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Monday, December 7, 2009

Mormon Theology no. 10 - The House of the Lord and Baptism for the Dead

The most confusing practice of the LDS Church to outsiders is baptism for the dead.  What is this practice?  Why do Latter-day Saints practice it?  Is it in conformity with Biblical doctrine?  Why do we need Houses of the Lord in which to do the ritual, anyway?  Aren't we all free to choose the way we live?  In this essay, we will have all these questions answered.

The Savior said, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5)."  When the Savior came to John, John at first refused to baptize him.  The Lord said, "Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15)."  What does it mean to "fulfill all righteousness"?  A prophet from the Book of Mormon tells us what that means, and gives us the reason all - both living and dead - need baptism.  Said Nephi:  

"And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfill all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized, yea, even by water!  And now, I would ask of you, my beloved brethren, wherein the Lamb of God did fulfill all righteousness in being baptized by water?  Know ye not that he was holy? But notwithstanding he being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments.  Wherefore, after he was baptized with water the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove.  And again, it showeth unto the children of men the straitness of the path, and the narrowness of the gate, by which they should enter, he having set the example before them (2 Nephi 31:5-9)"

Here we find, from both the Savoir and Nephi, the doctrine of the need of baptism, and that the Book of Mormon confirms the Biblical doctrine of the need of all to be baptized.  What does baptism for the dead have to do with anything, and why do we need a temple in which to do so?

 As we stated in our last essays (particularly essay VIII), The Lord gave his ancient Apostles the authority to seal on earth and in heaven.  Before the Lord was crucified he said, "Verily, Verily I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live (John 5:25)", because before this He had said that "except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5)."  Thus it is seen that Jesus Himself intimated the need for all to hear the gospel - both living and dead.  The Apostle Paul also said, "Else what shall they do, which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead" (I Cor. 15:29)?  Of this verse, the Prophet Joseph Smith said that “the Apostle was talking to a people who understood baptism for the dead, for it was practiced among them" (The Words of Joseph Smith, comp. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 1980), p. 49).  And so it was.

Baptismal font in the Nauvoo Illinois Temple

After the Great Apostasy, the Lord restored the practice of baptism for the dead.  It was publicly announced at the funeral of Seymore Brunson in the fall of 1840 by the Prophet Joseph Smith.  The doctrine was subsequently practiced in the Nauvoo Temple in 1841 and in the Endowment House from 1855 to 1889, when the House was razed.  It has been practiced in ever temple continually since the dedication of the St. George Utah Temple on 6 April 1844.  Of the necessity of building a Temple, Joseph Smith said,

What was the object of gathering the … people of God in any age of the world? … The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation; for there are certain ordinances and principles that, when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose … Ordinances instituted in the heavens before the foundation of the world, in the priesthood, for the salvation of men, are not to be altered or changed. All must be saved on the same principles. . . . It is for the same purpose that God gathers together His people in the last days, to build unto the Lord a house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowments, washings and anointings, etc. One of the ordinances of the house of the Lord is baptism for the dead. God decreed before the foundation of the world that that ordinance should be administered in a font prepared for that purpose in the house of the Lord. . . . (History of the Church, 5:423–25, 427)

Although the Lord and his Apostles and other Servants have taught the need that all men need baptism by proper authority in order to be saved, they have also taught all people have freedom to choose.  Agency is as active beyond the veil as it is here on Earth.  The dead have the ability to choose to accept the vicarious rites done on their behalf.  Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said,  

Some have misunderstood and suppose that deceased souls 'are being baptised into the Mormon faith without their knowledge' or that 'people who once belonged to other faiths can have the Mormon faith retroactively imposed on them.'  They assume that we somehow have power to force a soul in matters of faith.  Of course, we do not.  God gave man his agency from the beginning.  'The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,' but only if they accept those ordinances (Ensign, Nov 2000, 9–11).

That is the most clear explanation of agency regarding baptism for the dead I have read.

Because God loves all people and wants all to be saved, He has given The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - and only that Church - the authority to act in His name and be instruments in the salvation of the human family.  All this is done in the Name of Jesus Christ because He it was who atoned for our sins.  He has said, "Behold, this is my work and my glory - to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:30)."  The Church will fulfill that mandate.  I know it is the word of the Lord.  In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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