When a person is baptized, is God forced to forgive them of sins they have not repented of? Or does everyone come out of the font with just a few sins unforgiven? Is baptism truly a one-time blanket “get out of jail free” card? Or how exactly, does this work?
Like sacrament and the ordinances of the temple, baptism is a ritual drama where we play a role to learn our part in life. It is, at its heart, a play depicting death and rebirth (something to think about in this season when “the year is dying in the night; ring out, wild bells, and let him die”, only to welcome in baby new year with all his hope). Paul tells us that when we step onto the immersed stage, “so many of us were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death[.] … For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall also be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:3,5). We enter the water playing a Christ character. No other character makes it out of the first act. Before Christ, death was the “amen” of life. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaiah, and others, as righteous as they were, entered the tomb and there remained. Our play would depict this by whelming the actor in the water and leaving him there. No one would take on such a role! So we play the part of Christ instead. His character is laid in the water-tomb and is lifted up again triumphantly! Being an ordinance, this little drama shows us the blessing portion of the covenant: that as Christ was lifted out of the tomb with a celestial body, so also will we rise up in the morning of the first resurrection in glory!
Returning to Paul, we discover that another play was taking place under our eyes while the first was unfolding. In this one we play the role of an old slave. “Ye … were the servants [slaves] of sin” (Rom. 6:20) he says, “ye have yielded your members servants [slaves] to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity” (Rom. 6:19). In this play the tomb is not the focus but death certainly is. The old slave gets crucified. We may here feel to complain about the production quality: water is a poor substitute for an earthen grave, and an even poorer substitute for a cross. And yet Paul sees it in the scene perfectly well and describes it for the audience. The “old man is crucified with [Christ], that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” and happily, “he that is dead is freed from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7). Indeed the first act ends with master sin dutifully paying his slave, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The second act opens and we are introduced to a new off-stage master (sin is not heard from again in this version of the story). The character we play is now the slave of God and His household of righteousness. “Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness” and the conditions are so much better. As “servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life” (Rom. 6:18,22). Once again, as part of an ordinance, this drama shows us the obligations we take on as part of the covenant. As stated so clearly in the sacrament prayer, we “are willing to take upon [us] the name of [Christ]” accepting Him as our Master, with the stipulation that we “keep his commandments which he has given” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:77).
Nephi introduces us to yet another play. In this one, we reprise the role of Christ, but with a new interpretation of the character. Where before we played the role of triumphant Christ at the end of His ministry and as Master over death, we now play a humble Jesus who is obedient to His Father’s will. It’s even better than that, it’s a play within a play, so you portray yourself playing Jesus. Our Jesus “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). Playing on the same theme, you (as a character in this play) act out your role of following Christ by being baptized as well. “Follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do” said Jesus to Nephi, to which Nephi emphasizes “can we follow Jesus save we shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father?” including baptism (2 Ne. 31:10,12). We are, in essence playing a disciple of Christ. As part of the covenant of the ordinance, we promise to “remember him” and follow him.
John takes an artistic approach and makes it part of a trilogy. It is a simple, one act birth drama where we play a grown infant (I told you it was artsy). The character must “be born again”, so he enters the watery womb as part of being “born of water and of the Spirit”. The curtains close as the character “see[s] the kingdom of God” (John 3:3-5). The Spirit comes as part of the sequel. The Lord explained for us the three parts to this story (we only act out one here). We “were born into the world by water, and blood, and spirit, … and so … became a living soul[. W]e must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of Mine Only Begotten” (Moses 6:59-60). As an ordinance, this drama shows us that God covenants to give us His Spirit, and we covenant that we will apply the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
God has commanded that all of His accountable children take the stage and act out this drama, but we are to be sensible enough to recognize that this is a play, or perhaps more properly, this is play. It is a scrimmage that, while useful to prepare for the real thing, isn’t the real thing. If we enter God’s hospital and inform Him “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV”, the best we can hope for is to be admitted as a patient; it would be ludicrous to assume we merit an administrative position. So we must internalize the morals of these stories. We have to stop serving sin. We must serve God and righteousness. We must follow Christ. We must obey the Father. We absolutely must be cleansed by the blood of Christ. Nephi explains this best. We “have not come thus far [to the gate of baptism] 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. Wherefore, [w]e must press forward [after baptism] with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men” (2 Nephi 31:19-20). We prepared for the role we played in our baptisms, and now we need to continue as we commenced to become what we pretended to be.
Baptism is not any sort of “get out of jail free” card. It is meaningless without the necessary prerequisites: they must “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” (D&C 20:37). At the time of baptism, and after, the principles of justification and sanctification are at work for any sins that have been fully repented of (internalizing the dramas of obedience and the new master) and for any sins that are currently being overcome (internalizing the drama of rebirth (seeing the kingdom)). As you’ve noted, baptism only occurs once for us, so the Lord has mercifully given us yet another ordinance drama to act in on a weekly basis where we reprise our role of disciple at the Lord’s table. In this ordinance, we renew our covenants (see The Sacrament — a Renewal for the Soul, Cheryl A. Esplin, October 2014 General Conference) and introspect on the characters we ought to be, “who is it? Lord, is it I?”