Perhaps the most important thing to say about race, in the typical American sense of the word, is that it does not exist. Unlike sex, it has no biological reality, and unlike ethnicity, it has no cultural reality. The human community simply is not divided into half-a-dozen (or whatever) racial groups united by distinct genetic markers or a common culture. Let me explain this claim. The idea that race exists did not originate in Scripture. Scripture speaks of all human beings descending from one man, and thus the only “race” it knows is the one human race. Scripture distinguishes among humans, but does so in terms of people-groups.
Race and racism are obviously controversial issues. Writing on the subject is a thankless task, bound to provoke accusations that an author is enthralled by some nefarious ideology and insufficiently enlightened by a better one. This essay has no agenda either to call out the church for racism or to strike the death blow against wokeness. It simply offers reflections on race and racism intended to help Reformed Christians work through these matters in humble, wise, and Christ-honoring ways. Five basic ideas guide these reflections. (A terminological note: I use “antiracist” to refer to scholars and activists who use this term to describe themselves, not as a general term for all people who think racism is immoral. Although antiracists differ amongst themselves on some issues, they share many core convictions addressed below.)
1. Race Does Not Exist, although Racism Does.
Perhaps the most important thing to say about race, in the typical American sense of the word, is that it does not exist. Unlike sex, it has no biological reality, and unlike ethnicity, it has no cultural reality. The human community simply is not divided into half-a-dozen (or whatever) racial groups united by distinct genetic markers or a common culture. Let me explain this claim.
The idea that race exists did not originate in Scripture. Scripture speaks of all human beings descending from one man, and thus the only “race” it knows is the one human race. Scripture distinguishes among humans, but does so in terms of people-groups. Egyptians, Babylonians, Israelites, and dozens of others had different customs and religions, but they were not different races. The geographical theatre in which the biblical story unfolded, at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, ensured that biblical writers were familiar with people of dark skin, light skin, and many shades in between, yet they gave no hint of regarding Cushites and Galatians (Celts) as racially separate.
Contemporary genetic science comes to the same conclusion. Mapping the human genome is one of the most amazing scientific accomplishments of recent decades. By studying the genetic information of living humans and comparing it to DNA from human remains of past millennia, genetic scientists have been able to reconstruct the migration of peoples and their inter-breeding with other peoples in ways hitherto impossible. Data is still coming in and scientists will undoubtedly modify their reconstructions, but one basic conclusion is clear: the modern conception of race has no genetic basis. People around the world are related to each other in complex and often counter-intuitive ways. Who would have thought, for example, that Western Africans are more closely related genetically to Western Europeans than to Eastern Africans? Population-groups have certain genetic markers distinguishing them from other population-groups, but this does not translate into anything corresponding to the “races” of modern mythology.
Furthermore, race has no cultural reality because, unlike ethnic-groups, modern races (“black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc.) do not share a common culture. Rather, they consist of a multitude of groups with often very different histories, languages, and the like.
I do not know how many contemporary Reformed Christians believe that race is a biological and cultural reality, but they would be well-advised to abandon such a spurious notion.
Race, instead, is a figment of the human imagination. One way to put it is that race is a social construct. Certain people in a certain historical context developed the notion of distinct human races. Although social constructs are not necessarily bad or unhelpful, this one was pernicious. Europeans constructed race in conjunction with the colonization of the Americas and the African slave-trade, and they used it to justify the subjugation of non-Europeans and the elevation of Europeans as morally and intellectually superior.
This explains why racism exists even though race does not. (I take “racism” as treating and judging people not according to what is true about them but according to their racial categorization.) Social constructs can be powerful. Often what we imagine to be true shapes our thoughts, feelings, and behavior more strongly than what is actually true. Christians should understand this. Scripture emphasizes that there is no God but one. Yet idolatry exists and it is seductive. Baal was a construct of the human imagination, but it inspired people to dance around altars cutting themselves and provoked Israel to forsake the living God who redeemed them from bondage. Race is something like a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are based on fabrications, yet they can powerfully re-shape the lives of those who buy into them. They scare people into moving off the grid, rejecting life-saving vaccines, or hording gold coins under their mattress. Likewise, race is based on lies, but the idea became very important to those who believed those lies and forced others to live as if they were true.
2. The Interests of Truth and Peace Call for De-Racialization.
If race is a fabrication of the sinful imagination, there seems to be one fundamental and necessary response: Deal with the idea as the lie it is. Stop acting as though race is real. Stop treating and judging people according to what is false. As people are unlikely to escape Baal-worship until they cease to think and act as though a powerful deity named Baal exists, so people are unlikely to escape racism until they cease to think and act as though race exists.
