I’m pleased to publish this guest feature from Joseph Torres.
It’s impossible to be a culturally aware Christian and not be sensitive to the high tension environment in which we live. Just last week, a protest was held in Charlottesville, VA in which, among others were self-identified White supremacists. This sparked grief, outrage, and fury, both on-site in Virginia and on social media around the world.
My purpose here is not to scrutinize the events in Charlottesville. There are many better equipped to navigate that task (see also here, and here). My goal here is to sketch out why racism isn’t merely a social ill, a wrongheaded and ill-informed view of race relations. It is those things, but from a biblical perspective, one centered on the glorious gospel of grace, it is much more. Racism is satanic and anti-gospel.
The Drama of Scripture is All About a Multiethnic People United Under a Single King
Saying that racism is satanic and, in fact, a gospel issue may strike some as alarmist. But when placed against the backdrop of the biblical plot line it should make more sense. In Acts 17:26 we read Paul, in metropolitan Athens, say “[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” In this sense, all humans are of “one blood” (Acts 17:26 KJV). And the human family has been under satanic attack “from the beginning” (Jn. 8:44). In Gen. 3, the satanic serpent works to destroy God’s image-bearers, turning them against each other.
And he has been at it ever since. Everything thing from the Garden moves in a downward spiral. Man blames woman, man blames God, brother kills brother, man kills child, and eventually the whole world joins in a unified front to undermine God’s plans for humanity.
How will the story ever resolve itself? How will God bring resolution to the mess humanity has gotten itself into?
Reviewing the Biblical Narrative
God’s Call to Abraham. God’s response is counter-intuitive. He starts small. He calls one man, and his eventual family, to be the launching pad for a kingdom project that will include “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). The plan is to use this one family to be the source of international blessing.
The History of Biblical Israel. We get glimpses of what this will look like in the lives of Joseph and Solomon. These sons of Abraham are channels through which God preserves, rescues, and enriches the lives of non-Israelites. The goal was for Israel to be a light to the nations, a shining light in this dark world of what true communion with the Creator God can look like. But Israel, too often, wanted to shed its distinctiveness and blend into the surrounding pagan cultures. Soon this led to judgment and exile, and the blessing of Abraham were seemingly called into question (Ps. 44:23-26; 74:20-21).
The Prophets. The prophets of Israel were sent by God as covenant enforcers, offering promises of blessings if the people would remain faithful to their covenant with God, and pronouncing judgment when the covenant was violated. Surprisingly, they promised that God’s judgment against his people was not his divine way of getting rid of a tiresome spouse, but rather that it was his way of ultimately purifying his bride.
Paradoxically, not only did Israel want to be just like the pagan nations, when God used those very nations as instruments of judgment against them, they also embraced ethno-centrism. When God (implicitly) extended grace to the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, the very prophet God commissioned to preach took issue with it. He was exceedingly displeased. He was angry (Jonah 4:1). The Assyrians were not God’s covenant people. They were unrighteous, godless pagans. Israel was the unique possession of God. But God’s outrageous grace was extended not merely to those of the “in” group, but to those on the margins as well.
The Abrahamic, multinational agenda of God was still on the table. God would draw the nations to himself, and would even bestow on the Gentiles the right of equal standing with Israel (Isa. 19:16–25; Zech. 14:16). But this would all be accomplished, not by Israel’s national faithfulness, but rather by one standing in the place of Israel, acting on her behalf Is. 49:5-6, This Servant of the Lord would be victorious through suffering and draw the nations back to God (Is. 45:22; 49:1-3).
The Gospels. The message of the Gospels is that God has kept his word, and in Christ God has presented his salvation “in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk. 2:31-32).
Likewise, Matthew’s Gospel ends on a multinational note:
Matthew begins his Gospel affirming that Jesus (“Yahweh us salvation”) the Messiah was the son of Abraham. And he ends his Gospel with Jesus declaring the great mission mandate that would encompass all nations – just as God had promised Abraham. Jesus thus sends the church also under the authority of the Abrahamic mission. – Christopher J. H. Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God
Acts. Acts follows the spread of the gospel as it goes out from Jerusalem into all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8). At Pentecost, God’s Spirit is poured out upon his people, and praises are offered not merely by the Jews, but “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 29-11).
