‘For he is our peace’: The centrality of the gospel of Christ in racial reconciliation
Only the gospel of Christ can solve the problem of racism. Only the gospel can assure us that in Christ there is hope for reconciliation with God, and with one another.
If you live in North America, it’s hard to escape conversations about race and racism. And while outrage culture feeds on the worst forms of digital jousting, followers of Jesus have no such option. Our only option is biblical engagement that attempts to deal directly and honestly with these very difficult issues.
I realize there may be those who sincerely believe racism to be a thing of the past, long ago removed from our civil or denominational life. And there are those who believe it to be rare and isolated. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those assumptions, but I do believe they are incorrect. And the most fundamental reason for that is because racism is, at its very core, a spiritual sickness. It’s sin. And sin is never far from us.
Racism and all manifestations of racial injustice are not merely the result of historical forces, economic interests, or lacking education. The biblical account makes clear that our proclivity for self-exaltation is rooted in the primal sin of the Garden (Gen 3:4). As sons and daughters of Adam, we are predisposed to see ourselves as distinct from and superior to other individuals. But this is also for groups or communities of persons. Racism in any form finds its poisonous roots in the sin of partiality (James 2:1-13).
A biblical worldview must first affirm the unity and singularity of the human race, that we are all descendants of the same first parents, a truly historical Adam and Eve. Every human being, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, and at every stage of development, is made in God’s image. Every human being who has ever lived inherits from Adam both his sinful nature and his federal guilt. (Gen 1-2; Rom 5:12). So how did things get to this point?
Racism is most fundamentally a sin problem
At its core, racism is about the sin of partiality. It imposes a double standard on one group of human beings on the basis of perceived physical characteristics. The Bible is clear that God shows no partiality and he expects his people to reflect his character (for example, Deut 10:17; Deut 16:19; Prov 24:23; Rom 2:11). Like all sin, this can take a variety of forms and deeply shape an entire culture or society. Like all sin, it is often deceptive.
As a historian and theologian, I am interested in the ways sin takes form within specific cultures and historical contexts. It does so in complex ways. Not only does sin bring about guilt, or culpability, on individual sinners, but it also brings corruption on whole societies or cultures. For example, I believe that future Christian generations will be horrified at the evil of legalized abortion in our time and will rightly give attention to the multidimensional realities of that demonic sin, in its individual and structural forms. There is an individual guilt that those who participate in the abortion industry bear before a righteous God. But our American culture has been deeply affected, and corrupted, by the culture of death in ways we may not always notice.
In recent months, the topics of critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality have prompted no small measure of discussion in Baptist life. It would be virtually impossible to get into a complete review of CRT here. But let’s be very clear: Christian witness must reject CRT and the ideological foundations that shape it, along with the proposals it offers for change. In the big picture, it seems to me that CRT assumes a basic materialism, ignoring spiritual realities and, in particular, the truth that human beings are made in the image of God. It also seems to me to have a deficient teleology, one that sees history most basically as a contest between oppressors and the oppressed. Because of its deficiencies, CRT can never adequately diagnose the fundamental problems inherent in racism, nor can it adequately prescribe a true solution. Only the gospel of Christ can do that. Similarly, this is why liberation theologies are irreconcilable with the biblical gospel. While the biblical worldview certainly acknowledges injustice in a fallen world, the defining story of Scripture is redemptive, centered on the person and work of Christ, propelling history forward to the glory of God. This story is inseparable from the miracle of the new birth and the necessity of personal saving faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The church is to be the community where the reconciling power of the gospel is displayed to the world
Our vision for racial reconciliation must be profoundly ecclesiological. Of course, the call to love our neighbor as ourselves should motivate every Christian to support public policies that uphold righteousness and protect the most vulnerable. But the transforming power of the gospel is displayed in the local church.