Some of what this entails is obvious, even if easy to overlook. Most of us have become aware of racial stereotypes and made efforts to give them up, but we all need to stay alert and keep striving to put them aside. Most of us have been warned about the hurt caused by racist jokes, although many people still tell them privately now and then, thinking no one is harmed. But whether in public or private, that is acting as though a destructive lie were true. Or consider some people’s habit of mentioning a person’s racial categorization when it is irrelevant: the European-American, for example, who relates a funny incident at the grocery store and describes one of the people involved as an “Asian guy,” although it has no bearing on the story. Perhaps she intends nothing malicious, but she perpetuates racial thought-patterns that have wrought profound harm.
Recognizing the myth of race calls for de-racialization. That is, to live by truth and at peace with all our fellow humans, we ought to (continue to) strip our minds of racial categories and treat our neighbors without respect to them.
What I just wrote is highly controversial. Its most prominent opponents, however, are not unrepentant racists but antiracists. For antiracists, the preceding paragraph promotes color-blindness, the idea that we should not see other people’s race. They believe this is a terrible thing that impedes racial justice and reconciliation rather than promotes it. Progress, they argue, requires seeing racial tensions and dynamics everywhere. When “whites” do not see race, it manifests their dominant place in society and their privilege over others. “Whites” need to become increasingly cognizant of their “whiteness” and hence remain aware of others’ different identities.
These antiracists have legitimate concerns. If wrongs have been done in the name of an imaginary concept, it is surely impossible to rectify wrongs and change course without mentioning that concept. To return to a previous analogy, the Old Testament prophets did not pretend as though they had never heard of Baal or ignore the seduction of idolatry. Likewise, battling racism throughout de-racialization should not mean that we simply stop talking about race and hope that this clears things up. Antiracists are also rightly concerned about an alleged color-blindness that sees the world only through the lens of one’s own cultural assumptions. Ceasing to judge people according to racial categorization should not mean making one’s own culture the universal standard. Cultural diversity is generally a good thing. Finally, antiracists correctly oppose a color-blindness that evaluates all formally identical racial statements identically. For example, an African-American who says “black is beautiful” and a European-American who says “white is beautiful” make formally identical statements. But in the context of American history, they obviously do not communicate the same thing.
These concerns should keep us from a simplistic color-blindness, but if we are concerned about truth and peace, our goal ought to be the elimination of thinking and acting in racial terms. The best strategy for getting there is open for debate, but it is far-fetched to think that the concept of race might disappear by demanding that people see all things through the lens of race.
The teaching takes place not only by hearing the message that people around us sing, but by singing the message ourselves. This benefit is confirmed by modern observations about how people learn. People learn more effectively and more deeply if they not only hear, but try to re-express what they learn. Getting one’s voice involved deepens one’s participation. Singing engages our emotions, and may help to make the message more memorable. People remember songs that they have sung repeatedly, and embrace them more deeply. Their active participation reinforces their memory.
For decades now, Christian congregations have had to deal with differences in musical styles in Christian worship. Some prefer “contemporary music.” Others prefer “traditional music.” The differences become a source of contention. Sadly, we now have the term “worship wars,” as a label to describe the extent to which music in worship has become a battleground.
We should not want more wars, especially within the bounds of the church. Therefore, a discussion of music and singing in the church must begin by recalling Christ’s command: Christians should love one another as Christ has loved us (John 15:12 ESV; see 13:34; 1 John 4:19). Loving one another is a central principle in the life of the people of God. We need not only to teach the principle, but to practice it. Any disagreement or tension in the body of Christ should be seen as an occasion to practice Christian love.
My purpose here is not to talk about Christian love, important as that is. My focus is rather on one specific element: congregational singing. I wish not to create tension, but to ask both pastors and musicians, both leaders and followers in the Christian faith, to approach the issue of congregational singing with wisdom and with balance. For the sake of the health of the church, we want congregational singing to contribute to that health.
How do we best do that? In this four-part series, I briefly set forth my own thoughts. Even if other brothers and sisters may not agree, I hope this may help lead the conversation in a positive direction.
As we have observed, one prime factor is love, and with love, patience. We should bear with other people in the congregation, and bear with decisions about singing with which we disagree. But now what else should go into the decision-making and practice of a Christian congregation?
Mind the Goal
What should be the long-range goal in congregational singing? Everything that we do in Christian worship and in all of life, we should do for sake of honoring God, that is, for sake of promoting the glory of God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). The glory of God is primary and essential.
