Baptism: Covenant or Witness?

Someone recently asked me what I was planning to write about in the near future. I honestly didn’t know. I tend to jump from one topic to another. There is no master plan. But sometimes I will have multiple people bring up the same topic within a short period of time, and the Spirit will say, “Voilà!” That’s how I “chose” to write about baptism now.

Many of the things we’ve been taught about baptism from Primary onward aren’t supported by scripture. In fact, many of them conflict with the scriptures. This series will go through several aspects of baptism and see what the scriptures say. The first aspect we’ll cover is whether baptism is a covenant.

At Church it’s common to talk about our baptismal covenants. Where do the scriptures talk about baptism as a covenant? Nowhere. The scriptures instead talk about baptism being a witness of a covenant that we have already entered into. Let’s see:

Mosiah 18:10
Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

Here Alma is clear that being baptized (hasn’t yet happened) is a witness that they have (already) entered into a covenant with him. Do you think I’m wresting the verb tenses? Let’s see what happens a few chapters later.

Mosiah 21:31-35
Yea, they did mourn for their departure, for they knew not whither they had fled. Now they would have gladly joined with them, for they themselves had entered into a covenant with God to serve him and keep his commandments. And now since the coming of Ammon, king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments. And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant…Therefore they did not at that time form themselves into a church, waiting upon the Spirit of the Lord. Now they were desirous to become even as Alma and his brethren, who had fled into the wilderness. They were desirous to be baptized as a witness and a testimony that they were willing to serve God with all their hearts; nevertheless they did prolong the time; and an account of their baptism shall be given hereafter.

This group had entered into a covenant with God to keep his commandment, yet had not been baptized. Ammon wouldn’t perform the ordinance for them. They had to wait until a servant could perform their baptisms. But they looked forward to that future baptism as a chance to witness and testify that they were willing to serve God. They had no expectation of entering into a covenant at baptism, they had already done that.

With that perspective in mind, read this verse in a new light:

Alma 7
15 Yea, I say unto you come and fear not, and lay aside every sin, which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction, yea, come and go forth, and show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism.

Again, the baptism is not the covenant to keep his commandments, it is the witness of that covenant. This pattern repeats through the scriptures:

D&C 20:37
And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism—All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church.

2 Nephi 31:13-14
13 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, …thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying, After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me.

3 Nephi 7
25 Therefore, there were ordained of Nephi, men unto this ministry, that all such as should come unto them should be baptized with water, and this as a witness and a testimony before God, and unto the people, that they had repented and received a remission of their sins.

The first erroneous teaching we need to get out of our heads is that baptism is a covenant. The scriptures are consistent in declaring baptism by water to be a witness of a covenant previously entered into. That begs the next question.

What is the covenant?

The scriptures aren’t as specific on the details of this covenant. It appears to be a simple but sincere decision to turn to Christ. Let’s revisit the relevant parts of the scriptures we’ve already covered.

Mosiah 18:10
… ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

Mosiah 21:31-35
they themselves had entered into a covenant with God to serve him and keep his commandments. …king Limhi had also entered into a covenant with God, and also many of his people, to serve him and keep his commandments…They were desirous to be baptized as a witness and a testimony that they were willing to serve God with all their hearts.

Alma 7:15
enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments.

D&C 20:37
and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end.

2 Nephi 31:13-14
ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, …and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandment.

The scriptures do not give instructions on how to enter into this covenant. Limhi and his people entered into their covenant without an authorized servant present to administer baptism, so it appears this is a covenant we can enter into without baptism. Whether we can enter into ourselves, without an authorized officiator, is unclear. Perhaps it is as simple as a personal declaration to accept Christ and commit to obey his commandments. It is troublesome that we don’t have more detail and that these details aren’t being taught. What impact might this have on the baptism we have already received?

Interestingly, the scriptures are unambiguous that we do need someone with authority to administer the witness of this covenant.

Alma 4
4 And they began to establish the church more fully; yea, and many were baptized in the waters of Sidon and were joined to the church of God; yea, they were baptized by the hand of Alma, who had been consecrated the high priest over the people of the church, by the hand of his father Alma.

Mosiah 21:33
And it came to pass that king Limhi and many of his people were desirous to be baptized; but there was none in the land that had authority from God. And Ammon declined doing this thing, considering himself an unworthy servant.

3 Nephi 12: 1
And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words unto Nephi, and to those who had been called, (now the number of them who had been called, and received power and authority to baptize, was twelve) and behold, he stretched forth his hand unto the multitude, and cried unto them, saying: Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am.

D&C 68:8
Go ye into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature, acting in the authority which I have given you, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

D&C 20:73
The person who is called of God and has authority from Jesus Christ to baptize, shall go down into the water with the person who has presented himself or herself for baptism, and shall say, calling him or her by name: Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Conclusion

From all these scriptures we can conclude that baptism is not a covenant. It is an ordinance that must be administered by authorized servants to witness that a person has already entered into a covenant to serve God. While some will lump the covenant and the witness together, the scriptures don’t do that. And in the case of Limhi and his people, months or years passed between them making the covenant and when they could finally witness that covenant through baptism by proper authority.

In the next post, we’ll cover remission of sins.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *