Thursday, August 5, 2010

Justification by Faith and Racism

Michael Bird, who blogs here, has posted over at The Institute an excellent little essay entitled "Justification by Faith: A Resource for Confronting Racism". The main texts he deals with are Romans 3:28-29, Ephesians 2-3 (2:8-110 & then the implications Paul draws in 2:11-3:11) and finally 2:11-14.

He argues for the vertical dimensions and the horizontal dimensions of justification by faith. There is a danger of so emphasizing the vertical implications that we neglect the practical import of the horizontal dimensions: if we are right with God, then we are equal in community in terms of status.

"Is not justification by faith the doctrine that described how individual sinners can stand before a holy God as righteous rather than condemned on account of their faith in the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Indeed it is, but it is also more than that. Following my lead one might admit that justification by faith is an anti-racist doctrine insofar as men and women, white and black can all be saved by faith and therefore they will dwell in heaven together forever with God. But again this also is deficient since it sees justification by faith as merely resulting in the amalgamation of 'saved sinners' in the afterlife in a post-mortem future. My contention is more far reaching: justification by faith means the end of God's contention against sinners and the dissolution of all ethnic and racial barriers in the church of God in the here and now not simply in the hereafter."
Not that Michael Bird has to, or even would, know of me, but I've said similar things here when I argue in one sense justification is an inclusive doctrine:
When we say the that the doctrine of justification by faith is “inclusive” we mean that it is open to any who would have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We mean that the only thing one must do is have faith in Jesus Christ and his saving death and resurrection. It is open to all who would but believe. It is not restricted to those who first take upon themselves extra requirement and/or submit themselves obedience of the Law. We further mean that it is inclusive in the sense that it is not restricted to those who are ethnically Jewish or proselytize to the Jewish law.
Through justification by faith the blessing given to Abraham--and his ethnic descendants--extends inclusively to all--both Jew and Gentile. Gentiles were to be treated as equal members of God’s people. They had received the full rights of inheritance. They did not need to embrace the ethnic markers of Judaism and proselytize adopting the whole Law. They did not need to ‘finish’ the work of God either through moral obedience or through social identification.
When we understand this inclusive implications for justification by faith--we quickly see that there are no second class citizens in God’s kingdom. For example, modern evangelicalism has often made those deemed less spiritual who aren’t living the ‘surrendered’ life as some how inferior in their standing before God. While Scripture has rebukes for Christian’s walking in habitual sins--and it warns of such unrepentance--we see that a Christian struggle with sin is not less in his status before God and His relationship with God.
If we might further take an example from history, it was William Wilberforce who grasping the radical implications of justification by faith who championed the end of slavery in England well before the days in which it was ended in America. If justification by faith is truly grasped shameful practices like apartheid are seen to be the reprehensible evils that they are--particularly when supported and upheld in the church. Even more the American superiority that dominates American evangelical worldviews should be undercut as we join with brothers and sister from around the world.
What we have articulated here is not at all to undercut the doctrine rediscovered by the church at the Reformation. It is to point out that today the implications of justification by faith are not carried through. The NPP on Paul points to the ecclesiological implications of justification by faith. These are an added stress when we fully grasp the soteriological content of justification by faith.
(Read though my careful qualification that justification by faith is not properly 'ecumenical'--although people of other denomination even ones that formally deny justification by faith alone are saved if, and only if, they actually exercise faith in Christ alone.)

Maybe I'm am guilty here of bolstering my my point with an appeal to authority... justification by a know scholar? Either way, what is on the one hand sad is that we need to be reminded of this. The Christian church--the true church--has all the tool and real spiritual power to deal with racism and yet we are shaky  and wobbly on it. Is it possible to be so focussed on loving God and this beautiful doctrine He has shown to be true and yet so miss the implications of it? Or better: what does this say about the depth of our love when we still act this way--see for example the story the Dr. Bird opens his essay with.

And yet, should we expect anything less when Peter himself missed the implications of the gospel and had to be corrected by Paul as to the effect that Paul told Peter he'd missed the gospel.

There is always more than can be said on this but I'll leave you with some thoughts from Bird's essay:
If we claim to believe and follow what the Apostle Paul taught about justification then:
Do we believe that every person is justified by faith in Christ? Or do we believe that God is the God of our race only? 
Do we believe that we are saved by faith so that the dividing wall between black and white communities has been torn down?
Do we walk towards the truth of the gospel concerning the way we treat those of different race, color, and ethnicity at the table of the Lord.
To practice any form of ethnic or racial exclusion means that one either does not understand or does not believe in justification by faith. Let me be clear. The denial of ethic privilege and racial superiority is not merely an implication of justification by faith; rather, it is a core element of the doctrine. They are mutually exclusive because justification constitutes a church of Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, Greek and Barbarian, White and Black, African and Asian. Churches and Christians that practice racial segregation even for pragmatic reasons deny the biblical teaching and the application of the doctrine of justification to the koinonia of the church. Justification is the act whereby God creates a new people, with a new status, in a new covenant, as a foretaste of the new age. If we see justification as a comprehensive doctrine that affects the salvation of sinners and the corporate life of the church, then we will finally understand why it is that Paul insists that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph. 4.6) and why there is one loaf at the table of the Lord as we who are many partake of one loaf (1 Cor. 10.17). Justification by faith is our shield against any merit loaded legalism and the basis for the unity of the church comprised of the multi-ethnic people of God.
Read the whole thing here.

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