Baptism by Fire

May 10, 2005 | 17 comments
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I have a pretty simple understanding of the Gospel, and I rarely come across scriptures that can’t be accommodated to my existing world view (or dismissed as scrivener’s errors!). Recently, however, I read a verse in the Book of Mormon that stopped me in my tracks. It is from 3 Nephi 9:19-20, and the speaker is Jesus Christ:

And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings. And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.

I don’t understand how a group of people could be “baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost” and “kn[o]w it not.” In modern times, we tend to equate the baptism by fire with confirmation, though I have never thought that the ordinance and the event were required to be coincident. In this passage, it sounds like they were coincident. In any case, the only way I can make any sense out of this is to read it as follows: the Lamanites felt the cleansing power of the Holy Ghost, but had not been taught yet what they were experiencing. Does that sound right?

All of this raises lots of questions about baptism by fire. For example, is it a one-time event, on par with having one’s calling and election made sure? Or does it describe what we feel whenever we truly repent? I have tended to view the baptism by fire as a culmination, but perhaps it is a starting point?

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17 Responses to Baptism by Fire

  1. Jack on May 10, 2005 at 10:25 am

    Gordon,

    Yes, I think the Lamanites simply didn’t have the doctrinal back ground to know precisely what had occured. But, they must have known that SOMEthing had occured as we read elsewhere of the joy they received and the complete revolution of their desires upon receiving the Holy Ghost.

    I also agree that for most folks in the church (at least nowadays) the baptism of fire is by and large a process which is experienced over a life time. (I sure hope that’s the case anyway)

  2. Minerva on May 10, 2005 at 10:27 am

    Ezra Taft Benson used this phrase in the following context, which I find very powerful:

    This is from the October 1989 Ensign 1st Presidency message:
    “We must be careful, as we seek to become more and more godlike, that we do not become discouraged and lose hope. Becoming Christlike is a lifetime pursuit and very often involves growth and change that is slow, almost imperceptible. The scriptures record remarkable accounts of men whose lives changed dramatically, in an instant, as it were: Alma the Younger, Paul on the road to Damascus, Enos praying far into the night, King Lamoni. Such astonishing examples of the power to change even those steeped in sin give confidence that the Atonement can reach even those deepest in despair.
    But we must be cautious as we discuss these remarkable examples. Though they are real and powerful, they are the exception more than the rule. For every Paul, for every Enos, and for every King Lamoni, there are hundreds and thousands of people who find the process of repentance much more subtle, much more imperceptible. Day by day they move closer to the Lord, little realizing they are building a godlike life. They live quiet lives of goodness, service, and commitment. They are like the Lamanites, who the Lord said “were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.”

    This does not quite answer the question of the specific instance you are talking about in the Book of Mormon, but it perhaps can shed some light…

  3. Gordon Smith on May 10, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Minerva, That passage could fit with Jack’s notion that baptism by fire is a lifelong pursuit. When I view baptism by fire in this way, I imagine that what happens is largely imperceptible to the recipient because the change is so gradual.

    On the other hand, that doesn’t seem to fit the scripture, which refers to the Lamanites “at the time of their conversion.” This sounds more like an event than a process. (Let me save someone the time. Of course, “conversion” is often a process, not an event, but the phrase “at the time of their conversion” sounds like a reference to a particular event to me.)

  4. Minerva on May 10, 2005 at 10:46 am

    Yes, after I re-read the passage I realized that the ETB quote didn’t quite fit. I don’t know. That is tricky. Perhaps the explanation is indeed that they just didn’t understand the ordinances. Very confusal!

  5. Boris Max on May 10, 2005 at 10:54 am

    I can’t comment on the Lamanites, but anyone who has watched numbers-worshipping-missionaries baptize heroin addicts over the objections of the local presiding authority might have an interesting riff or two on that scripture…

  6. Jack on May 10, 2005 at 10:56 am

    Minerva,

    I still think the ETB quote is a good one because (imo) it gives us an inside view of how the baptism of fire was experienced by a prophet. No doubt he had powerful experiences with the transcendent, but overall my guess is that his experience with the Holy Ghost was pretty much like that of most faithful members of the church–something that ought to give us great comfort.

