Question: Do Doctrine and Covenants 20:37 and 2 Nephi 31:17 or 3 Nephi 12:2 contradict one another regarding the order in which one receives baptism and a remission of sins?

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Question: Do Doctrine and Covenants 20:37 and 2 Nephi 31:17 or 3 Nephi 12:2 contradict one another regarding the order in which one receives baptism and a remission of sins?

These scriptures are not contradictory, for at least three reasons

It is claimed that LDS scriptures such as DC 20:37 (first case) and 2 Nephi 31:17, 3 Nephi 12:2, and Moroni 8:11 (second case) are contradictory about the order in which one receives baptism and a remission of sins and that that "Mormon theologians" have ignored this issue.

As is typical in such charges of self-contradiction, the critics either:

  • misinterpret LDS scripture;
  • compare verses of scripture which are not speaking about identical issues;
  • read Protestant terminology or theology into LDS scripture.

In this case, the critics have committed all three mistakes. As such, it is not surprising if "Mormon theologians" have spent little on the issues. The critics are looking to find fault, and so strain at gnats. LDS thinkers understand LDS doctrine, and so see clearly that there is no contradiction.

These scriptures are not contradictory, for at least three reasons—any one of which is sufficient to disprove the critics' claim. We will first list the scriptural texts, and then discuss each of the three reasons for which they are not properly seen as contradictory.

Scriptures to be considered

The first case

And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism—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 (DC 20:37).

The second case

Wherefore, do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do; for, for this cause have they been shown unto me, that ye might know the gate by which ye should enter. For the gate by which ye should enter is repentance and baptism by water; and then cometh a remission of your sins by fire and by the Holy Ghost (2 Nephi 31:17).

...Yea, blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins (3 Nephi 12:2).

And their little children need no repentance, neither baptism. Behold, baptism is unto repentance to the fulfilling the commandments unto the remission of sins (Moroni 8:11).

Reason #1: The scriptures are discussing two slightly different issues

There is a difference between "received of the Spirit of Christ" (which is given to every man—see Moroni 7:16—but may be received or not depending on choices and heed paid to it) and the baptism of "fire and the Holy Ghost" which happens after baptism, as Joseph Smith taught:

There is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he was baptized, which was the convincing power of God unto him of the truth of the Gospel, but he could not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized. Had he not taken this sign or ordinance upon him, the Holy Ghost which convinced him of the truth of God, would have left him. [1]

Reason #2: The audience and presumed intent for the audience are slightly different

Note too that those in the first instance have repented and expressed a desire to be baptized, which desire and sincerity can then lead to a remission of their sins, (i.e., the intent is what matters, and a willingness to follow through on that intent).

In the second case, Nephi is encouraging those who may not have accepted the Messiah to do so, and to obey the commandments and example given by the Messiah—including baptism. So, his target audience is those who have perhaps not yet "desire[d] to be baptized." When they have that desire (by hearkening to the Spirit of Christ), they will then repent and hearken to it, and will choose to be baptized. This decision to repent and follow Jesus will ultimately lead to forgiveness, and the baptism of fire and the purging out of sin that comes with the receipt of the Holy Ghost (after baptism).

In short, the audience in the first case is further along in the process than the audience in the second.

Reason #3: The question presupposes that "forgiveness" is a single, unique event, when in fact it is an on-going process

Here, we see that the critics are viewing this question through the lenses of conservative protestantism.

The critics are assuming that the Book of Mormon matches their view of salvation, in which someone is "saved" once and finally by some type of "altar call" or confession. By contrast, LDS theology sees salvation, repentance, forgiveness, and purification and transformation by the Holy Ghost as on-going processes. The experience begins before baptism, leads us to baptism, and is the fulfillment of the promises and covenants of baptism, which must then be persisted in as we "endure to the end."

As the second case scriptures explain, as we learn of Jesus we are humbled and desire to repent. Repentance requires that we appreciate that we have not kept all of God's commandments, and we regret not doing so. We become resolved to keep God's commandments from henceforth, and the first commandment which we can obey is to choose baptism. The baptism is an outward sign of our repentance and determination to keep God's commandments, and this willingness to covenant with Jesus allows us (as the first case notes) to "receive...of the Spirit of Christ," which begins the process of remitting our sins. If we do not persist in our intention to follow Jesus, however, and were to suddenly choose not to be baptized, we would have returned to sin.

When we have been baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, which purifies us as if by fire, as sin and evil are burned out of us, and we walk in newness of life, following Jesus. We must then endure to the end, for if we do not, the remission of our sins (which we have only received because we have chosen to enter a covenant with Christ) will be null and void. The subsequent verses of 2 Nephi 31 explain this clearly:

18 And then are ye in this strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life; yea, ye have entered in by the gate; ye have done according to the commandments of the Father and the Son; and ye have received the Holy Ghost, which witnesses of the Father and the Son, unto the fulfilling of the promise which he hath made, that if ye entered in by the way ye should receive.

19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life (2 Nephi 31:18-20).


  1. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 199. off-site