[Editorial Note: This is the seventh post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
WE AFFIRM that salvation is granted by God's grace alone received through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Every believer is united to Christ, justified before God, and adopted into his family. Thus, in God's eyes there is no difference in spiritual value or worth among those who are in Christ. Further, all who are united to Christ are also united to one another regardless of age, ethnicity, or sex. All believers are being conformed to the image of Christ. By God's regenerating and sanctifying grace all believers will be brought to a final glorified, sinless state of perfection in the day of Jesus Christ.
WE DENY that salvation can be received in any other way. We also deny that salvation renders any Christian free from all remaining sin or immune from even grievous sin in this life. We further deny that ethnicity excludes anyone from understanding the gospel, nor does anyone's ethnic or cultural heritage mitigate or remove the duty to repent and believe.
Salvation. It, along with the related term gospel (the subject matter of Article VI), is one of the most widely used and recognized of evangelical terms but also one about which there is much misunderstanding.
The New Testament employs two primary words for salvation: sozo (σῴζω) and rhuomai (ῥύομαι), both of which carry the idea of rescue or deliverance. Salvation then, in a very real sense, is an act of deliverance and being saved is to be in a constant state of being delivered. When God saves someone, He delivers that person. In Psalm 144:1-2 David writes, "Blessed be the Lord, my rock...my lovingkindness and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer." God, by His character and nature is a deliverer. But from what? From what are we delivered and into what are we delivered?
We are delivered from ourselves - Most people today have this vague belief that as long as they are "good" people who do good works and are sincere that these efforts will earn them a place in Heaven. The notion that we can save ourselves, referred to by theologians as autosoterism, may be popular but it is foreign to the Bible. Scripture very clearly teaches that "all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment" (Isaiah 64:6) before a thrice holy God. Good works will profit those apart from Christ nothing in the day of judgment and will serve only as damning testaments against their self-righteousness.
Just as the Ethiopian cannot change his skin and the leopard cannot change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23), so we cannot deliver ourselves. Repentance from sin is not something a person can do on his own. Repentance unto salvation is in and of itself granted by God (Acts 5:30-31; 11:17-18; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Saving faith in Christ's atoning work on the cross is also granted by God. The Apostle Paul writes,
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The "gift of God" in the Greek is grammatically neutral indicating that both grace and faith are divine gifts sovereignly given by God. If we could somehow gin up faith on our own then we would have reason to boast in ourselves. But such self-boasting is exactly one of the things from which the Gospel delivers us.1
We are delivered from sin and its power - When God grants repentance and saving faith a person is delivered from the judicial penalty of sin. Every human being is a sinner by nature, by choice and by action (John 3:19; Romans 3:23; 5:12) and is spiritually dead deservedly facing eternal judgment in Hell (Ephesians 2:1, 3; Romans 6:23; Revelation 14:9-11). Once wrought in the human heart, the miracle of the new birth frees so completely from the penalty of sin that "there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" and against God's elect no one can bring a charge (Romans 8:1, 33).
Not only are we delivered from sin's penalty, but we are also delivered from its power over us. Before conversion a person is a helpless slave to the ruthless master of his own depraved desires. After conversion, he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God and is a slave to his new Master, Jesus Christ. The Christian has been granted a new nature and with it comes new desires. As believers we begin to love what God loves and hate what He hates.
It is not that a Christian is incapable of sin. Though often used in an evangelistic context, 1 John 1:9 is written to believers, not the lost. As Christians we can and do sin. But the glorious truth is that though Christians stumble into sin, they do not swim in sin. Christians do not relish sin and look for opportunities to sin. One of the hallmarks of a genuine believer is that when he does sin it grieves him. Arthur W. Pink writes:
The nature of Christ's salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a savior from hell rather than a savior from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived, for there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of Fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.2
It is good and it is right to warn people to flee from the wrath to come. But just as much as we should want deliverance from hell, we should want deliverance from sin. We should have a godly sorrow over our sins (2 Corinthians 7:9-11). When we sin, it should grieve us because we understand that our sin grieves God. The gospel delivers us from our love of sin to a love for holiness.
This deliverance from our fallen affections leads to a deliverance toward holiness and sanctification. In 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul gives a long list of sins which mark the lives of unbelievers: fornication, idolatry, covetousness, drunkenness, homosexuality, theft, reviling and swindling. Such people will not inherit the kingdom of God. Then Paul says, "Such were some of you" (vs. 11). Notice the past tense. His readers were those things, but they are not anymore. We can no more speak, for example, of a gay Christian than we could of a murdering Christian. Christians do not have their identity in sin, but in Christ.
Paul then says, "but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God" (vs. 11). Notice these three terms: washed, sanctified, and justified. The two bookend terms, "washed" and "justified," deal with the new birth, salvation. The term in the middle, "sanctified," deals with the believer's personal growth and conformity into the image of Christ. Those whom God saves, He sanctifies. There are no exceptions to this. Where there is no sanctification, there has been no salvation. It is a package deal. The initial, definitive sanctification that occurs at conversion continues throughout the believer's life until glorification.
We are delivered into a new family - The new birth gives us a new family. Those who receive Christ are "given the right to become the children of God" (John 1:12) and have "received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" (Romans 8:15). That is a staggering reality. God takes those who were formerly His enemies, delivers them from sin and adopts them into His own family. Consider this passage from Matthew's gospel:
"While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, 'Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You." But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, 'Who is My mother and who are My brothers?' And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, 'Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother'" (Matt. 12:46-50).
Many of us have experienced a strain in relationships or even alienation from members of our family after conversion to Christ. What a comfort this passage is in such times. Our salvation may result in alienation from our blood family but we also gain a new family - and a big one at that. We instantly gain millions of brothers and sisters in Christ scattered all over the world.
This brings me to one aspect of the social justice movement that deeply grieves my heart. The message from many in this camp is that the gospel is sufficient to cleanse one's conscience and turn one's behavior from adultery, theft, fornication, blasphemy, etc., - but not racism! To deal with racism the big guns must be brought to bear. I do not understand such thinking.
One of the great blessings that has been mine as an evangelist is that God has granted me opportunities, as of this writing, to preach in 25 countries. I have preached in countries throughout Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia. It does not matter what country I am in, with what culture I am surrounded, how much or how little material belongings the people have, or even what language is spoken, when I am with like-minded believers in Christ there is an instant bond, an instant kindred spirit, an instant fellowship and an instant love between us.
Another thing that does not matter is ethnicity. I do not care what color their skin is nor do they care what color mine is. I have never been in a church overseas and had the thought, 'They really need more white people in here.' I have never once felt unwelcome. We do not mistrust one another. We love one another. Even though we may have just met for the first time I have an instant love for them and they for me - because we are family. And because we have all been delivered from Adam's family into the family of God, none of these superficial differences matter. The dividing wall has been broken down (Ephesians 2:13-19) and we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
Salvation is deliverance. Glorious and beautiful deliverance. We have been delivered from the dead and made alive in Christ (Colossians 2:13). We have been delivered from sin and its deadly hold on our hearts. We have been delivered into the family of God where superficial differences matter not. And, we will one day be delivered and presented to the Son as a love gift from the Father where we will enjoy Him and glorify Him forever (John 6:37; 17:2, 9, 24) all "to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1:6).
1. This in no way diminishes man's responsibility and accountability before God. God is sovereign and man is responsible. God's sovereignty and man's responsibility are twin truths that, at times, are even seen in the same passage. See for example: Matt. 11:27-28; Acts 2:23.
2. Pink, Arthur W. "A. W. Pink's Studies in the Scriptures," pg. 373. Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.
[Editorial Note: This is the sixth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]
Article 6: Gospel
WE AFFIRM that the gospel is the divinely-revealed message concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ--especially his virgin birth, righteous life, substitutionary sacrifice, atoning death, and bodily resurrection--revealing who he is and what he has done with the promise that he will save anyone and everyone who turns from sin by trusting him as Lord.
WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.
Within the evangelical culture today marketing tactics often employ keywords as a means of increasing sales. There is no greater marketing term in our day than the word gospel. Many people believe that if they can somehow attach the word gospel to their product as a descriptor it will bring instant success. It's not uncommon to see people talking about gospel books, gospel marketing, gospel people, gospel diet, gospel music, and gospel issues. In the controversy on social justice, people are insisting that it's a gospel issue. In the same way that everything we disagree with isn't heresy, everything that we do agree with isn't a gospel issue.
The New Testament Greek word for gospel (εὐαγγέλιον) literally means "good news." While many have objected to "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" as being unaware of cultural evils and misinformed of how to approach the depravity of our culture, it really becomes a heated discussion when we insert the gospel. Some consider social justice a gospel issue while others would say that it's something that is acutely affected and influenced by the gospel. This is why implications, applications, and illustrations must be handled with precision and care. In most cases, both groups (woke and non-woke) evangelicals would agree on the gospel, but the real controversy comes in how the gospel is applied to a culture. In this case, the controversy is centered primarily in the denial of Article VI.
Defining our Terms
Paul made a definitive statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 as he penned his letter to the church in the city of Corinth. He provides a summary statement of the gospel by writing, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." In Romans 1:16, Paul stated that he was not ashamed of the gospel. Robert Haldane comments on Romans 1:16 by stating:
This Gospel, then, which Paul was ready to preach, and of which he was not ashamed, was the Gospel of God concerning His Son. The term Gospel, which signifies glad tidings, is taken from Isaiah 52:7, and 61:1, where the Messiah is introduced as saying, "The Lord hath anointed Me to preach good tidings."1
The glad tidings of God (gospel) involve the glorious mystery of God's mercy and saving grace that is granted to fallen sinners through the blood sacrifice of Jesus. What better message could we be identified by and what better message could stand at the heart of our ministry? God the Son took upon himself human flesh, lived a sinless life which the first Adam failed to do, and then was crushed by the Father on the cross in the place of ruined sinners. The message of the gospel points to the fact that Jesus proved his sovereign power by the resurrection and we cling to his work alone by faith for the remission of sin. His unconditional grace is granted to all who believe--regardless of the color of skin, economic status, sex, or intellectual capabilities of the repentant sinner.
Affirming our Denial
Any statement containing affirmations and denials will bring heat in the area of what the document is intended to oppose. In the case of the gospel, while social justice is not a "gospel issue" in the sense that it's not a definitional component of the gospel--it's quite possible to insert social justice into the gospel and thereby create a specific brand of heresy (Gal. 1:6-9). In the denial, the Statement reads:
We deny that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel.
Within this debate on social justice, some people are suggesting that if you're not performing works of social justice (admitting systemic racism, oppression, and other injustices while working toward a solution) that you are not a true follower of Jesus.
Thabiti Anyabwile, in his sermon, "Preach Justice as True Worship" made the following statement:
"We preach and we do justice because we wish to be like our Lord and we wish to see his righteousness fill the earth. The pursuit of justice and equity does not take us from the heart of our Savior. The pursuit of justice and equity takes us deeper into the heart of our Savior. If we know God in Jesus Christ whom he has sent, then we have been instructed by wisdom. And indeed if Christ has been made to be wisdom for us, then as the proverbs say we ought to understand justice completely. We ought to understand that doing justice is essential to that worship that pleases God our father."
When I hear a statement such as this, I find so much with which I can agree completely. In fact, if you look at the whole article which comes from his sermon that's linked on the same page, you see a reference to Romans 12:1-2 and the call to becoming a "living sacrifice." If by "doing justice" Thabiti Anyabwile means that we should stand in opposition to sinful behavior, live righteously, and love our neighbor--I can agree with such a statement. If, by chance, Thabiti Anyabwile intends that we become socially and politically engaged while embracing the ideologies of white privilege, systemic racism, and the systemic oppression of women within our culture and specifically evangelicalism--I would reject his understating of worship. We can't teach Christians to assume the gospel and to emphasize justice and expect a good outcome.
Bishop Rudolph McKissick, Jr. recently posted a clip of a sermon where the following statement was made:
"Social justice is a biblical issue...it's not a black issue, it's a humanity issue. It's not a hood issue, it's a global issue. And until we understand that Jesus himself said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach liberty to the captive, to set free those who are oppressed." If that ain't social justice, I don't know what is."
Not only is that a misguided approach to biblical hermeneutics--it misses the point of Luke 4:16-30. A clear contextual reading of that account of Jesus in Nazareth will demonstrate that God often does the unexpected. Furthermore, the emphasis is placed upon the spiritual poverty and slavery to sin and how Christ delivers people from spiritual poverty rather than the social needs of individuals.
It is critical that we are crystal clear about what we believe the gospel to be, the basis of biblical worship, and the mission of the Church. If a person is not careful, mission drift can lead the local church and the local pastor off into the world of cultural Marxism and fairly soon the pulpit which was once the focal point of Christian worship is transformed into a political stump where humanitarian "do-gooder" talks are delivered to socially motivated people in the name of Jesus.
We are slaves of righteousness as children of God and we must live justly in a fallen world. However, how we live (for good or evil) has nothing to do with the definition of the gospel. How we live will be shaped by the gospel as James rightly articulated the point that "faith apart from works is dead" (James 2:26). We must not celebrate sin nor tolerate injustice--especially within the ranks of evangelicalism. Such an acceptance of evil would be the height of hypocrisy.
Tim Keller has recently spoken out against "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel," stating the following:
"It's not so much what [the statement] says, but what it does. It's trying to marginalize people talking about race and justice, it's trying to say, 'You're really not biblical' and it's not fair in that sense...If somebody tried to go down [the statement] with me, 'Will you agree with this, will you agree with this,' I would say, 'You're looking at the level of what it says and not the level of what it's doing. I do think what it's trying to do is it's trying to say, 'Don't make this emphasis, don't worry about the poor, don't worry about the injustice, that's really what it's saying.' Even if I could agree with most of it...it's what it's doing that I don't like."
What exactly is the Statement seeking to do with its words? Is the document really seeking to marginalize people who genuinely care for the poor and mobilize relief efforts to care for such individuals in the name of Christ? Is it really true that the Statement is seeking to marginalize people who oppose racism?
The Statement does have several goals and one is to separate the gospel from social justice. In fact, it would be really helpful to drop "social" as a descriptor of biblical justice altogether. It's the gospel that changes the heart of fallen depraved sinners (2 Cor. 5:17). Only through the power of the gospel can a dead sinner be given life. This is a work of God's saving grace and we must remember that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17).
How Does the Gospel Produce the Fruit of Righteousness and Justice?
The mission of the gospel is to bring depraved sinners into reconciliation with God (2 Cor. 5:17-6:2). Reconciliation only happens through the power of the gospel (Rom. 1:16). Preaching justice will lead people to fear the sword in the hand of the government (Rom. 13:1-7). Preaching the gospel will lead people to fear God who is bigger than the government (Rom. 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:11).
When Amy Carmichael went to serve in India, she was no jewelry-laden prosperity preacher nor was she a low-beam humanitarian aid servant. She was a high-beam bright light in India who served children and broken women with the gospel of Jesus. Yet, as she witnessed the Hindu suttee and heard the cries of women being burned alive (Hindu people believed that women should want to die when their husbands died, so as they burned the body of the widow's husband, they would place her on the funeral pyre of her dead husband) she engaged in the pursuit of justice for these women and labored to stop this practice. Her engagement was motivated by her gospel mission in India.
John Paton was convinced that the gospel had the power to change the heart of even the hardest sinner. As he penned his autobiography, he wanted to prove his point to the sophisticated Europeans who had a low view of the power of the gospel. As he recounted what he had witnessed in his ministry, he penned the following account of the conversion of Kowia, a chief on Tanna. When he was dying he came to say farewell to Paton.
"Farewell, Missi, I am very near death now; we will meet again in Jesus and with Jesus!"...Abraham sustained him, tottering to the place of graves; there he lay down...and slept in Jesus; and there the faithful Abraham buried him beside his wife and children. Thus died a man who had been a cannibal chief, but by the grace of God and the love of Jesus changed, transfigured into a character of light and beauty. What think ye of this, ye skeptics as to the reality of conversion?...I knew that day, and I know now, that there is one soul at least from Tanna to sing the glories of Jesus in Heaven--and, oh, the rapture when I meet him there!2
When Jim Elliot and his missionary partners never called out on their radio after their encounter with the savage Auca Indians in the jungle of Ecuador, the wives of these men feared the worst. After a search team was sent into the jungle to locate the men, they found their bodies. They had been attacked and killed by the Indians as they sought to reach them with the gospel. Less than two years later Elisabeth Elliot (the wife of Jim Elliot) and her daughter Valerie along with Rachel Saint (Nate's sister) moved to the Auca village. The once savage people were transformed by the gospel and today they are a friendly tribe. It was a commitment to the gospel that radically changed the Auca tribe even resulting in the change of their name to the Huaorani tribe.
As the local church is committed to the gospel (from preaching to discipleship)--hearts are changed and it results in a more just and equitable society. The Church of Jesus is committed to doing justice, but justice can't change a person's heart and biblical justice cannot be disconnected from the gospel. While justice is not the gospel, true biblical justice is connected to our God and you can't have the gospel without God. Social justice leads people toward humanitarian work and social engagement while the gospel leads the Church to put their faith into action. When the gospel changes a person's heart it will lead them to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly for the glory of God (Micah 6:8; 1 Cor. 10:31).
1. Robert Haldane, An Exposition of Romans, electronic ed. (Simpsonville, SC: Christian Classics Foundation, 1996), 55.
2. John Paton, The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2013), 160.
Dr. Josh Buice serves as the pastor of Pray's Mill Baptist Church in Douglasville, Georgia -- just west of Atlanta. He is the founding director of the G3 Conference, the author of the theology blog DeliveredByGrace.com. Dr. Buice studied at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned his M.Div. and D.Min. in expository preaching.
[Editorial Note: At Reformation21, we aim to offer a confessional Reformed perspective on contemporary issues. Many times contemporary issues are also controversial. We have never shied away from controversy. Controversial issues are sometimes also complex. We believe that in the case of things that are complex and controversial, we need to be even more careful that we are listening well and exercising biblical discernment. As the Bible instructs us: "Know this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:20).
Our friends at Founders Ministries have recently been involved in helping to produce "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel." It has caused quite a stir. It is a controversial statement on a complex issue. Some have said that the Statement is too broad and vague in its criticism. So we want to give the authors of the Statement a chance to elaborate further. Others have charged its writers with effectively implying that caring for the poor and caring about injustice should not matter to Christians (though the actual language of the Statement suggests otherwise). We believe the authors deserve a chance to explain what they were saying and what they intended.
The Statement on Social Justice was not produced by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Some of its defenders have close ties to the Alliance, while others have convictions that lie outside of the boundaries of the confessions to which we subscribe. While we are not officially endorsing the Statement, we certainly do believe its authors ought to be able to speak for themselves on these timely and important matters. We are mindful of the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17: "The one who states his case first seems right until the other comes and examines him." So we invite you to come and examine these important issues. And our prayer is that all of us can conduct this examination in a spirit of discernment, wisdom, and brotherly love.
Editorial Director of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals]
WE AFFIRM that the Bible is God's Word, breathed out by him. It is inerrant, infallible, and the final authority for determining what is true (what we must believe) and what is right (how we must live). All truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God's final Word, which is Scripture alone.
WE DENY that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority, and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We further deny that competency to teach on any biblical issue comes from any qualification for spiritual people other than clear understanding and simple communication of what is revealed in Scripture.
The first article in the "Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" addresses the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. This is highly appropriate for a document that that has been issued in order to defend and affirm the gospel of Jesus Christ. How do we know what that gospel is? To what source do those who profess that gospel look for their marching orders? The answer is Scripture and Scripture alone.
The classic passage in the Bible about its nature and authority is 2 Timothy 3:16-17. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."
If the Bible is truly our final authority then other philosophies cannot be. This does not mean that there is nothing useful or true in such philosophies, but that we are only to accept what is found in them that corresponds to reality as revealed in Scripture. Biology, sociology, psychology, as well as other disciplines, can provide helpful descriptions of reality. Their claims, however, must all be evaluated in the light of Scripture.
This is precisely what God's people are required to do.
And when they say to you, "Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter," should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn" (Isaiah 8:19-20, my emphasis).
If the chirpings and mutterings that derive from various aspects of intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory do not accord with God's written Word, then we are to dismiss them as having no light in them. The Apostle Paul applied this prophetic assessment when he wrote, "See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8).
The whole "Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" is an attempt to take Paul's admonition to heart and clarify key doctrines that are in danger of being undermined by worldly philosophies. These philosophies, if left unchecked, will undermine the gospel of Christ and lead people away from Him.
The statement asserts that "all truth claims and ethical standards must be tested by God's final Word, which is Scripture alone." Since Scripture is breathed out by God (θεόπνευστος), it is inerrant and, therefore, authoritative. What it teaches, we are obligated to believe. Where it leads, we are obligated to follow. When anyone tries to influence our faith or conduct, as believers we must evaluate what is being said by the Bible. If what is being taught is not explicitly stated or inferentially contained in the Holy Scriptures then Christians are not to be bound by it as if it comes from God.
What this practically means is that every time we accept teaching that tells us what we "must," "ought" or "should" believe or do as Christians it is because such teaching derives from God's Word.
The most faithful, helpful Christian leaders and teachers, then, are those who most clearly understand and simply teach what God has revealed in the Bible. A person's background or experience may provide peculiar opportunities for understanding Scripture in more personal or practical ways, but it is only competency in handling the Word of God that makes such a person a trustworthy spiritual guide.
Spiritual people--those who have been born of God's Spirit and are trusting Jesus Christ as Lord--want to grow in His grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18). This is both a privilege and a responsibility and is what leads us on to spiritual maturity. Such maturity, far more than one's race, sex or life experiences, is what qualifies a believer to be helpful to others in knowing and following Christ.
Ours is a day when authority is perhaps the most crucial issue confronting us. We are like the servants in Jesus' parable of the ten minas (Luke 19:11-27). Instead of carrying out his business as we await his return, too often our attitude says, "We do not want this man to reign over us" (14). Yet, Christ is our only King. Because of that, his Word is our final authority.
In Romans 12:2 Paul gives us the following straightforward command: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." The only way for us to obey this admonition and to avoid allowing ourselves to be pressed into the world's ways of thinking, feeling, and aspiring is by the continual training and renewing of our minds. We must keep growing in our understanding and application of Scripture. We must learn it, believe it, and submit our lives to it.
Only by such commitment to God's Word will Christians be able to distinguish between truth and error and avoid being led astray by false teaching that creeps into our churches.
There was a recent advertisement on Twitter for a Christian event in Mobile, AL titled, "Shrinking the Divide: A Gathering for Racial Reconciliation" featuring John Perkins and Russell D. Moore. There were some immediate negative responses from numerous professing Christians on Twitter. In summary, the comments basically asserted that Jesus has already conquered the divide on the cross and that this kind of conference wrongly implies there is something lacking in what Christ has done. According to the critics, talking about division is what really divides. These kinds of responses have become all too common along with pejorative name-calling against anyone who speaks out against racial injustice as SJW's (Social Justice Warriors) and cultural Marxists.
Such comments are often followed with the idea that talking about race or racial injustice at all is a waste of time and distracts us from the gospel. After all, it is frequently said, the gospel is the only answer to racism. Racism, they suggest, automatically disappears when the gospel takes prominence. It is a bizarre sentiment coming from conservative evangelicals. If racism disappears when someone is genuinely converted to Christ then do they believe that slaveholders Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and R.L. Dabney were unconverted men who didn't really believe the biblical gospel? If not, such rhetoric is empty.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who I have never heard anyone describe as a Marxist, gospel-compromising, SJW, preached a sermon on John 4:13-14 titled, "Spiritual Dullness and Evasive Tactics," in which he brought up the issue of racism. Early in the sermon on Jesus's encounter with the woman at the well Lloyd-Jones explains,
"We have dealt with some general prejudices that hindered this woman. She turned to our Lord in amazement when he asked her for a drink of water. She said, "How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria?" We face national prejudices, class prejudices, race prejudices, gender prejudices, and so on. There is almost no end to them. What harm they have done in the life of the individual Christian, and what harm they have done in the life of the church throughout the centuries--the things we cling to so tenaciously simply because we have been born like that!"
Lloyd-Jones then proceded to address the prejudices that the church battles both societally and personally. He explained that falling into this type of sin is a mark of spiritual dullness and gospel evasiveness. Regarding the woman Jesus meets at the well, Lloyd-Jones says, "She shows us that you can be intelligent, you can be quick and alert, you can be subtle at disputation, and yet the whole time be spiritually dull." He goes on to clarify, "You see, this is not a question of learning; spiritual understanding has nothing to do with natural ability, nothing at all." Of the "hindrances and obstacles" this woman used to evade the fullness of Jesus gospel message Lloyd-Jones declares, "As they were true in the case of this woman, so they are, in principle, still true of all of us."
Anticipating the objection that the prejudice and gospel avoidance of the women at the well was merely because she was an unbeliever and such sins could not be found in a genuine Christian who believes the gospel Lloyd-Jones explains what he refers to as a fallacy:
"It is assumed, therefore, that while this spiritual dullness is true of an unconverted person, like the woman of Samaria, it cannot be true of a Christian. But it can! The fact that we have become Christians, that we are born again, that the Spirit of God is in us, does not mean that we have solved all our problems; that is only a beginning. We now have to go through a great process of readjustment, and it is because so many people fail to realize that and, still more, fail to act upon it that they are constantly in trouble."
Lloyd-Jones attacked this fallacy when he says, "Spiritual understanding is not something that happens automatically. Not at all! You must work out your own salvation in this way." He goes on to note the multitude of imperatives directed at Christians in the New Testament by declaring, "All this is addressed to Christians, and it is because we fail to realize this that we are so frequently in trouble and raise these hindrances that prevent us from receiving this well of water that springs up into everlasting life." He provides five reasons Christians struggle with spiritual dullness and gospel evasiveness in our lives:
(1) Old pre-conversion habits we still struggle with.
(2) The feeling that we have everything; we received it all at conversion, and there is nothing more to be gained.
(4) The magical view of faith, people seem to think that faith is a magic word that completely changes everything.
(5) In preaching and teaching we tend put too much emphasis upon the will and upon momentary experience of decision and surrender.