  7. Jack on May 10, 2005 at 10:58 am

    Boris,

    Are you suggesting that some have experienced the baptism of water “and knew it not”?

  8. John C. on May 10, 2005 at 11:02 am

    I have tended to view the baptism by fire as a culmination, but perhaps it is a starting point?

    Isn’t all of it a starting point, unless you’re dead?

  9. Minerva on May 10, 2005 at 11:03 am

    Jack,

    Indeed the ETB quote is a good one…one of my favorites, as a matter of fact. I just don’t know how well it explains the specific experience of the Lamanites that Gordon cited.

  10. JrL on May 10, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    I’ve used this scripture to talk about the need to teach members, particularly youth, how to recognize the Holy Ghost. Some people receive inspiration, answers to prayers, etc., but don’t recognize them.

    As I prepared to speak, the scripture brought to mind a common experience from my mission: As we would teach, we would feel the Spirit in the room. Then we’d tell the investigator what he or she was feeling. Without that explanation, to them it was just a good (perhaps very good — even baffling) feeling. With it, the person understood (we hoped) that it was divine confirmation of the truth of what we taught.

  11. Ben H on May 10, 2005 at 1:14 pm

    Alma the younger describes himself as having been born of God just after the angel rebuked him for fighting against the church. This was evidently not the same as the time of his baptism. Baptism symbolically represents being born again, and the choice to be baptized involves a commitment (or “promise”) to repent and live in a new way, following Christ. Baptism is thus promissory. The fulfillment of that promise would seem to be somewhat independent of the symbolic declaration of the promise, and why not?

  12. Kurt on May 10, 2005 at 2:30 pm

    “and they knew it not”, I would take this to mean it was an inward spiritual baptism and not an outward physical one. They would have known an outward physical baptism when it was performed, but the sanctifying effect of the Holy Spirit is not some outward performance that people see.

    As in the contrast of v. 19 with v. 20, the Lord doesn’t want outward sacrifices anymore, those which people can see and witness. Instead, he wants an inward sacrifice, one which people
    cannot see or witness in the sense of using their physical eyes.

    And again, this plays on the example of the Lamanites. They zealously kept the Law, which was easily seen and witnessed, but the Lord dismisses that in favor of this spiritual baptism, which is unseen.

  13. Gordon Smith on May 11, 2005 at 12:06 pm

    I don’t have anything more to add to this discussion, but I express thanks for these last comments.

  14. Richard T on May 13, 2005 at 5:40 pm

    Gordon:

    What a terrific thread. I hope it gets more attention.

    I think of the baptism of Fire as iterative in its occurances and cumulative in its effects.

    It’s tricky figuring out which Lamanites the Lord was referring to in 3ne9:20. I don’t think it was the group Ammon and Aaron taught. Both Ammon and Aaron taught Lamoni and his father–who subsequently ministered to their respective households and assisted Aaron, Ammon and other sons of Mosiah in the conversion of their people–about the “plan of redemption” (alma18:39;22:13), and you would think that in their preaching they mentioned the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost. I think Lamoni and his father and the rest of the Anti-Nephi-Lehites, or people of Ammon, had an idea of what was happening when it happened.

    My personal opinion is that he’s referring to the group mentioned in Helaman 5, those Lamanites who threw Nephi and Lehi in prison, starved them for many days without food, and then entered the prison with the intent to kill them, (helaman5:21-22). Those men walked into that prison prophet killers. They walked out saints. And what happened to them looks a lot like the baptism of fire to me. It’s spelled out in great detail in Helaman 5:23-49.

    Aside from the fact that they were prophet killers and were prompted to pray more out of abject terror created by a black cloud, shaking walls, and piercing voices from Heaven, these folks have an experience that seems remarkably like that of the people of King Benjamin. It also seems similar to the experiences had by Alma the Younger and Enos.

    The term “remission of sins” comes up in connection with these events more than once, and it is my opinion that a remission of sins–which is effected by the baptism of Fire and of the Holy Ghost–occurs whenever we demonstrate to the Lord a true willingness to follow him, trust in him, cleave to him, and do what he tells us to do.

