Reader question: Renewing baptismal covenant? Really?

April 7, 2009    By: Geoff J @ 2:20 pm   Category: Reader Questions

One of our readers emailed me recently with an interesting question. Here it is:

I have a question that has been percolating in my mind for several years. It seems to me that we have witnessed the birth of a new doctrine in General Conference over the last couple of decades. The doctrine states that by taking the sacrament we are renewing the covenants we make at baptism. From this, there has come the logical extension, articulated quite forcefully by Elder Jay Jensen in the Priesthood session of October 2008, that taking the sacrament properly results in a re-remission of our sins.

In my studies of the scriptures, the teachings of Joseph Smith, or any earlier prophets, I can’t find anything about this doctrine. The article on the Sacrament in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism refers to it, but only cites Mosiah 18, Jesus the Christ, and Articles of Faith. In my opinion, these citations are underwhelming as support for the doctrine. A simple search of Conference addresses seems to show the doctrine originating with Bruce R. McConkie and/or Marion G. Romney in the early 1950′s. Earlier references to “renewing our covenants” through the sacrament seem to be talking about the sacramental covenants of taking upon us his name, always remembering him and keeping his commandments.

I would be interested in an online discussion of this topic. Or, perhaps you are aware of a place where it has already been discussed. If so, please let me know.

What say ye?

38 Comments »

  1. I don’t have any resources handy, but the general idea is one I’ve heard for decades – which would make sense if by “new” you mean originating around the time of my birth. I’m not sure I’ve heard it in General Conference, but I’m fairly certain most members have heard the idea that partaking of the sacrament sincerely and “worthily” (through conscious repentance of the sins of the previous week) brings another remission of sins.

    Frankly, I think the concept is pretty basic to the Mormon concept of repentance and what it means to “take His name upon us, always remember Him and keep His commandments”. Iow, I think those who are striving to do those things are actively repenting and, therefore, being forgiven regularly.

    Comment by Ray — April 7, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  2. So, would participation in the sacrament be necessary to getting subsequent remissions of our sins? If so, what about those who don’t have the sacrament available to them – say due to distance? Must they wait until they do to have their sins forgiven? What about the theoretical possibility that following baptism and confirmation, a member was never where he/she could partake of the sacrament again? How would that affect their status?

    Comment by rick — April 7, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  3. President Packer mentioned this in the most recent Priesthood Session, however he said (paraphrasing; emphasis mine) “By worthily partaking of the sacrament, we retain a remission of our sins which we received through the baptismal covenants.”

    It may be a distinction without difference, but I prefer looking at the sacrament as a way to retain a remission of sin, rather than obtain a re-remission of sin. The former sounds more like the onus is on me to keep my life in line with the covenants I made with Christ, which is the purpose of partaking of the sacrament (“Do this in rememberance of me”); the latter sounds like a cop-out for real repentance.

    Comment by Bull Moose — April 7, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  4. See this post and comments from FPR for an interesting discussion of this issue. The comments over there do venture specifically into the question raised in this post.

    It seems very likely to me that this is a modern theological invention, but I would love to see someone dig up some good info on how it came to be. David J’s hunch that it grew out of the process of doing away with re-baptism is a fascinating guess.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 7, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

  5. In my opinion (and I dug up a bunch of stuff I never posted to the FPR post), it’s something that was there all along, but wasn’t understood. The idea comes to prominence in the 1870′s as rebaptism is de-emphasized and phased out. But many authors (including historical-oriented and “liberal” ones) see covenant renewal in the sacrament.

    Comment by Nitsav — April 7, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

  6. In several places in the Book of Mormon, the phrase “retain a remission of sins” is used. These include Mosiah 4:12, Mosiah 4:26, and Alma 4:14. When these verses are read in context, it seems to indicate that by maintaining our Christian discipleship, we can maintain a clean slate – retain a remission of sins. In particular, faith, humility, prayer, and service (particularly to the poor) seem to be key. While these verses do not specifically mention the Sacrament (perhaps because it was not yet instituted), it seems clear to me that the text of the Sacramental prayers and the discipleship mentioned in these verses are in close alignment.