According to Lloyd-Jones, we are all experts in the kind of gospel evasiveness that we find exhibited in the woman at the well, shifting the ground and changing topics. We will even use the fact of our Christian conversion to avoid living out the gospel,
"How we evade the issue, how we parry the question! It is because we do not like being searched, we do not like being examined, we do not like being disturbed. This is 'the natural man,' the old nature that is still with us. You do not get rid of your old nature when you become a Christian, when you are born again. The old man has gone, but the old nature has not gone; and the old nature, the natural self, does not like being searched. That element remains in us. We resent it; we do not want to be made to feel that we are wrong. We even dislike the very process that disturbs us out of our sloth: 'Why, we are Christians! I was converted.'"
Lloyd-Jones went on to insist that the gospel is meant to disturb and confront us. He then pressed in on our responsibility to apply our lives to the truth of John 4:13-14 by exhorting, "He searches us for our own good, but it is painful; so we evade it by taking up other issues. We have seen how the woman of Samaria did it, but what about us?" Thus, he brings up the horrific sin of racism again and explains that it is even possible to denounce someone else in order to evade dealing with your own sins. Lloyd-Jones explains, "You see, in denouncing somebody else, you are shielding yourself." That is precisely what the racists does and it it also what some who denounce racists are doing to shield themselves.
Every way that Christians evade walking in line with the gospel must be confronted with specificity and clarity. We have this responsibility in regard to racism and every other anti-gospel attitude we embrace and action we take. Yes, Jesus has already conquered the racial divide on the cross and the gospel is the answer to the sin of racism. Absolutely true! Nevertheless, as Paul notes, it is sadly often the case that we still "walk as the Gentiles do" (Eph 4:17) in far too many ways. May we keep reminding one another without apology, "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" (Eph 4:20).
There is something transcendently unifying when a group is engaged together in a singular, heroic cause. For instance, historians have often highlighted the camaraderie and esprit de corps they have found among the members of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps embodies, perhaps more than anything else in American public life, a brotherhood--forged in the forest of Belleau Wood, on the sands of Iwo Jima, through the bitter cold of Chosin Reservoir, and in the streets of Fallujah. The Marine Corps represents an ethos which has gripped the American imagination since our nation's inception. And that ethos centers around the fact that Marines fight America's toughest battles. When I entered the Corps in 2007, it was at the height of our involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan War. As Marines we shared a common enemy and a common mission and our success depended on our unity as Marines. In this war-time environment, it was normal for Marines from every socio-economic background in America to forge close friendships with each other. I served with Marines who loved those of different ethnicities as much or even more than their own families, and they were willing to lay down their lives for each other. It really did not matter whether you were white, black, Asian, Republican, Democrat, poor, rich, or something in between (not that these identities and distinctions are unimportant), what mattered was that you were a Marine and that we needed each other to win the fight against a formidable enemy.
By way of contrast, our ethnically, politically and socio-economically diverse nation is currently rift with division. Rod Dreher and many others predicted that this is exactly where we would be, after President Trump was elected. It is also not surprising that the wider divisions in the culture have seeped down into the Church. What is surprising is that rather than seeking to maintain biblical unity by the means outlined in the New Testament, some in the Church are turning to secular social constructs and methods--advocating for their use in the Church. It seems that the sufficiency of Scripture is being compromised by many who continue to give lip service to its inerrancy and authority.
That being said, in the midst of all the political and ideological division in our nation, the Church has a golden opportunity to achieve and model true Christian unity. Our unity should be a central part of our prophetic witness to this culture. We need to turn back to the Scripture to discover how that unity was achieved and how it is to be nurtured and maintained among the members of Christ's body.
New Testament Unity in the Gospel
The New Testament emphasis, over and over again, is that true Christian unity is only built on a right understanding of the gospel. No matter our national allegiance, economic background, political party, or ethnicity, the gospel unites believers in one faith, one 'body' (1 Cor 12:12, 17). This is why Paul, a devout Jew, called Titus, a young Greek, "my true child" (Tit 1:4). To what does Paul attribute this close relationship (which, incidentally, contradicted the social boundaries of the ancient world)? He called it the "common faith" (Tit 1:4). It should not be lost on us that it is the gospel and a unity in orthodox doctrine which enables a once prejudiced Jew to call a former godless Greek his own legitimate son. It is also the gospel which enables Paul to write to the Romans, "For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you--that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mind" (Rom 1:11-12). Our common Christian faith is to bring us together above everything else and cause us to give encouragement to one another. The true gospel and the true gospel alone must be our primary focus--as Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasized so well at the height of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century.
It is our knowledge and love of God and the Lord Jesus Christ which transforms our relationships with one another. As Jesus taught, it is those who obey the gospel who are His true "mother and brothers" (Matt 12:49). The family of God outstrips all our other allegiances and affiliations. This includes our allegiance to a political party or ethnicity. Identity, and therefore unity, in the New Testament is almost always linked to the fact that we have been united to Christ in faith through the gospel. This is surely Paul's argument in Galatians 3:26-28, where the Apostle wrote,
"For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 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."
Paul was not insisting that these other identities do not matter (indeed he makes a great deal about Jewish identity in Romans 9-11 and male and female identity in Ephesians 5); rather, he is highlighting the fact that these identities are inconsequential when it comes to our standing in Christ. Nor should they be the primary emphasis in matters of Christian unity and fellowship with one another. This is also Paul's point in the second half of Ephesians 2, but I am not going to belabor the point.
On the flip-side, the gospel is also an equal-party offender. Paul's point in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians is crystal clear. Both Jews and Greeks were confronted by the message of the cross because it grated against their pre-conceived expectations of God--the Jews could not stand that their messiah could die the death of one cursed by God and the Greeks thought it foolishness that a powerful God would allow himself to be abused and killed. But the message of the gospel, "to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks" is "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:24). This is why it is a travesty if our local church congregations do not reflect the ethnic diversity of our surrounding communities. For example, an ethnically monolithic church in a diverse geographical community is an affront to the unity the gospel produces among believers. For God is also an equal party elector and Savior. I could say a lot more here, but I think the point is made. The gospel is meant to break into diverse communities and bring a united people together who, by the world's standards, are not supposed to be united.
The New Testament Mission of God
The second principle of New Testament unity is a resolute focus on the mission of Christ. Christ charges us to "make disciples" through the proclamation of the gospel (Matt 28:19-20). Paul emphasized over and over again the necessity of gospel preaching in cultures, rife with issues of injustice (e.g. 2 Tim 4:2, Tit 1:3). It was this focus and the spiritual battle against the forces of darkness, which oppose this mission, which united the Church together.
In our day, many issues of justice such as abortion, slavery and human trafficking, or the treatment of refugees are important...very important. But they are not the primary mission of the Church. Nor are those issues what the Church is to be united around. Not that the Church cannot speak to those issues or that individual Christians cannot engage those issues of injustice with great success, but cultural transformation is not the primary mission of Christ's Church.
In the pages of the New Testament we discover that the early Church rallied around its primary mission, which was and is the proclamation of the gospel. As Christ's Church we have been commissioned with the most important mission in history. It is Christ's mission. And this mission demands all of our effort and energies as well as our unity in the gospel. We also have the most formidable enemy that has ever existed: Satan himself. Satan would love nothing more than for Christ's church to be divided against herself arguing about privilege, power, and political affiliation. Such discussions, in light of our daunting mission, are like stopping to debate about who is holding the fire hose and who is cranking the ladder in the midst of a five-alarm fire. We can be sure that when the Church leaves her primary mission behind and leaves her flank exposed in division that Satan is rejoicing.
When We Sin Against Each Other
Even when we are unified in our identity in the gospel and thoroughly engaged in Christ's mission, there will be times when we sin against one another. Christians will inevitably offend, and sadly sometimes grievously hurt, one another. Sometimes we offend even when we do not intend to do so. This leads to the third principle of Christian unity. Believers are called by God to relentlessly love one another. 1 Peter 4:8, Peter says, "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins." Our love for one another is an overflow of Christ's love for us (1 John 4:7). Our hearts are to overflow with love for one another inn such a way that our "love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). We are to think the best of one another and we are to be quick to extend forgiveness to one another (Col 3:13). This is key to our preserving the unity that we already have in our mutual union with Christ.
There is no room in the Church for harboring bitterness against a fellow Christian. There is no room for demanding that wrongs be repaid or 'reparations' be made--as some have recently been suggesting. There is no room for continually harboring doubt and distrust towards those who indwelt by the same Holy Spirit. Rather, we should be defined by a spirit of love and forgiveness. This love for one another, even when wronged, is what will stun our embittered culture.
In our divided culture, unity in the Church will be only nurtured and maintained, using the methods and principles that Jesus and the Apostles have outlined for us in the New Testament. If all of the members of our churches would commit to holding fast to our unifying identity in the gospel, relentlessly engaging in Christ's mission of gospel proclamation, and being clothed in Christian love for one another, our churches will be those that effectively maintain unity. These bodies of believers, from diverse backgrounds and idealogies, will serve as beacons of unity in a divided world. I'm hopeful that the Holy Spirit will do a great work among us to this end. This is our time and our opportunity to maintain and model unity God's way.
I fear that much, if not most, counseling in churches hurts people more than it helps them. Why would I say that? I say it because pastors want to be liked and perceived as caring shepherds. Often, that fact overrules the need to push back against what the person perceives to be their problem in order to challenge what needs to be changed in their thinking and actions. There are often long-standing underlying patterns of non-biblical responses to people and circumstances that must be exposed.
People rarely rightly identify their problem. What people perceive to be their problem is often not their actual problem. It usually takes time, effort, and intrusive questions to get at the real problem. In other words, effective discipleship counseling almost invariably involves pushing back at what the person thinks their problem is. Even when this is done with gentleness and respect, it is often met with a sense of offense and outrage.
Herein lies the problem. People come to be counseled assuming that you will accept their self-definition of their problem. If you do so, you will invariably give them advice that does not help them. Often, such advice will make their problems worse rather than better, but they will leave thinking of you as kind, caring, and compassionate. If you push to get at their real problems you'll often be labeled unkind, harsh, and an uncompassionate shepherd. In fact, some people will get mad, leave the church, and find a church down the road where a staff person will be glad to superficially console them.
Every church has to decide whether or not they are really trying to help and disciple people or are they simply a public relations firm, maintaining the brand and image at all costs. Sadly, it is often the superficial pastors and staff, consumed with image and perception, who are often outwardly applauded as being kind and caring shepherds. This applause comes even though they are neglecting the real problems of the sheep and doing them real harm.
Some time ago, I met with my staff to tell them we are going to be loving truth-tellers in counseling because we are called to be disciple-makers, not self-promoters. I made it clear that we often have to risk making people mad in order to really help them and if they made someone mad by loving them enough to tell them the truth I would stand behind them. Not long after this meeting, a young adult came for counseling with one of our pastors. She explained the people who were, in her mind, the problem (the issues were normal disagreements and mildly unkind comments) and asked for help in dealing with these people.
After attempting to get to the heart of the matter, the pastor told the young adult that he didn't think these other people were her primary problem. He explained that most people go through the kinds of conflict they were describing in relating to other people. He suggested to the one being counseled that she should consider she might be the problem because she had been responding to almost every situation in a highly self-referential way. The pastor suggested they should develop a plan to cultivate humility and an others-centered focus.
His redirection of the problem was not well received. The young adult got angry and suggested that the pastor was insensitive and victim-blaming, stormed out, knocking a few things off the desk on the way out. The pastor came to me and recounted what happened and said, even though what he said was true, he felt terrible about how the session ended. I asked him if he said what he said gently and out of love, he assured me he did. I told him the only way the young adult could be helped was by the truth and we committed to pray for the person. A few weeks, later the young adult showed up again at the pastor's office. This time to apologize and to say he was right and now wanted to be discipled regarding these issues. He connected her with a disciple partner and I am pleased to report a very positive life transformation in that individual's life.
I mention that situation to ask what would have happened if the pastor had just accepted the young adults self-definition of the problem out of self-protecting image managing? The person's life would have been made worse, and the needed humility would have been neglected rather than cultivated. As long as the counselee kept the problem defined as external, she could avoid the needed personal growth. I fear that too many pastors and staff are willing to leave people in their sinful attitudes because they love temporary peace and personal reputation more than they love the one being counseled. And more importantly, more than they love Christ who gave them the authority to counsel in His name.
Jesus is Lord of all, including discipleship counseling in His churches. The rich, young, ruler asked Jesus, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). If Jesus had simply given him something simple to do, he would have gladly done it and would have been full of joy and great thoughts about Jesus. The problem is that it would have been empty joy because he would have been deceived with false assurance about eternal life. Mark tells us, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" (Mark 10:21). He loved him enough to confront his real problem, a lack of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The text tells us "he went away sorrowful," but that was what love demanded. It was the only way the rich, young, ruler could be confronted to repent and believe so that he could know real joy and assurance of eternal life.
Our churches are to be outposts of the kingdom of Christ, engaging in spiritual war, discipling in the name of King Jesus, for His glory and the advance of His kingdom. They do not exist to create and protect the brand and image of pastors and staff. Every time we in the church tickle itching ears, not just in the pulpit (2 Tim 4:3), but also in the counseling room, we add to the darkness as those who are "swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:4-5). Paul's admonition is to "Avoid such people" (2 Tim 3:5), even when their office door says pastor or church staff.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.
