“The First Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel,” Ensign, Oct. 2000, 8
Several years ago, while I was serving as a bishop, a sister came to me for a temple recommend interview. She was an adult convert to the Church who had been a faithful member since her baptism more than a decade earlier. She qualified for the temple recommend, but I sensed she was somewhat dispirited. When I asked what was troubling her, she said, “Bishop, is there any way a person can be baptized again?” Surprised, I asked her why she thought a second baptism would ever be needed. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I just wish I could somehow feel as clean and pure as the day I was baptized.”
I am sure many Latter-day Saints have had similar feelings. Even when we are temple worthy, the accumulated daily weight of our weaknesses and shortcomings can become a burden to our souls, weighing us down with feelings of inadequacy and guilt. It is difficult sometimes to feel spiritually refreshed, pure, and acceptable before God. As I spoke with this sister, I felt great sympathy for her dilemma. There was no doubt in my mind that she was a good-hearted, worthy Latter-day Saint whose place in the Lord’s kingdom would be assured if she continued on the course that had begun with her baptism. But I wondered if she appreciated the power of Christ’s Atonement, the magnitude of His mercy, and His readiness to forgive her of daily transgressions as she made her way through life.
“You do not need to be baptized a second time to be as pure as when you were first baptized,” I said. “You can renew your covenant of baptism each week when you partake of the sacrament. As you live that covenant, exercise faith in Christ, and repent of your daily transgressions, the Holy Ghost will bless you with the assurance that your sins are forgiven. It will cleanse your soul of guilt and bring peace to your heart. In this way, you can feel as pure and clean as the day you were baptized.”
As we discussed this, her spirit grew more peaceful. She had glimpsed what the Savior meant when He declared, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30).
Our Father in Heaven expects us to keep all of His commandments, but the fallen nature of man means that everyone breaks some of the commandments some of the time. Because of this, the commandments alone—without the power of the redemption—cannot save us. That would require perfect obedience all of the time and all of our lives. But as the Apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Hence the Father has given us His Only Begotten Son as our Savior and revealed the gospel of salvation, by which we may obtain remission of sins and bring our lives, over time, into accordance with His will until the day comes when we are “perfect in Christ” (Moro. 10:32).
The fourth article of faith sets forth the basics of the gospel plan by which we may obtain forgiveness of sin through Christ’s Atonement: “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.” Because the term enduring to the end appears so often in the scriptures in connection with these principles and ordinances, it is often added as a fifth element.1
The word first in “first principles and ordinances” should not be interpreted as primarily chronological in meaning, as though these four steps were intended only for our initial entry into the kingdom. Rather, the term first is better understood as “basic” or “fundamental,” for these principles and ordinances constitute the heart of the gospel of salvation, being the essential requirements for entry into the celestial kingdom.
Moreover, numerous scriptures make clear that these principles and ordinances apply throughout our lives, not just at age eight or at the time of conversion. They remain vital to our salvation even as we receive additional doctrinal truths, as well as the higher ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood found in the temple. There is never a time in our lives when we may cease to exercise faith in the Savior or cease to repent of our sins. Our baptismal covenant is a lifelong commitment, and the Holy Ghost is needed as a constant companion. We never outgrow or move beyond these basic principles and ordinances. The Lord emphasized their lifelong importance in the following revelation:
“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.
“Behold, this is a great and the last commandment which I shall give unto you concerning this matter; for this shall suffice for thy daily walk, even unto the end of thy life” (D&C 19:31–32; emphasis added).
The Lord places a high priority on teaching these principles in our homes: “And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents” (D&C 68:25).
And in President Joseph F. Smith’s “Vision of the Redemption of the Dead,” we learn that these same fundamental principles were taught to the deceased by the missionaries whom Christ organized during His sojourn in the spirit world: “And the chosen messengers went forth to … proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound. … These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands” (D&C 138:31, 33). Deceased spirits must follow the same gospel path as the living, though their ordinances take place by proxy.