    Comment by sparsile — April 7, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  7. Nitsav, so what are you saying, that you had a bunch of good ammo but left Matt W out there blowing in the wind on that thread? That’s cold blooded man. But seriously, can you give me an idea of who you have in mind for historical-oriented and possibly liberal authors? Are these Mormons, Catholics, Evangelicals, Atheists, or what? Since views on the sacrament seem to vary widely among the denominations I’d be interested in what kind of commentary you’re referring to.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 7, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  8. I saw the thread get posted, and then was out of town and contact. When I got back weeks later, the thread was dead. I’m not sure where my notes are, but I found several LDS historians as well as Sunstone/Dialogue articles (or at least mentions, IIRC) talking about sacrament as covenant renewal.

    Comment by Nitsav — April 7, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

  9. I think we place too much emphasis on baptism taking away our sins rather than being an outward symbol and confirmation before witnesses of a transformation that has (or should have) already taken place.

    Similarly, I always thought that renewing covenants with the sacrament was also an outward expression of our continued effort to repent and better ourselves, not a literal “re-remission” of sins.

    However, that literal interpretation does seem to keep cropping up more and more and I’m not sure what to do with that.

    Comment by Rob V. — April 7, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  10. Jacob: I still think I won that argument, or at least remain thoroughly convinced I was right.

    President Brigham Young wrote in 1857 about the sacrament and the members of the Church, “The bread and cup [are for] a renewal of their covenants.” 1

    Elder James E. Talmage of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote, “Partaking of the sacrament worthily may be regarded … as a means of renewing our avowals before the Lord.” 2

    So no, renewal of covenants at Sacrament isn’t a new invention.

    1. As quoted in Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 503.

    2. James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1899), p. 175.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 7, 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  11. Jacob, the renewing of the covenants referred to by Brigham Young or by Elder Talmadge could very simply be understood as renewing the sacramental covenants themselves. That’s why we partake repetitiously, in contrast to almost any other ordinance. If a renewal of the baptism covenant was intended all along, why is the instruction so oblique? This “doctrine” is never taught in the scriptures per se, or by Joseph Smith. And an overt explication of it doesn’t surface for a long time. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Comment by rick — April 7, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

  12. I tend to sway towards Rob’s way of viewing this.

    To me, to often people talk of it as if God has a short memory or soemthing. If I make a mistake and sincerely repent for something I did, I sure hope me not taking sacrament last weekend doesn’t jeopardize my state of forgiveness…

    To me, it is a symbol that’s efficacy seems to be more for teaching empowering me, not God’s resolve to forgive.

    Comment by Riley — April 7, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

  13. Semantic arguments are fascinating.

    Comment by Ray — April 7, 2009 @ 10:31 pm

  14. Overall I tend to agree with those who question why it even matters. I don’t really think God is as legalistic as some people in the church assume. In other words, I think the covenants are more for us — to focus our minds on nurturing our ongoing relationship with God — than they are for God to get his paperwork in place.

    Comment by Geoff J — April 7, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

  15. Overall I tend to agree with those who question why it even matters.

    I saw that first sentence and remembered this, one of my favorite NCT posts of all times.

    And I agree — it’s for us, not for Him.

    Comment by Norbert — April 8, 2009 @ 12:29 am

  16. Ray (13):

    Semantics are important. In my current field of study – programming languages – that’s all there is. “What exactly does X mean? Is there anything that means Y?”

    In this case, I think the idea of re-remission is bogus and runs contrary to the doctrine in the Book of Mormon. It suggests that God’s side of the covenant can somehow lapse, or that recommitting to your side isn’t enough. It works against the already-too-often forgotten doctrine that remission of sins is something the Saints *already have*.

    One word causes all that trouble. I’m glad that President Packer has made the correction, though it’ll take a long time to spread as far as the bogusness has.

    Comment by The Right Trousers — April 8, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  17. Well Norbert, if it makes you feel better I am not saying to stop talking about this subject overall. Rather, I think the question itself is likely based on assumptions that I don’t agree with; assumptions about the role ordinances actually play in our exaltation.

