There are some things that can be taught plainly without many words. The gospel is not one of them. Joseph Smith said that:
The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart!Unfortunately, in our Twitter/TLDR;/research limited to phone time on the toilet world, the gospel understanding of most is limited to a single quote. In case you haven't noticed, there are tremendous gems to be gleaned from a diligent study of scripture coupled with sincere, time-consuming prayer to God. These truths are woven throughout scripture, and once unlocked, seem simple indeed. It is rare that you can get a clear picture of a doctrinal topic in one short quote.
Lately there has been a lot of focus among some on baptism by water. There has been a great deal of time, effort, and even money spent to persuade people to be baptized. There has also been a great deal of sermonizing to describe the gospel of Christ as "being baptized." Many very short scriptural quotes have been given to justify the idea that baptism of water is a significant portion of the gospel. Does a more complete study of the scriptures justify such an idea?
The two central arguments we see are that baptism by water will save you spiritually and that baptism by water will save you temporally.
Baptism of water is insufficient to save you spiritually
Joseph Smith said:
You might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man, if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost. Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half—that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost. The Savior says, ‘Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ [John 3:5.]
Baptism by water does not make you righteous. It is a necessary symbol of your inward promise to God to fully submit to the Lord. It does not change you. The change, if it happens, comes not as a result of baptism by water, but from full submission to God: obedience to everything you currently know, and sincere intent to listen to everything he will tell you later. If you truly covenant with God to obey him now and forever, you will receive the baptism of fire, whether you have or have not received the baptism of water. If you have not been baptized by fire, you have not yet submitted to him as described, and your baptism of water, as a symbol of a commitment you have failed to make, counts for nothing.
Baptism of water comes from you. You can be baptized by water 1,000 times without God having anything to do with it. How could something that is fully within your doing, with no part from God, somehow obligate God to treat you differently?
The baptism of fire does not come from you, it comes from God. You cannot cheat the baptism of fire. You cannot obtain it without real repentance. It is the fulfilling the commandments that brings remission of sins, not outward ordinances.
25 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; 26 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. (Moroni 8:25-26)
22 For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing—
23 But it is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works.
25 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; (Moroni 8:22-24,25)
Repentance saves. You cannot repent without being taught truth.
No amount of "authority" will move a person closer to God in absence of new truth. You may as well baptize a bag of sand as a person who has not been taught true doctrine.
Though proof texting can make a case that somehow people were baptized in the scriptures without having learned any doctrine, a more thorough search will contradict the idea. For example, the most oft scriptures supporting baptism without instruction use Christ's 3 Nephi visit. Yet, we are told plainly by Jesus that those appointed to baptize would go forth teaching prior to baptizing.
1 And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words unto Nephi, and to those who had been called, (now the number of them who had been called, and received power and authority to baptize, was twelve) and behold, he stretched forth his hand unto the multitude, and cried unto them, saying: Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost; therefore blessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am. (3 Nephi 12:1)
Likewise, as seen here and otherwise, the commandment is to believe in Jesus and be baptized. How can you believe in Jesus if you do not know anything about him, or if what you believe about him is false?
If I could only choose one, I would choose knowledge and not baptism by water. If I obtain knowledge and live it, God will recognize my repentance and pour his spirit upon me like he did to Cornelius, who had not yet been baptized by water. He will then arrange a way for me to encounter someone who can baptize me, or he will baptize me himself as he did Adam. Though baptism by water is a commandment and is necessary, it is a part of repentance. Repentance cannot be had without baptism by water, but baptism by water can be had (and often is) without real repentance.
While you can have baptism of water without repentance, you cannot receive the baptism of fire without submitting fully to God. You cannot repent, or turn to God, if you do not understand anything about God. To what are you submitting if you don't know the doctrine? The bottleneck of the gospel is not baptism. It is truth and teachers of truth.
I know far more people that have been baptized or rebaptized by water than people who have been baptized by fire. If you have not been baptized by fire, you would do well to focus on that. If you have not been baptized by fire, what exactly are you offering others with rebaptism? If you have been baptized by fire, help others get to that point and work on getting beyond that yourself.
Baptism will not save you spiritually. Only Christ can do that. When the day comes that he tells you that he has saved you, you will not need to wonder if it has happened or not. You won't find him by multiplying ordinances while ignoring the weightier matters. You will find him by diligently seeking and obeying his words.
Baptism of water is insufficient to save you temporally
Some claim that baptism received from one who has proper authority from God will save you from the destruction to come prior to the Second Coming.