The entire furor in the early church over whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism in order to be welcomed into the Christian church was one of, in modern parlance, racial identity. Did Gentiles have to abandon their ethnic identities in order to be made right with God? As the Spirit filled this end-time Temple, God was redeeming to himself from every ethnicity, since “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35).
And no one made this point clearer than the apostle commissioned to the work of bringing the gospel to the racial/ ethnical/ religious “other,” Paul himself.
The Apostle Paul. For Paul, the Abrahamic vision of God’s redeeming plan was front and center. It was not tangential to the real gospel, it was essential. When Peter pulled away from table-fellowship with Gentile believers in Jesus, Paul did not merely say he was moving away from an “implication” of the gospel. Such behavior was hypocrisy- saying you could be reconciled to God regardless of ethnic identity and then treating those of other ethnicities as second-class Christians. This, Paul accused Peter, was not “in line with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).
The gospel message of Paul was that we are all equally under God’s just condemnation for our sin (Rom. 1-3), and equally all reconciled, justified, and redeemed in Christ by faith (Rm. 4-5). “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too” (Rom. 3:29). What is the purpose of our redemption?
He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal. 3:14)
Through faith in Christ, God demonstrates his own glory through a people who trust him above everything the world sees as bestowing significance. Abraham then becomes “the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom. 4:12).
Satan’s work in racism is to deny and devalue God’s work in bringing together people for all ethnicities for the purpose of showing forth the “incomparable riches of his grace” in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:6). Satan divides what God has united. Satan wants to rebuild barriers, re-erecting the wall of hostility between peoples, establishing chaos rather than peace, driving a wedge between image-bearers (Cf. Eph. 2:14-18).
The cross is God’s great emblem of sin and Satan’s defeat, where he “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them” (Col. 2:15). Standing on this great truth, Paul’s “therefore” in Col. 3:16 calls us to forsake elevating any and all distinctives used to “disqualify” others from the people of God. We must hold fast to Christ, from whom the body (which is made up of many diverse members- 1 Cor. 12:12-27) holds together and is nourished (Col. 2:18-19).
The New Creation. The church follows the beat of another drummer. We serve a king whose kingdom is not like the ones of this fallen world (Jn. 18:36). Our king is one who ministered to both Jews and Gentiles, whose blood “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Not once, but twice, John reminds his readers that God’s Abrahamic purposes are fulfilled through Christ’s atoning work.
Again in Rev. 7, after “hearing” the number of the seal (144,000 from the tribes of Israel), he “looks” and sees a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9-10).
Satan’s plan to divide and conquer does not, cannot, work. The “God of peace” (Rom. 16:20) ultimately restores this fallen and broken world back to a state of shalom through the serpent-crushing seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), the Servant King who brings peace with God (Rom. 5:1) and graces us with peace with one another (Eph. 2:14-17).
Why This is Important
I can imagine that at least some of my readers may want to know why I’m writing about this. Why go after racism, especially in light of a recent white supremacist protest. What about those on the other end of the ideological spectrum? Aren’t they worthy of calling out?
Paul and the Slave Girl. Sin is no respecter of persons. Satan’s lie is one, but his wartime strategies and tactics are diverse. Christians are largely aware of many pitfalls, but frequently we are blind to others. I am not focusing here are the errors of the Left, because most American evangelical Christians are aware of them and rightly concerned. I am concerned about the potential blind spots for conservative evangelicals. Acts 16:16-18 helps to flesh out what I am getting at:
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. (Acts 16:16-18)
Here we have a slave girl, one possessed with literally a “spirit of a pythoness,” a demon of divination. Interestingly, for several days she followed Paul, revealing both his true identity and the true nature of his message. He was in fact a “servants of the Most High God,” and he was in fact proclaiming “the way of salvation.” Nonetheless, Paul grew “greatly annoyed” with his presence. Why?