At present, two popular--yet antithetical--positions about sexuality and identity exist within the orthodox Christian community. In their recently book Transforming Homosexuality, authors Denny Burk and Heath Lambert identify these as the traditional and neo-traditional positions. Both of these positions exclude from acceptable Christian behavior sexual acts that are outside of Scriptural marriage between one man and one woman. Also, both sides should acknowledge that even if they see the other side as wrong, they are Christian brothers aiming to work out a practical and biblical theology to minister to same sex attracted individuals.
So what is the major difference between these positions? Those in the neo-traditional camp believe that sexual acts performed with the same sex are wrong, but that people who have these attractions should not think of the temptation, in and of itself, as sin. Many of this perspective would accept the modern language of sexual orientation, even going so far as saying one can be a "Gay Christian" or "a Christian who happens to be gay." The orientation then is neutral, or even positive, as Wesley Hill states that those of a gay orientation have a way to "harness and guide its energies in the direction of sexually abstinent, yet intimate, friendship...being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less."1 One's sexual orientation, in that case, is to some degree affirmed as a platform for unique and special spiritual fruit.
This way of viewing sexuality and Christian living has grown in popularity in the Evangelical world that has sought to engage those who experience sexual attraction to the same sex. One must at the very least be thankful for engagement with same sex attracted persons. Many remember a time when the majority position was mere rejection and disgust at those who wanted to learn about Christ but confessed these attractions. Thus, this camp wishes to say: "You can be a celibate Gay Christian, or be a Christian who happens to be gay and celibate."
The traditional view has major problems with this view, as will become evident. For those of the traditional understanding, not only is the act to be considered sin, but the desire and internal temptation itself is something to be repented of, not a means of special spiritual fruit.
The neo-traditional approach is thus at odds with the traditional and confessional understandings of the doctrines of original sin, concupiscence, and repentance.
For instance, The Westminster Confession of Faith (and its cousins the London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration of 1658) in chapter 6.4 and 6.5 states that original sin is "original corruption, whereby we are...inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions..." and that corruption as well as the act "are truly and properly sin." This means the desires to sin themselves are properly understood as sin. It is a sin to be tempted to sin, when that phrase is understood to mean an internal temptation of desire towards that which is a violation of God's law.2
The Westminster, Savoy and London Baptist Confessions did not invent this conception of sin, but we see it both in Church history in the Augustinian doctrine of "concupiscence", but also in the text of Scripture itself in the Pauline doctrine of "the flesh," (Romans 7, Ephesians 2, Galatians 5, etc) in James' explanation of temptation by way of internal lust (James 1), and Jeremiah's statement of the depravity of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Finally, our Lord tells us that the sin of adultery is committed not merely by outward act only, but in our heart and with our eyes (Matthew 5:28).
This difference in identifying the desires, and not merely the acts, as sin is not mere semantics. It has profound consequences in how we address the person who desires to live the Christian life who has experienced same-sex attraction. When we are called to repentance, are we called to merely do different things or to desire different things? How you answer that question will determine how you counsel practical application of our battle against sexual sin.
Think of this firstly in how you counsel a man who confesses a common temptation of sex outside marriage with women he works with, socializes with, or sees at church. As a pastor should you counsel a man to harness his sexual energies to be more of a friend to women and have an identity as a lustful Christian? Or ought he be encouraged to mortify, kill, that desire for a sexual mate besides his wife, and affirm his identity in Christ as a hedge against his adulterous desires? One hopes all Christian pastors and counselors would attack the lust, and remind the Christian of their identity in Christ, that they are not to be discouraged by their sin, or embrace their lusts for good purposes, but to embrace their placement in Christ as their sole identity even while he struggles with sin.
Certainly, there is a place for identifying what we struggle with. We claim to be simultaneously sinners and saints. But we are saints in status, even while sinners in constitution. To identify solely as Christian, as in Christ, as declared righteous is not to deny sin in our lives, but to be able to fight against it. We fight against our fallen nature with what God has remade us to be. Can you be a Christian that struggles with same sex attraction? Yes. In fact, being a Christian means you struggle with sin rather than surrendering to it. Only a living thing struggles, only a born again saint struggles with sin. But we are no longer identified by our sin. Then should you identify as a gay Christian? No. For the same reason you should not identify as a stealing Christian or greedy Christian or lying Christian. Such a label confuses status with composition.
There is a better energy to harness in our sanctification. That energy is the Spirit as He cements our identity in Christ. Should we welcome those that come from the gay and lesbian community? We must do so! It is also our duty to remind all men and women of the liberating truth that if one embraces Christ, he or she is not defined any longer by his or her sexual attractions or temptations. Within the list of the condemned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are those who are identified by their sin including the greedy, sexually immoral, drunks and "homosexuals." But the glorious truth of 1 Corinthians 6:11 is Christians have a new identity: "Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." While Christians may still struggle with each of those sins, our identity in Christ trumps each temptation, and we are no longer identified by our sins and temptations, but by Christ.
There is a great practicality in the doctrine of identity in Christ. The Christian struggling with same-sex lust is told: "You are not weird, or an outcast, or a special sort of sinner. No, you are just like the rest of us, and struggle just like the rest of us. While one person sits in the pew on your left with active struggles against gossip, the person in front struggles against pornography, the one in back of you struggles with greed, and the one on the right struggles with pride. None of them are identified by their sin, but identified in Christ. You can be assured that we are not heterosexual or homosexual Christians, nor divided between lying and prideful Christians, but united as Christians who struggle against sin, and struggle to mortify it together and grow more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose name we carry."
All Christians struggle with sin throughout their lives here; but, that sin does not define us. Our lapses with sin do not define us. Christ alone defines us. He shares his title to a believer with no other, excepting the Father and Spirit, whose name we were sealed with in our baptism. (Matthew 28:19) This is not semantics. It is the practical theology of our identity in Christ, our doctrine of sin, and our active repentance. Let us dust off the words of John Owen, applying it to all Christians in our sinful corruption, excepting no group from the task as Christians: "Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you."
1. Wesley Hill,Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, (Grand Rapids: Brazos PRess, 2015)pg 81.
2. Some object here that we can never understand temptation as sin because Jesus was tempted and resisted. But while our Lord was tempted externally, because He was free of the effects of original sin in the fall, Jesus did not have the corruption of a fallen nature for this confessional idea of internal corruption and temptation to apply to Him.
I recently wrote about a sermon that Andy Stanley, pastor of one of the largest churches in America, North Point Community Church near Atlanta, GA, preached titled Aftermath, Part 3: Not Difficult (you can watch it here). In the sermon, Stanley argues that Christians should completely unhitch their faith from the Old Testament. You can read my broad critique here (http://www.davidprince.com/2018/05/10/a-response-to-andy-stanley-jesus-and-the-old-testament-what-god-has-joined-together-let-not-man-separate/) but in this article I want to zero in one Stanley assertion that his message to Christians is "Thou shall not obey the Ten Commandments."
Contrary to Stanley's admonition, Jesus does not diminish the Old Testament law or its summary found in the Ten Commandments one jot or title. Rather, Jesus declared that he fulfilled the law (Matt 5:17-20). Therefore, Christians must not reject the law that Jesus fulfilled, but rather embrace it, allowing it, through faith in Christ, to shape how we live. Christians are the only people who can truly live out the purpose of the law. The law was not, and is not, to be thought of as a ladder to climb for salvation. The Ten Commandments reveal the impossibility of our being justified by works of the law and point us toward the fulfillment of the law's demands for us by our Lord and Savior. The Christian does not abandon the law Christ fulfilled but rather abandons love of law as a Savior (Rom 10:4).
Prior to the coming of Christ, the law functioned as a kind of prophecy revealing our need of the true and only law keeper to come. Jesus kept the righteous law perfectly, including the Ten Commandments, and clarified the law's meaning and depth for us. Apart from Jesus we cannot have a right understanding of the law of God or its summary in the Ten Commandments. The ethics of the commandments are a reflection of the character of God. This triune God reveals himself most decisively in his son, Jesus Christ. The moral vision of the Ten Commandments plays a central role in both Old and New Testament ethics.
It is striking that when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glory on the mount of Transfiguration that they also saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Moses was the great law giver and Elijah was the representative of the prophets. Neither Moses or Elijah spoke but rather everyone gathered there heard the father's voice declare, "This is my son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Clearly, the point of this awe-inspiring event was not a rejection of the law and the prophets but rather a visual demonstration of fulfillment of them in Jesus. What was written by the very finger of God on tablets of stone would be perfectly fulfilled by the living Word of God, Jesus. As Sinclair Ferguson has beautifully written, "The law-maker became the law-keeper, but then took our place and condemnation as though he were the law-breaker."1
The law in the Old Testament was never meant to be understood as an abstract moral code. The Ten Commandments were given to a people who had already been chosen and redeemed by grace. They do not begin conditionally, "If you will keep the following commandments, I will be your God." Rather, they begin with a statement of saving grace, "I am the Lord your God" and then continue with a recollection of redemption from bondage in Egypt: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex 20:1-2). God's love gave redemption and God's love gave the summary of the law in the Ten Commandments. Through faith in Christ, the Ten Commandments provide Christians a path for enjoying God and living in the freedom he provides.
Whereas the Ten Commandments were the unbeliever's accuser; they become the believer's exhorter toward blessing. Before salvation they threatened and after salvation they provide loving direction. Only the gospel motivates faithful obedience but the Ten Commandments help guide the way toward obedience. Andrew Fuller wrote, "First, to prove that the ten commandments are binding, let any person read them, one by one, and ask his own conscience as he reads whether it would be any sin to break them Is the believer at liberty to have other gods besides the true God? . . . Every conscience that is not seared as with a hot iron must answer these questions in the negative."2
Martin Luther asserted that the Ten Commandments cannot damn one who has faith in Christ, but he also added,
However, the Ten Commandments are still in force and do concern us Christians so far as obedience to them is concerned. For the righteousness demanded by the Law is fulfilled in the believers through the grace and the assistance of the Holy Spirit, whom they receive. Thus, all the admonitions of the prophets in the Old Testament, as well as of Christ and the apostles in the New Testament, concerning a godly life, are excellent sermons on, and expositions of, the Ten Commandments.3
What the Ten Commandments teach about how we should relate to the true and living God (commandments 1-4) and fellow image bearers (commandments 5-10) has no expiration date. The Ten Commandments focus on permanent obligations for God's redeemed people. All of the commandments reflect the character and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Jesus is not a reflection of the Ten Commandments; the Ten Commandments are a reflection of Jesus. Thus, Jesus alone perfectly kept the Ten Commandments in thought and deed. Christ's person and work were not a reaction to an unrelated law code but rather Jesus, the eternal word become flesh, fulfilling his own personal word as the King of the cosmos--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To honor Jesus as Lord, we must honor his word.
Let's be perfectly clear, detaching oneself from the Ten Commandments is detaching oneself from the words of Jesus. To know the God of the Ten Commandments is to know Christ. As Paul explained to those justified by faith alone in Christ alone, "Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully" (1 Tim 1:8). Luther sums 1 Timothy 1:8 up well, "To sum up all of this: Use the Law as you wish. Read it. Only keep this use away from it, that you credit it with the remission of sins and righteousness. ... Good works are necessary and the Law must be kept, but the Law does not justify."4
1. Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2016), 178.
2. Andrew Fuller, (1988). "The Moral Law the Rule of Conduct to Believers: A Letter to a Friend," The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Expositions--Miscellaneous, J. Belcher, Ed., Vol. 3 (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988) 585.
3. Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4, vol. 22, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 38-39.
4. Martin Luther, Luther's works, vol. 28: 1 Corinthians 7, 1 Corinthians 15, Lectures on 1 Timothy, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds., (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999) 231-232.
Too often, parents respond to their child's sin by focusing on how our child is letting them down. They make it clear that the child is failing to live up to the family standard of righteousness. Such an approach fails to clarify God's standard of righteousness and fails to pave the way for clarity about the good news of salvation. Uncovering a child's sin provides a strategic opportunity for the Christian parent to say something like, "You sinned. I am not surprised by your sin. The Bible calls your sin ________. I have sinned too, but I have been forgiven of my sins by faith in Jesus Christ, and I am praying that the discipline you receive will remind you that sin has consequences and that you need to seek forgiveness in Jesus Christ."
Framing discipline in an anti-gospel way places children on a performance treadmill. Their lives are based on meeting your expectations. And the only outcome of that approach is defeat and despair. Conviction of sin will bring no joy. It will only bring shame because they will reason, "I have failed my parents who thought I was a good person. Now, they know I am not a good person because I have these thoughts and act this way. I must be worthless." Constant accusation without the gospel is hellish, not holy.
As Christian parents, we need to make sure our words and actions match our doctrine when we discipline our children. Every instance of parental discipline is a strategic opportunity to expose our children's true identity (and ours too)--sinners who need a Savior. That is what is so powerful about gospel-focused discipline. When a parent clarifies the sin, points to the gospel, administers the discipline, and then embraces the child joyfully and forgivingly by declaring, "I love you no matter what!" the child gets a small taste of the glorious and absolute freedom offered in the gospel (Gal. 5:1).
