envelop spinner search close plus arrow-right arrow-left facebook twitter

The Gospel & Racism

February 05, 2021

The Gospel & Racism

Prejudice. Systemic Racism. Political Correctness. Whiteness. BLM. Police Brutality. Fragility. Social Justice. CRT. Cultural Appropriation. Cancel Culture. This is but a sampling of the many terms and concepts that occupy centre-stage in much of today’s public discourse. It isn’t my intention to speak to all of these. I simply want to provide a paradigm for thinking, informed by the gospel. That’s my aim.

And so, I begin (in this article – the first of two) with “the gospel and racism.”

A Marvellous Beginning

According to Fred Sanders, “The doctrine of the Trinity stands or falls with the right understanding of the relations in God.”[1] This means we must be careful to distinguish between the one divine essence (or substance) and the eternal relations that each of the three persons has with the others in God.[2] These relations were made known in the “missions” of the Son (Incarnation) and the Spirit (Pentecost) (Gal. 4:4–7); hence, salvation history is divine self-revelation. Sanders explains, “Knowledge that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was communicated to us when the Father sent the Son and the Holy Spirit. The multiform prophecies of the Old Testament point forward to those sendings, and the multiform apostolic reports and interpretations look back to them.”[3]

The missions of the Son and the Spirit reveal that God’s life takes place in eternal relations of origin. God behaves as Father, Son, and Spirit in saving us because He is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit. In sum, “The Son is sent to be incarnate because He stands in an eternal relation of origin with regard to the Father, a relation called generation or begetting; and the Spirit is poured out because He stands in an eternal relation of origin with regard to the Father, a relation called spiration or breathing-out.”[4]

When we speak of God triune, we are not being academically picky or theologically fussy; rather, we are proclaiming the very heart of the Christian faith. We affirm that God is love (1 John 4:8); however, this statement is meaningless apart from God’s triunity. As C. S. Lewis observes, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”[5] All that to say, God is love because He is triune.

This necessarily means that creation is an act of the Triune God who is love. That is to say, creation exists because God is love, and creation continues to exist because God is love. At the pinnacle of this creation stands humanity. We were created to know and enjoy this loving God. As we read in Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image.” (1) This image is territorial: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let him have dominion …” (v. 26). God’s lordship is mirrored in man’s dominion over the earth. (2) This image is relational: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). Relational God is mirrored in relational humanity. (3) This image is moral. It is summed up in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

It is this image of God in humanity that imparts dignity to every person (Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). As God’s image bearers, each of us (regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or any other parameter) is endowed with intrinsic worth in God’s sight. And it is this principle that lies at the foundation of true human society.

A Miserable Departure

By Adam’s rebellion in the garden, humanity departed from God. As a result, the image of God was marred – that is to say, the natural gifts remain (i.e., mind, affections, will) while the supernatural gifts have been lost (i.e., knowledge, righteousness, holiness). Ever since the fall, humanity has been wandering east of Eden. As Paul declares, man has become “futile in his thinking” and his “foolish heart” has been “darkened” (Rom. 1:21). This is why there is death, suffering, illness, cruelty, injustice, pride, abuse, jealousy, and greed in this world.

An obvious consequence of Adam’s fall has been the disruption of human society. Because of sin, humanity is full of “envy,” “strife,” and “malice” (Rom. 1:29–32), and full of “hate” (Titus 3:3). This hatred has many manifestations – one of the most prevalent being prejudice. The term “prejudice” comes from the Latin praejudicium, meaning “to decide beforehand.” Simply put, it is to despise, denigrate, demean, mistreat, or belittle others on the basis of preconceived notions concerning their culture, ethnicity, appearance, class, education, or any other factor. Ethnic prejudice (or, racism), specifically, is the use of words, actions, or attitudes, which denigrate others on the basis of preconceived biases regarding their ethnicity.

Racism can be a personal sin. We are by nature selfishly ambitious (James 3:14). This means we think highly of ourselves, and we want others to affirm our self-assessment. Because we want to be esteemed, admired, and praised, we will use any identifiable marker (even ethnicity) to set ourselves apart from others. The Bible warns us that this kind of thinking is (1) “earthly” – focused on the temporal and material, (2) “unspiritual” – focused on the carnal and sensual, and (3) “demonic” – rooted in demonic forces (James 3:15). It leads to “disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16). The triune God (who is love) fashioned humanity in His image, but the fall has plunged humanity into spiritual darkness. Satan’s goal is to spread chaos and confusion by stirring up “bitter jealousy” and “selfish ambition.” 

Racism can also be a collective (or corporate) sin. Regrettably, at times, one ethnic group despises and oppresses another ethnic group. Human history is replete with instances of this sin. In a Canadian context, we can look to the not-so-distant past to see the collective racism (not necessarily every individual, but certainly the majority) that plagued the relationship between English and Irish, British and French, First Nations and Europeans. Although great progress has been made in recent history, we would be naïve to think that racism (or any other form of prejudice) belongs to a bygone era. Human depravity (with the reigning principle of “selfish ambition”) means that we must constantly guard our hearts.

