In theological circles today, one of the biggest debates is about the issue of social justice. There have been declarations made and signed and disputes about who did and didn’t sign them. There have been discussions about critical race theory and its place in the church. There have been recommendations made by popular conservative evangelical preachers about how to ensure a diversity in the church and what we must do to put right the past. As I listen to and read the surprisingly divergent views among conservative evangelicals, I have constantly reminded myself of two simple truths. If the church was intentional about applying these truths it would have a most powerful effect with an eternal benefit. We have neglected both the power of the doctrine of justification (the declaration of being made right with God) and its application in a proper understanding of the role of the church.
Give yourself the task of picking two people out of a crowd of 70,000 people and you will tell me it’s impossible. By experience, I can tell you that it actually can be quite easy. This year, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. For as long as I’ve known Trish, she has always had songs from Earth, Wind & Fire in her playlist. So, when I found out that they were playing in Cincinnati on our wedding anniversary weekend, it was a no-brainer to buy tickets and plan a great night out. They were playing as part of the Cincinnati Music Festival. Traditionally, this festival has been a Jazz festival organized within the African American community and partly a celebration of African American culture. As two clueless Australians, we just went to a concert to hear one of our favorite bands. We had no idea that we would so easily stand out in a crowd of 70,000 people.
“We have neglected both the power of the doctrine of justification (the declaration of being made right with God) and its application in a proper understanding of the role of the church.”
There was a commonality of culture and skin shade that Trish and I didn’t share. To tell you the truth, it felt a little uncomfortable to be so visibly different, but that week I had just preached a sermon about justification to my congregation. So, I preached that truth to myself. “Everyone here around me is absolutely equal at the foot of the cross.” I looked past the fact that we were standing out in the crowd and realized that we were absolutely common with the crowd in the eyes of Christ. I talked to people, smiled at people, and sang with people. We ended up having a great time at this African American event. Why? Because the truth of the level playing field of justification was ringing in my ears, and because Earth, Wind & Fire got my groove on.
Justification is an important doctrine because it eliminates class distinction. Paul makes this very clear as he talks about it in the context of Jews and Gentiles. Of course, we know that there is a difference between Jews and Gentiles, and Paul even acknowledges it. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Galatians 2:15). Paul and Peter were born as Jews under the Old Covenant law while Gentiles were not. Even so, Paul makes a striking statement that levels the playing field for everyone. “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
“There are no classes in Christ.”
Do you see the leveling in this? Even though there is an outward difference by heritage and culture, Paul and Peter both know that there is no better class of Christian. Nobody is justified by works of the law. When it comes to religions that end up relying on works for satisfying their religious goal, class distinctions are rife. That’s why you can be a good catholic or a bad catholic, a good Hindu or a bad Hindu. That’s not what happens in Christianity. Christianity only claims a good Christ, and everyone else is a lost sinner needing salvation. There are no classes in Christ.
We are all level in either being separated from God and under the condemnation of sin or being covered by the goodness of Christ who died on our behalf through having faith in him alone. Either way there is no class of goodness that any of us who are classified by the word “human” can claim of our own. Justification is a declaration by God upon sinners who otherwise by their own merits would stand condemned. Instead, through faith in Jesus Christ who paid the penalty for our sin, God looks at us through the righteousness of Christ and makes a glorious declaration of “not guilty.” We are on a level playing field as we stand either in the utter sinfulness of humanity or the total righteousness of Christ. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
Understanding the Role of the Church
You may agree with the statements about justification and still ask, “How can this thinking deal with a racism epidemic in our culture?” This question is why many people, including well-meaning evangelical scholars, have turned to calling the church to seek solutions in the social, legal and political realm. It is as if the church must embrace a proclamation that calls for a level playing field through means other than the gospel. In one sense, losing the priority of the Great Commission distracts the church away from the most powerfully equalizing message of justification. Did Jesus ever call the church into political and legal means of transformation or is there a means exponentially more powerful?
“When we understand what the church is, we also realize that we don’t need to politicize everything.”
Who Is the Church?
