D&C Lesson 30 – “The Prisoners Shall Go Free”

baptism for the dead
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It is normal to view something you have always had as trite or commonplace. I have never given baptism for the dead a second thought – it was always there, like the temple or the chapel. It wasn’t until this lesson that my eyes were opened to the massive importance of this latter-day doctrinal addition that opens the door to salvation for billions of people.

Doctrinal origin

We hear over and over again about the need to become united in all that we do. Zion is built upon the unity of the people in all things. Baptism for the dead has its origin in the doctrine of being a Zion people.

In the pre-existence our Father in Heaven’s plan included the possibility for the salvation of every one of His children. We all know that in mortality the number of people in every generation who actually know the truth about the plan of salvation is very small. Yet we all accepted the Father’s plan because it included a way for each and every one of us to be saved by the day of our promised resurrection.

In Doctrine and Covenants 128:5 Joseph Smith was writing to the saints while he was in hiding from those who wanted to unjustly imprison him. He had been detailing the importance of having witnesses to the baptisms for the dead that were being performed, and also the importance of recording each and every baptism as a record and witness before the Lord that this vital ordinance had taken place for each of those people for whom the baptism had been performed.

You may think this order of things to be very particular; but let me tell you that it is only to answer the will of God, by conforming to the ordinance and preparation that the Lord ordained and prepared before the foundation of the world, for the salvation of the dead who should die without a knowledge of the gospel.

This verse shows us that our Father had prepared ahead of the creation of the earth to offer the saving ordinances to every one of His children. He knew that most of them would not hear about the gospel in mortality, yet still need to have the ordinances performed. Since this plan of His is based on vicarious works, this allows those who do know about the gospel, and have already made covenants with the Lord, to perform these ordinances for those who have already passed through mortality.

In the second half of the verse in Doctrine and Covenants 128:8, we learn that it is a universal principle that we each either have to participate personally in the ordinances of salvation, or we have to have an agent participate for us. And in all instances the ordinances are not valid unless they are witnessed and recorded.

… FOR OUT OF THE BOOKS SHALL YOUR DEAD BE JUDGED, ACCORDING TO THEIR OWN WORKS, WHETHER THEY THEMSELVES HAVE ATTENDED TO THE ORDINANCES IN THEIR OWN PROPRIA PERSONA [ON THEIR OWN], OR BY THE MEANS OF THEIR OWN AGENTS, ACCORDING TO THE ORDINANCE WHICH GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THEIR SALVATION FROM BEFORE THE FOUNDATION OF THE WORLD, ACCORDING TO THE RECORDS WHICH THEY HAVE KEPT CONCERNING THEIR DEAD. (translated text added)

This practice of having someone else perform the work for you is all part of the plan. The whole plan of salvation is based on vicarious works, someone else doing for you what you cannot do for yourself. Even the atoning sacrifice of Christ was a vicarious work. The plan of salvation could not work if vicarious works were not allowed.

Here is the short list of rules that govern the plan of salvation as given to us from our Father in Heaven.

  1.  Every person is responsible for their own behavior, based on the knowledge they have in mortality.
  2. We will each be judged from the books that are written testifying to our works and behavior in mortality. This is why all ordinances must be witnessed and recorded. At some point when the Lord returns to personally reign on the earth, all these records will be given to Him as an offering of our obedience to His commandments. He, in turn, will use those records to judge each of us, as well as those for whom we have performed ordinances.
  3. Vicarious work to assist in the salvation for others is a required part of the salvation of us all.
  4. The principle of unity governs the whole plan of salvation. The Lord has stipulated that without those in the spirit world those in mortality cannot be saved, and without those in mortality those in the spirit world cannot be saved. We depend on each other. We need each other.

The symbolism of baptism

In Doctrine and Covenants 128:12–13 we are told that every soul will rise in a newness of life in the resurrection. The baptismal covenant is a physical symbol of this spiritual rebirth.

12 Herein is glory and honor, and immortality and eternal life—The ordinance of baptism by water, to be immersed therein in order to answer to the likeness of the dead, that one principle might accord with the other; to be immersed in the water and come forth out of the water is in the likeness of the resurrection of the dead in coming forth out of their graves; hence, this ordinance was instituted to form a relationship with the ordinance of baptism for the dead, being in likeness of the dead.

13 Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another—that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly, as Paul hath declared … (bold added)

We, without our dead cannot be saved

When Moroni quoted Malachi to Joseph Smith in 1823 Joseph recorded his instructions in the Joseph Smith History:37-39. I have arranged the verses in the order in which the events will happen.

38 And again, he quoted the fifth verse thus: Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

39 He also quoted the next verse differently: And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

37 FOR BEHOLD, THE DAY COMETH THAT SHALL BURN AS AN OVEN, AND ALL THE PROUD, YEA, AND ALL THAT DO WICKEDLY SHALL BURN AS STUBBLE; FOR THEY THAT COME SHALL BURN THEM, SAITH THE LORD OF HOSTS, THAT IT SHALL LEAVE THEM NEITHER ROOT NOR BRANCH.

Elijah brought to the earth the sealing power. The spirit of the sealing power that we usually refer to as the spirit of Elijah, awakens within the children of men a desire to be connected to those who have gone before them in mortality. This desire is essential to our own salvation.

The Lord has declared in Doctrine and Covenants 128:15 that we cannot be saved without our family who preceded us. They require the work only we who are in mortality can do in order to be saved. So if we are unwilling to perform their ordinance work for them both they and we will lose our salvation.

Working for the salvation of every member of God’s family is a latter-day requirement for our own salvation. Now is the time for the great push to redeem the dead. This work will continue on into the Millennium. In fact, it will be the main work to be accomplished during that thousand year period, for the Savior’s work cannot be considered or declared completed until every child of God has had their ordinance work completed.

Here is a short video clip of a talk on this subject by Elder Russell M. Nelson.

Final Thoughts

I don’t know about you, but I have, in the past, regarded the doctrine of baptism for the dead to be as common as the act of tying my shoes. I simply never gave it a second thought.

But when we look at the billions of people who have lived and died without the opportunity to participate in the saving ordinances of the gospel of Christ, the restoration of the priesthood keys to seal families together, starting with the gateway ordinance of baptism for those already in the spirit world, is indeed a marvel to behold.

How many families, having lost loved ones over the past multiple thousands of years have wept and sorrowed for the loss of those they loved, not realizing that the day would come when each member of their family could individually accept a baptism performed in their behalf, followed by all the other ordinances of the temple that would culminate in being sealed together as a family forever?

What joy! Indeed, this simple doctrine of baptism for the dead opens the door for the salvation of all of mankind. What a privilege it is for us to become partners with Christ in the redemption of our own families who have preceded us in mortality. Our hearts should be filled with gratitude and rejoicing for such a privilege. It is this very act of charity, this desire to help someone who cannot repay us, that will drive us to the temples and to the family history centers to seek out our ancestors and perform their work for them in the holy temples.

Doing baptisms for the dead need not be a work solely for the youth of the Church. This is something that we should all be engaged in, and anxiously participating in. The youth can help in the finding. They can do many of the baptisms, but only those who have received their own endowments can complete the chain of ordinances that will result in the sealing of our ancestors to each other to complete the work. This process should be a major focus of our lives. This is what the Lord has commanded us to do. Our own salvation depends upon it.

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