Baptism, Salvation, and the Celestial Kingdom
“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…” (Article of Faith 4).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like virtually all church bodies, practices a rite of baptism. However, it has an understanding of the significance of baptism that is quite different from that of traditional Christianity. In this article, we will look at the relationship between baptism and salvation. We will reserve discussion of the extremely important issue of baptism for the dead for our articles responding to chapter 40 of Gospel Principles, which focuses on temple ordinances. (See the end of this chapter for some references to articles on this subject.)
A. Contrary to a popular misperception, the LDS Church does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation, but only for entrance into the celestial kingdom.
Mormons and evangelicals often find themselves disagreeing about whether baptism is necessary for salvation, with Mormons insisting that it is necessary for salvation and evangelicals arguing that it isn’t. One can also find a good number of statements by LDS leaders that seem to confirm that in their view baptism is a prerequisite for salvation. According to James E. Talmage, “it is plain that baptism is essential to salvation” (A Study of the Articles of Faith [1979; originally 1890], 128). More recently, Dallin H. Oaks asserted that “Jesus taught that baptism is necessary for salvation” (“The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament,” Ensign [conference report], Nov. 1998, 37), a statement also made in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Macmillan, 1992, 1:93).
Such statements, however, are misleading. In LDS theology, there is a general, universal salvation that virtually everyone will receive. This salvation provides immortality in some glorious heavenly kingdom for everyone except a very few “sons of perdition.” Not only need one not be baptized for this salvation, one need not even have faith in Christ to obtain it, according to LDS doctrine. Baptism is necessary only for admission to the highest of those heavenly kingdoms. History of the Church quotes the following statement from Joseph Smith: “A man may be saved, after the judgment, in the terrestrial kingdom, or in the telestial kingdom, but he can never see the celestial kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit” (1:283). A more accurate and informative way of stating the LDS doctrine, therefore, is that baptism is necessary for entrance into the celestial kingdom. Hence, Gospel Principles states, “We must be baptized to enter the celestial kingdom…. Baptism is the gateway through which we enter the path to the celestial kingdom” (116).
Part of the confusion here is that the LDS Church does teach that “we must be baptized for the remission of our sins” (Gospel Principles, 115). It is easy to assume that remission of sins is itself an essential, if not the essential, aspect of salvation. However, in LDS doctrine remission or forgiveness of sins is necessary only for gaining entrance into the celestial kingdom. The vast majority of human beings will be saved into one of the lower heavenly kingdoms without receiving this remission of sins.
According to LDS doctrine, the only people who will not live forever in one of the three glorious heavenly kingdoms are a small number of individuals who were part of the true Church, had a spiritual “testimony” that gave them indisputable knowledge of the truth of that Church, and then deliberately denied their faith. These traitors, called “sons of perdition,” will be consigned forever to “Outer Darkness,” which is the closest thing in LDS theology to what Christians traditionally call Hell. Ironically, then, in LDS doctrine the only people who will not receive any salvation are people who have been baptized!
It turns out, then, that Mormons do not believe that people need to be baptized to receive immortality, or to live forever in a heavenly realm. On this point and in this respect, as odd as it might seem, Mormons and evangelicals actually agree that baptism is not necessary for salvation.
B. The New Testament closely links baptism with forgiveness of sins, but it does not make baptism a prerequisite for salvation or forgiveness.
A close link between baptism and forgiveness of sins, or salvation, is evident in several biblical statements about baptism. For example, in the first Christian sermon, the apostle Peter said, “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 ESV; see also Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). Ananias told Paul, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Gospel Principles cites these texts to prove that “we must be baptized for the remission of our sins” (115), assuming as self-evident that this means that baptism is a requirement if God is to forgive us of our sins.
The mistake here is subtle but significant. Baptism is related to forgiveness and salvation, but the relationship is that of symbol to reality. In other words, baptism symbolizes the reality of God forgiving us of our sins. The symbol neither creates that reality nor makes that reality possible. Rather, the symbol communicates something of the meaning of the reality and announces that it is effective in the lives of those who embrace it. The act of baptism symbolizes forgiveness of sins and expresses the acceptance of that gift by those who undergo baptism. Baptism is therefore “necessary” for salvation only in the sense that accepting the gift of forgiveness and salvation (which baptism symbolizes) is necessary in order to receive it. The rite or ritual of baptism does not save anyone, but what baptism represents is indeed necessary for salvation.
