The most ultimate and the most central and most foundational reality that exists is God. Before there was a universe, there was God. God is eternal with no beginning and no ending. He said to Moses, “Tell them I Am sent you. I Am who I Am.” He’s absolute. Everything else is derivative. Everything else is dependent including all human beings us. Therefore, God is the most important being and the most valuable being that exists. Everything else has meaning and everything else has worth because of its connection to and its derivation from God and his worth. Everything has meaning and worth because it mirrors more or less God’s worth and God’s truth. His truth, his goodness, his beauty define all that is really true, all that is really good, and all that is beautiful. That’s what it means to be God.
In His Image
That absolute all-creating, all-originating, all-sustaining God created everything else including human beings, and he created us human beings in his own image (Genesis 1:27), which means that he created us with the rational and the moral and the affectional capacities to image him. Images are made to image. The meaning of being created in the image of God is that we have a destiny or a design or a capacity to image God, to mirror God, to reflect God. That’s what I mean to be created in the image of God. We are to magnify our Maker, so his goodness and his beauty and his truth are defined. Expression and echo mirror in us.
For His Glory
The Bible says, “Bring my sons from afar, my daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone whom I created for my glory.” Every human being is created to make much of God, to put his glory on display. That’s why every human being that is in New York is in New York — to display the glory of God for what he really is like according to his infinite value or 1 Corinthians 10:31 that was Isaiah 43:7. First Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do everything to the glory of God.”
Absolutely every person in every aspect of their lives from the biggest to the little is to live out the worth of God, the value of God, the beauty and goodness of God. Since God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, he designed us so that he himself and only he would be our supreme happiness because that’s the way you bring his glory to fullest expression.
If you’re bored with God, he’s not honored by you or glorified by you. If you are thrilled with God and deeply satisfied with God in the moment of your greatest suffering, then he has shown to be valuable in your life. God designed you for his glory, that is he designed you to be happy supremely in him above all other things. Knowing God, admiring God, treasuring God, trusting God, being near God, reflecting God, that’s what we were made for. All the people everywhere in every ethnic group on the planet have that as their God-appointed calling and reason for being. God is utterly supreme in our affections and we are utterly satisfied in his perfections. That’s the way he set it up.
The Greatest Issue in the World
The greatest issue in the world, therefore, is that not a single person in this room or on this planet fulfills that design, none. That’s the biggest problem in New York City, Minneapolis, Bangkok, and Beijing. It is the biggest problem in the world by far. We have all sinned. We’ve all exchanged that glory that we were made to enjoy and magnify. We’ve exchanged it for images — especially the one in the mirror — and we find our satisfaction not in knowing God or admiring God or treasuring God or trusting or reflecting God, but we find our pleasure in ourselves being exalted. We want to be made much of ourselves. It feels so good to be made much of and it does not feel good to human beings to make much of God. We are all fallen.
We are bent away from God. We are rebels. We are blind, treasuring the creature over the Creator thus belittling the creator and committing treason against our King. Every one of you has done that. Every person on the planet is guilty of treason. That’s the biggest problem in the world. When a whole planet commits treason against her King, that’s the biggest problem. Now in God’s unimpeachable justice, he opposes us therefore with great wrath. He is very angry at the human race, which means that we would be utterly and eternally lost, undone, desperate, going to hell.
We would be undone eternally if God weren’t more than unimpeachably just, if God didn’t somehow undertake for this rebellious planet with all of us rebels, selfish, self-exalting human beings to intervene somehow on a rescue operation that made it possible for those rebels to have amnesty and be reconciled back to making much of him and being supremely happy in it forever. That’s what he did. He entered history 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ — fully divine, fully and perfectly human Son of God, Jesus Christ. He said this when he came, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Isaiah said,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole and by his stripes, we are healed. We have all like sheep gone astray and turned every one to his own way, and the Lord God Almighty has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)
That’s 700 years before it happened. Or Paul said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, cursed it is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). He did that intentionally to take that anger and that wrath and that curse on himself so that he can assemble a people who are forgiving when there’s no wrath against them anymore.
Or Paul in Romans 8:3: “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did, sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. He condemned sin in the flesh.” Whose sin? Jesus didn’t have any. Mine. Whose flesh? Not mine, Jesus’s. This is called substitution. Jesus sent by the Father to be a substitute so that all the punishment I deserved went on him, all the righteousness I couldn’t but should have performed, he completed, and the death I should have died, he walked into, and it spits him out and he triumphs. He climbs over it. That is what he did for his people: punished and canceled all their sin in Christ, performed and provided all their righteousness in Christ, absorbed and removed all the wrath of God against them, and purchased and secured their adoption into the family and their eternal happiness.
