The Doctrines of Race
A Call to Make Christ Central
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
God does not talk about race like we do. Not that he ignores the subject. Far from it.
The Christian Scriptures, from beginning to end, have a great deal to say about the matter — and much to say into our present context. In fact, I suspect many today would be quite surprised to discover how conscious and aware the Bible is to ethnicity, and how germane it is to our ongoing tensions and discussions related to race.
God’s readiness to speak into our moment, however, does not mean that he sounds like we do, or that he blesses or adopts the very modern, secular, godless foundations of our dialogues and diatribes. He does meet us here, and he stands ready to change us — not just how we live, but how we talk. He wants his people to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And yet many of us resist his way of talking about race (or ignore him altogether on this issue), and instead adopt the approach and vocabulary of the unbelieving right or the unbelieving left.
If God’s way of talking about the subject has grown vanilla or seems irrelevant to you in our current context, I want to encourage you, in Christ, to reconsider. As you do, know that seeking to embrace God’s approach and his categories is not to favor “the right” or “the left” in American politics. Rather, approaching the subject on God’s terms will unsettle and unmask both the secular liberal and secular conservative influences that are shaping so much of our thinking, talking, and tweeting.
God Gives Us Categories
From beginning to end, the Scriptures show how our diversity of ethnicity proclaims the excellencies of our God. And perhaps no single chapter in the Scriptures speaks as directly into our moment as Ephesians 2. Here Paul not only rehearses the key categories from God’s own telling of his story, but also then makes explicit and immediate connections to ethnicity and reconciliation and peace. Ephesians 2 is an extraordinarily powerful word for the tensions and unrest of our day.
The plain categories of Ephesians 2:1–10 — sin, Christ, grace, faith, doing good for others — are vital to Paul’s treatment of ethnic division and unity in Christ in Ephesians 2:11–22.
ALL SPIRITUALLY DEAD
Apart from Christ, “you were dead” (Ephesians 2:1). All of us, Jews and Gentiles, black and white — “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh . . . and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). All of us, every person, every ethnicity, were “following the course of this world” — and to do so, mark this, is also “following the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), that is, the devil. Don’t think that Satan is uninvolved in the obstacles we face. We will do well to keep his schemes in mind, and humanity’s sin nature, as we consider whether we might have common ground with unbelievers in various causes (on the left and on the right).
AWAKENED IN CHRIST
In Christ, everything has changed for us. Do you feel the force of this? Does being “in Christ” affect how you view the unrest of these days? The most fundamental divide in the world is not black and white, or Jew and Gentile, or male and female, or any other created difference Satan and our sin turn into division. Most basic is this: “in Christ” or “apart from Christ.”
We who have come to know Jesus were “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). The one true God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) — how then can we not see the world, and these tensions, and all things, differently than spiritually dead, unawakened liberals and conservatives? We have been made alive. We are truly awake. We have been raised up with Christ. Or have we?
If we are alive in Christ, and awake in him, we might ask ourselves in days like ours, Do I see this conflict any different than a spiritually dead person does? Am I different than a spiritually dead liberal? In my gravitating toward a “side,” am I becoming “unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14)?
GRACE REIGNS AND WORKS
Paul’s great interjection in Ephesians 2:5 — “by grace you have been saved!” — brings a distinctively Christian element to what unfolds in Ephesians 2:11–22. As Christians, how can grace not characterize our response to racial tensions and to all things? Do the “warriors” on the right or the left operate from grace? How different might these days be, at least in our churches, if Christians spoke and acted as Christians — as if grace reigned?
To be clear, the reign of grace leads not to passivity or apathy but to energy — to “good works” (Ephesians 2:10). These good works are not for show, but meet real human needs. God calls for works done, deeds performed, energy expended, muscles engaged, words spoken, personal comforts denied, discomforts embraced, to bring some good in someone else’s life that might not otherwise happen. Such good works do not broadcast self but give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Such good works typically go uncaptured and unposted. And such good works arise from our own gospel-shaped, Spirit-led hearts, not the dictates of others.
If we know what’s coming to us — “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7) — how can we not seek to reflect that in our world?
So Prone to Forget
Now, in light of God’s story, God’s work, God’s Son, God’s grace, what might we say about the most acute of ethnic tensions — Jew and Gentile — and then all others besides? Paul first says, Remember (Ephesians 2:11–12). It may seem so easy, and yet is so profound. Remember who you were apart from Jesus: spiritually dead. And remember who you are now, in him: spiritually alive, awake.
We are so prone to forget. Some new dialogue comes along, or new concern feels pressing. The world has its terms, its tone, its sides, and how soon we forget. How soon we need to hear Paul say, “Remember.” It is one of our greatest needs as Christians in such times: to remember what we already know.
Remember we are first and foremost Christian, not first and foremost Jew or Gentile, white or black, Asian or Hispanic. Remember, in Christ, we see the world not primarily through the lens of race but through the lens of his person and work. “In Christ” or “apart from Christ” are the biggest and most significant categories, not our race or other distinctives. Remember that deeper than skin color is the blood of our common humanity, and deeper still is the blood of Christ.
Peace Is a Person
“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Here, and here alone, do humans find true and lasting peace — “for he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). This is what Christians believe, what we say, and how we live: Christ is our peace. The world, apart from Christ, doesn’t know this peace, the true and lasting peace. Just as the world flounders to define justice and racism (a species of biblical partiality) apart from Christ.
The next verse tells us how Christ makes peace between ethnicities: he creates in himself “one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Ephesians 2:15). It is striking how directly the risen Christ speaks, through his apostle, into our day, if we have ears to hear. If Christ is peace for Jew and Gentile, how much more between fellow Gentiles? Which means, as Christians, we don’t ask blacks to be white, or whites to be black. Rather, the common ground, the place we come together, the point of peace is Jesus himself — his blood, his cross, his flesh, our being one new man in him — and in that way making peace.
Christ “reconcile[s] us both to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16) — and only here, as we first are reconciled to God, are we then truly and enduringly reconciled to each other. In Christ is real and true reconciliation, already achieved, ready to be applied. Apart from him, reconciliation will be thin, partial, and short-lived. Christ’s faithful church offers a true and lasting peace that the world and its polarized unbeliefs do not know.
In Christ, we know in the end there is only one way to real and lasting oneness among sinful humans. “There is one God,” 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Other ways, other attempts, other names may produce oneness for a time, but that oneness will not endure. But when the fundamental issue is addressed — our rebellion against God — then the oneness we find in him, and in his solution in Christ, is true and lasting unity that will grow thicker, not thinner, over time.
Our Common Ground
In our increasingly secular times, we are facing new and deeper political-cultural pressures toward identities other than Christian. Yet, in Christ, if we are truly in him, we are ten-thousand times a Christian before we are anything else. We are earthly citizens, indeed. Make no mistake about it. This world matters. Our cities matter. Justice matters. Peace matters. But the chorus of voices and influences today are conspiring to make us think that this world is all that matters.
No doubt, the basic Christian truths alone will not answer all our complex questions and various applications in varying contexts. But in such days, if we are not diligent and intentional as Christians, we will quickly forget or diminish the unrivaled primacy of the identity we have in Christ.
In this “pick-your-side” moment, our answer as Christians is not for blacks to kneel before whites, or whites to kneel before blacks, but for Christians to kneel together before a Jew named Jesus, and to see that the common ground on which we come together is not mine or yours but his. In his flesh, by his blood, in one body he has established one new man into which every man and woman and child on the planet is invited through faith in him. As Christians, we cannot lose that all-important starting point, compass, and final answer.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of The Christmas We Didn’t Expect: Daily Devotions for Advent.