Christian parents often fall into the trap of merely parroting the culture's expectations for our children's lives. We often raise our kids based on the same things non-Christian parents value rather than anything distinctively Christian. We are called to love God by loving our children, but too often we love the idea of raising (culturally) successful children. Seeing a child meet cultural expectations can easily become the way parents validate themselves.
Christian parents who base parenting decisions on other people's perception of them and their family's social standing are tragically treating their children like props in a public relations campaign. Faithful, cruciform, Christian parenting demands an intentional commitment to take every parenting thought captive to obey Christ and embrace distinctively Christian, gospel-focused aspirations.
In Ephesians, Paul declares that the triune God is at work in heaven and on earth summing up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). Like all things, Christian parenting is to be summed up in Christ. This means that there is a Christ-centered, gospel-saturated, and cruciform distinctness to faithful Christian parenting. Our parenting must create a culture in our home where the gospel is becoming more intelligible, or we will inevitably design a culture where the gospel is becoming unintelligible. Failure to cultivate a gospel-filled home will yield children who may speak the language of the Christian faith but are saturated in the wisdom of the world.
Worldliness is not a word that Christians use much anymore. According to Paul, worldliness is defining the world outside the lens of the gospel. It comes packaged in both conservative and liberal morality. While worldliness can sometimes come with bad manners, it can easily come with good manners too. Our goal must be to teach our children that the gospel redefines every category in their lives (2 Cor 10:5). It gives them a new lens through which to see the world.
The dividing line between the Christian and the world is not found in moral superiority, but a crucified Messiah. We are all guilty sinners in need of a Savior. Consequently, we cannot discuss our child's behavior on the world's terms and simply tack Christianity on as an addendum to the discussion. The Christian parent's goal is not good kids--it is gospel kids. The Christian parent's goal in discipline is not low-maintenance, well-mannered children, but gospel proclamation.
When the apostle Paul declared, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified," he was not suggesting that the cross of Christ was the only thought that ever entered his mind, nor was he saying that he tacked on some commentary about Jesus' death to every dialogue (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul was contending that the power and wisdom of God on display in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ served as the only proper frame of reference for every single thought.
So how should committed Christians think about and react to sin in the life of their children? The pattern begins with confronting the child about their sin. Following this, we must learn to explain to our children that they are praying that God will use the discipline to teach them that they need to ask forgiveness for their sin. Gospel-focused parents teach their children that sin is a heart problem and has consequences. They point to the gospel as the only ultimate answer and thank God for another strategic gospel opportunity. After all, that is a Christian parent most important job.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.
In recent days, social media has been inundated with podcasts, articles, and videos in which individuals have sought to speak to the issues surrounding ethnic tensions and relations. While there has been much controversy, there has also been growing hostility and contention regarding ethnic strife within American conservative evangelical churches. In this post, I wish to briefly address those who may be reticent about discussing this topic publicly.
First, we need to be honest about the true state of affairs regarding ethnic tension within our society in general. It is certainly true that there has been substantial progress over the past fifty years regarding the protection of minorities under the law and in the public perception of racism. However, there are still many layers of stereotyping and prejudice that affect interpersonal relationships among ethnic groups. Some of this can be explained by ignorance, but at the heart of this, there is genuine enmity between different ethnic groups, which has consequences within American society. This is not merely white racism towards minorities; this also involves the perception of white southerners among minorities. Within the church, this manifests itself in the lack of openness, uneasiness, and mistrust between various ethnic groups.
Striving for Unity
Second, we must acknowledge that the New Testament only addresses this topic within the context of the Church. The major source of ethnic tension in the Scriptures is centered around Gentile-Jewish relations and Paul spends a great deal of time addressing this topic. Central to Paul's discussion in Ephesians is the unity of the Church. From Paul's perspective, the glory of the gospel is that there is one Church composed of Jews and Gentiles. Thus, two groups who were formerly hostile to one another have been brought together through the blood of Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22). This unity is the basis behind Paul's exhortation to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (cf. Ephesians 4). Therefore, our fundamental identity is in Christ and any philosophy that seeks to undermine that source of our unity in Christ strikes at the heart of the gospel. It is our common fellowship in Christ that calls us to love all of our brothers and sisters in Christ - regardless of the social strife that may exist. Therefore, if we are truly "people of the Book," then we must be willing to address this topic in light of what Scripture teaches.
Third, do not believe the notion that there is only one approach in dealing with how ethnic/social strife ought to be dealt with in the Church. Contrary to popular belief, there is no direct New Testament teaching on how ethnic strife should be addressed outside the Church beyond the call to love our neighbor. There is the issue of ethnic strife among the widows in the early church, resulting in the formation/reorganization of the diaconate (Acts 6). However, there is no single answer to every form of ethnic strife in the New Testament. In general, we may agree on what we should do (i.e. love our brothers and love our neighbor), but we do not always agree on how that should be done (i.e. the manner in which we demonstrate this love in tangible social and ecclesiastical ways). Since the specific methodology is not given to us in the Scripture, American evangelicals tend to have two approaches: (1) use vague inferences from theocratic Israel or the New Covenant church, or (2) use social science research and/or methodologies from prior historical movements to address it. There are obvious pros and cons to each of these approaches.
A Time to Listen and a Time to Speak
When we come to the matter of speaking to the issue of ethnic strife/division, we must remember the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism on the 9th Commandment. According to Question 144, the ninth commandment
"requires that we maintain and promote truthfulness in our dealings with each other and the good reputation of others as well as ourselves. We must come forward and stand up for the truth, speaking the truth and nothing but the truth from our hearts, sincerely, freely, clearly, and without equivocation, not only in all matters relating to the law and justice but in any and every circumstance whatsoever. We must have a charitable regard for others, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good reputation as well as regretting and putting the best light on their failings. We must freely acknowledge their talents and gifts, defending their innocence, readily receiving a good report about them and reluctantly admitting a bad one. We should discourage gossips, flatterers, and slanderers; we should love and protect our own good reputation and defend it when necessary..."
We must let these words sink down into our ears. Many individuals have contacted me privately in order to express that they strongly disagree with the trajectory of the accepted conclusions on ethnic strife, but are afraid of being slandered for speaking out on it--since slander and vitriol often ensue when someone speaks out about his or her concerns. It is perfectly understandable why people would be reticent to speak up; but, as Christians, we are called to truth-telling individuals. We are called to be people of conviction who will not allow falsehood to thrive, if we believe that falsehood is being propagated. As the Larger Catechism teaches, we must come forward, stand up for truth, and stand publicly alongside those who proclaim the truth, in spite of the consequences. This usually means that we need to forego politeness and we ought to speak frankly with one another about what truly matters.
It's important to state that there is a necessary time for quietly listening, reflecting, considering, and thinking about these issues. However, there is an appropriate time to speak. When it comes to matters of "racial reconciliation," the refrain that has been loudly promoted since the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 is that white southern evangelicals need to sit down and listen to their non-white brothers. The hysteria on social media regarding this topic has drowned out many balancing and stabilizing voices and has ultimately muted others. Many have sought to take time to listen. Is there not a time at which it is necessary for us to express differing opinions? Is there not a time for us to speak clearly, sincerely, and lovingly to our concerns?
When the most extreme voices have the microphone, many have operated by "charitable assumptions." believing that the tone of the rhetoric would come down. However, the tone has not sobered in six years; rather, some seem to be greatly angered and emboldened. How long can those of us who are concerned with what is being said about how ethnic strife should be handled in the church live silently with "charitable assumptions"?
Is It Worth It?
Some say that this discussion isn't worth their time. I certainly understand that reaction as well; but, this is not a matter on which Christians may remain neutral. This discussion illustrates a fundamental disagreement on the basic implications of the gospel. Some have said that racial reparation is part of the gospel. This is no longer a fringe discussion, but it has begun to fracture churches. If we believe that the solutions being offered are worse than the actual problems we face, then we must speak about it.
For those who have been reticent to speak up, may I ask you some questions: If you really believe that the purity of the gospel is at stake, is it not worth defending the gospel? Are you concerned that the gospel is being repackaged and redefined to make it more palatable to our current media agendas? Are we choosing not to speak up because we are still pondering these matters? Or are we refusing to speak out because we lack courage? Are we giving public and private encouragement to those who are confronting these issues? Are we tolerating a matter that we should be condemning and warning others about? To conclude, consider the words of the Apostel Paul,
"For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully" (2 Corinthians 11:2-4).
Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston. He writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.
If you have been previously unaware of Jordan Peterson's existence and the discussion surrounding him, worry no more--the evangelical blogosphere has been working overtime to enlighten you. In fact it could be considered a major feat to have missed this debate in its entirety. I tried to resist myself, but the tide of emails, texts, YouTube videos, and blogs overcame the usual defenses.
For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth--men we see all too often in the church today.
Yet some Christians see far more in him than just this. At the celebratory end of the spectrum, a few argue that Peterson represents the archetype of an emotionally intelligent pastor, one who has been strong where our accepted pastoral wisdom has been weak. At the critical end, some wonder whether Peterson's work is just a thinly veiled application of Nietzsche's transvaluation of values or a justification of pride-as-virtue. That is quite the difference. Which begs the question: what in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?
That evangelicals often reach diametrically opposed evaluations of secular resources is nothing new. Think about Harry Potter or "secular music" or the debates over what media Christians can use. That we keep ending up in widely divergent places on such crucial issues however should at least raise our eyebrows. Perhaps something bigger is going on here. Perhaps such surface level differences signal deeper theological and structural issues in our communities--issues that revolve around how we understand common grace and common ground.
Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why Peterson is so popular with evangelicals. I think I can offer one more reason: Peterson is a respected secular scholar who is affirming important biblical truths in non-biblical ways. This second part also explains why Peterson is so unpopular with some. For example, in his 12 Rules for Life, he comes out in favor of things like corporal punishment in parenting (Prov. 13.24), but argues for this from a common-sense and ultimately authoritarian point of view. As a Christian counselor myself, I find that these kinds of arguments breed inner conflict by affirming the truth in seemingly secular ways. On the one hand, finding a secular voice who affirms Christian values is extremely rare and exciting; on the other, Peterson's methods appear suspect.
And this is where evangelicals usually end up on issues like this: one side voices support for the common grace truth that can be found in a "thing" and the other side protests that the "thing" in view is fueled by basic presuppositions and methodology that necessarily disqualify whatever good can be found in it. It is exceedingly difficult to move beyond these poles once they have been reached. Not only is it hard to do this conceptually (for each position leaves no real room for compromise) but it is also difficult to do this personally. Try convincing a convinced homeschooler that public school options are sometimes acceptable, and vice versa!
On one hand, Peterson advocates for the importance of religion and traditional modes of living, campaigns for sanity in gender roles more courageously and clearly than most celebrity Christians, and sounds curiously biblical on many issues. Maybe he can even teach pastors a thing or two about equanimity, style, and approach. So we should allow our brothers and sisters to voice their tempered support for thinkers like Peterson. Calvin would have had it that way. Speaking on these kinds of people, he says that "so far as they do no harm, they are useful and profitable" and that "Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies."
However, Peterson's worldview is steeped in Jungian archetypal mythology, mixed with a dash of evolutionary psychology. Although he references the Bible, he makes sustained arguments from other religious streams of thought as well. More often than not, Peterson argues from "is" to "ought," using evolutionary developments as guidelines for successful living (cf. Peterson's love for lobsters in 12 Rules). A complete or even moderate buy in by Christians to these principles could end in unmitigated disaster, and we should listen to those brothers and sisters who warn us of this. Calvin faithfully guides as always: "whoever does not assist [in establishing the Kingdom of God] is...opposed to [Christ]." Where secular resources oppose or do not assist the advancement of God's kingdom, at these points they must be opposed themselves.
Categorizing a thinker or system of thought based upon this schema can be exceedingly difficult. Part of the reason for this is that balancing extremes is naturally difficult, as is the task of identifying what constitutes opposition to the gospel. Does a system of thought oppose the gospel, fail to assist its spread, or actually advance it? Peterson is maddening in this regard, for he does all three at times, sometimes even in the same thought!
Perhaps the chief difficulty, however, is our own lack of uniformity of understanding regarding our approach to common grace and common ground in the Reformed tradition. We often (rightly) argue that non-Christian modes of thinking find no common ground with Christian ones. As the non-Christian is diametrically opposed to God in his unrighteousness, so will his thoughts, being born out of the root of rebellion and tainted with sin, end up opposed to God. Of course, the unbeliever will often stumble upon true things, but this is due to God's common grace.
The problem with such a line of reasoning is not the line of reasoning itself--this is perfectly legitimate. The problem is the attitude we so often draw from it; namely, that we must therefore publicly and equally oppose all things non-Christian. This orientation does not actually follow from the insistence that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer. Put another way, opposition of belief does not always necessitate opposition in disposition.