Do we see this pattern in the visit of Jesus to the Americas? No we do not. Who survived the 3 Nephi destruction? Before the Lord destroyed much of the Nephite world, he sent Samuel the Lamanite to warn the cities of the coming destruction. Among his warnings of the destruction of each city, he quoted the Lord saying "But blessed are they who will repent, for them will I spare. (Helaman 13:13).
In contrast, Jesus explains that it is the wicked that were destroyed when he came:
And many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and their abominations. O all ye that are spared because ye were more righteous than they... (3 Nephi 9:12-13)Now, later in the account, we are given yet another description of those who were spared.
12 And it was the more righteous part of the people who were saved, and it was they who received the prophets and stoned them not; and it was they who had not shed the blood of the saints, who were spared— (3 Nephi 10:12)If taken on its own, some might be tempted to think this scripture supports the idea that prophetic allegiance is sufficient for temporal salvation. Such an idea can only exist separate from obedience to God if we treat prophets as office holders instead of messengers AND ignore the other verses that indicate real righteousness and repentance is required, not just lip service or actions that have nothing to do with changes of heart.
Note that many Nephites had been baptized prior to this destruction, yet the fact that they were baptized was not mentioned as a reason why they were spared. Instead, the qualification was that they had "received the prophets". These are they who had received the words of the Lord as delivered by his prophets. They had listened to and obeyed God's word--all of it, not just one small portion of it.
So we see that the Nephites were not spared due to some arbitrary compliance with a specific ritual. Are there any examples of a people who were spared? Yes, it turns out there are: the Israelites.
The Israelites who obeyed God's command to paint their door posts with the blood of a sacrificed lamb were protected from the plague that killed the first born in all of Egypt. This was not the only example, when plagued with poisonous snake bites, the Israelites who looked upon Moses' brass serpent were healed. In both cases, no real repentance was necessary. Those who obeyed out of fear and those who obeyed out of righteous repentance were equally rewarded. That there were those who obeyed only out of fear is apparent by the widespread, chronic disobedience of those who had participated in these miracles, evidencing a heart far from God.
The lives of these people were prolonged, but were these people really "saved"? Yes, the lives of these people were prolonged as a result of their simple act of obedience. However, were they really temporally saved? They lived out the rest of their lives in misery in a situation they did not want to be in, and--importantly--they never reached the promise land. Instead, they were buffeted by trial after trial. Can you really consider that being saved temporally? Saved from what? Those who were honest enough about the contents of their hearts to neglect to paint their door frames with blood were more saved than those who did it merely out of fear rather than in true submission to God. Neither group reached the promised land. The former were spared or "saved" from the fruitless suffering of the latter. Out of the perhaps hundreds of thousands of people who were saved from death on the first passover, two people made it into the promised land: Joshua and Caleb.
This doesn't mean all hope is lost. It simply means we ought to be paying a lot more attention to actual, real, personal repentance and reconciliation to God. Multiplying dead ordinances is a sin that the LDS church has and is committing. We need to leave the fleshpots of Egypt behind by remembering the meaning of the ordinance and keeping it first in our minds. We ought not be practicing or promoting baptism without actual repentance, or something with meaning outside of reconciling oneself to God.
We've looked at previous examples of temporal salvation. Are we told anything specific in the scriptures about the criteria to be saved from the destruction to precede the second coming? We are. Nephi speaks often of the destruction to precede the second coming. Several times, he describes that it will be the righteous who are protected:
Wherefore, he will preserve the righteous by his power, even if it so be that the fulness of his wrath must come, and the righteous be preserved, even unto the destruction of their enemies by fire. Wherefore, the righteous need not fear; for thus saith the prophet, they shall be saved, even if it so be as by fire. (1 Nephi 22:17)
Do not think that you will be ushered into Zion simply because you have complied with some simple external ordinance. The entrance requirement for Zion (when it actually is Zion, not just a gathering without accompanying blessings) is to be pure in heart and completely obedient to God. There is no shortcut. Building a temple will not magically turn you into Zion. Neither will the five minutes of obedience necessary to be baptized.
Baptism by water at the hands of an authorized minister may be sufficient to spare you from some subset of the desolation that is coming. However, the other things you will be subject to will wish it hadn't if you don't change your heart and come unto Christ.
At some point, the only people left on earth will be those who comply with God's commandments--all of them. Even though everyone there will have been baptized, baptism by water will not get you there. Even if baptism will save you from one or more waves of destruction prior to the second coming, it cannot save you from all of them. Instead, let us focus on the repentance that must accompany baptism by water, and is always witnessed of with the baptism by fire.