The Lord often refers to the first principles and ordinances simply as “my gospel” or “my doctrine.” For example, in a revelation given to Joseph Smith, the Lord declares: “And this is my gospel—repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter” (D&C 39:6).
The Savior made two similar proclamations during His visit to the New World following His Resurrection. The initial instance occurred shortly after He first showed Himself to the Nephites at Bountiful. “I will declare unto you my doctrine,” He said, then proceeded to set forth in detail the first four principles and ordinances of the gospel, emphasizing them a number of times, then repeating the phrase “this is my doctrine” (see 3 Ne. 11:31–36).
In a later discourse, the Lord said, “This is the gospel which I have given unto you,” then spoke in poignant terms of His atoning mission: “I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me. And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me” (3 Ne. 27:13–14; emphasis added). He then taught the first principles and ordinances at length, repeating the full sequence twice, and concluding with the same phrase He began with: “Verily, verily I say unto you, this is my gospel” (see 3 Ne. 27:13–21; emphasis added).
The term gospel can have multiple meanings. In the fullest sense, the gospel encompasses all truths of every kind and every degree of importance. Yet, as the Savior’s words show, it can also refer more narrowly to the first principles and ordinances of salvation.2 President Wilford Woodruff observed: “The Lord has a great many principles in store for us; and the greatest principles which he has for us are the most simple and plain. The first principles of the gospel which lead us unto eternal life are the simplest, and yet none are more glorious or important to us.”3
The first principles and ordinances of the gospel center around the Atonement, and each pertains to the remission of sins. Without faith in Jesus Christ, remission of sins would not be possible, for it was through His suffering and infinite sacrifice that the price for our sins was paid. Repentance is an absolute condition of forgiveness, for “none but the truly penitent are saved” (Alma 42:24). Baptism is a covenant specifically intended for the remission of sins. The gift and power of the Holy Ghost serve to sanctify our souls from the impurities and effects of sin. The Holy Ghost is also a Guide and Comforter who will lead us along paths of righteousness home to our Eternal Father. Together the first principles and ordinances constitute God’s plan for His children to overcome spiritual death, be cleansed of sin’s effects, and receive divine forgiveness.
The order in which the first principles and ordinances are given in the fourth article of faith and in other scriptural references is important. Each step follows from the one before it and is linked to the one after it. To better understand their meaning, it will be helpful to examine them individually, beginning with faith in Christ.
Faith in Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel. It is imperative to our salvation that we exercise faith in Him, for He is the Messiah, the Creator and Redeemer of the world, our Advocate and Mediator with the Father. He has paid the penalty for our sins and ransomed us from death and hell. As King Benjamin taught the Nephites in his great farewell address from the tower, “There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent” (Mosiah 3:17). Faith in Christ unlocks the power of the Atonement in an individual’s life, while without faith, as Paul taught, it is impossible to please God, “for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). To exercise faith in Christ means believing He is the Savior of the world, trusting in His word, seeking to do His will, and receiving comfort and strength from His hand.
Faith in the Redeemer makes possible the remission of sins, as seen in the Nephites’ response to King Benjamin’s address:
“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. …
“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” (Mosiah 4:2–3; emphasis added).
The prophet Enos had a similar experience after praying all day and night for forgiveness of his sins. The voice of the Lord spoke unto him and assured him that he was forgiven, after which his “guilt was swept away” (Enos 1:6). “Lord, how is it done?” he asked, and the Lord replied, “Because of thy faith in Christ whom thou hast never before heard nor seen” (Enos 1:7–8). The Atonement of Jesus Christ, wrought by His infinite suffering in Gethsemane and on Calvary, makes possible forgiveness of sins and reconciliation between God and man. There is no doctrine more vital to our salvation than this. As the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”4
Faith in Christ makes forgiveness possible, provided it is coupled with repentance. In the words of Alma, “The plan of redemption could not be brought about, only on conditions of repentance of men in this probationary state; … except it were for these conditions, mercy could not take effect except it should destroy the work of justice” (Alma 42:13). In Amulek’s great discourse on the Atonement, he explains that faith in Christ leads directly to repentance: “And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance” (Alma 34:15; emphasis added). The same phrase, faith unto repentance, is repeated twice in the following verse: “And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption” (Alma 34:16; emphasis added).