How can this be? First, this is so because it is actually consistent with presuppositional thought. Calling common grace discoveries good is simply saying "Amen!" back to the God who enabled them in the first place. Even more than this, affirming the good and calling out the bad appears to be one of Jesus' favorite ways of engaging the lost. Of the many examples of this, Mark 12.28-34 is the most instructive. After a scribe comes up to Jesus and speaks correctly about the law, Jesus tells him that "you are not far from the kingdom of God." This is a double-edged statement, for Jesus is simultaneously telling this man that there is much good in his thinking and yet that it is not good enough. It is also a brilliant response, for it perfectly balances the call to affirm and challenge non-believing thought.
This does not mean that there isn't a time and place to strongly condemn evil thinking and doing; Jesus does as much in many places. But it is a call to consider the evangelistic import of how we respond to secular resources. Will Jordan Peterson come to Christ if our response to him is exclusively negative? What of his followers? More pointedly, would we have come to God if His response to us had been exclusively negative (Rom. 5.8)?
In The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges tells the story of Henry Trumbull's train ride with a drunkard. Each time the drunkard took a swig, he offered one to Trumbull, who each time politely declined. Finally, the drunkard exclaimed, "You must think I'm a pretty rough fellow." In response, Trumbull said "I think you're a very generous hearted fellow," which then opened a door for him to share the gospel. We can only wonder what kind of opportunities we might gain to speak the hard truths of the gospel to seculars if we just led off with the right foot.
Brian Mesimer is a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, SC.
"The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But...the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory. In that case, what would have changed? Nothing."
So wrote the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating some years ago. Whatever the merits of Keating's own solution to the situation he describes, his analysis of our basic human condition seems spot on to me. Keating understands that licentiousness and legalism represent not only alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of relating to divine law, and so of laying claim to one's inheritance (whether measured in present or deferred beatitude), but also alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of constructing identity, and so projecting an image of one's self both to one's self and to others. Some define themselves by conquest and consumption; others by strict conformity to moral standards of one provenance or another.
The Gospel, by way of contrast and solution to the "false self," bids us find our identity in our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work for us (forgiveness and renewal), and so in the vast love of God for us which stands behind our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work. Thereby it simultaneously invites us to forfeit those identities we have so carefully constructed via conquest and consumption or moral conformity (to precepts divine or human).
Recently I've been thinking about the way in which Margery Williams's classic children's book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) captures this particular dynamic of the Gospel.
The Velveteen Rabbit has, of course, intrinsic worth. He's made of velveteen after all. Velveteen may not be proper velvet, but presumably it beats polyester or mere cotton as far as materials go (disclaimer: I don't actually know what I'm talking about on this score). Similarly, we human beings have intrinsic worth as image-bearers of God. Our image-bearing ontological/functional status should, at least in principle, go some way towards establishing our sense of self-worth as well as the worth of others. But in our fallen (or in the Velveteen Rabbit's case neglected state), the truth about our origin and inherent status rarely suffices to keep the "false self" at bay. The reality is we're wired for relationship, and questions of self-worth and identity inevitably revolve in the final analysis around the reality of whatever relationships (or lack thereof) we find ourselves in. Because sin has severed the relationship that matters most, we end up feeling lost and worthless; hence the quest to establish identity and worth down those paths noted previously.
The Velveteen Rabbit ultimately discovers his own identity -- and so forfeits his own "false self" as well as any false hope entertained of realizing his eschatological end ("realness") through false means -- in the love bestowed upon him by the Boy. The Boy's love doesn't (initially) change what the Velveteen Rabbit is (i.e, a Velveteen Rabbit). But it does impart previously unrealized value and identity to the Rabbit. Similarly, God's love for us doesn't (initially) change what we are by nature, but it does impart a previously unrealized value and identity to us. God's love, in other words, defines us. God's love -- measurable in the lengths that God has gone to in order to rescue us from the guilt and misery of our sin -- bestows upon us the freedom to stop defining ourselves to ourselves and others by our conquest and consumption (on one hand) or (on the other) strict conformity to moral precepts.
But in the end, love not only defines the Velveteen Rabbit; it also transforms him. The Velveteen Rabbit, true to the prophetic word of the Skin Horse (the Velveteen Rabbit's source of inspired truth), achieves realness on a new level by virtue of the love bestowed upon him, even though that love (and so the path to eschatological realness per se) introduces, whether directly or indirectly, considerable pain and sorrow to the Rabbit's life. God's love (and the realization of his love for us in the person and work of Christ) likewise leads to our own transformation (glorification). But, as every Christian knows and numerous New Testament texts conform, the path to glory is paved with pain and suffering (Rom. 8:17).
Of course, all analogies -- including those based on children's literature -- break down in the end. The Velveteen Rabbit's eschatological end necessarily separates him from the Boy whose very love imparted identity and an inheritance to him. God's love, which imparts identity and inheritance to us, draws us into his presence more concretely in the end (which is to say, God is our inheritance). But perhaps enough parallels between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Gospel exist to extend G. K. Chesterton's apology for the "ethic and philosophy of elfland" (and so all that children's stories stand to teach us) to Williams's classic work, even if it the Velveteen Rabbit (1922) slightly postdated Chesterton's comments (Orthodoxy, 1908).
A witness for Christ in any age--and certainly in this present age--requires a prayer-saturated, Christ-centered, Gospel-motivated, Bible-shaped, Spirit-filled and God-glorifying commitment to "speak the truth in love." But this essential command for effective Gospel ministry to both those not yet saved and those already saved is easier said than done. The prevailing tendency is to sacrifice "speaking the truth" in the name of love, or to thoughtlessly speak the truth without love. We cannot truly love without speaking truth truthfully; and we can't speak truth truthfully without loving intentionally and thoughtfully. You can "speak the truth" without loving but you can't "love" without "speaking the truth." To paraphrase a much more able Gospel minister from another age who confronted this issue with a clear, insightful and captivating observation: "Truth without love is barbarity, but love without truth is cruelty" (Bishop J. C. Ryle).
Because speaking the truth is central to an effective Gospel ministry, there is little doubt that Satan will devise as many reasons possible to discourage Christians from either speaking to those living in the death spiral of sin and idolatry; or to distract them from intentionally, thoughtfully and relentlessly loving sinners drowning in the brokenness of a sin-deceived life.
Furthermore, it is equally obvious that if Satan cannot silence the truth, he will attempt to trap us into speaking the truth without love. If he can't stop us from loving, he will entice us to quit speaking the truth. He does this in two ways. First, Satan tempts us to minimize truth with meaningless euphemisms that disguise the horrific consequences and the irrationality and blasphemy of sin. Second, and often even more effectively, he will culturally intimidate us into outright silence in the name of love. Our diminished truth speaking or silence actually reveals that we are more interested in people loving us than we are in them knowing truthfully the love of Christ and being brought into the life-changing blessing of loving the Christ who first loved them.
So Satan--with an insatiable desire to reduce love into deeds that are void of truth or to communicate truth through self-righteous arrogance--today employs five deceptive myths:
Five Deceptive Myths
What is the Result?
In the present age the influence of these myths (when they are individually and/or collectively embraced) are almost always initially revealed by "selective truth speaking"--all of which is done in the name of "sensitivity." The result is that many contemporary Christians following their leaders will sacrifice truth speaking in the name of love; yet, amazingly, they will boldly address the sins and prevailing issues that the culture agrees are undesirable. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking to cultural sins (cultural sin and justice concerns must both be addressed, after all). However, though many boldly speak the truth on issues found on the list of "Culturally Approved Topics for Denunciation," there is an astonishing silence about other prevalent issues the Bible clearly identifies as heinous sins. Why the silence? First of all, those who the masses confront are confronted with permission by today's culture shapers. Many suppose that by speaking to these issues the cultural capital of the church will be enhanced. But in contrast, those sins--corporate, cultural, and individual--which are avoided, are the ones that have been declared off limits because they are on the "Cultural Approved Lifestyle List." Even more, those issues on the Culturally Approved Lifestyle List are not only declassified as sins but now are to be celebrated, perpetuated and propagated. This brings us to the crux of the question: is "selective truth speaking" an evidence of sensitivity or is it a lack of courage; is it compassion or is it cowardice?
Multitudes of ministers and leaders are imploring Christians to embrace this "selective truth speaking" as an exalted virtue. For example, the present culture expresses concern about refugees, sex trafficking, racism, and other heinous sins and injustices--and rightly so! Churches and pulpits join the culture's efforts by truth speaking affirming these practices as sins and lovingly instituting ministry initiatives to eradicate these acts of iniquity and minister to the victims. And so we should and must! But by doing so an unassailable fact emerges - leadership is speaking publicly with compassion, courage and conviction. In fact, when pastors speak publicly on these issues, in their sermons and on their podcasts or blogs, people praise them for the very fact that they are being leaders. They should be praised for this.
However, at the same time, many of the voices that speak boldly on these issues are silent in the same public square concerning the agenda of culturally normalizing unfettered sexual eroticism, marital anarchy, and the sanctity of life (among others). In addition to their deafening on these issues - which the culture is now promoting and celebrating - it is now considered unspiritual or unbecoming for the Christian and/or the church to participate in the messiness of bringing the blessings of common grace to the culture by promoting and debating public policies rooted in a Biblically informed public theology for human flourishing.
A Crucial Theological Fact
Often, in all of this, one important theological fact is forgotten. We live in a world that, emphatically, does not desire the love of Christ or the truth of the Gospel. It never has and, apart from the moving of the Holy Spirit; and, it never will. Neither did I, until the grace of God changed my heart by the power of the Holy Spirit, who brought me from death unto life. What did He use? He used believers who spoke the truth in love to me. They did so with varying degrees of sophistication, but praise the Lord they were willing to speak the truth and love me. Now I, as a beneficiary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through their courageous compassion, must also speak the truth--lovingly--to those who need me to do so (even if they do not approve me doing so - even if they do not want me to do so)--we still must do so as others did so for me and you.
We must seek to speak the truth thoughtfully, timely and with words carefully chosen--even while we create an environment of love for effective communication. If a doctor knows you have a terminal condition and loves you he will not be silent. He will thoughtfully tell you the truth. He will likely take you aside in a private room providing an appropriate environment. Then he will tell you the truth in love and he will love you with the truth. Ministers are physicians for the soul. We know sin brings death and we know God's grace has provided the solution to sin's guilt and power. We also know that God has commissioned us to speak the truth in an environment of love. We cannot be silent about the truth they need to hear in the name of love any more than the doctor could. Nor would we tell them the truth about sin and God's grace in Christ without creating a thoughtful environment of love.
Those who have not yet come to Christ need to hear the truth of His Word spoken from those who will love them sacrificially and intentionally. And those who know Christ but have faltered in their walk for Him need us to love them enough to speak the truth. Those around us need us to deliver truth with a love that demonstrates the astonishing and unstoppable love of Christ and Him crucified.
In a world that has grown increasingly hostile to the truth of the Gospel, it would be easy to fall prey to perhaps right-hearted but wrong-headed statements like the one famously attributed to the renowned St. Francis of Assisi: "preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words." Instead, we must preach the Gospel and we must use words because they are necessary. Why? Because God's word tells us that "faith comes by hearing." In a word, we must speak the truth.
Love is essential because it opens the door for truth, affirms the truth and authenticates the truth; but, it is the truth that will "set you free." We are all born with a desire to be approved. But for believers our approval rating does not come from the world. "Do your best to present yourself unto God...handling accurately the Word of Truth."
Dr. Harry L. Reeder, III is the Senior Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. Harry completed his doctoral dissertation on "The Biblical Paradigm of Church Revitalization" and received a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina (where he serves as adjunct faculty member). He is the author of From Embers to a Flame: How God Can Revitalize Your Church, as well as a number of other published works.
This year has been a veritable Reformation-fest-- a marvelous celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017). Protestants from all over the world have been recounting the amazing events, courageous figures, and key doctrines of the sixteenth- century movement that changed the course of history.
How can anyone tire of hearing stories about the intrepid Augustinian monk from Wittenberg, the one who bravely stood up to the formidable powers of the Roman Empire for the sake of the Gospel? Who wearies learning of John Calvin's compassionate ministry to suffering missionary- pastors in France or John Knox's courageous gospel preaching in Scotland? What about Reformation doctrine? Do the five solas ever grow dull? No way! They point us to the covenant faithfulness of God and the unsearchable riches of our Savior. Reformation 500 has been an encouragement and inspiration.
Like many, I've attended several Reformation 500 events over the last twelve months. The preaching at most of these gatherings has been soul-stirring. Again and again I've been moved by the captivating stories of magisterial Reformers risking everything for the sake of the gospel. I've been reminded of the daring recovery of essential Christian doctrine. I've also been encouraged to hold fast to the ordinary means of grace-- the divinely ordained means of Word, sacraments, and prayer. These unadorned and seemingly foolish means direct us away from a trust in our own person and work to a trust in the all-sufficient person and work of Christ.
There was one Reformation 500 message that I heard, however, that was different from the others. It was troubling both as to its content and tone; and, it did not--in any way whatsoever--communicate the good news of the Gospel. The sermon clearly demonstrated the need for further reflection upon the history and doctrine of the Reformation in our churches.
The following is a tale of two sermons-- a straightforward account of two very different Reformation 500 messages that I heard in the month of October. The sermons were preached by two different preachers with two very different emphases. By comparing the two sermons, I hope to demonstrate that the best way forward for Reformed denominations in general, and the Presbyterian Church in America in particular, is for ministers to commit to the bold and unmistakable preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the whole counsel of God.
The first Reformation 500 sermon that I heard was an exegetically sound and deeply compelling exposition of Scripture. The sermon was on the theme: Solus Christus [Christ Alone]. As the preacher skillfully explained the glory and majesty of Christ, I found myself captivated by the eminence and loveliness of the Savior.
The preacher masterfully set forth the supremacy of Christ. He then wondered aloud how we could ever have a relationship with such an exalted and glorious King. After all, Jesus is so magnificent, so powerful, and so holy; and we are so lowly, so weak, and so sinful. Before answering, the preacher described how the medieval Roman Catholic Church set up buffers between sinners and Christ (e.g. Mary, saints, priests) to relieve the fear of approaching Christ on our own. It was (and is) an erroneous system of co-mediators attempting to shield sinners from a transcendent, unapproachable, and wrathful Christ.
After reflecting upon this pertinent Reformation history, the preacher led us to the mountain peaks of grace as he expounded upon the High Priestly office of Christ. He explained how Christ is the one who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on Calvary, the one who possesses bottomless wells of grace for rebel sinners, and the one who invites us by grace through faith into a saving relationship with God. Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need, and he is full of love and compassion for sinners.
Towards the end of the sermon--as the grace, truth, and beauty of Christ were on full display--it felt as though time had stopped. I was meeting Christ in his preached word. He had laid hold of me. I found myself ashamed of my sin and profoundly grateful for my Savior. It's what happens when Christ is faithfully preached.
Getting a view of Christ in the preaching that day motivated me to be a more faithful disciple as it relates to my marriage, family, calling, and outreach to the lost. Encountering Jesus in the sermon confronted my selfishness, pride, and worldly patterns of thinking. I was powerfully reminded that my true identify is in Jesus, and not in my worldly accomplishments, moral strivings, or in the way others perceive me. The sermon was a clarion call to faith in Christ.
The second Reformation sermon that I heard was very different from the first one. Regrettably, neither the gospel nor those who risked their lives to recover it were given attention. No, rather than proclaim the riches of Christ, the preacher delivered a impassioned address on racial injustice in Southern history and modern culture. Instead of focusing on the doctrines, events, and courageous men and woman of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, he presented a discourse on the evils of gentrification, income and wealth disparity, and the systemic injustice of white majority cultures. This individual explained and applied the text he was supposed to be preaching through the lenses of a form of critical race theory. It was an exercise in cultural and sociological analysis, and entirely missed the point of the passage from which he was supposed to be preaching. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the sermon was that in lieu of the gospel, a new law was placed upon the backs of the hearers-- a new and convoluted law requiring social justice and cultural change.
Now, by no means do I want to dismiss the significant problems and serious pain caused by wicked injustices that exist in our (and every) nation's history and culture. Social injustice is as real as it is complex. We should expose and condemn it when we can, in whatever form it might take (e.g. abortion, sex trade, racism, slavery, sexual harassment, etc). Nor do I think it inappropriate for ministers to preach against the sins of our culture, and to bring biblical application on these matters--especially when a text plainly speaks to them.
By contrasting these two sermons, I am not downplaying the wickedness of social injustice or the need to speak against it. Rather, I'm simply pleading with pastors and churches in the PCA and elsewhere to follow the lead of Christ, the Apostles, and the Reformers to make it a blood-earnest priority to keep the gospel central in our preaching and discipleship. We must not exchange the proclamation of the gospel for moralistic speeches on social justice or any other issue. The church's mission is to make disciples through the faithful proclamation of Christ from the whole counsel of God. Those disciples, actively abiding in Christ, are called to love their neighbors and bear the fruit of the gospel. The gospel is our only real hope for change. Therefore, Christ's saving action, not our social action, must be at the core of the mission and message of the church.
The gospel must never be assumed in our churches. We must boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel from our pulpits, fonts, and tables on the Lord's Day. It must be central in our discipleship ministries. Preaching and teaching the gospel is what the church is called to do. If we do not preach Christ, who will? If we lose sight of the gospel, we will walk down the same road as many mainline denominations who at one point started believing the lie that social activism outweighs the preaching of Christ in both relevance and importance. Vague affirmations of the gospel sprinkled into a spirited message on social justice will not only obscure the person and work of Christ, it will inevitably confuse the mission of the church.
Public and ecclesiastical dialogue on social justice and race have grown tremendously over the past year. It has rapidly increased in my own denomination, the PCA. Some of the discussion has been helpful. But much of it tends to exude more heat than light, and more sociology than sound theology. The purpose of this article, then, is not to expound upon the best way to preach against cultural sins or to explain how the church should be involved in social justice causes. It's to make one simple point: If our churches and denominations are to remain healthy, we cannot marginalize, negotiate, or redefine the gospel.
This year's Reformation 500-fest has served the church well. It has forced Reformed Christians everywhere to remember our rich Protestant and Reformed heritage, and to reflect upon the nature and centrality of the gospel-- the true gospel announcing redemption for wretched sinners through the penal substitutionary death and hell-conquering resurrection of the Son of God. It is that magnificent gospel which must remain paramount in our preaching, worship, discipleship, and mission.
The future health of the church depends on it.
Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior minister of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina.
Racist attitudes, bigoted actions, rape, and assault have recently been dominating the news cycle. In the midst of chaos in our culture, the Church has the great answer to racism, sexism, and classism. We have the answer and we are to show it. The world needs our voice and our example.
Paul says in Colossians 3:11, "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." He then provides a list of virtues that are to mark the Christian's life: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." Paul says that we are to forgive one another and love one another. And then in verse fifteen, he asserts, "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful."
The Christian is to have the peace of Christ ruling his or her heart. Colossians 3:15 has often been misunderstood. Paul is not thinking primarily about how the Christian is to feel. He has in mind our peace in the fellowship of the church. Notice, he qualifies it by "to which indeed you were called in one body." Peace serves as the arbiter in our dealings with one another. It reigns as the umpire. There will be times that difficulties arise in the church, in our community. But when problems arise, the peace of Christ jumps in and mediates. It rules in our community.
When a baseball player hits an infield grounder to the shortstop and he picks up the ball and fires it home just as the runner from third is sliding into home plate, debate ensues. As kids on the neighborhood diamond, we would argue till someone gave up. "He was safe," one would argue. "No, he was out," someone else would contend. That may occur even in the Major Leagues. However, when the umpire steps forward and says, "Safe," the matter is concluded. The dissension is over. When Christ occupies our lives, the peace of Christ will rule our fellowship. It serves as the arbiter. It is the umpire.
I believe Paul especially has in mind the problems that arise from our differences. Peace is to reign here, where the world doesn't know or experience it. We come from different ethnicities, cultures, races, classes, and genders. Yet, our differences are not what mark us. As Christians, we possess the greatest thing in common: Christ is in all of us. "But Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11), so peace rules our hearts and our interactions with one another. Our unity, our regard for others, and our respect for differences should strike the watching world with amazement. "They will know you by your love for one another," our Lord said.
As Christians, we view all people as possessing inherent dignity and worth. From the womb to the grave, they matter. From the streets of Manilla to the Mansions on Park Avenue, they possess worth. But even more than that. In the body of Christ, we bring together Greek and Jew, barbarian and Scythian, poor and rich, black and white, Republican and Democrat. We exist as the most heterogeneous body there shall ever be. Before the throne of God will be those from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Yet, we also exist as the most homogeneous body there shall ever be, because we are all filled with the same Spirit--the very Spirit of Christ. As Christians, we dare not reject one another, look down on one another, or forsake one another because doing so would be to reject, look down upon, and forsake Christ.
Maybe Paul's admonition at the end of Colossians 3:15 is the most helpful, "And be thankful." I love that. Be thankful. For what Paul? For one another. We are not only to love one another, not only are we to forgive one another, but we are to be thankful to God for one another. Thankfulness has a way of engendering peace, developing love, and maintaining unity.
Dear fellow believer, let us manifest the unity for which our culture is searching. The answer lies with us, because Christ indwells us. May we show it to the watching world, so that they can't help but ask, "How do they do it?" And let us be ready with the answer that lies within us.
Lately I have been reading articles by a few Evangelicals who are deeply committed to racial justice. As I agree and sympathize with much, I do find myself in reaction to some of the things they have said. These ideas, and others like them, spring up from time to time, although often in new phrases and provocative rhetoric. Some of what they have said is not new, they are echoes of various lines of thinking that have been part of conversations that have been present as long as I have been involved in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.
Ah, you will see I mentioned a word that is part of what is at stake in the conversation, and that is the word "reconciliation." The phrase "racial reconciliation" is a term that has been at times threatening, revolutionary, and welcoming to people who have been convicted about the racial and ethnic alienation that has been present in our society since the idea of race was constructed to help both Arabs and Europeans feel justified in their exploitation of various nations, namely those nations and ethnicities of color.
This term is also slammed, shunned, and discarded by some as being either misunderstood or misused, and thereby not radical enough in the quest for justice. Some have postulated there can be no reconciliation since we were never unified to begin with, and though this sounds like it might make sense, the idea discards Adam and Eve and Noah as a unified human race, Babel as the dividing of the nations, and the calling of Abraham as a Jew to divide the world into Jews (circumcised) and Gentiles (uncircumcised). I take that criticism as a cheap rhetorical trick with no logical foundation. It also seems to accept the postulation of race as a biological reality and not a constructed one.
Some don't like the word "racial" since it was a socially constructed idea to explain "color" in various human beings and to assign them a lower status by white people. No less a person than John Perkins has recently spoken powerfully against this word since it creates differentiation between people groups, and God is no respecter of persons. He thinks that our continued use of it perpetuates the differentiation in a negative way. Nevertheless we all pretty much admit to such realities as "racism" and doing away with the term is not going to do away with racists anytime soon.
Then there is the criticism of the entire phrase as one seen to be preferred by white people because they see it as an individualized process or event and fail (or refuse) to see systemic injustice in the broader society. One of the writers I read wants only to speak of "white supremacy," and feels that is where the onus belongs, on the white community. I certainly sympathize with the need to see justice as a larger issue than simply our personal bias and prejudice.
White Supremacy is a term that is searching for some consensus. It seemed to have a historical context in the teachings of the slave justifiers (even among Muslim scholars prior to the Western slave trade) the KKK, Aryan Brotherhood, and going back to Nazi Germany's view of the "Superior Race." The attempt to dump the guilt of such association on all white people due to their being in the numerical majority, having inherent white privilege as a cultural majority in a racialized nation, and or being clueless as to what systemic injustice does to people is problematic at best, and frankly, racist at worst.
Let me be clear, as our former president used to say. I think white supremacists are dangerous, and the belief in white supremacy is the essential building block of intentional white privilege. In short systemic decisions to deprive people of color of their rights while seeking to maintain those of whites is due to an evil and deceived thinking that being white is superior and something to be maintained by economic, political, and social means. The use of violence to achieve and maintain racial advantage has often followed soon after, but not all those who agree with this racist ideology or who passively and/or ignorantly go along and enjoy its benefits are people who would engage in violence.
I also believe that racists can be converted and changed, and that the white population that is carried along in the stream of white privilege has a conscience that can be stimulated by truth and justice. This is one of the historic realities of the power of the Civil Rights movement in our nation, and no matter the mockery by some of the Christian Church the fact is that some of those Christians were touched and awakened to help bring about legal and substantive change in our society. It did not happen without them.
Political ideologues, in their rhetorical world, are adept at polarizing issues, leaving no middle ground, and thereby marginalizing people who are still learning and still becoming conscious of issues. In their eyes you are either as radical as they are, or you are the enemy. Taking and using such political device and rhetoric may sound and read as prophetic, but the question remains as to whether or not it is genuinely Christian? Some of it frankly is bitter, a bit mean, and seems to take delight in making people feel miserable.
Some of the rhetoric is no better, and serves no other purpose, than name calling. I suspect some of it is an attempt to feel powerful, a sort of triumphalism, through the use of language. Rhetorical "one ups-man-ship" might make one feel better but I don't think it convinces anybody but one's allies. Instead of seeking peace, which is a Christian duty, command, and practice, it alienates. I believe one of the worse things we can do is to use language (no matter how lyrical or artistic) that is confused, opaque, and that causes more misunderstanding and less healing.
One of the realities we live in is that of a demographic white majority in the United States, and lately we are seeing in the white population (both here and in Europe) a strong reaction against and resistance to any changing of that reality through immigration. White cultural reality is very strong in Evangelicalism, and those minorities which are present in a white Evangelical world are forced to encounter "white normativity." Whether or not white people in majority or whole admit to the presence of other cultural realities in the United States I think "white normativity" is going to be a cultural reality for a long time to come.
Some minority individuals decide that self-segregation is what they would rather pursue for their own cultural comfort, healing, and safety. They seek an escape from the cultural fatigue and aggravation which seems to be fairly consistent in the education and training of "one more white person," who has only now realized and admitted there are other cultural realities. If it is not self-segregation it sometimes seems to be an emotional self-alienation with a lot of complaining.
There is a corresponding majority culture reaction by which racial issues are simply shut down, walked away from, or mocked and ridiculed if a white person feels racially aggravated. Too often white people seem to react to racial issues, or even some racial event on the news, as if every mention, achievement, or expressed anger of black folks was taking something away from them. When that resistance to engaging in a healthy understanding and realization of racism gives up to listening, learning, and hoping then the turn begins; the turn to reconciliation and justice.
The price to pay for real "reconciliation" is high for each of us in our own ethnic and cultural groups and we pay it in different ways. I believe minorities pay a higher price but it is arrogance to assume others are paying nothing (though they may not being paying the full price yet), it is disingenuous and dangerous to assume it will cost any of us little. There is both an illegitimate and a legitimate price to be paid. The illegitimate price of self-hatred and complete assimilation into the "other" while discarding our own culture and ethnic identity pays negative dividends in self, family, and community. There is only one thing worthy of paying the legitimate price of reconciliation (which is a long exposure to misunderstanding, insult, attacks of various kinds, and sacrifice in relationships,) and that is the pursuit of being the answer to the prayer of Jesus; that we might be one.
The argument for expanding the term White Supremacy to include the entire white population (and thus take the onus off of specific political and violent groups) as responsible for systemic injustice seems to negate the idea of personal repentance, and personal relational healing, and declare it to be inconsequential as long as injustice continues. In an attempt to thwart individual evasion of institutional racism it makes the personal repentance of racism meaningless. We agree that change must be pursued in "loosening the chains of injustice and untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke," as Isaiah says in chapter 58:6 Change has to begin somewhere, and more pointedly in "someone." From such individuals justice begins to arise, and it must if the repentance and change is real.
To take the term White Supremacy and make it universal rather than specific to hate groups is to deprive all of us of the vigilance needed to monitor their incipient violence and to be prepared to resist it. White supremacists must love this universal application and definitive inflation.
I would like to be one of the few voices lifted up to defend the word "reconciliation." Not only do I like it, want to practice it, and have paid some measure of a price to pursue it, but my bottom line is that I think it is Biblical. It is a word far greater than race, full of grace and mercy, includes all the Gentiles in the Body of Christ (thus including in its central idea inter-Gentile union), and the Jews, and is one of the soteriological effects of the death of Jesus on the cross.
Reconciliation is not a word to despise for the reason that being personally reconciled (to God or people) does not automatically end systemic injustice, but rather a word that is to be preached! It is our future hope that Jesus will reconcile all things to himself. In short, it is a process which God commissioned, a message and a ministry we should all be caught up in and which will not be fulfilled in our lifetimes.
To reject reconciliation, and yes, racial reconciliation, and substitute it with permanent guilt until there is complete systemic change, is defeatist, despairing, unrealistic, and ultimately creates more division. I think it is better to spell out, and preach out, the price of real and Biblical reconciliation; the cost of sacrificially enslaving ourselves to other groups to win them, the cost of suffering with and for them in a true "becoming" with them.
One phrase that comes up is "white fragility" in the context of conversations about race and injustice. I think I understand the historic dynamic but unfortunately this is a universal human problem, and not simply one that can be assigned to one people group. It is difficult, as a representative of a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group, to constantly hear the pathology present in one's own people group carped on by another ethnic group. Racial conversations are frequently difficult and sometimes feel threatening; the use of blaming and provocative language in the guise of the pursuit of justice (without giving hope) I believe will be self-defeating.
I have seen this reaction in various groups when the issues of public health and social concerns and "pathologies"are listed by race or ethnicity. Invariably the argument is made to stop blaming those listed as representative of the statistics (from our ethnic group, or our ethnic group a whole) and attack something else; the system, society, and history that has helped to create those problems. I'm just wondering if you can feel my love if I keep telling you how bad your people are?
Can any of our identified racial groups own any of (their) our peculiar or popular sins? It is no doubt difficult. Will our identified racial groups continue to resist group labeling as insulting and demoralizing? I have a suspicion that they will, therefore such labeling should be used tenderly, strategically, tactfully, and even lovingly in trying to bring about change. Every cultural group has particular sins that should bring shame to them, and certainly the white majority in this country has earned much of the shame and guilt that generally they don't like to hear about or embrace.
Guilt, by itself, is an insufficient motivator and is quite often the edge of the blade on which people will either divide into denial, anger, and resentment on one side and admission, confession, and a search for restoration on the other. The preaching of the Gospel always contains the bad news of sinful reality, but it is not a Gospel at all if it doesn't have "good news."
The Gospel, the real Gospel of Christ, is not true to itself if all it does is stick people with guilt and leaves it there. This is not a way of saying that we shouldn't preach against societal or national sins, it is a way of saying that with repentance there is forgiveness, there is grace, there is, (watch it, here it comes...) reconciliation. I see that word as one which has a milestone beginning but continues as a process, both personally, socially, institutionally, and ecclesiastically.
It is progress when any community faces its reality head on, and in humility and courage seeks to change its culture toward righteousness, both personal and social, in its behavior. As the Scripture says in Proverbs 14:34, "Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a disgrace to any people." Does any of this humility and courage happen without change in individuals? I would submit that it cannot. Does it suddenly happen generally, culturally, systemically, politically? While some despise the individual aspect of Christian faith as insufficient for corporate change it is nevertheless a historic (societies and nations have changed) and realistic part of the whole, it just has to be preached (consistently) as a beginning and not an end in itself.
Randy Nabors was the pastor of New City Fellowship, a congregation committed to the African American and poor communities, in Chattanooga, TN from 1976 until 2012. In 2012 Randy began working for Mission North America--the mission agency of the PCA--in order to coordinate Urban and Mercy and to build the New City Network.
[Editorial note: This post originally appeared on Randy's blog and is used with his permission. While it is somewhat lengthier than that which we usually run at Ref21, we believe that the content demands a more careful and developed treatment.]
As I continue to scan the landscape of Christian social justice activism, that is, social justice-labeled activities that are said to be carried out "in the name of" Christ, I've noticed many Christian activists have a tendency to proffer to the world an image of Jesus that is tantamount to that of a sanctified social worker, a holy humanitarian, an exalted egalitarian.
This visage of Jesus as a "Social Savior" is borne of a proclivity many Christian social justice activists have to leverage the works of Christ as the primary impetus not only for individuals who profess to follow Him to do likewise, but also institutions, such as governments and corporations, so that an equitable, just, and impartial society and world, which they believe Christ envisioned for mankind, ultimately becomes reality.
It is through this paradigm that such works of Christ as healing the centurion's servant (Matt. 8:13), and the blind man (Jn. 9:6-7), and feeding more than 5,000 people on one occasion (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 on another (Mk. 8:1-8), as well as His love for the poor (Luke 6:20) and the oppressed (Luke 4:18), are viewed as evidences that mandate Christians to take upon themselves, in accordance with Christ's words in Jn. 9:4, to "...work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no man can work."
This kind of sanguine worldview may seem admirable, perhaps even virtuous, to some, especially given the current milieu in which Christianity - and white evangelical Christians in particular - are being called to account for the deliberate and systematic misappropriation, to put it mildly, by their ancestors of various biblical precepts for the express purpose and intent of enslaving and otherwise oppressing black people in America.
That Christianity was practiced in such a deliberately iniquitous manner is both a sad and unarguable fact.
As author and researcher Richard Reddie notes in a 2007 BBC article on the Atlantic slave trade and abolition:
"Religion was...a driving force during slavery in the Americas. Once they arrived at their new locales the enslaved Africans were subjected to various processes to make them more compliant, and Christianity formed part of this. Ironically, although the assertion of evangelization was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans, very little missionary work actually took place during the early years. In short, religion got in the way of a moneymaking venture by taking Africans away from their work. It also taught them potentially subversive ideas and made it hard to justify the cruel mistreatment of fellow Christians."
Conversely, theologian and author Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, extols:
"Violence done in the name of Christianity is a terrible reality and must be both addressed and redressed. There is no excusing it. The typical criticisms...about the oppressiveness and injustices of the Christian church actually come from Christianity's own resources for critique of itself. The shortcomings of the church can be understood historically as the imperfect adoption and practice of the principles of the Christian gospel. Historian C. John Sommerville claims that when Anglo-Saxons first heard the Christian gospel message they were incredulous. They couldn't see how any society could survive that did not fear and respect strength. When they did convert, they were far from consistent. They tended to merge the Christian other-regarding ethic with their older ways. They supported the Crusades as a way of protecting God's honor and theirs. They let monks, women, and serfs cultivate charitable virtues, but these virtues weren't considered appropriate for men of honor and action. No wonder there is so much to condemn in church history. But to give up Christian standards would be to leave us with no basis for the criticism."
So, admittedly, there were those, including many Christians, who, while professing to be followers of the God of the Bible, appropriated the teachings of the Bible in such ungodly ways as to devalue, disparage, and destroy those who were equally the bearers of God's image (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26) as those who, "in the name of" God, volitionally chose to oppress, maltreat, and, on many occasions, murder them.
Be that as it may, to whatever extent the gospel was leveraged in such base and sinful ways is not the fault of Christianity. Quite the contrary. It is the fault of that which Christianity unambiguously and forthrightly addresses. Namely, the innate depravity of the human soul (Gen. 4:7, 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:23; Gal. 5:17.)
To view Jesus preeminently as a "Social Savior" is a misguided, short-sighted, and dangerous proposition, as it fails to take into account the fundamental root cause of many of the historical and contemporary socio-ethno inequities which many Christian social justice activists, particularly blacks, are seeking to redress through such propitiatory gestures as the removal of Confederate statues and monuments and the paying of reparations for slavery.
Notwithstanding the innumerable and tangible good works performed by Jesus for the practical benefit of those to whom they were graciously and mercifully imparted, those works were subsidiary to the primary reason Christ came into the world which, contrary to what many Christian social justice activists - and others - believe, was not to remedy socio-political or socio-economic inequities by improving the material, financial, or social station of those with whom He interacted, but to point people to Himself as the long-awaited Messiah.
This reality is underscored in , in which the apostle John declares:
"Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."
A problem many Christian activists have in their pursuit of social justice is that they confuse Christians with Christ.
That is something that should never happen.
As theologian and historian Thomas J. Kidd cautions in his 2012 article titled Slavery, Historical Heroes, and "Precious Puritans":
"The Christian faith has only one perfect hero. He is our proper object, not just of emulation, but of worship. We all fall far, far short of his example."
In other words, only Jesus is Jesus. We are not.
Even in our most well-founded expectations that those who profess to believe in Jesus display a certain level of consistency in living out that belief (Eph. 5:1-2), we must never lose sight of the fact that when an individual professes faith in Christ (Rom. 10:9), it is their salvation that is instantaneous not their sanctification (1 Jn. 1:8, 10).
It is with this thought in mind that we would do well to consider the words of theologian John R.W. Stott who, in his classic work The Cross of Christ, reminds us of this spiritual reality:
"For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; whereas God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be."
Stott's words highlight the futility of espousing a Jesus who is a "Social Savior"--whose coming to earth is viewed strictly in terms of how works-righteousness (e.g. removing statues, paying slavery reparations, etc.) can be a means toward the kind of society in which justice, equity, and righteousness are normative (2 Pet. 3:13).
At the risk of disappointing many of my social justice warrior (SJW) brothers and sisters, Jesus is not a Social Savior. Christ came into the world save sinners not society (1 Tim. 1:15; Matt. 10:34-36). If the works of Christ themselves were sufficient as the model for how the kind of egalitarian social structure so zealously desired by many Christian SJWs is to be realized in today's society, the question still remains: why, then, was it necessary for Him to die?
Darrell Harrison is a member of Rockdale Community Church, a Reformed Baptist congregation located in the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia. Darrell is a 2013 Fellow of the Black Theology and Leadership Institute (BTLI) of Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a 2015 graduate of the Theology and Ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Darrell was the first African-American to be ordained as a Deacon in the 200-year history of First Baptist Church of Covington (Georgia) where he attended from 2009 to 2015. Darrell blogs at "Just Thinking...For Myself".
In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.
The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:
"To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are 'like us' and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ."
In this second video, Rob and Vanessa talk about their thoughts on the racial identity of the children of an interracial marriage, as well as about the opportunities we have in light of our backgrounds for the spread of the Gospel.
"The time will come when events overtake us. Before we know it we get trapped in a bad situation at work, or afflicted with a disease or caught up perhaps in a financial tsunami. And, at the very end of our times, of course the time will come for us to die and then go to judgment--that's a time that God knows and we do not. And, if time does not overtake us "chance" certainly will-- chance not simply in the sense of 'fate,' but chance in the sense of something that happens, and 'occurrence.' He is not talking about something good that happens to you, but something bad. And so it is in a fallen world. Many unhappy events, Natural disaster, environmental catastrophes, military conflicts in various parts of the world, economic downturns--its all very unpredictable-- the misfortunes of life are inevitable and inescapable. And here in his mercy God tells us to expect the unexpected.So when hardship comes--even when it comes very suddenly--we should not be surprised; we should realize that this is the kind of thing that happens in the world. Nor when life is good should we think that our own natural abilities will somehow spare us from having hard times. No matter how gifted we are, or how well prepared or how many advantages we have in life, the truth is that we too may suffer an evil day. Now the questions is, "How should we respond when that days comes?"