Class, Culture and Ethnic Identity in Christ

Racial Harmony Sunday

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him - 11 a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. 12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.

Christians Who Are Racist?

I think that one of the reasons some Christians have a hard time relating their Christianity to issues like racial harmony and justice is that their view of what happens in conversion to Christ is so superficial. Let me illustrate with the way the apostle Paul handled a misuse that his gospel received. Somewhere along the way, Paul's gospel of justification by grace through faith was distorted like this: "Well, if we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, then let's just sin all the more that grace may abound. The more sin we do, the more grace God shows, and the more glory he gets for his wonderful grace."

Given the way a lot of professing Christians think and feel and act today toward people of other races than themselves, it may be that this distortion is alive and well. Salvation is by grace through faith, so there is no necessity for a change in whether we hate or mistreat people on the basis of race (racism); God forgives and gets more glory for being more gracious.

Shall We Sin so that Grace May Increase?

So how does Paul answer this distortion of his gospel of justification by grace through faith? Listen. I will read it to you from Romans 6:1-2. But get ready, because it is devastating to a superficial view of Christian conversion that reduces it to a "decision for Christ." Here is what he says, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?" "How shall we who died to racism still live in it?" "How shall we who died to malice, still live in it?" "How shall we who died to unkindness and cruelty and meanness and injustice and ugliness and hard-heartedness and bitterness and hostility and anger still live in it?"

Do you hear what Paul is saying? He is saying: If you justify ongoing sin on the basis of abounding grace, if you minimize the seriousness of sin in the life of a Christian, you don't know what conversion to Christ means. It means death. Death to sin. Let me read it again: "Shall we continue in sin - in hating or mistreating or slurring other races - because grace abounds? God forbid! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" Conversion means death -not just decision for Jesus, but death with Jesus. One great problem in the church today - not the only one - is that we do not grasp the magnitude and depth and wonder and miracle of what happens in genuine conversion to Christ. And therefore we do not know how to live and work and fight for righteousness as Christians. And we have a hard time connecting issues like racism with our faith, because we got it wrong from the beginning.

Conversion is death. This is one missing note in a lot of contemporary evangelism and church growth thinking: conversion to Christ is death. "How can we who died to sin, still live in it?"

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. The existence of this memorial day is very significant in America, and very significant to the church of Christ in America. Perhaps nobody in the history of America was hated and loved with more passion than Martin Luther King. His non-violent approach to overturning the social and legal indignities done to African-Americans was enraging to millions of whites. And his heroic stature among blacks and millions of other whites is huge.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born January 15, 1929 (hence this week's holiday). On April 4, 1968, at 6:00 P.M., just outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the 39-year-old Martin Luther King stood by the railing looking out over some rundown buildings just beyond Mulberry Street. James Earl Ray took aim with a .30 caliber rifle and blew away the right side of King's face and neck. He died at St. Joseph's hospital an hour and five minutes later. The non-violent voice against the rage of racism was gone.

In Atlanta an FBI agent yelled, "They finally got the s.o.b.!" White students at the University of Texas at Arlington cheered when they heard the news. Riots flared in 110 cities; 75,000 federal troops patrolled American cities; 711 fires blazed in Washington, D.C., alone.

The existence of this memorial day tomorrow is witness to the division in our country to this very day. Many things have changed. And some deep things have not changed. Let me illustrate. There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968. The Ku Klux Klan has no corner on hate any more. In 1963, in St. Augustine, Florida, the police beat and jailed non-violent demonstrators with ruthless precision, and stood idly by while the Klan bombed and strafed African-American homes and fired shotguns into black nightclubs.* I will spare you the details of the horrific abductions and beatings and tortures that every black person in this country knows about.

But I won't spare you the reminder of this past June 6, outside Jasper, Texas, when James Byrd, a 49-year-old African-American, was beaten and chained by his ankles to the back of a 1982 pickup truck and dragged two miles until his head came off. Many things have changed, but some deep things haven't changed.

I am aware that the issue of race relations is bigger than black and white relations in this country. And even the category "black-white" is an oversimplification, with the influx into America of thousands of blacks who do not have three hundred years of painful heritage to deal with in this land. But I cannot minimize the unique evil and pain that still colors the relations of Anglo-Americans and African-Americans. What I have to say applies more broadly, but on this weekend, I am glad to be heard as addressing that issue primarily, if not only.

Conversion Means Death

Let's go back to the issue of conversion and Paul's devastating attack on a superficial grasp of the power of grace. "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" he asks. And answers, "How can we who died to sin, still live in it?" Conversion means death. If you don't die with Christ, you don't believe on Christ. That is the meaning of becoming a Christian. It is a profound spiritual event that involves death to sin. Short of that, we are playing religious games.