Paul’s argument in his letter to the Ephesian church is instructive. After laying out the reconciling power of the gospel in chapter two, he makes the clear point in the following chapter that this is all for a great cosmic demonstration: “This is so that God’s multi-faceted wisdom may now be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavens.” (Eph 3:10, CSB)
In other words, Paul’s ministry was devoted to proclaiming the reconciling power of the gospel to Gentiles so that the church would be built up in a way that would testify to the universe about God’s incredible, marvelous, and glorious wisdom. The church is intended to be the place where God’s wisdom and glory is most seen in the world today!
Honestly, it would be easier to simply not talk about race and racism. It would be far more convenient to be silent. But I believe, as I trust you do, that Jesus is glorified when his church on earth reflects his church in heaven. We pray, as he taught us, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10, CSB).
Would it be easier for churches in the United States to remain divided, even segregated, on the basis of race? You bet. But that is not the way of the cross. If the church is the instrument by which God chooses to display his glory and the miracle of grace and reconciliation in Christ, what does it say when Christians remain divided by race? This kind of vision — for a redeemed people who display God’s glorious grace in their life together — is less about a church program or strategy and more about a people transformed to prefer others to themselves.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope we have for defeating racism and seeing true reconciliation and justice
Only the gospel of Christ can solve the problem. Only the gospel can assure us that in Christ there is hope for reconciliation with God, and with one another. Our union with Christ by faith and the gift of his Spirit assure us that we now have a new identity and the power to live transformed, reconciled lives. We will still stumble along the way, but we are new creations in Christ.
In every generation, there is the need to be very clear about what the gospel is. The gospel, or “good news,” is the announcement of the saving work of Jesus Christ for all who believe in him for the forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life. There are any number of biblical passages which give wonderful summaries of the gospel. Consider Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians: “For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4, CSB).
In Ephesians 2, Paul directly connects the good news of salvation by grace alone (vv. 1-10) to the unity that all believers share in Christ (vv. 11-22). Within the body of Christ, this is why the term “racial reconciliation” is so vital. In a very real sense, we have already been reconciled to God and to one another in Christ. Our union with Christ by faith means that we are now part of his body.
God’s Word is not only inerrant; it is sufficient
The Conservative Resurgence in our denomination was — make no mistake about it — a contest over the nature, authority, and reliability of the Bible. As a convention, we will always have to resolve to hold fast to these shared convictions and contend for them when they are threatened. To know Southern Baptists is to know a people committed to the absolute truthfulness of the Bible.
By the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the inerrant Word of God, every Christian has available to them all that is needed for their growth in godliness. There is no additional knowledge required for Christian maturity or, as Paul put it: “so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17, CSB).
God’s inspired and inerrant Word is fully capable of instructing us in all that is required for salvation and obedience unto God. Or, to put it another way, we have no need for any further special revelation. And his inerrant, inspired Word is the standard by which we can, and must, assess all other knowledge, including our observations of the cultural and historic situations in which we find ourselves.
As Southern Baptists, we should thank God for his grace and mercy to us
Our own denomination has attempted to be remarkably honest about our own history and ties to slavery and racism. We are, thanks be to God, a denomination that is committed to biblical orthodoxy and the urgency of the Great Commission, but also to seeing our convention move forward in gospel-centered diversity. I believe it is Southern Baptists’ heart to see a denomination that looks more and more like heaven. We’ve come a long way since 1845. Of course we still have a long way to go, but may we never be ungrateful to the Lord for his abundant mercy and grace to us as a convention.
We are living in rapidly changing times, marked by surging hostility to biblical Christianity. These times will require us, as followers of Christ and as Southern Baptists, to be unified in our common conviction and courage to stand together. We must speak the truth, and we must do so in love. But we must also do so with clarity and precision. When brothers and sisters in Christ alert us to the need for greater clarity in our communication on these complex issues, we should receive that as a gift. We can all be more patient and charitable with one another, believing the best about our Christian brothers and sisters. We can all do better in assuming the best of brothers and sisters in Christ and not engaging in slanderous attacks.
We can and must stand with the full measure of conviction and courage for truth. And we can, and must, continue to boldly proclaim to the world that the only hope available for the brokenness around us, including racism, is found in the finished work of Jesus Christ. I am confident that Southern Baptists are up to that task, and doing so in love.