An important question here from a listener named Candice on the topic of proxy baptisms in Mormon practice. “Pastor John, I’ve been sharing my faith with a few Mormon friends, and I’m deeply concerned for their souls and for their theology. As many have already discovered, the teachings, history, and doctrines of the Latter-Day Saints are alarming — a far cry from authentic biblical Christianity. So far I’ve made it clear to them from Scripture that the Mormon god and the Mormon Jesus are very different from the God and Jesus of the Bible. Their pathway to salvation is works-based. And their assertion about the legitimacy of ‘doing work for the dead’ seems horribly off (and rancid). However, I don’t know how to navigate a conversation on this subject, particularly baptism for the dead as it’s mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29. Can you guide me through how you would address this verse?”
It sounds to me like Candace may be ahead of me. I have never gone for a dip into Mormon thinking, but let me try to say something helpful just in general and then maybe about that particular issue of how they relate to the dead.
“Mormons rank the physical act of baptism too highly, which then pressures them to do it for the dead.”
It is very difficult to interact about the intricacies of doctrine with someone who is operating from a different source of authority as the Mormons are when they add revelation to the Bible. You feel frustrated because it seems like you have to become an expert in their sources in order to make any headway when you don’t believe those sources are valid. I think at some points, the average believer in the sufficiency of Scripture must simply say, “I don’t think that’s taught in the Scriptures and believing it leads to some dangerous outcomes according to the Scriptures.” Then, just leave it at that.
Baptism for the dead is a part, in the Mormon thinking, of a web of beliefs about ancestors and about posterity in the Mormon Church. Here’s a quote from the Church on their official website: “Through the power of the priesthood, members are married for time and eternity, and perform proxy baptisms for their ancestors who died without enjoying the blessings of this saving ordinance.” Now, that sentence contains at least three pretty serious errors.
From a biblical standpoint, Jesus says that in the age to come, there will be no marrying or giving in marriage because we’ll be like angels (see Matthew 22:30). The point there was not merely that there won’t be any new marriages, but that the ones enacted on earth won’t have the same validity because he was addressing the problem raised by marriage on the earth. They were having multiple spouses because they died, and it seemed like they were going to be polygamous in heaven. He says, “No, it won’t be like that at all because there won’t be any marriage there.” There’s a serious issue with the whole construct of the way marriage is viewed.
Secondly, calling baptism a saving ordinance in their context seems to carry implications that it does not carry in the New Testament. When 1 Peter 3:21 says, “Baptism . . . now saves you” — which is probably where somebody would run real quickly to defend that phrase “saving ordinance” — Peter immediately qualifies the statement by saying, “I don’t mean that the ritual itself and the water going over the body does the saving, but rather the act of faith appealing to God for a good conscience is the instrument of connecting with Christ, who is the salvation.”
“If a person believes in Christ, but through no rebellion fails to be baptized, he would still be saved.”
I think there’s a serious problem about the level at which they have ranked the act, the actual physical act of baptism, which then creates the pressure to do it for the dead. This is a really crucial issue. Paul is the most forceful New Testament spokesman to insist that justification, a right standing with God, is based on faith, apart from works of the law (Romans 3:28). Those works of the law, apart from them, faith is the instrument of salvation or justification. Apart from those, those works would include all the performances of ritual duty.
That’s the kind of thing Paul was constantly wrestling with — circumcision and days and months and seasons and so on. Baptism has a crucial place in the demonstration and the symbolic reenactment of the spiritual death and spiritual burial and resurrection that takes place in faith, but it’s not a saving act in and of itself. Which also means that if a person truly believed in Christ, the way the thief on the cross did, just before he died, and through no rebellion of his own failed to be baptized, that physical act would not be required for his eternal salvation. When Jesus said to the thief on the cross — who was never baptized because he just believed and then died on the cross — when he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), the word “today” is meant to signify that he is safe in fellowship with Christ from now on.
It would be a huge and, I think, unwarranted stretch to say that baptism would now need to intervene after he died by some later posterity of which he didn’t have any, who became Christian as far as we know. So, the pressure that Mormons feel to provide proxy baptism now for those who have died is based on, I think, a dangerous misunderstanding of how salvation works. It relates to faith and how it relates to works, and Candice seems to have a good handle on that. There is a real concern on the part of Mormons — and we should share it — that God must be just in his dealings with those who have died and did not hear the gospel before they died.
“God must be just in his dealings with those who have died and did not hear the gospel before they died.”
Now, Paul’s answer to that question, the justice of God in the situation where people have died before the gospel reaches them, his solution to that, his answer to that is not to say, “Oh, God will provide opportunities beyond the grave for them to hear the gospel and be baptized after they died.” That’s not Paul’s solution. Paul’s solution to the justice of God is to say they won’t be judged for not believing the gospel if they never heard the gospel; they’ll be judged for suppressing and not embracing the truth about God that they knew and had (Romans 1:18–23).
Therefore, “they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20) and, therefore, they’re going to come into wrath and judgment (see Romans 2:5, 8) — not because they scorned the gospel which they never heard, but because they scorned the knowledge of God which they all had, and suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). The New Testament simply does not hold out to those who die without believing the gospel the possibility that someone on earth can do something that would secure the possibility of their salvation after they’ve died. In fact, Jesus said in Luke 16:26 when he was talking about the man who had died unbelieving that a great chasm is fixed between those who have died and those who were in heaven, and none can cross it or do anything to bring about the cessation of the torment that they are in.
When we come now, finally, to 1 Corinthians 15:29, where Paul asks the rhetorical question about why people are baptized for the dead. There is little reason, I would say no good reason, to think that Paul himself believed this practice was warranted. The context is that he’s arguing for the physical resurrection of Christians who have died. He’s being opposed by people who say there is no such thing. For example 1 Corinthians 15:12 says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”
“Embrace justification by faith and the sufficiency of the Scriptures to provide everything you need for life.”
One of the arguments he uses against those who were opposing the doctrine of the physical resurrection of the believer from the dead is their apparent inconsistency between on the one hand denying the resurrection and on the other hand being baptized for the dead. He asks in 1 Corinthians 15:29, “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” That is no statement that Paul agrees with what they’re doing. He’s simply pointing out the inconsistency of claiming not to believe in the resurrection and then trying to be baptized. That’s the way he uses it, being baptized for the dead.
So given everything else that Paul teaches, and that the New Testament teaches, about our future destiny hanging on our life of faith and obedience here on earth, not later, I take 1 Corinthians 15:29 not to be Paul’s commendation of baptism for the dead, but his pointing out that his adversaries performed this act and are inconsistent in doing so.
My suggestion to Candice — and it seems to me she’s already doing — is that she stay close to the center of biblical teachings on justification by faith and the sufficiency of the Scriptures to provide everything she needs for life and faith and godliness, and not to be entangled in a web of teachings that in the end really do undermine the glory of Christ, his finished work, and undermine the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone to the glory of God alone.