An Evangelical Conversation
I have to admit, my heart aches over the emotional tension, anger, and fear flooding our minds in these chaotic days. Harsh arguments, slanderous words, and yelling matches immerse our Facebook screens and news feeds. Amidst the numerous themes and topics creating these fiery and hostile debates is the issue of racism; a real and prevalent reality in our supposedly modern and civil time. But the concern that provokes me the most, the one that keeps lingering in my mind, is how evangelical Christians are approaching this issue.
What is the solution to the so called systemic racism in our society today? How are we going to fix issues like white privilege, oppression on minorities; especially toward our black neighbors? The answers provided by some evangelicals, surprisingly have little to do with the gospel, and much to do with fixing systems.
A well respected university recently held a service of “confession and lament.”The service sought to acknowledge the reality of racism for what it is, and call others to do the same; a respectable and good endeavor. However, as one began to read through the prayer service rhetoric one couldn’t help but notice a concerning statement:
“We confess: For far too long, we have bought into the evangelical lie that the gospel is about saving souls and not about saving structures.”
Confessing the sin of racism is one thing, implying that the gospel is about saving structures is another. After receiving some push back the university released clarification on the wording of their confession:
“To be clear, we do believe it is a lie to suggest the gospel is concerned about one and not also the other (from either perspective) as if personal evangelism and social justice are diametrically opposed. . .But we also recognize that God’s kingdom is always extended in the context of other kingdoms, structures, and empires. We are deeply concerned with making structures just, even as we devote ourselves to seeking and saving lost souls living within those structures.”
I am thankful they made clear that the gospel is about saving souls, what they plainly denied in their initial wording. However, the clarification is still unsettling. The statement sill implies that the gospel is about saving sinners AND about saving structures; as if essential in the Gospel of Christ is the requirement that Christians fix the social structures in which they live. If not, the implication being, they have fallen short of understanding the good news of Jesus Christ.
Another well known, and articulate individual, Phil Vischer (Famous for creating the popular Veggietales cartoon) produced a viral video seeking to layout the issues of racism, white privilege, and how America’s past has set up an inevitable system by which blacks are oppressed. It is a well thought out video and offers much for us to consider in regards to racism in our country. Nevertheless, as the video climaxes to a close Vischer rhetorically asks what solution can be given for the state we are in. Answer, “I don’t know.” He then goes on to offer a starting point: “but what we can do is care.”
Really Phil? Even Bob the tomato could have anticipated the right answer to the conundrum you so craft-fully defined—obviously the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is the answer to these troubling times. These two examples are the type of responses that are fueling my frustration. While the answer seems as simple as “Christ crucified” I am hearing very little of that emphasized, in the midst of seeking a solution to the cultural chaos we find ourselves in.
But is it that simple? Or does Vischer and our Christian universities have it right? The way out is by fixing our structures. As I pray and meditate on these things I am drawn to the scriptures. Because they are the final authority for faith and practice, and the lens by which we view our world, it seems that the Bible must be our “go to” as we seek to wade through these peculiar waters. Here are a few conclusions I have come to as I have meditated on these things.
The Gospel, properly understood, is sufficient in changing our culture.
The Gospel as I understand it is simply this—Humanity stands before God condemned because of their sin against his holy Law. God as a just judge must punish the sins of the world. But because He loved the world He sent His only son to die on a cross for the forgiveness of their sins. If we repent of our sins, place our trust in the work of Christ, and are baptized into Christ, we will be justified and redeemed from our sin, and have reconciliation with the God of the universe. The heart of the gospel is that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).”
This is the pure and saving Gospel. This is the Gospel that has the power unto salvation (Romans 1:16). Yet, the Gospel has been changed to include saving structures. That somehow Christ’ redeeming humanity from their sins is not enough—Christ also came to redeem systems of oppression. This I wholeheartedly reject. If Jesus came to save systems he did a poor job of exemplifying that in his earthly ministry. Jesus said he came to “seek and save those who were lost.” He did not come to save systems but to save people. A direct implication of Christ’ saving people from their sins involves a new and transformational life. Those who were once in the dark have now, by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, been completely changed. This involves seeking to love our neighbor and treating everyone in the world with loving kindness.
When we add to the saving gospel “saving structures” we are getting dangerously close to Paul’s admonition to the Galatian church. The church was embracing the idea that one had to put their faith in Christ AND be circumcised in order to be saved. However, Paul says clearly “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:8).” If we are being told that the Gospel includes faith in Christ Jesus atoning work on the cross for sin AND saving structures we have added to the gospel.