    That more foundational question about how important the ordinances are to God probably logically precedes this discussion. Maybe I should post on that…

    Comment by Geoff J — April 8, 2009 @ 8:17 am

  18. I don’t know…If you want forgiveness, repent. Sure, baptism may open this door.

    I guess I view the sacrament as a sort of group repentance moment with a sybolic ordinance thrown in.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — April 8, 2009 @ 8:42 am

  19. Someone sees re-remission and focuses on making sure they are striving for a repentant spirit in order to be renewed and cleansed each Sunday as they faithfully partake of the sacrament. Someone sees retaining a remission and focuses on making sure they are striving for a repentant spirit in order to remain new and clean as they faithfully partake of the sacrament.

    Somehow, I don’t think God really cares if each of His children understands everything intellectually in exactly the same way, as long as He has their hearts and minds and best efforts to be repentant. Assuming a broken heart and contrite spirit, are my sins re-remitted or are they not imputed as sins as I make them? Do I obtain a remission anew or retain the remission I was promised when I first pledged my allegiance? I think God probably answers, “Yes” – and leaves it at that. Your mileage may vary – which also is my point.

    Comment by Ray — April 8, 2009 @ 8:47 am

  20. Geoff, I thought I had your email address but it looks like I don’t. Can you email me at BlairDHodges @ Gmail.com? It’s slightly important, thanks.

    Comment by BHodges — April 8, 2009 @ 8:48 am

  21. Geoff, no serious comment intended. Just giving mad props for an historic post.

    Comment by Norbert — April 8, 2009 @ 9:18 am

  22. Matt, a doctrine that springs up in 1857 seems like a fairly modern invention to me. Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes like modern theological inventions. I am just always curious about ideas that are totally accepted and mainstream but which do not appear in the scriptures and have no clear basis. Sparsile in #6 seems to me to make the best argument for it, but it is a bit tenuous.

    Norbert, nice smackdown. lol

    Comment by Jacob J — April 8, 2009 @ 9:46 am

  23. By the way, Matt, I don’t want to downplay your find there. If Brigham said it in 1857 that does trace it back very early in the restoration (and maybe someone can find earlier references still). Nice work.

    Nitsav #8, thanks for the info. I’ll have to do a bit of searching when I get a chance.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 8, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  24. The problem with Matt’s quotes is they don’t clearly say which covenants are renewed with the sacrament. (As mentioned in #11)

    Comment by Geoff J — April 8, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  25. Jacob: It’s a bit difficult to link Sacrament to merely LDS prophets and apostles, as it isn’t typically called Sacrament in the ANE or by the Early-Church Fathers.

    Also, for the record, when Talmage says Sacrament is for a renewal of covenants he explicitly says it is not for the remission of sins (as one with sins should not take the sacrament, per scripture). Jay Jenson was quoting Dallin Oaks on that front, and he doesn’t use the term remission, but cleansing. I think that idea is relatively new.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 8, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  26. as one with sins should not take the sacrament, per scripture

    Wow, this would really cut down on me taking the sacrament if it were true.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 8, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  27. Geoff and Rick: That’s a fairly good point. I’ll have to dig a bit more when I have some time.

    Of course, I typically think there is one covenant (the “new and everlasting” one) and all the ordinances point to the same, so the question of which covenant is sort of a non-starter for me, but if it matters to ya’ll, I’ll dig into it.

    (when I have time in a million years or so)

    Comment by Matt W. — April 8, 2009 @ 10:08 am

  28. Since the link to Google reader appears to not have worked:

    From the scriptural references already made, it is plain that the sacrament is administered to commemorate the atonement of the Lord Jesus, as consummated in His agony and death ; it is a testimony before God, that we are mindful of His Son’s sacrifice made in our behalf ; and that we still profess the name of Christ and are determined to strive to keep His commandments, in the hope that we may ever have His Spirit to be with us. Partaking of the sacrament worthily may be regarded therefore as a means of renewing our covenants before the Lord, of acknowledgment of mutual fellowship among the members, and of solemnly witnessing our claim and profession of membership in the Church of Christ. The sacrament has not been established as a specific means of securing remission of sins; nor for any other special blessing, aside from that of a fresh endowment of the Holy Spirit, which, however, comprises all needful blessings. Were the sacrament ordained for the remission of sins, it would not be forbidden to those who are in greatest need of special forgiveness; yet participation in the ordinance is restricted to those whose consciences are void, of serious offense, those, therefore, who are acceptable before the Lord; those indeed who are in as little need of special forgiveness as mortals can be

