The Gospel and Race: Biblical and Theological Foundations

[The PCA’s 2004 Pastoral Letter on “The Gospel and Race,” after the introduction, proceeds to set forth some biblical and theological foundations.]



Let us start with the end of the story. The Gospel unites all of God’s people, bringing them together into one Body, despite the divisions with which we live in a fallen world. The Scriptures give us a rich picture of our final state. The implication is that in heaven we will recognize these distinctions, while at the same time we are wholly united as one people:

Rev 5:9 And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.

Rev 7:9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

The Scriptures are clear about where God’s people are headed and what it will look like once we are there. What relationship does the present age have to our eternal state? In this present age, the future eternal state breaks into this world. In many ways, this in-breaking is the beginning of the end. For this reason, the end of the age is marked by the preaching of the Gospel to all nations:

Mt 24:14 And this Gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Acts 1:8b …and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Acts 15 further shows this Kingdom in-breaking by identifying the taking of the Gospel to the Gentiles as the fulfillment of this mission of uniting under Christ one people gathered from all peoples:

Ac 15:14 Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles (plural) a people (singular) for himself. Ac 15:15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: Ac 15:16 “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, Ac 15:17 that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name,” says the Lord, who does these things Ac 15:18 that have been known for ages.

The Report of the Committee on Problems of Race, which was approved in 1974 by the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, summarizes how Acts 15 demonstrates God’s mission to bring diverse peoples together under Christ:

1. Jews and Gentiles ministered to each other and worshipped together because Acts 15:1 says, Jews “came down from Judea and taught the brethren.”

2. The apostolic council agreed to admit Gentiles to full fellowship without putting them in bondage to Mosaic ceremonial law. Yet there were certain practices common to Gentile culture to which the Jewish believers could not as yet adjust (15:20). At these tension points the Gentiles were asked to conform to Jewish practice. Yet on the other hand the apostles and elders gave the Gentiles freedom in all other matters (eating pork, etc…). This represented a tremendous adjustment for the Jewish church. Both groups were therefore asked to make major compromises out of a desire to maintain the unity of the church in love.

3.  In connection with I Corinthians 6 and Romans 15:1-9, this passage shows that these special apostolic ordinances were practical only when and where the need arose. In both Corinth and Rome, Paul makes eating meat offered to idols a matter of Christian liberty. Thus as maturity grew or as the cultural situation allowed, the restrictions were lifted and both groups offered the other one complete freedom in cultural matters. This passage has much to say to us about the “cultural patterns” that separate Christians of different races. Our cultural patterns must come second to our desire to serve God and build the church together. (Minutes of the Forty-first General Assembly, 1974, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, p. 103).

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians gives further elaboration and proof that this is the age in which we should expect to see diverse and even hostile peoples being brought together:

Eph 2:11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men)— Eph 2:12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. Eph 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. Eph 2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, Eph 2:15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, Eph 2:16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. Eph 2:17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. Eph 2:18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Eph 2:19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, Eph 2:20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Eph 2:21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. Eph 2:22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

It is this stunning truth that Paul declares, a truth which he calls the “mystery of Christ” and the “mystery of the Gospel.” In Ephesians 3:6 he states, “This mystery is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promises in Christ.” It is of no small significance that Paul ends his letter to the Ephesians with the request that they pray for him in this way: “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make know the mystery of the Gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” Notice that Paul does not say he is in chains for declaring the Gospel. He says he is in chains for declaring the “mystery” of the Gospel. The mystery of the Gospel upsets the status quo of race and resistance has never been far away.

In Colossians 3.12-15 Paul exhort believers with these words: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.” These exhortations have particularly great significance to the issue of the Gospel and race, since they are the application of the truth declared in the immediately preceding verse 11: “Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” It is because of our unity across the lines of race that we are exhorted (“therefore”) to live out the unity laid out in the words that follow. Clearly, this is no general admonition to unity but a specific admonition to unity where the natural barriers of race so clearly manifest themselves. Read in this way, this text brings home a powerful message to a church divided along the lines of race.

This unity of the human race existed in its original creation (Genesis 1:28), and the Gospel restores the unity that has been lost. John Stott, in Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today (1995), provides an excellent theological perspective on racism in light of God’s redemption, in his exposition of Acts 17:22-31.

“What then was Paul’s attitude to this multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious situation? He made four affirmations.

“First, he proclaimed the unity of the human race, or, the God of Creation. God is the Creator and Lord of the world and everything in it, he said. He gives to all human beings their life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth, so that human beings would seek and find him, though he is not far from any of us. For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ and ‘we are his offspring.’ From this portrayal of the living God as Creator, Sustainer and father of all humankind, the apostle deduces the folly and evil of idolatry. But he could well have deduced from it the folly and evil of racism. For if he is the God of all human beings, this will affect our attitude to them as well as to him.” …

“Secondly, Paul proclaimed the diversity of ethnic cultures, or, the God of History. The living God not only made every nation from one man, that they should inhabit the earth, but also ‘determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live’ (Acts 17:26; cf. Deuteronomy 32:8). Thus the times and the places of the nations are in the hand of God.” …

“Thirdly, Paul proclaimed the finality of Jesus Christ, or the God of Revelation. He concluded his sermon with God’s call to universal repentance because of the coming universal judgment, for which God has both fixed the day and appointed the judge (verses 30-31). Paul refuses to acquiesce in the religious pluralism of Athens or applaud it as a living museum of religious faiths. Instead, the city’s idolatry provoked him (verse 16) – probably to jealousy for the honour of the living and true God. So he called on the city’s people to turn in repentance from their idols to God.”

“We learn, then, that a respectful acceptance of the diversity of cultures does not imply an equal acceptance of the diversity of religions. The richness of each particular culture should be appreciated, but not the idolatry which may lie at its heart. For we cannot tolerate any rivals to Jesus Christ, believing as we do that God has spoken fully and finally through him, and that he is the only Saviour, who died, and rose again, and will one day come to be the world’s Judge.”

“Fourthly, Paul proclaimed the glory of the Christian church, or, the God of Redemption. …the New Testament is the story of the divine ingathering of nations into a single international society. … Since God has made every nation and determines their times and places, it is clearly right for each of us to be conscious of our nationality and grateful for it. … …while our racial, national, social and sexual distinctions remain, they no longer divide us. They have been transcended in the unity of the family of God (Galatians 3:28).” …

“The church must therefore exhibit its multi-racial, multi-national and multi-cultural nature.”

“Only a true theology, the biblical revelation of God, can deliver us from racial pride and prejudice. Because He is the God of Creation, we affirm the unity of the human race. Because He is the God of History, we affirm the diversity of ethnic cultures. Because he is the God of Revelation, we affirm the finality of Jesus Christ. And because He is the God of Redemption, we affirm the glory of the Christian church.” (pp. 222-225, quoted by permission of Revell, division of Baker Publishing Group).

In summary, racial distinctives are:

Distinguishable categories; they are not irrelevant. In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. (Acts 13:1)

• But they are not defining categories that prohibit unity in the worship, fellowship and mission of the Body of Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 5:28)

• And they are categories included in the distinctive and eternal celebration of God’s work through the ages. After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)