Saving humanity from their sins and not their structures is the emphasis in scripture.
The conversation so popular these days is the fight against “systemic racism.” The answer then to fixing the problem of racism is to fix the system. If we as a church can get the right leaders voted in, and pass the right type of legislation, then we can fix the social wrongs in our culture. But is this the mission of the Church? Is this the means by which the gospel compels us to see change? It seems not.
When Gabriel came and delivered the message to Mary concerning the Messiah he did not say “and his name shall be called Jesus because he will save his people from their structures.” No, he said “he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).” When Paul, living in a system that promoted slavery, wrote to the church about living out the gospel, he did not command masters to free their slaves and revolt against the evil system. Rather, he called masters to treat their slaves with respect, and called slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9)!
Paul knew it was the heart that had to be changed and not the system. Thus, when writing a letter to Philemon he calls this regenerated slave owner to receive his run away slave as his brother in Christ (Philemon 17). Paul did not say to Philemon fight the system. He said view your slave in light of the gospel. This heart change can ONLY come through a saving transformation by the power of the Gospel. Thus, I challenge those who say that the gospel is about saving structures to point to the biblical sources in which the Gospel is understood in that way.
True racial reconciliation can only be pursued in the church of Jesus Christ.
When the world seeks racial justice and racial reconciliation it will always fall short of attaining that goal. The reason from a biblical perspective is because humanity is utterly sinful. At the core of our problem is the issue of selfish pride. Outside of Christ no one has the ability to selflessly love others, to the extent in which, hate for someone, merely because of their skin color, decimates. The reason is because outside of a saving relationship with Jesus Christ all of us are tainted in our thinking and behavior. Only because of common-grace-restraints, such as our conscience and governmental ordained laws, is humanity held from manifesting complete revolt and harm toward one another. In the epistle to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul makes this plain:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:11-12)
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity (Ephesians 4:17-19)
This horrid state is the situation every human being faces without placing their trust in Christ. To then encourage the world, who is described in this manner, to then love each other, and seek racial reconciliation seems completely preposterous. There is only “ONE hope (Ephesians 4:4)” for changing the hearts and minds of those in the world. Notice Paul’s response:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace (Ephesians 2:13-15)
But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:20-24)
Paul’s remedy for the helpless state of every unbeliever is the Gospel! This is relevant especially in regards to racism. Notice Paul’s explicit language—in Christ Jesus he has “broken down the wall of hostility.” The answer to racial reconciliation will never be through political activism, but ONLY through the precious blood of Jesus Christ. If you want to be freed from racial divides my recommendation would be to join the church of our Lord Jesus!
Loving our neighbor is the result of a saving gospel.
Finally, it must be clear that as redeemed Christians, transformed by the renewing of our minds, we endeavor to love our neighbor as Christ loved us. Every Christian is compelled to ooze the love of Jesus. When we see injustices and hate toward others our righteous indignation flares up and is manifested in loving kindness toward those who are hurt. 1 John 3:17 says, “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” If someone says they are a Christian and yet hates someone because of their skin color, they are NOT Christians. You can’t be a child of God and hate your neighbor.
So while the church is not in the mission to save systems, it is in the mission of loving their neighbor because of the power of the Gospel in their lives. Christians therefore, are constantly reaching out to the marginalized, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and inviting them to their table of fellowship. We can say to our black friends and neighbors, “I am sorry you have experienced hate and bigotry. I would love to invite your family over for dinner and share with you our hospitality. Most importantly, I would love to share with you a story; a story about the savior of the world. Because of Him you can find true reconciliation and peace.
Just The Gospel!
The intentions behind many of my evangelical friends are good. They want to see a change in our culture with regard to racial discrimination. I just think they are seeking this change with medicine that can never cure the disease. It gets more dangerous when they begin to imply that saving structures is not only a way of fixing our cultures problems, it is a part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Humanity is broken; broken from sin and transgression. The only antidote to this is the blood of Christ. More than ever we as Christians must herald the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Only this message, and the Christian lives that vindicate it, will solve the world’s problem. As Christians let’s leave it to the world to try to fix their system. Let’s not get distracted from our sole mission—to preach Christ crucified! Then and only then will we begin to see Christ’ Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven!