Our Fourth Article of Faith says:
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.
In order, the most basic explanation of each of these principles and ordinances for me is:
1) "faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ"
I see this principle, again at the most basic level, as nothing more complicated than actually believing what our scriptures say about Jesus of Nazareth deeply and profoundly enough that it actually motivates us to do what he asked us to do / said we need to do to qualify as disciples. James describes true, living faith as a combination of belief and action, and Joseph Smith said that faith is an animating and motivating power. Belief alone is not enough, since even the devils believe; the differentiating and distinguishing factor between those who profess to believe and those who truly believe is NOT the detail of their belief but rather how they live according to their professed beliefs - how their lives reflect their beliefs - what they become as a result of their beliefs.
Thus, at the most fundamental level, this principle is not simply the content of my beliefs about the Lord, Jesus Christ; it includes the expression and manifestation of those beliefs in my actual, real, interpersonal life in the actual, real world in which I live among actual, real people.
At the core, repentance means nothing more than "change" - and that is a wonderfully concise description of the central reason for our existence. We all recognize, hopefully, that we are weak and ungodly in our human nature. Repentance is more than just a recogniton of that simple fact; it is the active component of real faith. It is how true faith is manifested in our lives.
Jesus taught us to be and become different than we are and have been. Repentance, again at the most fundamental level, is our acceptance of personal responsibility to strive to follow that admonition - to be and become more like him and his Father - to be "partakers of the divine nature" - to "be ye therefore perfect, as your father which is in heaven is perfect" - to "put off the natural man and become a saint" - etc.
(For more of what I've written about repentance, including about how we have narrowed repentance too much in our delineation of the "steps of repentance" and how we need to have a fresh view of repentance, click on the tab for "Repentance" in the list at the bottom of this blog.)
3) "baptism by immersion, for the remission of sins"
Focusing on the most fundamental definition possible, I see baptism as nothing more or less than a symbolic, public, physical representation of our firm commitment to have real faith and to repent - and I believe each of those asepcts is critically important.
a) Baptism is symbolic. There is nothing magical or special about the water in which we are immersed - and there is nothing magical or exclusive about the actual form of the ordinance. As I've said in other threads here, ancient Israel used circumcision to represent their commitment to follow their God, and circumcision and baptism couldn't be more different. If God can use such radically different ceremonial forms to convey commitment, I am fine with just about anything that resonates with societies and cultures - although I also am fine with limiting our own fundamental expression of commitment within the LDS Church to baptism. It's not the literal form of the ordinance that is important; it's the symbolic meaning that is central for me.
b) Baptism is public. I think this is important, to the extent possible in individual situations, since baptism also is an entry way into a comunity of believers - a way for the person entering to assure the community that she truly is committed AND a way for the community to express support for that commitment. There are no hermits in the kingdom of God; godhood is not a solitary existence; commitment to Jesus of Nazareth and the gospel he taught is communal in a very real and powerful way.
c) Baptism is physical. Just like cirumcision was a physical expression of faith and communal identity that carried spiritually symbolic meaning, baptism also is performed by immersion for a very simple but profound reason - that the "whole soul" must be committed and involved. We must love God with all of our heart, might, mind and strength - not just with our spirit. Thus, immersion is central to the proper symbolism of our commitment - just as circumsision necessitated a real, physical commitment for the men of ancient Israel. Importantly, at least for me, baptism is a new testiment that allows women to participate in the full process of expressed commitment in a way that circumcision did not in the past.
4) "laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost"
In the ordinance of confirmation, we are told to "receive the Holy Ghost". There is a sermon in that phrase alone, but I want to focus on the most basic meaning of the ordinance itself - which, for me, is nothing more than a commitment to seek and follow input from God. By accepting the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, we acknowledge our willingness to seek and follow input from God in two distinct and vital ways: through the ministering of others (the laying on of hands) and through direct revelation / inspiration from God (the gift of the Holy Ghost). Both are vital, and I believe we overlook the first too often in our exclusive focus on the second.
The above is how I see the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel, at the most basic level. I would love to hear from anyone who reads this about how they see these principles and ordinances.