Faith in Christ gives us both the desire to repent and the strength needed to repent. As we exercise faith and repent, the Savior’s atoning power can transform our very hearts, changing our carnal nature to spiritual, our innermost desires to good. When King Benjamin witnessed the spiritual change that had taken place in his people, he commented, “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7; emphasis added).
It is not sufficient to go through the familiar steps of repentance in a perfunctory or superficial manner. True repentance means a lasting change of heart. In the case of serious sins, it requires confession to a priesthood authority; in all cases it requires deep humility, earnest spiritual striving, and the forsaking of our sins.
By exercising faith in Christ, we gain strength not only to repent of past transgressions but to overcome present weaknesses as well. In a revelation to Moroni, recorded in the book of Ether, the Lord said: “And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27; emphasis added). A common example of this is seen in the experience of many investigators of the Church who have a deep-rooted substance addiction. They often find that it is virtually impossible to overcome this addiction by their own efforts alone. Only humble prayer and great faith in the Savior make repentance possible.
All of us have weaknesses that cannot be overcome by our own strength alone; by exercising faith in Christ we receive strength beyond our own to overcome weaknesses and repent of sin. This process may be long and difficult, but if we persist in faith we will eventually prevail.
Genuine repentance entails forsaking that which is wrong. Here, too, as we exercise faith in Christ, He will strengthen us in moments of temptation. The Savior taught this truth to the early elders of the Church traveling to Missouri: “Behold, and hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, your advocate, who knoweth the weakness of man and how to succor them who are tempted” (D&C 62:1). Alma taught the same principle to his son Helaman: “Preach unto them repentance, and faith on the Lord Jesus Christ; … teach them to withstand every temptation of the devil, with their faith on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Alma 37:33; emphasis added).
The central role of the Atonement in making repentance possible was emphasized by Lehi: “And the law is given unto men. And by the law no flesh is justified; or, by the law men are cut off. Yea, by the temporal law they were cut off; and also, by the spiritual law they perish from that which is good, and become miserable forever” (2 Ne. 2:5). By the temporal law—the law of Moses, or the law of external commandments—men are cut off. Such a law can prepare us for a higher law, but it cannot save us. Yet interestingly enough, the scripture says that by the spiritual law we are also cut off. Why is this? Because none of us lives perfectly the higher law of love, mercy, forgiveness, and service as taught and exemplified by the Master. The law alone—lesser or higher—condemns us, for in our fallen state we ever fall short of its full demands.
Lehi explains the one way out of this predicament: “Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth. Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered” (2 Ne. 2:6–7). Ultimately we are saved by the grace of Christ. But His Atonement can answer the ends of the law only for those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Such will strive constantly to obey the commandments of God and when they fall short will experience a “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10) that leads to repentance. The Lord knows we will not get through mortality without stumbling and falling short—what He wants is our hearts, broken and contrite, submissive to His will. Only then can the Atonement purify us from sin.
The principle of repentance is linked with and leads directly to baptism. As Mormon writes to his son Moroni, “The first fruits of repentance is baptism” (Moro. 8:25). Without repentance, baptism would be of no efficacy at all. The one must precede the other, as the requirements for baptism laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants make clear. All those who desire to be baptized must first “witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins” (D&C 20:37). President Brigham Young taught that the water itself has no cleansing effect on sins, but rather it is by the process of repentance that must precede baptism.5
Baptism is foremost the making of a covenant with God. What is that covenant? The most commonly cited explanation of it is found in Alma’s words at the Waters of Mormon; he defines baptism as a covenant to “serve [God] and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you” (Mosiah 18:10). Similar language is found in the sacramental prayers, in which we renew the covenant made at baptism. Those who partake of the sacramental bread witness unto the Father “that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (D&C 20:77). In entering the waters of baptism, we promise to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, to remember Him always, and to keep His commandments; the Lord in turn promises that we will have His Spirit to be with us.
