I’m currently preaching thru Colossians 3, addressing matters of sanctification. I’ve been hitting the “vice list”. But there is another type of sin hidden there.
11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV)
The church there was in danger of splitting along ethnic, socio-economic and other lines. This tendency has not been extinguished. It is part of our fallen condition that stubbornly refuses to die despite redemption. Racism in the church is NOT a new thing, and not just a “white thing”.
“We humans have never had the resources in ourselves to love each other well across ethnic lines. There is too much selfishness in all of us.”
I’ve had more conversations about race and socio-economic issues (those 2, I find, are often confused). I’m trying to read more about this, and have far more to read (perhaps Perkins, Ellis, Bradley, Noll and others). I long for our congregation to reflect biblical realities (the good ones), and for our denomination to make concrete, meaningful strides in this area. It is not easy. I’m often frustrated: by myself and others. I also have adopted an Asian child and 2 African children so now they have the hyphen. So this is both a personal and professional issue for me.
As a result, I decided to read John Piper’s recent book Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian. This book is essentially an exposition of the gospel that is applied to the issue of racism (though I find that term less than accurate, thinking we are all of one race, descended from Adam via Noah).
Piper starts with his own story of growing up in Greenville, SC. He admits to his racism, and rejoices in Christ’s redemption that includes the putting to death of that racism. He is not blind to the on-going issues within the evangelical church that mirror the world in this regard. That is why he wrote the book to reveal what the gospel says about all this.
If we start with the bloodlines, we see that we all have a common ancestry. It may not be 7 degrees of separation, but if you go back far enough we are connected. I recently saw a question about the table of nations in Genesis 10. Why are they there? I believe they anticipate the promise given to Abram in Genesis 12. Those nations still mattered to God and He would bless them through Abram’s seed. The distinctiveness of Israel was temporary! God’s people will come from all the nations, as we see in Revelation 5.
What we see in Revelation 5 is that the cross purchased people from every nation, tribe, tongue and language. Redemption from bondage. Purchased to set free, not purchased to enslave. Christ, as the seed of Abram, fulfills that promise. This fulfillment brings us all into one body, a new man as Paul says in Ephesians 2.
The gospel has much to say about this matter of racism and is its only solution. As our world “shrinks” this becomes all the more pressing. This is abundantly clear in America, but this is not the only country wrestling with these issues. Nor are we the only church to wrestle with them.
“The difference is that when you develop patterns of sin in the majority race, they have no racial connotation. Since majority people don’t think of themselves in terms of race, none of our dysfunctions is viewed as a racial dysfunction. … When you are a minority, everything you do has color.”
So Piper begins with the problem. He has a chapter on Personal Responsibility and Systemic Intervention. He does not take an either/or position like so many of our politicians. He recognizes a place for both. We are not called to wait for Jesus to return, but the eschaton pulls us forward. We are to work toward these things though we will not arrive there due to indwelling sin and the sinful structures sinners create.
He also recognizes that Reformed Theology has a record of both fostering and freeing from racism. I think that the only Christian group that wasn’t involved in the slave trade from Africa was the Quakers. So to pick on Reformed leaders misses the point. Church leaders from all kinds of backgrounds were guilty. But we also see some Reformed leaders instrumental in destroying the slave trade. And he draws upon the life of William Wilberforce to show how his theology drove his politics to seek the end of the slave trade and then slavery itself in Great Britain.
“Therefore, into the racial situation the gospel brings the only power that can set people and structures free from the bondage of the Devil.”
Piper believes that the distinctive theology of the Reformation is particularly suited to free people from the bonds of racism. To that end he works through the “5 Points of Calvinism” and the “Solas” of the Reformation to show how they gut racism of its power and logic.
“No color, no ethnicity, no intelligence, no skill, not human wealth or power can add anything to the all-sufficient, all-effective sacrifice of Christ.”
Much of this book is excellent. Piper covers a large amount of territory quickly. He can’t say everything there is to say about everything. He limits things to the implications for the topic at hand. So, we cannot hold him at fault for failing to be exhaustive. He rightfully wants the book to be readable for the average person.
As I read, I found one thing downright confusing, one disagreement and one glaring omission. That, of course, doesn’t mean the book isn’t incredibly helpful.
The Confusing Thing
Piper was uncharacteristically confusing when discussing “particular atonement”. He sounded more like an advocate of the hypothetical atonement in a few places. Usually he is quite clear on these things. In this section there were a number of editorial corrections that needed to be made. My book came with a slip of paper noting them. Perhaps they missed a few and therefore it was confusing. I had a hard time seeing John Piper write this:
“The fact that God makes salvation possible for all through the blood of Christ does not contradict the view that God does more than that through the death of Christ.”