In addition, the Bible indicates that church meetings should have the aim of building up the church: “Let all things [that take place when the people assemble] be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). The goal is that the people should grow in spiritual maturity, not only individually but as a body, as a community. Nearly the whole of 1 Cor. 14 is about the importance of building up the church, and how this goal regulates and guides the details of what happens during a congregational assembly. Likewise Eph. 4:1-16 has a focus on building up the church. According to Eph. 4, the goal is “the stature of the fullness of Christ” (verse 13). We are “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (verse 15).
We have two goals before us: the glory of God and the building up of the church. These two goals are not two diverse goals that pull in opposite directions. Rather, each implies the other. Building up the church takes place properly only when we are serving God and seeking to please him. So we need to seek the glory of God in Christian worship.
We can also reason the other way, starting with the glory of God. Seeking God’s glory includes seeking to honor his commandment to love one another. This means we cannot seek God’s glory properly without attending to the goal of building up the church. Seeking the glory of God and seeking to build up the church are two sides of the same coin. The two aspects, oriented toward God and toward fellow Christians, are intended by God to work together harmoniously.
How do we build up the church? Much is involved. We need the power of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us and among us.
Well, it was actually OVER two hours long, and I still did not finish up, but we made good progress. First I responded to Evangelist Ted Alexander’s comments wherein he not only identified Reformed theology as fundamentally Roman Catholic, but said I am a Catholic, and a plant in the church, etc. and etc. So, we demonstrated he is suffering from some serious cognitive dissonance to be sure. After that full refutation of his claims we moved back to Leighton Flowers and moved into the section where he proves, repeatedly that Provisionism has not efficacious grace. He has passive, powerless, unintentional provisions, but no powerful, purposeful, intentional grace. We will finish up our response to him later, but may not dedicate an entire episode of RFG to it, we will see.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.
If you are in Christ, you have been justified — eternally, irreversibly, gloriously.
God has spoken his everlasting sentence over your soul. Through faith alone (Romans 5:1), on the basis of the death and life of Jesus Christ alone (Romans 5:9), you are not guilty, but righteous; not hell-bound, but heaven-bound; not condemned, but justified. You need no longer wonder what judgment day holds. Though men, devils, and a disordered conscience may accuse, there is therefore now no condemnation for you (Romans 8:1). Let your soul sigh with relief: you have been justified.
And yet, surprising though it may sound, you also will be justified. As the apostle of justification himself writes, “Through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5) — a statement that seems to suggest some future dimension to the righteousness God reckons to us in Christ. In him, we have righteousness, and we hope for righteousness; we have been justified, and we will be justified.
For many, I suspect, the future dimension of justification startles us at first, like a constellation we’d never noticed before. But rightly understood, it makes the sky of our heavenly hope burn all the brighter.
Salvation Already — and Not Yet
To say we both have been and will be justified may sound like double-talk. How can justification happen in both the past and future tense? But the New Testament authors, and Paul especially, talk this way all the time.
We have been adopted (Romans 8:14–16) — and we will be (Romans 8:23).
We have been resurrected (Ephesians 2:4–6) — and we will be (1 Corinthians 15:22).
We have been redeemed (Colossians 1:13–14) — and we will be (Ephesians 4:30).
We have been sanctified (1 Corinthians 1:2) — and we will be (1 Thessalonians 5:23).
We can even say we have been glorified (Romans 8:30; 2 Corinthians 3:18) — and we will be (Colossians 3:4).
“If you are in Christ, you have been justified — eternally, irreversibly, gloriously.”
We tend to cast the benefits of salvation in chronological order: we have been justified, we are being sanctified, and we will be glorified, for example. But as Sinclair Ferguson writes, “We cannot think of, or enjoy, the blessings of the gospel either isolated from each other or separated from the Benefactor himself” (The Holy Spirit, 102). In other words, the benefits of salvation are less like links in an abstract chain and more like spokes attached to the hub of Christ himself (see Saved by Grace, 16, for a helpful visual). “Every spiritual blessing” lives in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), and because we ourselves are in Christ, every spiritual blessing in one sense is already ours.
And in another sense, every spiritual blessing is not yet ours. “In the New Testament,” Ferguson continues, “there remains a yet-to-be consummated aspect to every facet of salvation” (102–3) — justification included.
Speaking of future justification calls for care, of course. So much of justification’s power lies in the past tense. “We have been justified” (Romans 5:1), Paul says — and he means it. And yet, some future dimension of justification awaits.
