I recently read this fairly brief blog post by Nana Dolce and had several thoughts. First, I am grateful for her careful choice of wording throughout this piece. She does not bemoan MacArthur’s sentiments in the common diatribe wherein others would take this sound bite and demonize John. She respectfully, and artfully, disagrees with the foundations of John’s argument that the gospel eradicates social justice issues.
Yet herein do I find reason to think, and possibly suggest that what keeps happening among many Evangelicals, is that we keep speaking past one another. We’re often using similar language – yet operating with differing base assumptions, presuppositions, and definitions of these phrases down to the very words contained therein. Combine this with the notion that we are all forensic experts, sociologically savvy, theologically witty (and always right, though we have the common decency to humbly admit we can be wrong, though we seldom admit it) – and the perpetuated divide progresses. We adopt phraseology from organizations which have no desire for peace, demonstrate racism themselves, and seemingly cloak it in nobility by making it our own. Contrary to popular thought though, words have a specific meaning – and some movements use phrases, which carry ideological roots that are inherently opposed to what the scriptures speak quite candidly upon.
Add ideological differences among those branding themselves as Christians and stir this relative dash into the vast, tempestuous cauldron of Western ideologies as a whole, and we find the current race debate, a la carte. The opinions are so diverse and the undergirded propositions thereof stem from systems of beliefs that display a greater range of diversity – not to mention the terminology which carries specific, nuanced meaning within that range – it is of little wonder that we can’t find a common dialect in a sound bite. But if we narrow our scope a bit, and ask deeper questions that probe beyond the surface, perhaps the church can grapple with and be on the forefront of reconciliation.
However, the question remains: does the gospel eradicate social injustice? The short answer: yes. We have to think in proper terms though to understand how. We must stop thinking in sound bites and move to thinking of the biblical corpus as a whole.
Jews and Gentiles
Do we stand in the position to think that we are a more divided group than the Jews and Gentiles whom Paul addressed in Galatia? When he said, “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,” are we to presuppose that the implied meaning of the text is devoid of racial tension? Furthermore, are we really going to think that Paul’s solution in saying those in the church are all “one in Christ Jesus” is not a good enough reason to recognize our national identities are of secondary importance within the scope of our identity as brothers and sisters in Christ?
Think of Ephesians 2 and the grand significance this has to the current discussion.
The Problem of Sin
Paul so clearly lays the foundation of our issue – yet what we ought to note is the particular cases being used. Paul sets out to describe the universal condition of man prior to reconciliation with Christ:
You were dead in sin, lived in the same manner as everyone else who is dead in sin (being son of disobedience; read: being sons of Satan), lived with unbridled passion, lust, indulgence, and were by nature (your modus operandi; that is, your default position) children of wrath.
But then we hear the most amazing two words one could possibly hear: but God. All of this, save the applicable verses speaking of Satan working in the sons of disobedience, is demonstrating the past reality of who we were as sons of disobedience, yet the present condition of those in Christ because of the past, present, and future work of God.
The Power of the Gospel
It is here that the power of the gospel comes in to affect individual salvation with the eye toward corporate salvation – demonstrating that salvation is the gift of God not solely for the individual, but the church. It speaks of the present reality of those seated in the heavenly places in Christ, for the purpose of showing the surpassing riches of His grace and kindness toward us in Christ. Why? For by Grace you have been saved – not by your works, but by the free gift of God, because we were created (past tense, in the passive voice – again reflecting that this is not a work of our own) in Christ (notice the preposition to demarcate location or sphere) for good works which God prepared beforehand, that in them we should walk (we should walk is in the subjunctive, showing a conditional reality on the basis of God’s work). In verse 11 then we find the conjunction Διὸ meaning “therefore” or “for this reason.” In light of all that was just said, Paul then moves toward setting up the concept of a new creation in the church as opposed to two separate people groups (Jews and Gentiles).
It is here Paul again reminds them of their former condition, having been separated from Christ, excluded from Israel, strangers to the covenant of promise, and having no hope without God (v. 12). But now (again, notice the present reality and the prepositional phrase: in Christ) they have been brought near and He is their peace, making both groups into one (the church).
One New Man
Verses 14-22 then state what has been accomplished through the joining of two formerly opposed people groups (those whom were part of the Abrahamic covenant and those who were not) – and yet again, notice the prepositional phrase through the cross, and again verse 18, through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. Verse 21 again we should note the prepositions ἐν (in) used with the relative pronoun “whom” and again at the end of the verse to form the second prepositional phrase “in the Spirit.” These prepositions are significant simply because they place weight upon the present sphere of operation for the believer, not respective of two separate peoples, but of one new group made up of the body of believers.
The context cannot be any clearer than to indicate that this happens entirely through intra-Trinitarian work. It is a present reality rather than one that is to come through the work of the church. Even those works which we are to walk in (v. 10) are those which He prepared beforehand, so that we might walk in them. What this plainly means is that those good works, which are performed by the true church are those works which He ordained to happen, and the means by which they can happen is because of the gospel. Without the gospel you can have no truly benevolent works.
The pity of the matter is the abundant division that continues to take place among Evangelicals over issues of race. Presently, we are one, new creation in Christ. There is no way around this in the text. Yet the crux of the matter doesn’t stem from this. This is not controversial teaching in our current day to anyone with a sound mind and working knowledge of the scriptures. It tends to be the application of this, among many other passages, that we find the divide. Yet I don’t find it entirely convincing, nor necessary to separate orthodoxy from orthopraxy, or to advocate that a man like MacArthur, who has demonstrated much sound theology and practice in his church, is doing so either. To say such a thing one must read between the lines of a sound bite…
Rather, it seems more prudent to look and ask what ramifications are produced from the statement he made. If the above is true, and it is, then yes – the gospel is the solution because sin is the root issue. We can combat these sins in numerous ways, yet ultimately, if they are devoid of the gospel, specifically the gospel which units all peoples under the auspices of a new creation in Christ called the church, then it is nothing but social justice. This does not necessitate that social justice is intrinsically evil or bad – but it does necessitate that Christians actually think of these issues in light of the gospel rather than demarcating lines around these issues as if the gospel itself is not the primary issue, or as if the gospel itself cannot solve this issue. The text offers this as not a viable solution, but the viable solution to the race divide – and what’s more than this, it is an intrinsically Trinitarian work.
Yet the cold reality is that we live in a state where this tension exists, having received the benefits of being in Christ – yet not seeing the fullness of these promises instituted. Sin has not been done away with, and so racism remains and it will remain until the day when all His enemies have been subdued underfoot. This does not present the false dichotomy of one offering a panacea without ways to actually intercede and stand in opposition to racism. The gospel itself presupposes the notion that we are in the active ministry of joining all tongues, nations, and tribes together in one people: the redeemed. If you wish to speak on social issues and bridge the divide between people groups, do so. Do it daily. Be in the constant ministry of reconciliation – yet you will not ever do so with proper sight if the gospel is neglected as the primary means of solving the systemic issue of sin and recognize this same gospel is the one which unites and reconciles all things through the power of the cross.
Featured Image: Blurred Lines by Chrisena Allen; CC BY-SA 2.0