At best, Paul knew this kind of association would be highly confusing to his hearers. And at worst it would be damning to his message. Outside of a Christ-soaked context, her words (though technically true) took on a different meaning.1 Paul would not tolerate the gospel being co-opted by another agenda. And so he commanded the demonic spirit to come out of the girl, and it did.
Bringing It Home
And this is the lesson I suggest we learn for our own day. For conservative Christians (such as myself), there are a number of voices that speak truth on a range of issues. We may be tempted to downplay differences because they are on the right side of several social issues. I get that. I wrestle with that temptation myself. But we must stay vigilant against those whose company would bring a smear against the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ- a gospel that unites people who have no other natural affinity.
There are commentators I may agree with on a number of issues but I absolutely will not align with, not because I am “soft” on the issues, but rather because these folks voice anti-Christian sentiments which positively harmful to Christian witness. When right-wing pundits ask questions like “Can’t anyone serve Christ in America anymore?” and call the traditional Christian impulse to put themselves in danger for the sake of helping others in need “narcissism,” we have a problem.2
Whatever the historical development of the movement, today the heresy of white nationalism is a problem for conservatism. If we don’t acknowledge it we put ourselves in the precarious position of falling for its lie in subtle, covert, and implicit ways. We cannot downplay, minimize, or extend leniency on racism because it may come from “our” side of the political spectrum. Beware of the cultural halo effect.
Racism is Satan’s attack on God’s image bearers, both in creation and in redemption. We are all created by the one glorious God. We are all fallen in Adam, and equally subject to God’s wrath and displeasure for our cosmic rebellion against him. And in the gospel, God has reconciled us to himself, and one to another.
Jesus Christ is the lightning rod of God’s promises, the One in whom they find their ‘amen’ (2 Cor. 1:20). The Jewish nationalism of the first century was centered on people (Jews) and place (the Jerusalem Temple). God’s surprising New Covenant redefined those themes in terms of their deepest meaning, Jesus himself. He is ultimately the seed of the woman, and the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). But he is also the meeting place between God and humanity. He is the temple (Jn. 2:19-22; 4:19-24).
The “blood and soil” of white nationalism is heresy. In Christ, all nationalism is relativized, not because we do not care for our native lands, but ultimately because the bloodline by which we are most identified is the blood of the Lamb. The soil for which we long is the city with foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). We await the new creation and seek to be colony of heaven right here in the midst of our broken world.
Though it is all-too-easy to get (understandably) outraged with perpetuators of racial superiority, we must not slip into the very error with which they are so commonly charged. We will not demonize them for being different than gospel-minded Christians. Their minds are blinded by Satan himself (2 Cor. 4:4), and caught in his craft snare (2 Tim. 2:26). While we can rightly look to the civil institutions of our land to protect its citizens against racist attacks and violence (since that is in the prevue of God’s purpose for civil government, see Rom. 13:1-5), that is not the agenda of the church. “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).
Our duty is to herald a different story, one in which enemies are reconciled, stony hearts are brought to life, and the Dragon is defeated.
Joseph E. Torres is the editor of Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief with John Frame (P&R Publishing, 2015). He has served as professor for Adult Studies at Belhaven University in Orlando, Florida, as well as an adjunct in the department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Nyack College (in his home town of New York City). He earned an M.A. in Christian Thought at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He regularly blogs at KINGDOMVIEW (apolojet.wordpress.com).
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- As Craig Keener explains: “Most High God” is ambiguous, a common designation for God in Jewish texts but also occurs in pagan sources for Zeus or for the Jewish God with whom pagans sometimes identified Zeus. Magical texts show that pagans respected this supreme God, often identified with the Jewish God, as the most powerful. The spirit ambiguously reduces the missionaries’ deity to a chief role in polytheism.” Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 371.
- Writing in the fourth century, the Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, “’Atheism [Christianity—which denied the existence of the Roman pantheon] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”