A Miraculous Return

Given the condition of the human heart, the only lasting remedy for racism is the gospel. As the Father, the Son, and the Spirit have always known fellowship with each other, so we in the image of God are made for fellowship. As noted above, this is the only foundation for human dignity and human society, but it has been ruined by the fall. Graciously, however, the Father sent the Son to reconcile us to Him and to each other, so that our harmony might reflect the harmony of the Triune God (John 17:21–23). The Father sends the Son so that His love for the Son might be in us. The Father declares His love for His Son by giving Him the Spirit (Matt. 3:16–17), and this is how He makes known His love for us (Rom. 5:5). Michael Reeves explains, “The Father so delights in His eternal love for the Son that He desires to share it with all who will believe. Ultimately, the Father sent the Son because the Father so loved the Son – and wanted to share that love and fellowship. His love for the world is the overflow of His almighty love for His Son.”[6]

All that to say, love is the acid test of our discipleship (1 John 4:16). The implications are far reaching. Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:27–29). Here, Paul makes it clear that to be a Christian is to be baptized into Christ. In other words, it is to be made one with Him. (1) We “have put on Christ” (v. 27). Because God clothes us with Christ, He becomes our identity. (2) We “are all one in Christ” (v. 28). God does not merely save isolated individuals. He creates a new humanity, which transcends all distinctions. (3) We “are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (v. 28). This is the sum and substance of all the promises: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33).

The foundation of our relationships, therefore, is our baptism into Christ. We are Christians before we are anything else. This means that the gospel is the only solution to the myriad of divisions that arise among people, and it is the only solution for the sin of racism. It reveals that the problem is much deeper than any of us imagine; it is rooted in a depraved heart. And it proposes a solution that is far more radical than any of us imagine because it leaves us without any claim but one: “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). Out of this new identity, we seek to “honor everyone” (1 Peter 2:17) and “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).

A Monumental Calling

Professing Christians have not always preached or practiced the faith in a manner consistent with their identity in Christ. Segments of the professing church have not always done well in confronting and condemning the sin of racism. Even worse, at times, segments of the church have been complicit in perpetuating racism. Whenever this has been the case, it has revealed a deplorable and lamentable misunderstanding of the implications of the gospel.

Why did the Father send the Son into this world? “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:25–26). Why did the Son come into this world? “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (John 14:31). The mission of the triune God, therefore, is an overflow of His love. It is by the Spirit that the Father has eternally loved His Son. By sharing the Spirit with us, the Father and the Son share their love, life, and fellowship with us. The Father loves us; the Son reveals the Father’s love; and the Spirit assures us of the Father’s love (Gal. 4:4–7; Titus 3:4–7). Equally true, our mission is the overflow of our enjoyment of the triune God’s love. This means that communion with God is the very heartbeat of Christianity. “Knowing God is the heart of our spiritual experience as Christians, and the God whom we have come to know is a Trinity of three coequal persons, revealed to us as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[7]

As the people of God, we are called to live out this communion. This leaves no room for the sin of partiality (or, prejudice). “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1). (1) Showing partiality makes our religion worthless (v. 1). (2) Showing partiality contradicts what it means to hold the faith in Christ (v. 1). (3) Showing partiality belittles Christ, the Lord of glory (v. 1). (4) Showing partiality reveals an evil mind (vv. 2–4). (5) Showing partiality diminishes what God thinks about His people (v. 5). (6) Showing partiality dishonours those whom God honours (vv. 6–7). (7) Showing partiality reveals a lack of love (v. 8). (8) Showing partiality transgresses God’s law (vv. 8–11). (9) Showing partiality ignores the coming judgment (vv. 12–13).

“If you show partiality, you are committing sin” (James 2:9). This sin is completely antithetical to God who “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; James 2:1; 3:18). We see this beautifully and powerfully displayed in Christ. He was the same with the prostitute as He was with the Pharisee. He was the same with the Samaritan as He was with the Jew. He was the same with poor Bartimaeus as He was with rich Zacchaeus. He was the same with the social elite as He was with the social outcast. He was the same with the priests and teachers as he was with the fishermen and farmers. He was the same with the lawyer as He was with the leper. He was the same with the politician as He was with the publican. He was the same with the old as He was with the young. He was the same with the wealthy as He was with the poor. He was the same with the strong as He was with the weak. He was impartial.

Conclusion

As the people of God, we affirm that all humans are created in God’s image and possess equal worth and dignity (Gen. 1:27), we celebrate the diversity of languages, cultures, and ethnicities that make up the church (Eph. 1:10; 2:14; 5:9), we condemn the sin of racism as antithetical to the gospel, and we support all legitimate efforts to confront the sin of racism.

 

[1] Fred Sanders, The Triune God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 35.

[2] This order in the Trinity is not chronological or ontological, but personal (relational).

[3] Sanders, Triune God, 88. B. B. Warfield makes the same observation in “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1952), 32–33.

[4] Sanders, Triune God, 112–13.

[5] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2015), 160.

[6] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 70.

[7] Gerald Bray, “Union and Communion: Joining the Fellowship of Heaven,” in For All the Saints: Evangelical Theology and Christian Spirituality, Timothy George and Alister McGrath (eds.), (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 109.

Subscribe to Blog


return to Pastoral Theology