Kicking Against the Pricks

On the road to Damascus, Paul found Christ.  Seeing Paul lost in his sin and murderous self-righteousness Jesus pointed out: “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” (Acts 9:5.)  In this metaphor, the “pricks” are the sin that dwells within us. The sin sprouts the thorns that goad us when we recognize that we cannot be what we demand ourselves to be.  Joseph Smith seemed to almost grasp the biblical meaning of the phrase in D&C 121:38 where he described those in church leadership that sought to hide their own sins with their authority as those “left to kick against the pricks.” The message of Paul’s ministry was that in Christ can we dissolve these thorns so they never bother us again.

Spencer W. Kimball — the beloved LDS Prophet — put a new spin on this phrase. Starting  in a conference talk in 1955, Kimball began to use the phrase as a description of the state of those who stand against the leadership of the LDS Church:

There is the man who, to satisfy his own egotism, took a stand against the Authorities of the Church. He followed the usual pattern, not apostasy at first, only superiority of knowledge and mild criticism. He loved the brethren, he said, but they failed to see and interpret as he would like. He would still love the Church, he maintained, but his criticism grew and developed into ever-widening circles. He was right, he assured himself; he could not yield in good conscience; he had his pride. His children did not accept his philosophy wholly, but their confidence was shaken. In their frustration, they married out of the Church, and he lost them. He later realized his folly and returned to humbleness, but so very late. He had lost his children. “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).”

Here the “pricks” are not the thorns of sin but the psychological and political consequences of criticism of Church leadership. On an all-too-poignant level, this passage represents hard reality of the Church’s position. The church has determined that there are some sins the gospel does not reach, and the sin of participation in gay marriage is one of those. The latest of the Church’s responses to its critics gave me shivers because it’s tone reflects the same terrifying chant of: “thinking differently than the leadership will destroy your family”. It really sucks.

The problem with the way the LDS deal with same-sex attraction probably stems from the way Mormons ignore original sin. Mormons simply cannot believe that humans might be really screwed up from birth in a way that willpower won’t fix. The good news of the New Testament is that in Christ, God has both seen and forgotten these screwed-up ways and granted you freedom to do so as well. The biggest problem I see with the policy is that the message the Church is giving its membership is not  “our sins can be dissolved in Christ”, but that “our sins will keep us from God.”   This was Paul’s message before Damascus, not after it. Paul’s ministry was focused on the fact that, in Christ, our sins will not keep us from God.

Like the Pharisaic Jews, Mormons believe our path to the celestial is through obedience to the law. However, in siding with the pre-Damascus Paul, Mormons are actually mistaking the law with the gospel. The “gospel” according to the Latter-day Saint tradition is what Paul refers to as the “law” — i.e. the combined commandments of God. Mormons believe that “living the gospel” is obeying the law.

A New-Testament Christian would understand that the law was the source of the pricks that goaded Paul. It was the law that Paul was trying to enforce when he persecuted the Christians, and the law that he found safety from in Christ on the road to Damascus.

Because Church leadership cannot distinguish the law from the gospel they now are denying the gospel to those that may break their law.  As I said, this really sucks for those denied access to the Church after being told as children that the Church is the only source of the “gospel”.

But I think those of us who despair at the new policy do not need to rally against the Church, any more than Paul needed to rally against the Pharisees or Rome.  His message was simple, straight, and narrow and so is our path to peace.  Whether the pricks are our sins as Paul describes, or the church leadership, as President Kimball describes, we don’t need to kick against these pricks — in Christ we are made free from their control.

Faking It

A story has emerged (pardon the pun) of the possibility that a Evangelical mega-church may be staging baptisms to induce others to baptism.  I think Charles Finney might be proud but it sounds kind of rotten in my view.

You can read the story here:

Why Was Jesus Baptized?

I knew a pastor who years ago received his ordination from one of Southern California’s first mega-churches.  The head pastor was known for being a strong Bible-first expositional preacher.  His knowledge of the Bible was notorious and intimidating.  As part of the ordination process, my friend had to submit himself to something similar to an oral exam in front of a panel of other pastors who quizzed him on his theology and knowledge of the Bible.

The head pastor always posed something of a trick question to those he faced; “If Jesus was sinless, why did he submit himself to a baptism of repentance at the hands of John the Baptist?”

Matthew 3:11-15 (ESV) says:

I baptize you with water for repentance but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.

I’ve kept this question with me since hearing the story.  In conversations with Mormons it’s often suggested that Jesus was baptized to set an example for what we must do.  I don’t disagree with this.  I think followers of Jesus should follow Jesus’ example and be baptized.  But I think I’d like to put a caveat on that.

John was baptizing Jesus with a baptism of repentance.  Repentance is clearly an important and fundamental step in trusting Jesus. To be saved by Jesus a person has to be saved from something.  Recognizing one’s sin and turning away from it (and toward Jesus) must happen.

But I don’t believe Jesus, as a sinless person, needed to repent.  Jesus was indeed baptized by John but not for repentance.

Matthew 3 continues:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him,and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

I think John was absolutely correct in objecting that he wasn’t qualified to baptize Jesus.  Jesus had him proceed because it didn’t matter who baptized him.  Jesus’ baptism was a confession of his devotion to God, and God’s confession of his devotion to Jesus. The only two participants of concern were Jesus and God. The righteousness that was fulfilled was not the absolution of sin in Jesus’ life but rather the confessions of Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

As Christians, we follow Jesus’ example in baptism.  But we do not follow Jesus in a baptism of repentance.  We do not carry on the baptism of John the Baptist.  We carry on the baptism of Jesus, a baptism of identification and commitment. Just as John was an insignificant and unqualified baptizer, it doesn’t matter by whose authority we are baptized.  What matters is how and why we stand before God in our baptism.