In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes from pagan poetry to make a point that ultimately contradicts pagan theology. He makes a point of connection useful for a larger point of contention. One among other things we can observe from his sermon is that Christians can wisely use non-Christian literature in our endeavor to communicate Christian truth.
The next time baptism comes up in a discussion with a Mormon, remember that even unique LDS scripture teaches that remission of sins is required as a prerequisite to baptism. D&C 20:37 reads:
“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 contradicts the common Mormon assumption (which the LDS institution has condoned, fostered and perpetuated) that the ordinance of baptism itself (or perhaps, more specifically, afterward at the giving of the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands), with the faith of the participant and proper priesthood of the officiator, brings immediate remission of sins. Mark D. Woodbury, director of the Reno Nevada Institute of Religion, partly reflects the common Mormon view that I have encountered over the past decade:
The good news is that there is repentance. Repentance is a great gift from God; indeed, the scriptures teach us that Christ “hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance. And how great is his joy in the soul that repenteth!” (D&C 18:12–13). But it is only through our entering into a covenant with God through baptism that repentance becomes truly effective. Many times in scripture the prophets and the Savior Himself use the phrase “baptized unto repentance. (See Matthew 3:11; Mosiah 26:22; Alma 5:62; 6:2; 7:14; 8:10; 9:27; 48:19; 49:30; Helaman 3:24; 5:17; 5:19; 3 Nephi 1:23; 7:24, 26; Moroni 8:11; D&C 35:5.) Alma, for example, taught, “Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness” (Alma 7:14).
Alma makes two points clear, the first being that forgiveness of sins does not come simply through repentance alone but that baptism is also necessary. Second, he shows that it is not the waters of baptism that cleanse us but rather the Lamb of God. Nephi clarifies that the remission of sins comes “by fire and by the Holy Ghost” (2 Nephi 31:17). Thus, we are cleansed from our sins only when the Holy Ghost places the stamp of approval upon us.
President Brigham Young taught: “Has water, in itself, any virtue to wash away sin? Certainly not; but the Lord says, ‘If the sinner will repent of his sins, and go down into the waters of baptism, and there be buried in the likeness of being put into the earth and buried, and again be delivered from the water, in the likeness of being born—if in the sincerity of his heart he will do this, his sins shall be washed away.’ Will the water of itself wash them away? No; but keeping the commandments [p.72] of God will cleanse away the stain of sin.” (Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 2:4.)
Our sins, therefore, are remitted by the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost following our repentance and baptism by water. Continued repentance is then available only to those who have entered into a covenant with the Lord through the Aaronic Priesthood ordinance of baptism. Since the fruits of repentance (forgiveness and cleansing) are available only through the administration of the Aaronic Priesthood, the Aaronic Priesthood “holds the keys of . . . the gospel of repentance” (D&C 13:1; see also Joseph Smith—History 1:69).
Woodbury essentially argues that it is at laying on of hands (shortly after baptism) that one is given remission of sins. This much is clear: for him, baptism is absolutely requisite for remission of sins. Contrary to D&C 20:37, remission of sins is not seen by him as prerequisite to baptism.
The Ellipsis in Gospel Principles
Chapter 20 of the 2009 Gospel Principles manual reads, “When we place our faith in Jesus Christ, repent, and are baptized, our sins are forgiven through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” Admittedly this can be parsed by some to be compatible with the neo-orthodox position, but culturally this seems to effectively perpetuate the view that baptism, by faith and repentance, constitutes the very act of receiving remission of sins. For this reason it is notable that in the chapter’s subsequent use of D&C 20:37 an important ellipsis omits the part of the passage which indicates that remission of sins is a prerequisite to baptism:
“All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized … that … have truly repented of all their sins … shall be received by baptism into his church” (D&C 20:37).
While arguably excised the sake of brevity, it also seems to conveniently avoid a seeming contradiction within the manual’s chapter.
In the Bible we hear of the call to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). With more specific apostolic teaching, we learn that justification, forgiveness, and adoption are by faith, not by works (Romans 4:4-8, Ephesians 2:8-10). I consider this an issue of chronological intimacy. For the earliest believers the event of initial faith and the event of baptism were not normally separated by a significant probationary time of vetting and preparation, but rather were experienced as one basic event. The gospel was preached, people believed and received the gift of the Spirit, were justified and forgiven, and were baptized all normally in the same memorable happening. From certain events and sermons in Acts, one could reasonably infer that baptism itself is an act of receiving forgiveness. But understood in the light of the whole of Acts, as well as other New Testament letters, we learn from the Bible that baptism is a public identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It publicly solidifies by declaration that we have already repented and received forgiveness of sins.
3 Nephi 7:25
The question of the relationship between forgiveness and baptism was not foreign to the many Christian restorationist groups of Joseph Smith’s day. In at least one passage The Book of Mormon takes a stand on this issue that today seems far more compatible with evangelicalism than modern Mormonism:
“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.” (3 Nephi 7:25)
In modern Christian culture we tend to chronologically separate faith and baptism by a process of doctrinal introduction and pastoral interview. D&C 20:37 reflects this practice of baptismal delay that Mormons partly inherited from their Puritan American ancestors (which I’m told the early Christian church adopted as well). Perhaps 3 Nephi 7:25 reflects early Mormonism’s more Protestant theology of forgiveness and baptism as well. Both should cause Mormons to pause before assuming the Mormonism of the early 1830’s is compatible with the mainstream Mormonism of the 21st century.
Grace and peace!
 Mark D. Woodbury, “The Preparatory Priesthood,” in Religious Educator 4, no. 2 (2003): 69–75. Link.