Today’s guest post is by Dr. Michael Bird, Australian theologian and New Testament scholar. He has a word-on-target for us.
By Dr. Michael Bird
I always enjoy my visits to the USA. But whenever I go there I am always struck by two disconcerting facts. First, almost all of the menial and low paying jobs like cleaning and carrying stuff are done by Hispanics or African-Americans. Second, that 11.00 a.m. on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the American week. In addition, I confess that I was deeply disturbed when several years ago I visited an American friend of mine in the South. He had recently been offered the senior pastorship of a white church that was located in what had recently become an African-American neighborhood. He told the elders of this church that he would only accept the position if they consented to move the church to a new white majority area. I quizzed him on this as to how he as a Christian minister could be so racially partisan. His response was that, realistically, it would be impossible to grow a predominantly white church in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. I understood the complexities of his context, but I was still dissatisfied with the theology that undergirded it and even more disappointed that a friend of mine whom I knew to be a godly man would act so pragmatically. Even 50 years after the end of legal segregation, Christians in the USA still struggle with race issues. Not simply in the work place, in schools, or in politics, but in churches that confess the name of Christ as Lord. I cannot claim immunity from racial prejudices in my own country Australia where we have our own tragic and haunted history of racial discrimination against indigenous Australians. But the persistence of racism in churches that profess to live as citizens of heaven and as servants of Christ is a sign of our unfaithfulness and disobedience.
I want to suggest that one of the best resources for confronting racism in the Christian church is the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. This might raise an eyebrow or two. 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.
The fact is that justification by faith according to Paul has vertical and horizontal dimensions. First, justification by faith is vertical in that it affects one’s standing before God (see Rom. 3.21-26; Gal. 2.15-21). One is justified, that is to say, declared to be righteous even though one is not actually 100% righteous in themselves. God’s court comes into session and instead of pronouncing a person as condemned, they are pronounced as righteous and attain a right relationship with God. The means by which they attain this right relationship with God is through faith and that faith is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ lays down his life for his people, he is condemned for our sins, and he is raised up and vindicated. By faith, via the agency of the Spirit, we are placed in union with Christ Jesus so that we vicariously pass through the spheres of death and judgment with him and we are then raised up to righteousness and life in his resurrection. We are incorporated into the vindication of the faithful Messiah so that what is true of him is reckoned to be true of us. That is why there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8.1) and why those justified by grace have the hope of eternal life (Tit. 3.7).
Second, justification also has a horizontal dimension as well that impacts the relationship of Christians of different races and nationalities to one another. If we leave the doctrine of justification at the point of individual salvation we will have a theology of justification that is grossly impoverished. Justification by faith is not less than the announcement of the salvation of individual sinners, but it is also much more than this. While justification by faith certainly answers the question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ it also answers another question, one seldom asked, ‘Who are the people of God?’ While the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith was formed primarily as a reaction to the teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium with its sacramental based teaching on salvation, Paul’s formulation of justification by faith took shape in the context of the struggle to legitimize the membership of his Gentile converts in a church under siege from Jewish proselytizers. Paul was not confronting the merit theology of medieval Catholicism; rather, he was attacking the view that one had to become a Jew in order to become a Christian when he penned Galatians and Romans. As such, issues of racial equality, racial segregation, and racial privilege between Jews and Gentiles in the church were at the forefront of his pastoral theology.
Justification by faith is Paul’s weapon to argue for the unity of church of Jew and Gentile against those who would divide them, segregate them, or assign some to a second tier status. 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, Hispanic, Asian, migrant, 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 Arab. 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. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the great letter of justification by faith, includes a timeless exhortation to Jews and Gentiles at its pinnacle: ‘Let us then pursue the things that make for peace and mutual encouragement’ (Rom. 14.19) – that is what justification by faith looks like when it is worked out in the local church.
Dr. Michael Bird is one of the leading New Testament scholars and theologians in the world. He currently is a lecturer at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia.