I know the answers that come in the scriptures and manuals, but I’m looking for something even more basic, to understand why ordinances exist at the most fundamental level. I’m not challenging, but seeking to understand better. I know God gives us things for our benefit. How does going through certain motions and speaking certain words help us? Why are they so critical? Sorry, I’m not even sure I’m being clear with my question, but it’s hard to express in words what I’m trying to say.
I have written before on the theatric nature of baptism – that is, as we ponder on it we find an educational drama unfolding. When it comes to ordinances (such as sacrament, baptism, washing and anointing, endowment, and sealing), we are dealing with a world of symbols. Symbols are especially useful because they can convey layers of meaning. For instance, Joseph Smith thought the parable of the three measures of leaven (Matthew 13:33) spoke to the law of witnesses and found specific fulfillment in the 3 Witnesses of The Book of Mormon (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 25: Truths from the Savior’s Parables in Matthew 13) and in the presence of 3 volumes of scripture (Ibid.).
We’ll often build a short program around the presentation of an ordinance. This will include instruction on the purpose of the ordinance (as in baptism) or ways to live up to the covenant of the ordinance (as with sacrament). The endowment is a powerful blend of instruction, theatricality, and symbols. In describing it (and really, the following can apply to any of these ordinances), Elder John A. Widtsoe shared:
“The wonderful pedagogy of the temple service, especially appealing to me as a professional teacher, carries with it evidence of the truth of temple work. … How is all this accomplished? First by the spoken word, through the lectures and conversations, just as we do in the class room, except with more elaborate care, then [second] by the appeal to the eye by representations by living, moving beings; and by pictorial representations in the wonderfully decorated rooms. . . . Meanwhile [third] the recipients themselves, the candidates for blessings, engage actively in temple service. . . . Altogether our temple worship follows a most excellent pedagogical system. I wish instruction were given so well in every school room throught the land, for we would then teach with more effect than we now do” (“Temple Worship”, The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine 12, April 1921, page 59).
You’ll note that these blend very nicely with the learning modalities of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. So ordinances provide an excellent system for us to internalize the covenants that accompany them.
Another, even simpler approach to ordinances comes by way of a programming analogy. The programmer says, “untested code is broken code”. The programmer may have written several lines of code to create some whiz-bang application, but until it has been thoroughly exercised no one – not even the programmer – can really say it really performs as claimed. Similarly, how much faith would you say a leper has? Is it enough to be healed? Naaman was given a simple test to discover his faith – bathe in the Jordan 7 times (2 Kings 5:9-14).
Disciples are given a similar test of faith. Is their faith sufficient to for the penitent to receive forgiveness? A simple test can go a long way to weed out those who are just talk from those who are committed to follow Christ. Are they willing to follow Christ, getting immersed in water by someone with priesthood authority? Such indeed is faith shown and exercised by works.