Free for You, and for Me
Christ did that by dying and rising again for them. That’s the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of God for this rebellious planet. It comes to consummation in individual lives when they ask: “You said he did that for his family?” That’s right I did. He did that for his elect. Yes. He did that for his redeemed people. Yes. “How do I get in? I mean can I get in?” And the answer is Yes. By grace are you saved through faith and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast, so by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Faith means when I hear that message, I say that is the best news I’ve ever heard for a rebel like me with the wrath of God on him, and you embrace it and receive it for the treasure that it is. That’s faith, and it’s free for the having for anybody in this room or anybody watching. Anybody who will receive it as their supreme treasure has it and all of that is valid for them.
The Gospel Explains and Undermines Racism
Now, I call that the last twelve minutes — a Christian worldview climaxing in the gospel — and my argument is that that worldview climaxing in the gospel explains and undermines racism. It explains it and undermines it.
Here’s my definition of racism: attributing to one race intrinsic superiority or valuing it above another and then treating others as undesirable or evil. I’m arguing that it is explained and it is undermined by that worldview climaxing in the gospel of Jesus, and let me just give you a flavor what I mean by racism because I mean we all work in our tiny little worlds and it is not a tiny little problem.
It is a history long problem and a global problem, not just a little black and white problem or a little Asian problem or a little Rwanda problem or a little Jewish problem. It is a massive, global, history long, devastating, bloody, murderous problem. For example, the Armenian Genocide in Turkey in 1915 — a million slaughtered Armenians. Holocaust in Germany: six million. Who knows how many tens of million in the Soviet Gulags under Stalin? The massacres in Rwanda in 1994, the Japanese slaughter of six million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos and Indo Chinese — a litany of history long bloodletting all in the name of ethnicity or race. That is because humans are in rebellion against God.
That’s where that comes from — exalting ourselves over against our Maker and of course if over against our Maker, over against each other. That’s a given. Anybody that would have the audacity not to submit to the King of kings and Lord of lords would not have any problem putting you down. We find our pleasure and self-exaltation being made much of and if I have to use my ethnicity to do that, thank you very much, I will do it. That sin of racism that grows in the ground of pride and self-exultation is also undermined by this worldview. This worldview can handle, can explain the horrors of the world, and the gospel can undermine those horrors and begins to bring us freedom.
A Blood Issue
For example, here are four pieces of the worldview, all of them undermining racism. First, at creation, all of us created in his image, all of us in his image. There are cataclysmic implications of human beings in the image of God — every kind of human being. Second sin and fall. We are one in our corruption. We are deep in solidarity in sin. You are so sinful and I am so sinful, we’re right there together. There is no exalting of another above another if we are both dead-bent rebels together on our way to hell. How vain is the exaltation of self-sinner over another sinner? Third, the cross. Christ died to reconcile us both talking about Jews and Gentiles at that moment — in one body to the cross, to Christ through the cross to God, or you were slain.
We say to Jesus in Revelation 5:9, “You were slain and by your blood, you ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation and you have made them a kingdom, one kingdom and priests to our God.” Why? I said it’s more than a social issue. Whenever I get to talk on this, I want to say to all conservative white folks who fear the social gospel, it’s not a social issue. It’s a blood issue. By your blood, you ransom them, all of them. You died to pull them together.
And fourth, faith. Not of works, and I think works means not only anything you do, but any distinctive you have does not commend you to God. Faith commends you to God and faith is a desperate I can’t help myself, which puts you in line with everybody. Therefore, the way into the family of faith is designed to remove all ethnic barriers.
Promised and Explained
One last thing. The fact that this worldview can explain the horrors and can begin to undermine the horrors leaves you with the question: Why haven’t we done better than we have? Why does the church of Christ, historically, have such a mixed record on this? I’m going to close by quoting Mark Noll in his book God and Race in American Politics. Mark is one of the most perceptive historians I know and he argues that only Christianity in all of its compromises with sin can explain the compromises. I’ll read this and then be done.
To explain the simultaneous manifestation of superlative good and pervasive malevolence in the history of race and religion, neither simple trust in human nature nor simple cynicism about American hypocrisy is adequate. Something else must explain the pervasive commingling of opposites. That commingling has included domination with liberation, altruism with greed, self-seeking with self-sacrifice, economic independence with economic exploitation, tribalism with universalism, hatred with love. Any final explanation for the conundrums of American history must be able to account for a mind stretching conjunction of opposites. It must evoke both the goodness of the human creation and the persistence of evil in all branches of humanity.
It must show how the best human creatures are sabotaged by their own hubris and the worst human depredations are enlightened by unexpected shafts of light. It must be able to hold these contradictions, antinomies, and paradoxes in one cohesive vision. From the much used and much-abused Scriptures, a long line of Christian readers have affirmed in various accents and diverse emphases, a transcendent account for profound complexity to take the measure of human nature and human achievement. God made humans and the creation was good, yet at the same time, humankind has fallen and will never escape the effects of sin here.
Further God offers in the work of his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, the transforming prospect of redemption, yet redemption never equals perfection. The redeemed must always recognize their own shortcomings and be filled with gratitude for all the gifts of creation including other human creatures.
The gospel is not only the promise of deliverance. The gospel is also the explanation for our failures to reach it.