temple symbolism of cleansing, sanctification, and anointing. Yet, among all those present, Christ comes to ask John to baptize him. John protests and requests that Christ does the honor first. In response, we have the Savior saying this:

And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.In this short phrase, there is much being said here. The question we want to answer is: What did Christ mean to fulfill all righteousness? 


Since we have established the nature of the calling of Aaron and his sons and how this is symbolic and foreshadowing to the New Testament, it is simple to understand:

  • Christ is beginning his ministry under the priesthood authority of God
  • Christ needs to be cleansed, sanctified, and anointed in consecration to his priestly duties
  • Christ is then required to officiate and provide the necessary sacrifice as part of his priesthood duties

In addition to this, the baptism of Christ is symbolism to the actual sacrifice Christ will administer: 

  • His death
  • His burial
  • His resurrection

Therefore, to fulfill all righteousness essentially is Christ saying that he is being set apart to minister and work in officiating the necessary sacrifice needed for redeeming humanity. Not that Christ was sinful and needed to repent – but through Him, and his example, we will receive the salvific efficacy of his atonement and sacrifice

The Covenantal Ordinance of Baptism by Immersion.

There is no greater case for the nature and salvific efficacy of baptism than that of what the Apostle Paul teaches in Romans 6:3-11

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The Apostle Paul makes clear distinction that the baptism correlates to the death of Christ, burial of Christ, and resurrection of Christ. It also points to the nature of our own death, burial, and eventual resurrection (whether it is in the First Resurrection or the Second Resurrection). Therefore, we see that this is a covenant relationship between us and Christ. We are unified through baptism. We are also required to walk in the newness of life as our old self is crucified with Christ. This is what Christian Apologists, like Holding, do not fully comprehend. Baptism was an integral part of Jesus Christ’s ministry and an important factor related to the ordinance being practiced within the First Century Christian Church. In fact, Paul writes to the Ephesians that there is One Lord, One Faith, and ONE BAPTISM. 

Paul, himself, was baptized. Philip baptized the Enuch, and Peter responded to the question of the crowd – What must we do to be saved? What was Peter’s response in Acts Chapter 2?And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sinsand you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”In fact, when the Resurrected Savior spent time with the disciples, he commissioned them to Go into all the world in order to:

  • Make Disciples among the nations
  • Baptizing Them in the proper authority of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit 
  • Teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded the Disciples to observe

The act of baptism by immersion appear 79 times in the New Testament. Along with this, when Christian Apologists attempt to diminish the important salvific nature of Baptism, they do so by referencing Paul’s many admonishments to not preform any works, and that works do not save, but only Christ saves. Again, what they miss is that Paul consistently referred to the specific works of the Law regarding Circumcision (see my article here about the nature and problem Christian Apologists have with Galatians 1:6-9). Therefore, unless one is willing to say Paul is being contradictory in Ephesians by saying there is one baptism, and that the important function of baptism is that regarding the symbolism of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, it will be hard pressed to say that the sacred ordinance of baptism is not salvific when the entirety New Testament shows that it is efficacious in the new covenant. 

Fortunately, Holding actually takes a different understanding of Baptism, while not being salvific in nature, as an integral part of the conversation and rite of consecration: 

We are now prepared to offer a case study of the role of works and works relation to faith, using the example of the rite of convert baptism. We will see that the answer to the question, “Is baptism necessary for salvation?”, is that the question is out of order. If there is any question that needs to be asked, it is this: “If you are saved, and you know what baptism means and that it was commanded by Christ, why would you not be baptized?” One does not become baptized to be saved. Instead, one is saved and is therefore baptized. Faith that is true inevitably manifests itself in obedience, and being that baptism is the first act declared for the believer by Christ, the true believer will gladly undergo baptism.

Unfortunately, there are other Christian Apologists who may even disagree with Holding on this and relegate Baptism as a secondary and non-essential rite. They may very well encourage baptism, however, they see no efficacy in the ordinance itself. Merely a public confession. However, Holding disagrees in the nature and purpose of baptism as part of the efficacy of salvation.