The church are people who have had a new birth into the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). We are those who are called to protect and preserve truth as the family of God (1 Timothy 3:15). We are people who are called to live a Spirit-filled life through faith in Christ (Galatians 2:20). We are people who are called to make disciples of all nations under the authority of Christ and teach these people to live to God (Matthew 28:18-20). We are a people who come together from different social classes, cultures, and vocations. We are a people who live out our unity through justification in Christ. In my church alone, there are bankers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, factory workers, physical trainers, teachers, retirees, students, and the list goes on. Justification is evident among us as we witness people who would normally have no commonality outside of an intense unity in Christ.
What Can the Church Do About the Racism Epidemic?
Some people think that if the church is not holding up a megaphone and speaking into the public sphere through legislation and political activism that we can never help the issue of racism in America. Others believe that the church needs to embrace the human theories of the day and integrate them into church life. Will either of these solutions really be the best way that the church can respond to racism? While some may speak into the public sphere very well, this kind of thinking is missing the biggest power that is given to the church in the Great Commission. Because of the Great Commission, the church is already spread through nations, tribes and tongues in the world. We have individual believers everywhere in every setting who can live out the ramifications of justification and preach its hope.
“I would rather mobilize every church member with the eternally equalizing message of justification in the commission that Christ has actually given us rather than having a priority of changing a social landscape that can never give people a real solution to their biggest problem.”
None of us need to be silent and yet none of us need a public megaphone. When we understand what the church is, we also realize that we don’t need to politicize everything. None of us need a bigger voice than what we already have in our own individual context. We can speak and act in our own mission fields that we often categorize as vocations, families and neighborhoods. If we are living and speaking out the racially equalizing message of justification in our mission fields, can you imagine the impact of the church? It’s easy to forget that the church is so dynamic. There are Christians placed everywhere all over the world. Why should we underestimate what our voices and lives can do in our own settings? We are empowered in the Spirit to live out the equalizing effect of justification and preach its truth. Our power is in a message that brings equalizing force to racial discrimination with eternal gain for anyone who hears and believes. The voice of the church is everywhere if only we will all speak out in our own settings and point to justification in Christ as the greatest equalizing power in the world. There may be a cost for using that voice in our own settings, but Christ never said that people would accept us. In fact, he said we would be persecuted for the sake of his name.
I would rather mobilize every church member with the eternally equalizing message of justification in the commission that Christ has actually given us rather than having a priority of changing a social landscape that can never give people a real solution to their biggest problem. Not one of us needs to feel impotent when facing this massive cultural problem. We simply all need to be individually obedient to the commission Christ has already given us. Instead of pushing the ideas of social commentators in the hope that they might go viral and impact the culture, we need the Great Commission to go viral with the equalizing message of justification that brings everyone level at the foot of the cross.
“The best way for the church to fix the sins of the past is to tell everyone in the present, without discrimination, about justification through faith in Jesus Christ alone.”
A few days after the Cincinnati Music Festival, I had the opportunity to sit at a lunch across from an African American lady. I happened to mention to her that we went to the Cincinnati Music Festival. She was amazed. “You…went to that concert?” She knew why I wouldn’t fit in. I told her we loved it. She happened to work at the concert that night. The very fact that I was at that event and could honestly say I enjoyed it is something God used to allow me to have a greater rapport with her and talk to her about Jesus. We talked about the eternally equalizing message of justification in Christ alone and I was able to make a strong, heartfelt plea for her to repent and trust Jesus. Imagine if every member of your church was doing this. Imagine if that was multiplied by every evangelical church in America. Imagine if you had the opportunity to live this out in your own family, work and neighborhood? Well, you do.
If you want to have the greatest impact for Christ in the area of racial discrimination, it’s time for you to live out and speak out the message of justification as it applies to your own local situation. It’s also time for you to tell other brothers and sisters to do the same. The church is not impotent in any of these issues. We are the army of Christ. In fact, don’t forget, Jesus is the one who is building his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The best way for the church to fix the sins of the past is to tell everyone in the present, without discrimination, about justification through faith in Jesus Christ alone.