You might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man, if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost. Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half—that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost.”
Joseph Smith (History of the Church, 5:499)
Let the weight of that bold phrase sink in. Baptism by water is good for nothing without the baptism by fire (or the Holy Ghost). Nothing! That might strike some as a heretical teaching if you’ve been taught that our sins are washed away immediately when we are baptized. A remission of sins has to be good for something, right? But Joseph Smith says otherwise.
One challenge we have is how the word baptism is used. Sometimes baptism is only referring to baptism by water. Other times, it refers to both the baptism by water and the baptism by fire combined. Here are two examples where baptism is used by itself, but then further explanation shows it is referring to both halves combined:
Yea, repent and be baptized, every one of you, for a remission of your sins; yea, be baptized even by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost.
3 Nephi 12:1
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.
When Christ says “if ye shall believe in me and be baptized,” we need to determine whether he is only referring to baptism by water or both halves – water and fire. (Spoiler alert – he means both)
And this is my gospel—repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom.
Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
John the Baptism suggested his baptism was incomplete and required the second half:
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire
The key point to take away is that when we see a statement like “repent and be baptized”, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to think this only means baptism by water. It refers to both baptisms, because baptism by water without baptism by fire is good for nothing. That leads to the core topic for this post – the remission of sins. If you’ve been taught that remission of sins comes at the time of baptism by water, prepare to have your precepts challenged.
Remission of Sins
2 Nephi 31:13
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, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.
Here Nephi teaches the two baptisms, water and fire. He then goes on to teach:
17 Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
According to Nephi, the remission of sins comes by fire and the Holy Ghost, not by water! The Doctrine and Covenants also says the remission of sins comes by baptism by water and fire.
31 And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.
The resurrected Christ gets more specific:
3 Nephi 12
2 And again, more blessed are they who shall believe in your words because that ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that ye know that I am. Yea, blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins.
The remission of sins comes with the visitation of fire and the Holy Ghost. Not before. In fact, many of the scriptures lump the remission of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit together, like two sides of the same coin. Talking about one is implicitly talking about the other.
1 Behold, thus saith the Lord unto you, my servant William, yea, even the Lord of the whole earth, thou art called and chosen; and after thou hast been baptized by water, which if you do with an eye single to my glory, you shall have a remission of your sins and a reception of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands;
Analyzing this, if you are baptized without an eye single to his glory, you shall not have a remission of sins. Just getting wet doesn’t remit your sins. You must do it with an eye single to his glory so you can receive the Holy Spirit and receive a remission of your sins. The remission of sins is linked to the reception of the Holy Spirit.
3 Take upon you mine ordination, even that of an elder, to preach faith and repentance and remission of sins, according to my word, and the reception of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands;
Notice in the last verse that baptism by water isn’t even mentioned! It’s all about reception of the Holy Spirit. Christ himself linked remission of sins to the Holy Ghost:
3 Nephi 20
2 Turn, all ye Gentiles, from your wicked ways; and repent of your evil doings, of your lyings and deceivings, and of your whoredoms, and of your secret abominations, and your idolatries, and of your murders, and your priestcrafts, and your envyings, and your strifes, and from all your wickedness and abominations, and come unto me, and be baptized in my name, that ye may receive a remission of your sins and be filled with the Holy Ghost, that ye may be numbered with my people who are of the house of Israel.
A remission of sins is what happens when you are filled with the Holy Ghost, not when you are baptized by water. There are several verses that use the phrase “baptized by water for the remission of sins”. Those would seem to contradict all these other scriptures.
64 Therefore, as I said unto mine apostles I say unto you again, that every soul who believeth on your words, and is baptized by water for the remission of sins, shall receive the Holy Ghost.
If we read this verse literally, then we must say that baptism by water not only grants the remission of sins, but also grants the Holy Ghost. We instinctively know it isn’t saying you receive the Holy Ghost when you get wet. We need to apply that same interpretation to the remission of sins part of the phrase also. Here are a few more verses:
74 Verily, verily, I say unto you, they who believe not on your words, and are not baptized in water in my name, for the remission of their sins, that they may receive the Holy Ghost, shall be damned, and shall not come into my Father’s kingdom where my Father and I am.
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
Baptism by water is for, or opens the door to, reception of the Holy Ghost, which causes the remission of sins. Even though the scriptures say “baptism for the remission of sins”, nowhere do scriptures say that remission happens as a result of the baptism by water. Baptism by water leads to the baptism by fire and remission of sins. Baptism by water can unlock the door that leads to baptism by fire and the consequent remission of sins.
Baptism of Repentance
The baptism by water is the baptism of repentance, not of forgiveness.
4 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
20 The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.
When John had first preached before his coming the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.
John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.
Referring back to the previous post, baptism is a witness that we have chosen to repent and obey God’s commandments. Baptism by water is our effort. We choose when it happens, where it happens, and by whom it happens.
We have several verses that link repentance with remission of sins.
47 And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
3 Nephi 7
16 Therefore, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts and the blindness of their minds—went forth among them in that same year, and began to testify, boldly, repentance and remission of sins through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ.
23 Thus passed away the thirty and second year also. And Nephi did cry unto the people in the commencement of the thirty and third year; and he did preach unto them repentance and remission of sins.
And then thou shalt be ordained by the hand of my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., to be an elder unto this church, to preach repentance and remission of sins by way of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.
And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism, and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost.