    Articles of Faith, page 179

    Comment by Matt W. — April 8, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  29. In other words, I overstated Talmage’s position.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 8, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

  30. Does James 5:14-15 mean that remission of sins can also come through a priesthood blessing on a sick person?

    Comment by JimD — April 8, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

  31. Jacob,

    If you were as humble as me, which is the gift from God Im most proud of possessing, you’d withhold from taking the sacrament until you’re as spotless as fresh Utah snow.

    *hopefully the sarcastic nature Ive developed through the eternities isn’t cause for me to withhold from partaking of the sacrament… Ill wait see the look my mother-in-law gives me as I attempt it ; )

    Comment by Riley — April 8, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  32. I just read The Holy Secret by James L. Ferrell, and it has a great explanation of the sacrament in ch. 14 (p.111-120). I would put it here, but it’s obviously too long. It really helped me to see how the sacrament is covenant renewal (though I don’t think it actually used that term), using the scriptures (sacrament prayers, actually) to illustrate the point.

    Comment by HeidiAnn — April 9, 2009 @ 6:14 am

  33. I think the general idea is that your sins get remitted automatically whenever you sincerely repent. However, that remission is conditional. “unto that soul who sinneth shall the former sins return” (D&C 82:7).

    Partaking of the sacrament etc., helps you retain a remission of your sins, it doesn’t remit them by itself, nor does any other thing short of repentance. I would say the initial remission of sins is an example of justification, and a persistent remission of sins a consequence of sanctification.

    Comment by Mark D. — April 9, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

  34. Ok, so here’s a bit more:

    To remember the sacrifice of Jesus, to accept Jesus as the Leader; to keep His commandments—these are the covenants made; and the reward is the guiding companionship of the Holy Spirit. This makes of the partaking of the sacrament a renewal of the covenants we made at the time of baptism into the Church. Thus, by the sacrament we declare repeatedly, ordinarily weekly, our allegiance to the plan of salvation and its obligations. Thus we keep ourselves as one with Christ our Elder Brother in seeking to consummate the purposes of the Father with respect to the children of men.

    John A Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, (this is a compilation of articles Widtsoe wrote for the improvement era between 1940 and 1950 and comes from the end of the first book, which contains the first 68 of his articles. Assuming Widtose did one article per issue, the 68th article would have been no later than 1945, predating McConkie, who was not a 70 until 1946)

    This is about as far back as I can get without Gospel link.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 9, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

  35. I tend to agree with @Geoff J that God is not a legalist.

    The thing is, even baptism later in life doesn’t resolve us of all our previous sins simply by the act. We are forgiven of our sins through repentance and a desire to do better, baptism simply puts previous sins into a remitted state until we sin again. How then are we to retain remittance of these previous sins when we do sin again? It’s by true repentance and partaking of the sacrament.

    That doesn’t mean you have to partake of the sacrament every single week, because that would then beg the question, why don’t you take the sacrament every day?

    My personal opinion is that taking the sacrament is an outward symbol of a completely internal process.

    Comment by Brizz — April 10, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  36. Ok, the more I look into this, the more it seems that the Journal of Discourses teaches that baptism is associate with entering into covenants and sacrament is renewing all covenants we have entered. This is a good overview.

    Unfortuneately, the Journal of discourses site now seems to be down. hopefully it will return soon.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 11, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  37. Matt W,

    When the JD site comes back up, my question is going to be what the basis for those teachings is. We have lots of teachings and they come from a variety of sources. We can usually trace things back to either a claim of revelation, a borrowing from another tradition or from culture, an argument of logic, a synthesis of other accepted ideas, an innovation based on the specific circumstances in which the idea arose. Tracing something back to the JD doesn’t necessarily answer the question of what the doctrine is based on.

    Comment by Jacob J — April 11, 2009 @ 11:09 am

  38. That’s true, but for now I am settling for disabusing the idea that it was a mcConkie invention.

    Comment by matt w. — April 11, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

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