There is so much to speak and write about in reference to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that sometimes it can be easy to forget the first principles. These first principles make up the basic "plan" that we follow in order to become members of Christ's Church, which plan will lead us to happiness in this life and salvation in the life to come. Teachings and doctrines that go beyond these first principles only allow us further growth and understanding of the basic things we've already learned through the first principles.
Our third Article of Faith states, "We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel." I'm grateful for this article of faith because it establishes the fact that we do not think, as some contend, that we are saved merely by adherence to these principles without accepting Christ's grace. Adherence to the first principles is only possible because of the Atonement of Christ–for example, could we follow the commandment to repent unless Christ's sacrifice allowed our sins to be washed away?
Now that we have cleared up that issue, let's get to the first principles themselves–what are they? Well, the fourth Article of Faith tells us–"We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost."
Though it is not one of our official Articles of Faith, some Latter-day Saints would add a fifth principle–"Endure to the end"–because we do not believe in the popular idea of "once saved, always saved." However, I would call "enduring to the end," though it is indeed very important, more of an essential aspect of following the first principles than an entirely separate principle. For example, part of our baptismal covenants (which we renew through the Sacrament, or Communion, each week), is to "always remember [Christ] and keep his commandments which he has given [us]" (D&C 20:77). So when we follow the first principle of baptism, we are already agreeing to "endure to the end." Therefore, I will only address the four essential principles and ordinances mentioned in the divinely inspired Articles of Faith.
What is the basis for these first principles and ordinances? Well, as any student of the New Testament should see, Joseph Smith did not merely make these things up. He only articulated and clarified the essential principles taught throughout the New Testament by Christ and His apostles. This always was and is the role of prophets in Christ's Restored Gospel. Whereas Latter-day Saints know definitively and clearly what Christ expects of us in return for salvation, the rest of Christendom continues to argue on such basic issues as whether baptism is essential, the role of works vs. grace, at what point a person is "saved," etc.
Joseph Smith was not the only person teaching that such things were the basic principles of Christ's gospel. Other Christians of the time had deduced nearly the same things from their study of the New Testament. Perhaps the Christians who had gotten closest from their studies to Joseph's inspired first principles were the Campbellites (from whom descended the modern denomination named the Christian Church, or Disciples of Christ), a group from which came many of Mormonism's earliest and most ardent converts, such as Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt.
A foundational member of the Campbellite Movement named Walter Scott came up with his "five-finger exercise" for the basic principles of the Gospel, based on Acts 2:38. He would go from town to town, finding children to teach this exercise, in which the children held up a hand while Scott would "point to each finger and say 'faith, repentance, baptism, remission of sins, gift of the Holy Spirit.'"1 Scott would then instruct the children to go and tell their parents what he had taught them. This demonstrated that the gospel of Jesus Christ was so easy a child could understand it. Joseph Smith took these principles and showed that they could be even more simple by eliminating the fourth step (which was accomplished by the first three) and by clarifying that the gift of the Holy Spirit came by the laying on of hands by those with authority as was done in New Testament times, and was not merely a result of baptism as taught by Scott.
The first principles of the Gospel provide a lifetime of happiness as we continuously apply them. Even those ordinances which we only technically receive once (ie. baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost) can be continuously renewed as we take the Sacrament each week. The initial ordinance of receiving the Holy Ghost can be described as only giving us the chance to receive the continual guidance of the Holy Ghost, so that even when we have received the gift we can still go through periods of losing and gaining the Spirit's guidance as we go through periods of varying diligence in keeping the other first principles. Additionally, through the blessings of temple work, Latter-day Saints are blessed to be able to experience these ordinances time and time again as they perform them for those who have passed away.
Every day we can evaluate our state of spirituality by asking ourselves if we are living up to the first principles of the Gospel. We can ask things such as, "How is my faith in Jesus Christ today? Have I need of repentance? Am I living up to my baptismal covenants? Do I feel the presence of the Spirit in my life?" Personally, I always have room for improvement. Therefore, instead of letting my lack of perfection be a continual cause of guilt or regret, I use the Atonement of Christ and allow my imperfections to be a continual source of inspiration to become a better person. The Gospel is the best instrument out there for becoming better people.
I know these first principles are true principles, and that they work. They form a perfect plan to follow in order to become true disciples of Christ, and they offer a firm foundation on which to build further and deeper knowledge of Christ's Gospel. And as a missionary, I am excited to teach others of these principles, for I know there is no other church or plan that teaches the gospel of Christ with such clarity or offers the same level of happiness.