Now I ask, is there Biblical warrant for dealing with racism on these terms? Is this the way to think about racism? This takes us to our text in Colossians 3. First look at verses 2-3: "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. (3) For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God." There is Paul's bold statement of what it means to be a Christian. You. You Christians. You have died. No exceptions. If you haven't died, you are not a Christian. To be converted to Christ is to be united by the Spirit of God to Christ in such a way that we die with him. In this sense: the convictions and impulses and drives and values and affections and passions that govern our lives and give us identity are dealt a mortal blow (a death blow) by the Spirit of God as we turn to Christ.

Here's the way Paul puts it in Galatians 6:14, "May it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." What the world meant to Paul before meeting Christ died on that day. And the Paul that loved the world more than Christ died on that day. A new Paul - believing Christ, trusting Christ, loving Christ, treasuring Christ, honoring Christ - was born (or created) on that day. That is what it means to become a Christian.

And what it means to be (not just become) a Christian is to affirm by your behavior that a death has happened and a new life has been created. The death and new creation are decisive and once for all. But the living out of this reality is a daily work of faith. Look at verse 5: "Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead [literally: put them to death]." Live in the reality that God has worked in you. You have died. Believe this, and live out the implications of this death.

Take lying, for example, and see the way Paul deals with it in verses 9-10. "Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him." Now the imagery changes here, but only superficially. The same reality is in view. A death has happened and a new creation has come into being. Except here, Paul speaks of it in this way: we have decisively, once for all, "laid aside the old self" (verse 9). The old self died and you laid it aside like a corpse.

Conversion Means a New Self

But the positive side is given in verse 10: "You have put on the new self." That is a decisive thing that has happened in conversion. And where did it come from? Who made this new self? Who came into being when the old self died? The answer is given at the end of verse 10: "The one who created him"; namely, God. In conversion, our old self died and was laid aside with its impulses and drives and values and loves and convictions. And a new self was created by God. This is called in other places "the new birth" or being born again (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3).

Then notice: even though this death and new creation are decisive past acts of God in the life of every believer, they do not mean that we live perfect lives immediately. This is why we are told to put the old self to death (verse 5) and to put on the new self (verse 12), and this is why, in verse 10, Paul says that the new self "is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him." In other words, we are becoming in behavior what we are by the supernatural act of God in our lives at conversion. We are working out, by faith, what God has worked in us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Now just at this point, the issues of class and culture and race are raised by the apostle in verse 11. He says that, in these converted hearts and in this community of Christian believers, "there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all."

Canyons that Do Not Stop Love and Fellowship

This was an absolutely staggering statement in his day. Greek and Jew were divided by ethnicity, religion and culture. The canyon between them was immense. And Paul says: Where people have died with Christ and been created as a new self in the image of God, this canyon will not stop love and fellowship. The reference to barbarians and Scythians is a reference to the way the cultured Romans and Greeks viewed anyone whose speech or manners or habits were foreign and uncouth and unrefined. If you have died with Christ and been created as a new self in the image of God, these kinds of differences will not stop love and fellowship. The reference to slave and free is a reference to the deepest divisions of class. Here are the seeds of the end of slavery. Paul didn't attack it directly. He undermined it; among Christians - those who have died and risen with Christ - Brother and Sister are the terms that replace all the others. (See Philemon 1:16).

Christ Is All and in All

But the crucial, final word for us this morning is at the end of the verse 11. In the heart that has died with Christ and is being renewed as a new creature in Christ, "there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all."

Here is the living effect of dying to sin when you turn to Christ. And this is the great power to destroy racism in the church. "Christ is all and in all." It has two parts.

Take the last first. "Christ is in all." When you die to sin, Christ moves in. "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). When you are crucified with Christ in coming to Christ, you die and Christ lives in you. Every true Christian in the church, of every class and culture and race, is indwelt by the living Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us. It is impossible to really believe and revel in that truth and mistreat a believer of a different race.

Finally, take the first half of this last phrase in verse 11: "Christ is all." Here is the death knell to racism. Why do we despise? Or hate? Or shun? Or avoid? Or disparage? Or distort? Is it not because we are weak and fearful and insecure and proud and angry and without deep peace and love in our souls? Do those ugly things come from people whose treasure is an all-satisfying fellowship with Christ? I think not.

Therefore, what we need is to reckon ourselves dead to all but Christ as the satisfaction of our souls. We need to love him so much and find in his fellowship such completeness that we speak like the psalmists: "I say to the LORD, 'Thou art my Lord; I have no good apart from thee'" (Psalm 16:2). And: "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:24-25). Or like the old hymn writer says: "Jesus is all the world to me, my life, my joy, my all."

O to be a church full of people who sing that and mean that and live that! Jesus is all the world to me, my life, my joy, my all. Christ is all! In that fellowship, Paul says, there is no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all, and in all. Lord, grant us so to die and so to live that Christ might be all and in all.

Thumb author john piper

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of 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 A Peculiar Glory.