Baptism by water is how we witness our willingness to repent, and baptism by fire is how God witnesses that he has accepted that repentance.
One more aspect to consider. Priests in the Aaronic priesthood have authority to baptize. But they also are restricted to only outward ordinances.
D&C 107:10, 13-14
High priests after the order of the Melchizedek Priesthood have a right to officiate … in administering spiritual things…
The second priesthood is called the Priesthood of Aaron, … and has power in administering outward ordinances.
Administering a public witness to follow Christ is an outward ordinance. A remission of sins, however, is not an outward ordinance. That is something internal and deeply spiritual. According to D&C 107, an Aaronic priesthood holder cannot administer spiritual things. If baptism by water caused an immediate remission of sins, that would be a spiritual ordinance that could not be done by a priest in the Aaronic priesthood. In fact, that is something so special that Christ reserves for himself exclusively.
15 And whoso having faith you shall confirm in my church, by the laying on of the hands, and I will bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost upon them.
3 Nephi 12:1
1 …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.
3 Nephi 9:20
…whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost…
Nephi goes even further, declaring that the Lord will use no servants at the gate. While we know man administers the baptism by water, the gate that separates the true followers from the rest is baptism by fire. We might be able to fool our fellow man, but we can’t fool God.
2 Nephi 31:17
For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost.
2 Nephi 9:41
The keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.
Another reason why Christ reserves this to himself is because of how the remission of sins is made available.
JST Matthew 26
24 For this is in remembrance of my blood of the new testament, which is shed for as many as shall believe on my name, for the remission of their sins.
Jesus was crucified by sinful men for the sins of the world, yea, for the remission of sins unto the contrite heart.
33 And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.
2 For, behold, I say unto you, that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins.
28 For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
The baptism by fire is Christ’s response. He chooses when and where, and it is always by him. Christ dispenses the remission of sins, not a human priesthood holder, because Christ paid the price and Christ knows our hearts. He knows if we truly believe on his name, hearken to his voice, and have truly repented of our sins. Even though mortal men can put their hands on a person’s head and confirm them a member, Christ still bestows the gift of the Holy Ghost according to his will.
Remission of sins apart from baptism
Baptism by water is the repentance part. Baptism by fire is the remission of sins part. Let’s take a look at the references to remission of sins completely detached from baptism. King Benjamin gives a discourse that spans several chapters. I’ll just highlight a few verses:
2 And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.
3 And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them.
10 And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them.
11 And again I say unto you as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls, even so I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.
12 And behold, I say unto you that if ye do this ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.
20 And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy.
Nowhere in his discourse does he mention baptism! All this remitting of sins comes from the Spirit of the Lord coming upon them, not from a watery ordinance. In fact, the first use of the words baptize and baptism don’t happen in the book of Mosiah until Chapter 18 — years after king Benjamin’s discourse!
Joseph Smith received a remission of his sins before Moroni had even visited him, years before the visit of John the Baptist!
After it was truly manifested unto this first elder that he had received a remission of his sins, he was entangled again in the vanities of the world; But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness;
Cornelius and his household received the Holy Ghost before baptism. In fact, it was seeing them receive the Holy Ghost that finally convinced Peter to baptize them and any other Gentiles:
While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter,Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.
Enos had a different experience, receiving his remission of sins much later in life:
2 And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.
Presumably Enos was baptized much earlier in life (his father had taught him in the nurture and admonition of the Lord) but he did not receive a remission of his sins until much later.
We have other scriptures that indicate a remission of sins is the result of repentance, not an ordinance. It’s likely that all these people had already been baptized by water at some point in their life, yet the teaching is that repentance, not an ordinance, leads to a remission of sins.
34 Therefore, whosoever repenteth, and hardeneth not his heart, he shall have claim on mercy through mine Only Begotten Son, unto a remission of his sins; and these shall enter into my rest.
13 And if ye believe on his name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits.
8 And it came to pass that I was three days and three nights in the most bitter pain and anguish of soul; and never, until I did cry out unto the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy, did I receive a remission of my sins. But behold, I did cry unto him and I did find peace to my soul.
Now for the really sobering part. Look at the order of events that we are under commandment in the latter days to obey:
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.
This is an intriguing commandment. This states that not only do we need to repent of all our sins before baptism, but we need to manifest by our works that we have received enough of the Spirit of Christ to receive a remission of our sins BEFORE baptism! I suspect very few people in the modern church have achieved that level of repentance at the time of their baptism. I didn’t. This wasn’t just something new that Joseph foisted on the church, even the Nephites had this same criteria.
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 Nephites were being baptized with water as a witness that they had ALREADY received a remission of their sins!
That was a lot of scriptural references to simply say: baptism by water does not in an of itself deliver a remission of sins. That concept is part of our culture, with beautiful metaphors about washing away our sins and coming out of the water clean. We can even take one or two scriptures out of context to reinforce that concept. But when looking at the totality of the scriptures we have covered here, we need to be more circumspect. If we obey the commandment in D&C 20:37 and delay baptism by water until the point we are qualified to receive the baptism by fire, we can receive a remission of sins at baptism because both baptisms happen at the same time. But the baptism of water does not cleanse our sins, it’s the baptism by fire. Because ultimately, it’s Christ and his blood that washes us clean:
JST Revelation 1:6
And unto him who loved us, be glory; who washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God, his Father. To him be glory and dominion, forever and ever. Amen.