The Jesus Gospel (Part 2)

Nov 01, 2018

Part 2 of a 2-Article Series by George Robertson 

Read Part 1 of this series here.

 

2. Race

The primary offense of “The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” is its approach to racism. In a blog post leading up to the release of the Statement, MacArthur said the following:

I understand when fallen, worldly people filled with resentment lash out at others that way. I don't understand why Bible-believing Christians would take up that cause. I thought the evangelical church was living out true unity in Christ without regard for race. That has certainly been my experience in every church I've ever been part of, and it's also what I have seen in the wider evangelical world. I don't know of any authentically evangelical church where people would be excluded or even disrespected because of their ethnicity or skin color.[1]

The Statement expands MacArthur’s denial that racism needs to be confronted by current evangelicals, and in the process conveys a defective view of repentance:

WE DENY that, other than the previously stated connection to Adam, any person is morally culpable for another person’s sin. Although families, groups, and nations can sin collectively, and cultures can be predisposed to particular sins, subsequent generations share the collective guilt of their ancestors only if they approve and embrace (or attempt to justify) those sins. Before God each person must repent and confess his or her own sins in order to receive forgiveness. We further deny that one’s ethnicity establishes any necessary connection to any particular sin.

In a sermon on Ezekiel 18, MacArthur emphasizes individual repentance to the exclusion of corporate responsibility. Scripture, however, strongly asserts otherwise. His sermon and the Statement illustrate an either-or logical fallacy. In effect, they say one eitherbelieves in individual responsibility for sin and denies corporate responsibility, orone believes in corporate responsibility and denies individual responsibility. However, the Bible affirms both. It affirms we share corporate solidarity genealogically and individual responsibility legally with Adam, and thereafter within our familial lines and social identities.

For example, when Achan admitted he was the guilty party in the heist of devoted things from Jericho, his entire household was executed (Josh. 7:1-26). Though there were two opportunities for Achan and/or his tribe to express remorse for the crime (vv. 21, 25), neither did. God promises to relent of judgment upon repentance; none was expressed on this occasion (Jer. 18:8). By not condemning the act, Achan’s household effectively became complicit in it and therefore suffered judgment in solidarity with him. In Scripture, to know anything is to bear some responsibility for it (Ex. 23:4-5; 1 Jn. 3:17). Morally, to learn of a sin obligates one to oppose or decry it (Dt. 17:2-7; Ja. 5:19-20). To learn what constitutes a righteous act obligates us to perform it (2 Th. 3:9; 3 Jn. 11). The closer one is in proximity, covenantal bond, or kinship to the doer of the evil or righteous act, the more responsible one becomes (1 Ti. 5:8; 2 Ti. 2:1-3). For generations the Edomites (descendants of Esau) were held responsible by God for failing to help their kinsmen Israelites upon their escape from Egypt (Jer. 49:7-22; Ob. 2-10). Likewise, the Ammonites and Moabites (descendants of Lot, Ge. 19:30-38) were cursed by God for taking advantage of their kinsmen Israelites when they were deported by Tiglath-Pilesar III (2 Kg. 15:29; Jer. 48:40-46; Jer. 49:1-5). Their generational condemnation was based on their kinship, but implicit in all of God’s pronouncements was the promise that he would relent upon their repentance. 

Because God wove into creation the principle of corporate solidarity, even those innocent of a previous generation’s sins may suffer consequences.[2]David’s sin with Bathsheba, though forgiven, brought consequences on himself, his family, and his kingdom (2 Sa. 12:11-20). The kingdom split and even the righteous suffered because of Solomon’s sin of foreign marriage (1 Kg. 11:6). Both of these illustrate the point God makes twice in Exodus: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation…” (20:5; cf. Ps. 109:10-14).[3]

Every major corporate confession of sin in Scripture includes an acknowledgement of the previous generation’s sins, because a biblical mind understands we are generationally complicit with previous sins unless we openly confess and condemn them. When the Israelites returned to Jerusalem with Nehemiah, even those who had not married foreigners or worshiped idols confessed the “sins of their ancestors” (Nehemiah 9:2, 34). Having heard God hold the current generation accountable for the sins of their forefathers, whether or not they were actively engaged in the same sins (Jer. 2:5-6; 7:25-26; 14:20-21), the current generation lamented the suffering they and all righteous Judahites were suffering on account of the sins of the previous generation (Lam. 5:7).

It is true that, on the surface, some portions of Scripture seem to contradict this concept of corporate solidarity. Some refer to the book of Ezekiel, for example, as contradicting the notion of corporate moral responsibility; in reality, however, Ezekiel is restoring true biblical thinking (Ez. 23:46-49).[4]His addressees were excusing themselves from responsibility by blamingtheir forefathers for their sins (Ez. 18:2, 19, 25). They accused God of injustice for creating a world in which one generation bears responsibility for the sins of a previous one. Without denying corporate solidarity, Ezekiel calls for individual faith and repentance, which will result in forgiveness for personal sin and escape from determinative family patterns (Ez. 16:59-63; 18:30-32). 

While this principle of attributing or imputing guilt from one generation to the next may seem unfair, it is the principle which makes the gospel such good news. The Bible also teaches that succeeding generations will receive the blessed consequences of their ancestors’ righteousness. God is so gracious he has at times announced the promise of redemption ahead of repentance to those even distantly related to his faithful children. Such is the case with Moab (Jer. 48:47) and Ammon (Jer. 49:6). Likewise, Isaiah says when parents fear the Lord, the Spirit and the word will not depart from their children (Is. 59:21). Also, Levi was viewed as a righteous man not only because of his individual actions as a priest, but also because he was genetically present in Abraham’s loins when he paid the tithe to Melchizedek (He. 7:10). The principle by which God imputes the guilt of sin legally and passes its instinct biologically from one generation to the next is the same principle by which he imputes Christ’s righteous to our sinful record and unites our lives to Christ, breaking the cycle of generational sin (Ro. 5:18-19; 8:1-2).

To deny any “connection to any particular sin” via ethnicity is unbiblical. It is curious how the Statement can affirm both a federal and natural culpability relative to Adam and yet deny the reality of imputation of guilt beyond that. How do the signers affirm the strongest views of imputation of Adam’s guilt (both legal and biological) and yet find a way to absolve me of all responsibility to act to right the wrongs of my white Southern ancestors which resulted in privileges I enjoy by no other merit besides the color of my skin?

Yes, Jesus’ imputed righteousness forgives my individual sins and will deliver me from judgment for my ancestors’ sins, but my individual forgiveness no more absolves me from taking responsibility to do what I can to right the wrongs of my ancestors than it would from the responsibility I would have to repair my neighbor’s window when my eight-year-old son hits his baseball through it. Every image bearer of God has an inherent understanding of corporate solidarity.Repentance and faith in Christ not only lead to our receiving his imputed righteousness that absolves us from the guilt and penalty of sin, but they also lead to our union with Christ that breaks our bondage to the reign of sin through Adam (Ro. 5:12-14, 18, 19).

Think of it this way. Suppose a great-grandson of a Nazi met the great-granddaughter of an Auschwitz victim. In the run-up to World War II, the Nazi plundered the household of the Jew. He took art, jewelry, cash, silver, closed the Jew’s cobbler shop, confiscated his home, and moved him to a ghetto. So much wealth was accumulated by the Nazi, his family became socially elite and passed their wealth on to the next generation. The Jewish family, however, never recovered. They lost all ability to capitalize another shop, experienced persisting bigotry after the war, and suffered from a lack of access to education. The following generations could only find service jobs permanently imprisoning them among the working poor.

One day the great-grandson of the Nazi was speaking with his housekeeper, the great-granddaughter of the Jew. In their conversation they discover their families once lived near each other, even on the same street. Then it dawns on the great-granddaughter, her boss shares the same name as the cruel man she had always heard plundered their home and permanently consigned them to lives of poverty. When the homeowner asks why she looks so grief-stricken, she explains, “Your great-grandfather took everything we had and sent our Papa to Auschwitz where he perished.” What does the great-grandson say and do? If he is in his right mind, he must acknowledge the primary reason he is among the middle class and able to employ a housekeeper is because he is still profiting from the resources his great-grandfather amassed from another group of people he victimized on account of their ethnicity. The only reasonable thing for him to do, and the thing he must do as a Christian, is ask her forgiveness. Though he did not personally participate in the plundering, he benefits from it because of his family. Furthermore, he must do what he can to repair the damage (cf. Luke 19:1-10). He could increase her pay, give her paid leave for her education, network among his friends to find a career job, and build a relationship with her as one who bears the same image he does.

Likewise, we of the majority culture occupy the places we do because many of our forefathers built their wealth and influence on the backs of slaves while many African-Americans remained in the underclass under Jim Crow. Because of that genetic and social connection to the longest reign of white supremacy in human history, we bear responsibility for the systemic brokenness of the African-American subculture. Yes, my ancestors were poor sharecroppers; however, the color of their skin gave them advantages after the depression that black sharecroppers did not enjoy. They had access to bank loans, neighborhoods, and preferential treatment in school and social networks that allowed them to break out of cyclical poverty. Their black neighbors remained in their same condition for generations with significantly fewer avenues for escape.

In view of these biblical and social realities, we must do three things. First, we must apologize and ask forgiveness. Publicly and privately white people must say, “I am sorry for what my ancestors have done to you. I am sorry for being insensitive to that reality. And I am sorry for my prejudiced past as well. I ask your forgiveness.” I have done that many times publicly and privately. Once after speaking at an Historic Black College, a fellow pastor called me who happened to be African-American. He said, “George, friends from all over the country regularly call me to tell me how angry they are about racism in America. But not once has anyone ever said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Saying ‘sorry’ don’t fix the past but it sure helps my heart in the present.” An apology can be the first step to establishing an interracial friendship. An apology is part of repentance, and to repent before someone you’ve wronged is part of what it means to retellthe gospel. It is to say, “I can admit the worst about myself and my ancestors to you, because I know the blood of Jesus is able to cleanse every sin.” And those African-Americans who forgive their white brothers and sisters retell gospel to us.

Second, we must reimaginewhat this man’s life would have been like had his ancestry not been traumatized by capture, his family unit not been parceled out like cattle, and the marriages of his ancestors transgressed against by owners using women for their lusts. We must reimagine what our church structures and worship services would be like had we not excluded African-Americans for the last 300 years. We must reimagine what our economy, educational institutions, political system, and art would be like had we not excluded African-American participation from them for centuries.

Third, we must explore how we can repairwhat we and/or our ancestors have broken in this man’s life and world. Only Jesus can, and ultimately will, put right all wrongs. However, as those who are recipients of his abundant grace, we can proactively act to right wrongs that we see and seek out ways to use our privilege to empower and advance those without such privilege, realizing that our privilege has often come at their expense.

Contrary to the Statement, I affirm the biblical truth that my ethnicity does connect me to my forefathers’ sins. I openly confess their transgressions, bigotries, cruelties and unjust gains. I openly acknowledge I am not a self-made man, but rather one who was born into a privileged societal status on account of the color of my skin. I further confess that even as a young Christian I participated in racially insensitive jokes and stereotyping. While I am confident the blood of Jesus has cleansed me even of these crimson sins, I will continue to ask forgiveness from my African-American neighbors. I do so not to gain or add to my salvation, but rather to add to my experience of the gospel through their forgiveness and gain true friends.

 


 

[1]John MacArthur, “Is the Controversy over ‘Social Justice’ Really Necessary?” Grace to You, August 27, 2018. https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B180827

[2]W. C. Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 67–72.

[3]The other reference comes in Exodus 34:7, where God similarly refers to “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

[4]L.E. Cooper, L. E. (1994). Ezekiel (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 17.189-90.