A key statement in the Bible that makes this clear also comes from the apostle Peter. In his first epistle, he comments that in Noah’s ark “a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20-21). You can see why some people quote this passage, or at least part of it, to prove that baptism is necessary for salvation, because part of the text states that “baptism…saves you.” But a moment’s reflection should convince even Mormons that this is not Peter’s meaning.
Taken out of context in this way, to say that “baptism saves you” would be going too far: Mormons don’t believe that baptism saves anyone, but rather that baptism is one of many things that a person must do so as eventually to be saved (i.e., to be saved into the celestial kingdom). So we ought to be able to agree that Peter does not literally mean that baptism saves people. And in fact Peter makes it quite clear that he does not mean any such thing. This is why, after saying “baptism now saves you,” he hastens to add, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a good conscience.” It is not the rite of water that saves anyone, but the appeal to God for a good conscience that the rite of baptism represents. We are saved when we turn to God and appeal to him to show us mercy and give us a good, clean conscience by forgiving us of our sins. Peter expresses this with the words “baptism now saves you” because when he says baptism he is thinking of what the rite represents, not of the rite in and of itself.
An analogy might help at this point. When two people get married, at least in my culture, what typically happens is that the father of the bride walks her down the aisle, the bride and groom stand before a minister in the presence of family and friends, make vows, exchange rings, hear the words “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” and the husband kisses the bride. We call this a wedding. Is a wedding essential or necessary to be married? Not exactly. It is the normal, expected, proper rite in which the bride and groom express their commitment to the covenant of marriage, and without it we would feel something is missing. On the other hand, it is possible to be married without a formal wedding ceremony. Some cultures formalize or initiate marriages in very different ways, and some couples in our culture become married before a justice of the peace (which hardly counts as a wedding ceremony). It is not the rite that makes two people married, but the covenant or commitment between them that (usually and normally) a wedding expresses that makes them married. Still, there is such a close association between weddings and marriages that we can and do often speak of a wedding, or even specific elements of a wedding, as the means or way in which a marriage is begun: “If you want to live together as husband and wife, you need to say those two words, ‘I do.’”
Moreover, the elements of the rite are not necessary even if they are culturally customary. Is it necessary for the father to “give away” the bride? Must a couple exchange rings to be married? Must they kiss at the end of the ceremony? No, such elements of the rite symbolize certain aspects of what it meant to be married, but they are not themselves required in order for two people to be married.
Just as a wedding is a rite that publicly and formally initiates a marriage, baptism is a rite that publicly and formally initiates a person’s saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Both ceremonies are symbolic acts that express the reality of that new relationship. It is possible, even though in our culture irregular, to be married without having had a wedding ceremony. Likewise, it is possible, though irregular, to be a Christian without having been baptized. What must exist for us to be saved is the reality of repentance and faith in Christ, which the rite of baptism symbolizes.
According to LDS doctrine, baptism is a prerequisite for receiving an initial forgiveness of sins, and it is also a prerequisite for receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost (their preferred term for the Holy Spirit). If this were correct, then no one could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who had not yet been baptized. Thus, Gospel Principles states, “We Must Be Baptized before We Can Receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost” (116). However, there is at least one clear instance reported in the Book of Acts of people receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit before they were baptized. This was the conversion of Cornelius and his family:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44-48 ESV)
In this incident, the chronological order is (1) receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, (2) getting baptized. Baptism is clearly important: Peter commands that this Gentile family be baptized. Yet they have already received the gift of the Holy Spirit, despite not being baptized. This passage strikes a careful balance: baptism is a command, something we must do, but it is not a prerequisite for salvation or the blessings of salvation, such as receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. God is free to forgive people and give people the gift of the Holy Spirit through their faith in his Son, whether or not they have yet undergone the rite of baptism. By the way, God demonstrated in this case that he can also give people the gift of the Holy Spirit without anyone laying hands on them, contrary to the teaching of the LDS Church. We will discuss this issue in more detail in our response to chapter 21 of Gospel Principles.
For Further Reflection
- If people must be baptized before they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, how did Cornelius and his family receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before they were baptized?
For Further Study
Salvation God’s Way. This page links to several resources pertaining to salvation.