Evidence #247 | January 10, 2024

Baptism as a Covenant

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Recent New Testament scholarship suggests that baptism should be understood as a pledge or covenant to follow and obey God. This is consistent with the understanding of baptism found in the Book of Mormon.

Baptism in the Book of Mormon

One of the stated purposes of the Book of Mormon is to bring men and women to Christ by restoring them to “a knowledge of the Gospel of their Redeemer” and helping them understand “the very points of his doctrine that they may know how to come unto him and be saved” (1 Nephi 15:14). One of these distinctive points of doctrine is that through baptism an individual witnesses to God that he or she has repented of sins and is willing to keep God’s commandments. In a study of baptism in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Noel Reynolds reviewed recent New Testament scholarship on the subject. He found that “the Book of Mormon characterization of baptism as a covenant fits well with the best current thinking.”1

Early Christian Baptism as a Covenant

The Apostle Peter spoke of the biblical flood as a type or shadow of Christian baptism, “the like figure whereunto even baptism doth now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer [Greek eperōtēma] of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). More recent translations of this passage render eperōtēma as a “pledge,” “undertaking,” or “contract.”2 A representative example is John Elliott’s translation of the passage where baptism is “a pledge to God of a sound mindfulness of God’s will through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”3

Peter Preaches. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

The broad acceptance of this covenantal understanding of eperōtēma among New Testament scholars today is largely due to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century discovery, and subsequent study of, the Egyptian Oxyrhynchus papyri.4 These documents which date to the second century AD, not long after Peter’s epistle was written, show that the word eperōtēma was “a technical term in legal contracts, signifying the formal question addressed by one party to the other and the response, a formal undertaking or pledge.”5

As David Bentley Hart explains, the term eperōtēma is  

most properly a “question” or “inquiry,” or sometimes a “request,” but also occasionally meaning an answer to a question issued by someone of superior authority (which is to say, a humble answer), in some cases meaning a formal obligation or covenant, including the pledge of assent or promise made in response to a formal question (“Do you promise to discharge …?” “Yes, I promise …”). Thus, in the Code of Justinian it appears as the Greek equivalent of the Latin stipulation, and it might also be said to approximate the meaning of sacramentum (in the proper sense of an oath of allegiance or solemn vow).6

According to David Hill, this should be understood as more than a simple confession of faith, but “a response or assent to a covenant obligation, an agreement to maintain righteousness, through obedience, in the future.”7 This form of commitment has been compared to that entered into by members of the Essene community at Qumran where “those joining the community and entering the Covenant submitted to the ritual procedure which included the declaration of duties required and an assent thereto.”8 Hill also compares eperōtēma to the covenant which the Israelites entered into at Sinai where the Lord commanded  them to sanctify themselves and wash their garments (Exodus 19:10). In turn, they promised, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).9

According to Elliott, this “pledge to God” (eperōtēma eis theon) at baptism is the assent “given to certain behavioral requirements such as moral commitment, obedience to God’s will, and doing what is right.”10 Peter’s reference to “a sound mindfulness of God’s will” (syneidēseōs agathēs) refers to the continued commitment to be ever mindful of God’s will. Thus, “Baptism as a pledge implies the necessity of continued fidelity; the new life it confers in rebirth and the transformation it entails are to be manifested in ongoing obedience to God’s will.”11

Ben Witherington, commenting on this passage, describes baptism as “the first step in the undertaking of a Christian life; it is a contract or covenanting with God.”12 It is, according to Bo Reicke, “a confession made before God and a promise of loyalty comprising good will, a positive attitude toward people and a serious effort to promote their well-being. If the baptismal promise is kept, the individual will really walk in the footsteps of Jesus.”13 As Karen Jobes writes, “Peter is reminding his readers that when they were baptized, a question was asked about their faith in Christ, to which they gave a positive response. They were then baptized in water as a sacrament of that pledge of faithfulness made to God. Peter reminds them of that pledge as they face suffering because of Christ and the temptation to turn away.”14

Baptism as a Covenant in the Book of Mormon

This understanding of baptism as a sacred pledge or covenant with God is consistent with the teachings of Book of Mormon prophets. Nephi taught that Jesus himself was baptized. “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” (2 Nephi 31:7). Jesus himself made the covenant of baptism and invites all to follow him. Those baptized must follow Jesus “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and Savior down into the water, according to his word” (2 Nephi 31:13).

Jesus being baptized. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

At the Waters of Mormon, Alma taught that baptism is “a witness before [God] that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments” (Mosiah 18:10). It was further described as “a testimony that ye have entered into a covenant to serve him until you are dead as to the mortal body” (v. 13). Before he baptized anyone, however, Alma set forth the obligations of the baptized to serve God and others, and to stand as witnesses at all times and in all places (vv. 8–9). He then asked if they were prepared to accept these obligations by being baptized, to which they responded affirmatively (vv. 10–11).

When Alma the Younger invited the people of Gideon to be baptized, he said,

Yea, I say unto you and fear not, and lay aside every sin which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction, yea, come and go forth, and show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by gong down into the waters of baptism. (Alma 7:15)

Here again, baptism is clearly presented as a covenant for those who repent, which witnesses their willingness to keep the commandments of God. Several generations later, those who were baptized did so “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).