I affirm that Christ’s death is sufficient to save all who ever lived or will lived. This is because he is the 2nd Adam, the head of the new covenant. But Christ didn’t just make salvation possible- he actually saved people, particular people.
As I noted, this portion of the book lacks Piper’s typical clarity. What is clear is that all who are saved rest in Christ’s righteousness not their own. Or their superior ethnicity, culture or social status. The gospel levels all of us, because all of us need the intervention of Christ to be saved. No class, race or culture is more or less lost than another (though some cultures are more influenced by the gospel than others).
Piper says that he is Reformed in his theology. He has a great appreciation for Reformed Theology. I do not doubt that he does. He and I obviously have slightly different understandings of Reformed Theology. I believe they include more than the “solas” and the “5 Points”.
Where he goes wrong, I think, is in his understanding of the Law. It seems very flat without any nuance and distinctions that reflect the different contexts in which Paul and others in the NT speak of the Law. He seems to fall into a common error, particularly among New Covenant theologians, regarding the “law of liberty”. It takes place in his discussion of partiality from James 2. Let’s note that he first quotes from James 2.
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture,“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. (ESV)
He draws a distinction between the “royal law” or “the law of liberty” and the moral law as expressed in the Ten Commandments. Historically, Reformed Theology has affirmed the binding nature of the Commandments as a rule of life for Christians (the 3rd use of the Law). Piper doesn’t appear to.
“And realize that it is not the Old Testament law per se that will be the final standard of judgment but the center of that law- loving your neighbor as yourself.”
Instead of recognizing that the Law instructs us as to what it means to love God and to love our neighbor, he appears to drive a wedge between them. Notice that James states that God is the one who gave all those commands. Regardless of which of the Ten Commandments we break, James says we transgress the law. The moral law, not an abstract law of love aka the royal law aka the law of liberty. Paul also uses the Ten Commandments to explain what it means to love your neighbor in Romans 12. Neither says “love each other and don’t worry about those Old Covenant laws”. Rather, they affirm them.
He operates with a common misunderstanding of the law in the Old Covenant.
“This means that James is not taking us back again to the yoke of slavery where we lived under law as the means of setting ourselves right with God. Rather the “royal law- love your neighbor- has become a “law of liberty” because it can only be fulfilled by those who have been liberated from having to fulfill it as the way to get right with God.
True, even what he calls the “royal law” can save us. We can’t obey that, apart from justifying and sanctifying grace, any more than we can the Ten Commandments. Please recall that the Law was given AFTER Israel had been redeemed from Egypt. Redemption preceded obedience. It is a mistake to think of the Mosaic law as the yoke of slavery as we people were supposed to earn their own righteousness. Many misunderstood it that way, but that does not seem to be God’s intention.
In this way he clearly departs from the understanding of the Law as expressed by John Frame, whom he notes as one of the prominent Reformed Theologians today. Packer and Sproul, whom he also listed, would also disagree with him on this point.
“Love and law are the same content, considered from two different angles. But how do they differ as perspectives? As perspectives, the difference between them is in focus or emphasis. Law focuses on the acts we are to perform, while love focuses on the heart-motives of these acts.” John Frame
One Glaring Omission
I am glad that John Piper included a chapter on interracial marriage. It is an important topic and needs to be addressed in a book like this. That is why I am surprised that he did not mention trans-racial adoption. Piper himself has adopted trans-racially. This is part of why I’m surprised he does not spend time defending this practice that has come under attack by many. I know this because I have adopted trans-racially. I’ve read impersonal arguments against the practice. I’ve had personal disagreements with people on this subject. A brief summary of the doctrine of adoption in which God adopts people from every tribe, nation, tongue and language should teach us that God loves adoption and trans-racial adoption. God is not as concerned with “preserving” individual cultures as we are. He’s concerned with redeeming people from every culture. I really wish he would have addressed this.
“What becomes clear is that racial and ethnic diversity and harmony among the redeemed is a God-ordained and blood-bought means of glorifying the grace of God. This is one of the ways that the glory of God’s grace becomes strikingly visible through the gospel.”
As I noted above, these 3 things do not discredit the book or make the book less than useful. It is an otherwise excellent book that addresses an important topic in our day by relating it to the gospel. We need more books like this, and I am glad John Piper has written this one.