We have already noted, for example, Paul’s words in Galatians 5:5: “We ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” We might also mention Paul’s teaching (echoing Jesus) that everyone, believers included, “will stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10; see also 2 Corinthians 5:10). If God’s justifying verdict were only past, why would Christians need to appear at God’s judgment seat? More than that, we have another biblical clue that justification is, in one sense, still future — a clue that may seem surprising: our bodies still decay and die.
In the beginning, Paul reminds us, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin” (Romans 5:12). Death is not the natural end to life’s natural process. Death is penalty and punishment, the unnatural end to life under sin. Every headstone stands as a silent witness to God’s judicial sentence over sinful man: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
In other words, death is the just end of the unjustified. And though, in Christ, we really have been justified, we still die as if we haven’t been, as if we were still under the same sentence of condemnation. Our bodies, “dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10), await the day when we who have received “the free gift of righteousness” will “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).
Raised and Justified
The connection between death and condemnation deepens the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Every drop of blood from the cross, and then every hour in the tomb, seemed to confirm the Pharisees’ claim that “this man is a sinner” (John 9:24). “As long as he remained in a state of death,” Richard Gaffin writes, “the righteous character of his work, the efficacy of his obedience unto death remained in question, in fact, was implicitly denied” (Resurrection and Redemption, 121). If the stone had never rolled away, Jesus would have remained slain among the unjustified.
But the stone did roll away, such that Paul can sing, “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16). The word vindicated here is the same word for justified, suggesting that, in a sense, Jesus’s Spirit-wrought resurrection served to justify him — to declare to all that the so-called “sinner” on the cross was in truth “the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14). Despite his enemies’ slander, Jesus never sinned. Therefore, Peter says, “It was not possible for him to be held by [death]” (Acts 2:24). Death, unable to imprison a sinless man, was forced to bow before Christ’s resurrected feet.
Resurrection, then, testifies that the Genesis 3 death sentence no longer rests over a person, that he or she is now in the right with God, and therefore fit to dwell with him in the land of the living. In Christ, of course, we too have been resurrected (Ephesians 2:4–6) — but only in spirit, not yet in body. Which means our justification is both already and not yet. As Gaffin writes,
As believers are already raised with Christ, they have been justified; as they are not yet resurrected, they are still to be justified. . . . “The outer man,” subject to decay and wasting, mortal and destined for death, still awaits justification in some sense. (By Faith, Not by Sight, 98–99)
For now, God’s justifying verdict lies veiled beneath our bent and broken bodies. But one day, “when the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:54), our justification will become plain to all.
Our Cosmic Acquittal
The Westminster Shorter Catechism helps us picture that day: “At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment” (answer to question 38).
God has already “acknowledged and acquitted” us on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection. But he has not yet done so “openly.” As Dane Ortlund writes, “The open manifestation and vindication of already justified sinners is not yet placarded before a hostile world” (“Inaugurated Glorification,” 119). For now, we live in a world that opposes and denies our justification. The devil still accuses us. Conscience unfairly condemns us. Our bodies wrinkle, weaken, and eventually die under the death penalty of sin. But not so forever.
On the day of judgment, we will stand before God and all the world, our risen bodies testifying that we are no longer dust destined for dust, but glory headed for glory (1 Corinthians 15:48–49). The “accuser of our brothers” (Revelation 12:10) will have his mouth shut, finally and forever. Conscience will no longer clamor; enemies will no longer slander. And most importantly, God himself, having already claimed us in Christ, will trumpet his righteous pleasure as far as east is from the west (Matthew 25:21). Openly and publicly, he will justify us.
That future day will not serve as a second justification, as if the first were somehow tentative and uncertain. Nor will it rest on any other basis than Christ alone — though Spirit-wrought good works will play their role as public witnesses of saving faith (2 Corinthians 5:10). That day will simply consummate the justification God has already declared over us in Christ. The song ringing in our hearts will resound throughout the cosmos (Romans 5:5).
We Eagerly Wait
In the galaxy of our heavenly hope, here is a star to see and savor. We will not only be raised, saved, adopted, and welcomed home on the last day; we also will be openly justified. Oh to say with the apostle Paul, “We ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5).
“We will not only be raised, saved, adopted, and welcomed home on the last day; we also will be openly justified.”
Paul himself tells us how to join him in his eager waiting: “Through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait . . .” Doug Moo summarizes Paul’s meaning: “It is by appropriating and living out of the power of the Spirit that believers confidently wait for the ultimate confirmation of their righteous status before God” (Galatians, 329). One day, the Spirit will raise our buried bones, sew joint and sinew back together, and present us for public justification, as the universe watches. In the meantime, the same Spirit grows our confidence for that day by slowly making us more righteous now.