    Mormon says as much when he states “and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins,” (moroni8:25). I think the reason baptism is typically linked with this occurance “baptism for the remission of sins” is because, at its core, baptism is an act that shows God our willingness to do as he has commanded. Again Mormon says “baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins,” and “and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments,” (moroni8:11,25). Christ also says as much when he states that we witness “unto the Father that [we] are willing to keep [his] commandments, by the baptism of water,” (2ne31:14). The sacrament is another ordinance wherein we show our willingness to do what the Lord wants us to do.

    But, as the experiences of the prophet-killing Lamanites, the righteous followers of King Benjamin, Alma the Younger, and Enos demonstrate, baptism–or ordinances, more specifically–aren’t the only means we have for showing God that we’re willing to keep his commandments. I believe that whenever he sees in us a true commitment to doing his will–which, interestingly, was evidenced in each of these 4 stories through prayer, some short, some long, but all very sincere–he provides us with a remission of sins, or he causes the device within us that manufactures sin to go into remission. Our hearts are changed. We experience a spiritual rebirth. We are born again. We are clean. We become as those in the Book of Mosiah who said “we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually,” (Mosiah 5:2).

    I’ve experienced this. I think most people have. We’re drawn to God, we feel after him, we desire to be closer to him and want to do what he says, and he changes our hearts as a result. These are events.

    The process–and the test, in my opinion; because I don’t think the event I just described is that uncommon–is do we keep coming back to the Lord for this experience? Do we keep coming back with a desire to keep his commandments, receiving a remission of our sins in the process?

    King Benjamins says the key to doing this resides in always keeping in mind “the greatness of God, and [our] own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards [us], unworthy creatures.” Beyond this remembrance he instructs us to “humble [ourselves] even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith” of Christ. If we thus remember, pray, and exercise faith, we’ll “always rejoice, and be filled with teh love of God, and always retain a remission of [our] sins,” (mosiah 4:11-12).

    Jim F taught me those verses in college and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that.

    I think for most Latter-day saints I know, the response to Alma’s pointed question “Have ye spiritually been born of God?” must be yes, even if they, like the Lamanites, didn’t fully understand what was going on when it happened. And it has probably happened more than once.

    The greater question for us now is “And now behold . . . my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (alma5:26).

    Thanks again, Gordon, for this terrific thread.

  15. Larry on May 14, 2005 at 10:28 pm

    What if there was so much power in the atonement that if people simply turned to Christ, they would experience the same as those of whom the Saviour spoke.
    If I read Alma 33:16 correctly, along with 3Ne.11:32-41, and numerous other scriptures including D&C10:55, 67-69, then becoming a saint and remaining a saint covered by the atonement is not nearly as complicated as some would have us believe.
    But then, I might be naive because I take the scriptures at face value, at least where the foundational doctrines are concerned.

  16. Bradley Ross on June 4, 2005 at 1:54 am

    I remember this coming up in a recent General Conference. I found that Boyd K. Packer in April 2000 conference said:

    Too many of us are like those whom the Lord said “[came] with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, … [and] at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.” [3 Ne. 9:20; emphasis added.]

    Imagine that: “And they knew it not.” It is not unusual for one to have received the gift and not really know it.

    I fear this supernal gift is being obscured by programs and activities and schedules and so many meetings. There are so many places to go, so many things to do in this noisy world. We can be too busy to pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit.

    The voice of the Spirit is a still, small voice–a voice that is felt rather than heard. It is a spiritual voice that comes into the mind as a thought put into your heart.

    All over the world ordinary men, women, and children, not completely aware that they have the gift, bless their families, teach, preach, and minister by the Spirit within them.

  17. Adina on March 3, 2006 at 3:43 pm

    I don’t know how anyone could be baptized with anything and not know it. Baptism is a voluntary event; by that I mean that a person (or group) chooses willfully and deliberately to do it. There’s plenty of debate about what the baptism of fire actually is, but that aside, the baptism of water comes first for believers. You don’t just get wet without any clue, or the baptism is meaningless. (Thus, false.)

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