We think of baptism as a one-time event, which it is in the sense that it normally takes place only once in a lifetime. But the covenant is lifelong, meant to be remembered and lived every day to the end of our lives. Our Father in Heaven has given us the sacrament as an ordinance to help us remember His Son’s sacrifice and to renew our covenant of baptism. In this manner, the baptismal covenant can remain an active part of our daily life and spiritual progress long after the ordinance of baptism itself. As we grow to understand this, our weekly partaking of the sacrament will come to have great spiritual meaning.
After baptism by water comes baptism by fire, or the gift of the Holy Ghost: “And this is my gospel—repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost” (D&C 39:6). This fourth step, like those preceding it, is intended to bring about the remission of sins: “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 Ne. 31:17; emphasis added).
The Savior taught Nicodemus, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). To be born of the Spirit is to receive a spiritual baptism by fire or by the Holy Ghost—also known as the Sanctifier. “By the power of the Holy Ghost … dross, iniquity, carnality, sensuality, and every evil thing is burned out of the repentant soul as if by fire; the cleansed person becomes literally a new creature of the Holy Ghost.”6 The spirit of every person is pure, unblemished, and innocent at birth. Then, because of sin our spirits become, in effect, tarnished and darkened, “spotted by the flesh” (Jude 1:23). As we receive the Holy Ghost, it refines and purifies our souls as if by fire.
In the New World, the Savior expounded on the mission of the Holy Ghost as a Sanctifier: “Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day” (3 Ne. 27:20; emphasis added). We learn from Moroni that the visitation of the Holy Ghost, or baptism by fire, is a tangible, literal event. The Holy Ghost actually “works upon” and cleanses our spirits: “And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ” (Moro. 6:4; emphasis added).
The humble and contrite person who repents with full purpose of heart will experience the baptism of the Spirit, which brings peace and assurance of forgiveness and fills the recipient with faith, hope, and charity. The scriptures refer to this as being “born again” or “born of the spirit.”7 The cleansing baptism of the Spirit should take place many times in our lives as we exercise faith in the Savior, repent of our sins, and renew our covenant of baptism.
The Holy Ghost serves as a Revelator, Guide, and Comforter. When Nephi realized that many did not know what to do after their conversion and baptism, he said the “words of Christ,” as communicated by the Holy Ghost, would guide them: “If ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do” (2 Ne. 32:5). The Holy Ghost is our guide along every path of righteousness. It will help us know the Lord’s will, discern right from wrong, order our priorities, and make sound choices in the important decisions of life. The role of the Holy Ghost as a lifelong Guide and Comforter is an integral part of the gospel of salvation.
The first principles and ordinances constitute the gospel of salvation in its most simple and fundamental form. As we apply them, the power of Christ’s Atonement will purify us from sin and strengthen us in weakness, leading us upward toward eventual reunion with our Eternal Father. This is the doctrine of Christ. This is the glorious message taught by prophets through the ages. Mormon beautifully distills that message in the following passage, with a reminder that enduring to the end is also requisite to salvation:
“And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;
“And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God” (Moro. 8:25–26).
The ordinances of baptism and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost are ordinances of salvation. They are mandatory prerequisites for entry into the celestial kingdom. Those who would enter into the highest degree of that kingdom, inheriting exaltation and “all that my Father hath” (D&C 84:38), must further receive the higher ordinances of exaltation found only in the holy temple. The first principles and ordinances of the gospel, therefore, are not only requirements of salvation but also preparatory steps to entering the temple and fulfilling the conditions of exaltation. To receive those temple ordinances and live worthy of their promise should be the aspiration of every righteous Latter-day Saint.
Yet even as we receive the higher ordinances and revealed knowledge found in the holy temple, we need to continue applying the first principles and ordinances of the gospel each day of our lives. By exercising faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repenting of sins, honoring our baptismal covenant, and receiving the ministrations of the Holy Ghost, our hearts will become pure and our spirits sanctified. The “peace of God, which passeth all understanding” (Philip. 4:7) will grace our lives, and the light of God will increase within us and grow “brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).