We will never become perfectly righteous in this world. Far from it. But the only people who “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” are those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” to fill our words and deeds, our thoughts and feelings (Matthew 5:6). And so, as long as we live here, walking in a broken body upon a broken earth, we strive for righteousness, waiting for the day when God will openly crown us with the righteousness already ours in Christ.
Grace and peace to you on this fine day.
(Yesterday on the blog If Just One Person Returned)
Why I Quit Praying for God to “Use Me”
Alex Early: “I became a Christian at the age of 15 and knew I was called into vocational ministry within 90 days. So, one prayer that I picked up on by leaders around me and started praying myself was this—’God, please use me in this world for your glory and our joy.’ It sounds right and even biblical. Yet, to be quite honest, I didn’t pray that prayer from a heart that was content with God.”
The Prayer Stump
I appreciate this one. “My husband chiseled out what he calls a prayer stump from the trunk of a fallen tree. Its back behind our house where he is hidden from human eyes. It’s an uncomfortable seat, an earthly throne of sorts, where he brings our children and grandchildren to a much higher and greater Throne.”
5 Reasons We Don’t Pray
“None of us feel as though we have ‘arrived’ when it comes to prayerful communion with our heavenly Father—but few of us do the searching work of pondering why that is. Honestly, if we give it some thought, it is rather obvious why prayer is hard and why we struggle to do it. Here are five of the most significant reasons why we don’t pray…” You will probably identify with some of these.
Silence is Not Violence
“What if the world needs fewer words, not more? What if silence is not violence and extra words are nothing more than virtue signaling?” This is well worth thinking about.
More: What God Wants for You
“Our dreams are fiddling and fickle. They’re also small, like gains of dusty sand on a vast shore. No offense. I’m not trying to belittle you (or myself, for that matter). You may have some ‘respectable’ dreams in the world’s eyes, maybe even some respectable dreams in the eyes of the church. But they’re probably not good enough. God probably wants more for you.”
A Pandemic of Disunity
Randy Alcorn has some valuable thoughts about unity through the pandemic. “Believers’ love toward each other is the greatest proof that we truly follow Jesus. If we fail to live in loving oneness, the world — or to bring it closer to home, our family, and friends — will have less reason to believe the gospel.”
Flashback: Do You Set an Example in Your Conduct?
All the time, in every way, in all of life, God challenges you to be an example of godliness to other Christians.
People treat God’s sovereignty as a matter of controversy, but in Scripture it is a matter of worship. —J.I. Packer
One of the greatest Reformation-era rediscoveries is the astounding truth that sinful men and women can be justified—made right with God—on the basis of faith alone. No merit of our own makes us acceptable to God. It is ever and only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that restores the broken relationship we have with our Creator.
There are two immediate ramifications: (1) We can’t excuse our sin, as people commonly do, by appealing to our humanity. “I’m only human” is not a justification; it’s precisely the problem. (2) It brings to a screeching halt every attempt at trying to rescue ourselves by exerting moral effort. Moral improvement cannot alter the core problem of spiritual heredity and federal reality. A “moral” child of Adam is still a child of Adam.
History stands as witness to the tragic fact that the seemingly unimaginable is both possible and even habitual. It is possible for the church to lose the gospel. Core biblical truths can get eroded by incessant cultural pressures and buried under legal tendencies. Such is the case with the truth presented clearly in Romans 5:12–21. In these ten verses, Paul roots the great crisis of fallen man and the astounding cure of the gospel in the realities of federal headship and imputation. These concepts have been largely lost to American evangelicalism.
Sociologist Christian Smith has detailed with painful clarity the ways that Americans think of Christianity in internal, sentimental, and individualistic categories.1 Paul’s gospel, on the other hand, is a federal gospel—a gospel based on the principle of representation—in which the most significant realities are external, objective, and representative. Paul views both the human crisis and the gospel cure in corporate categories. The core human problem is that we are born “in Adam” and are recipients of the imputed guilt, inherited corruption, and inevitable devastation of his sin.2 The gospel solution is for us to be found in a second Adam and to receive the righteousness, holiness, and eternal life rooted in His obedience.
The first thing we need to know is that the “bad news” is far worse than most people imagine. Paul makes it clear that the great crisis of mankind is not merely that we sin individually but that we are corporately “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22) and are caught in the net of his sin, his condemnation, and his death. We have a classification problem, not just a moral condition. Our moral problem is the fruit and evidence of our fatal paternal problem. We are all born “in Adam” and subject to his crime, corruption, and condemnation.
Paul raises the universal reality of human death (Rom. 5:12, 14) as patent evidence of our corporate crisis. Everyone dies.