Alma the Elder inviting the people to be baptized a the Waters of Mormon. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Conclusion

Noel Reynolds observes, “the most thorough and recent historical scholarship identifies very early Christian teachings and practices that strongly suggest their earliest formulation may well have been identical with those found in the Book of Mormon.”14 One significant point of convergence is the understanding of baptism as a sacred covenant with God. In the Book of Mormon, the one baptized makes a solemn commitment to follow Christ and thereafter keep His commandments, just as the early Christian converts to whom Peter wrote had promised to do.

Previous to baptism, converts in the Book of Mormon were questioned about their desires and willingness to serve God before making that commitment. And after being baptized and receiving a remission of their sins, those baptized were expected to continue to witness before God and the people that they were truly repentant and that they sought to pattern their lives after the Savior. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon teach the same Gospel including the importance of the baptismal covenant. This scriptural consistency with the Bible reflects Mormon’s stated purposed for the Book of Mormon: it was “written for the intent that ye may believe that [the Bible]; and if ye believe that ye will believe this [the Book of Mormon] also” (Mormon 7:9).

Matthew Roper, “What the Book of Mormon Teaches about Baptism (Beyond What the New Testament Teaches),” Book of Mormon Central Blog, January 29, 2019.

Book of Mormon Central, “What is the Purpose of Baptism in the Book of Mormon? (2 Nephi 31:6–7),” KnoWhy 59 (March 22, 2016).

Noel B. Reynolds, “Understanding Christan Baptism Through the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51, no. 2 (2012): 5–37.

Bible Romans 6:3–5Romans 10:91 Timothy 6:121 Peter 3:21Book of Mormon1 Nephi 15:142 Nephi 31:72 Nephi 31:132 Nephi 31:6–152 Nephi 33:10Mosiah 18:10Mosiah 18:8–11Mosiah 18:13Mosiah 18:13–16Alma 7:153 Nephi 7:25Mormon 7:9Moroni 8:25

Bible

Romans 6:3–5

Romans 10:9

1 Timothy 6:12

1 Peter 3:21

Book of Mormon

1 Nephi 15:14

2 Nephi 31:7

2 Nephi 31:13

2 Nephi 31:6–15

2 Nephi 33:10

Mosiah 18:10

Mosiah 18:8–11

Mosiah 18:13

Mosiah 18:13–16

Alma 7:15

3 Nephi 7:25

Mormon 7:9

Moroni 8:25

  • 1 Noel B. Reynolds, “Understanding Christian Baptism Through the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly 51, no. 2 (2012): 21.
  • 2 See for example David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven, CT: Yales University Press, 2017), 469; Ben Witherington III, Troubled Waters: The Real New Testament Theology of Baptism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 109; David Hill, “On Suffering and Baptism in 1 Peter,” Novum Testamentum 18, Fasc. 3 (July 1976): 187–189; David Hill, “‘To Offer Spiritual Sacrifices …’ (1 Peter 2:5): Liturgical Formulations and Christian Paraenesis in 1 Peter,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 16 (1982): 59; Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 251; Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Anchor Bible Series (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 106; John H. Elliott, 1 Peter: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Anchor Bible Series (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2000), 637.  “Most recent commentators,” notes R. T. France, “accept the meaning ‘pledge.’” R. T. France, “Exegesis in Practice: Two Samples,” in New Testament Interpretation: Essays on Principles and Methods, ed. I. H. Marshall (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), 275.
  • 3 Elliott, 1 Peter, 637, emphasis added.
  • 4 France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 275; Elliott, 1 Peter, 680.
  • 5 France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 275. According to Elliott, “although the eperōtēma (or its verb) specifically describes the first part of this contract, it can also identify the transaction as a whole. In this latter case it denotes a contract involving a pledge or assent given to a specific question, similar to the Latin stipulatio or adstipulatio.” Elliott, 1 Peter, 680. France notes “Here we have a meaning clearly relevant to baptism, where the baptizer puts formal questions to the candidate concerning his beliefs and his moral commitment, and the candidate responds with a ‘pledge.’” He suggests this is the context behind passages such as Roman 10:9 and 1 Timothy 6:12. See France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 275.
  • 6 Hart, The New Testament, 469, note g, emphasis added.
  • 7 Hill, “On Suffering and Baptism in 1 Peter,” 188.
  • 8 Hill, “On Suffering and Baptism in 1 Peter,” 188.
  • 9 These verses, he notes, “have been taken by the Rabbis throughout the ages to be an indication that Israel was received into the Sinaitic covenant through baptism.” Hill, “On Suffering and Baptism in 1 Peter,” 188.
  • 10 Elliott, 1 Peter, 680. “This pledge would resemble the oath taken by initiates entering the Qumran community to commit themselves to the law of Moses and God’s will” (p. 680).
  • 11 Elliott, 1 Peter, 682.
  • 12 Witherington, Troubled Waters, 110, emphasis added.
  • 13 Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, 115, emphasis added. France sees this as the context behind the confession referenced in passages such as Romans 10:9 and 1 Timothy 6:12. France, “Exegesis in Practice,” 275.
  • 14 Jobes, 1 Peter, 255, emphasis added.
  • 15 Reynolds, “Understanding Christian Baptism Through the Book of Mormon,” 21.
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