To understand how baptism is the first fruits of repentance requires us to look at a scripture passage that may not be easily understandable at first glance. I have made an image that explains these verses in the form of a diagram. After that we can explore the importance of covenants in the process of being forgiven for sins. Moroni 8:24–26 talks about why we, as adults, need repentance and baptism, as opposed to little children who need neither repentance nor baptism.
Note: To understand Moroni’s text it helps to understand how different cultures reason through things. The flow of a logical argument in the culture of the Book of Mormon is not like how we argue a subject in our Western culture. This can make understanding some of their explanations a little challenging to piece together. We state the conclusion of our argument up front then piece together our arguments that support that conclusion, so that in the end, hopefully, the reader agrees with us. In other cultures they may start with the component parts of the argument then weave them together until at the very end you finally get the point of the whole argument, which is just the opposite of the way we in Western societies think. Every culture has their own variation on how they reason, and once you get used to their pattern of thinking it becomes easier to figure out what they are saying and why.
In the Book of Mormon the line of reasoning is not always what we would consider straight forward. Often the arguments start with a statement, but then the prophet jumps from argument to argument supporting that statement then finally, after many verses, he gives the conclusion or point he was trying to make. Sometimes it helps to read the first statement, but as soon as you see a hyphen (-) jump down in the text to where it returns to his next statement. And sometimes it actually helps to read the verses in reverse order because it is closer to how we would reason an argument. My point is that reading scriptures for understanding may require a bit of mental flexibility.
Read the following verses as they are printed in the Book of Mormon then I will pull apart the line of reasoning and display it visually for you. Hopefully it will all make better sense to you when you see it graphically.
24 Behold, my son, this thing ought not to be; for repentance is unto them that are under condemnation and under the curse of a broken law.
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.
Verse 24 confirms what was said in the earlier couple of verses not quoted here that baptizing infants and young children is a mockery before God and should not be done. Mormon goes on to give the reason for why we, as adults, need baptism. Because we are aware of good and evil, and we know the difference between the two, we are held responsible for our actions according to the atonement of Christ. When we commit sin we fall under condemnation and must be punished by the laws we have broken. There is only one way appointed by God to get out from under this condemnation, and that is to repent and take advantage of the atonement offered by Christ. So what are the requirements of the atonement? What do we have to do to no longer be held in violation of the laws we have broken? The answer is we must repent.
Verse 25 says the first fruits of repentance is baptism. Mormon then explains how remission of sin works and is obtained. The term “first fruits” refers to something that happens before everything else. For example, when the scriptures refer to Christ as the first fruits of the resurrection they mean he was resurrected before anyone else. He was literally the first results of the resurrection, just as the first fruits of your apple harvest would be the very first ripe apples you pick in the fall.
The definition of “first fruits” gives us some idea as to the importance our Father in Heaven places on being baptized if we want to become, and stay forgiven of our sins. If we want him to remit, or forgive, our sins, we had better be willing to keep his commandments, the first and foremost of which is to be baptized. We do believe after all, that baptism is the first ordinance of salvation, and is the gateway to the Celestial kingdom.
In the graphic below I have drawn the steps of repentance in a circle according to the statements in the three verses above, but the process of repentance is really a spiral which leads us upward toward God. Think of repentance as being on the next level up each time we work our way around the ring, with each step along the way raising us a little bit higher. Click on the image to see a larger version of it.
Let’s start at the top with Faith. When we exercise faith (think trust) in God we do so by keeping His commandments. The act of keeping God’s commandments leads to remission (forgiveness) of our sins. As we have our sins remitted (forgiven) we feel more humble and begin to better recognize how much we need God in our lives and how much we rely on his mercies. This creates meekness and lowliness of heart. You can read an article about meekness here.
Being meek and lowly in heart invites the Holy Ghost to come and be with us. His presence leads to an increase in hope of salvation and feeling more intensely the love of God. It also leads to a change of heart and a change in disposition. It is in this stage that we begin to lose our desire for worldly things, and we begin to understand more spiritual principles. We can stay in this condition if we are willing to do two things: pray diligently for continued forgiveness, and starting the cycle over again by exercising faith in Christ by continuing to keep his commandments.
The connection of baptism to covenants
But why do the first fruits of our repentance need to be baptism? What is the point of baptism? I may not have the definitive answer, but here is something to consider as you try to answer these questions.
No covenants are needed to enter either the terrestrial or telestial kingdoms. Covenants are strictly reserved for those who want to return home to our celestial parents and live the kind of life they live. We can be forgiven of our sins through sincere repentance and faith in Christ without making any covenants. But if you want to have your heart changed, purified, and the mysteries of the eternal worlds opened to your view, that requires the gift of the Holy Ghost. That gift is only bestowed AFTER we make our covenants with God at baptism. At baptism we promise our Father in Heaven that we want to be adopted back into His family as heirs with Christ. To do this we will learn to behave like Christ (mourn with those who mourn, bear one another’s burdens, etc.) and will live worthy of the Holy Spirit’s company. We are accepting the Spirit to be our guide and tutor to learn how to become more like Christ, and to let the Spirit change our carnal, earthly natures into more celestial ones. In exchange for our efforts to do this, Christ’s atoning sacrifice is able to make those changes in our dispositions and attitudes. He is willing to forgive our sins and help us learn spiritual truths that are not available to those who are not willing to make these sacred covenants with God.
The long and the short of it is that being forgiven of sins after accepting the covenant of baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost leads to the purification and exaltation of our soul, something that cannot happen without baptism and that sacred gift of the Spirit. So true seekers of God also embrace the covenants that bring us closer to God, and that starts with the covenant of baptism. After that it is expressed through our desire to participate in the ordinance of the sacrament each week. The sacrament reaffirms our desire to be obedient, and our commitment to seek out the personality and attributes of Christ through repentance and righteous living.
Repentance can be had without baptism, but repentance that brings us to Christ and life everlasting in the kingdom of God is only available to those who follow repentance with the baptismal covenant and any others they can make in mortality. The baptismal covenant is only the gateway, the entrance to the path that leads us back to God. But make no mistake. There is no other way back to God except through the gate of baptism. Repentance without making and keeping covenants will not bring anyone back into the presence of the Father.
(Be sure to read the comments below for some additional perspectives.)