While this writer agrees there is a need for a spiritual awakening that is only accomplished through the Holy Spirit, and a conviction toward repentance; there is still the need to examine oneself and bring forth fruits of repentance by being baptized for the remission of sins. To get a better understanding of Baptism within the Book of Mormon, this article by John Hilton III and Jana Johnson provides some insight The Word Baptize in the Book of Mormon.

This is evidenced by James Talmages understanding and observation in his work The Articles of Faith:

Demonstrations concerning the object of baptism apply with equal force to the proposition that baptism is necessary for salvation; for, inasmuch as remission of sins constitutes a special purpose of baptism, and as no soul can be saved in the kingdom of God with unforgiven sins, it is plain that baptism is essential to salvation. Salvation is promised to man on condition of his obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel; and, as the scriptures conclusively prove, baptism is one of the most important of such requirements. Baptism, being commanded of God, must be essential to the purpose for which it is instituted, for God deals not with unnecessary forms. Baptism is required of all who have attained to years of accountability; none are exempt.


In fact, one thing is for certain, many Christian Apologist misrepresent the nature of Mormonism and the teaching of the essential ordinance of Baptism. For, if they fully come to understand the nature of Baptism from a restored Gospel worldview, they may find it to be harmonious within their own worldview as well.

This is evidenced by Bradshaw and Bowen’s response to the question about Baptism and the remission of sins:

But don’t the scriptures refer specifically to “baptism for the remission of sins?” Because “baptism” and “remission of sins” occur together so often in telescoped scripture references, the role of the Spirit as the agent for the process of justification is easily forgotten. However, a survey of scripture will reveal that “remission of sins” is mentioned more frequently in verses that omit any mention of baptism. In these and other references, remission of sins is typically coupled with the preparatory principles of faith or repentance rather than with baptism itself. 

Although baptism by proper authority is a commandment that must be strictly observed to meet the divine requirement for entrance into the Kingdom of God, it is but the necessary, outward sign of one’s willingness to take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ and keep His commandments. A significant phrase in D&C 20:37 explains with precision that it is not the performance of the baptismal ordinance that cleanses, but rather than the individuals’ having “truly manifest[ed] by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto remission of their sins” – a requirement that, according to this verse, is clearly intended to precede water baptism. In other words, strictly speaking, it is not baptism but rather the fact of having “received of the Spirit of Christ” as the result of faith and repentance that is responsible for the mighty “change of state” wherewith individuals are “wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost” – for “by the Spirit ye are justified”. 

While this may appear to go against the salvific argument of baptism, this writer finds it to be harmonious because it is the efficacy of the ordinance being referred to. This efficacy goes back to the nature and understanding of the Laver where the priests were cleansed and sanctified. That is the efficacy of baptism by immersion to sanctify us as bears of Christ and His ministry.

This also addresses the nature of the covenantal nature of baptism itself. Every week, the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partake of the Sacrament. The bread being symbolic to the broke bod of Christ. The water being the symbol of Christ’s shed blood. It is a weekly reminder of examining oneself (like that of the priests of Aaron entering in must examine themselves through the mirror at the Laver) and then partake of washing and cleansing themselves prior to entering and upon exiting from the sanctuary and Holy Place.

Conclusion

As established, Baptism is an essential ordinance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not a work of righteousness as much as it is an ordinance of obedience by which men are able to take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ. To remember Christ in all things and in all ways, and walk in obedience to His commandments that has been set forth for us to follow. 

By stripping away the sophistry and grandiose intellectual grandstanding, the reader is exposed to the nature and premise of Baptism as a salvific ordinance unto salvation. Not that baptism alone is the means by which humanity is saved. There is the first principles and ordinances of Faith In Christ, the need for repentance, and then the cleansing and consecration in order to take on the new life and nature of being a Christian. 
As to whether or not we answered the question: Is Baptism necessary to salvation? This writer believes it is an essential component related to how men are saved through Jesus Christ. 

I welcome thoughtful and mindful comments on this, as well as other essays related to Mormonism, Mormon Teaching, and Mormon Apologetics. 

One thought on “The Nature and Covenant of Baptism as a Religious Rite and Sacred Ordinance

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