The Gospel and Multi-Ethnicity
Dr. Stephen M Davis
For those alive in 1989, who can forget the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall? It was one of those moments in life where you remember where you were and what you were doing. We were living in France at that time as the television broadcast images of people scrambling over the wall and throngs of people standing on the wall singing while others with sledgehammers chipped away at that stark ugly edifice which had separated the German people for decades. We recall then President Reagan’s earlier words to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A country that had been torn for decades was soon reunited.
That historic event is only a pale and imperfect analogy to what Christ accomplished at the cross when by his death, when through his blood he brought peace to former enemies – Jews and Gentiles – by removing what the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:14 calls the “dividing wall of hostility,” and by “killing the hostility” (v. 16). Christ inaugurated a new state of being and a new state of living which becomes a model for believers today in our quest to experience and to express the reality of the being part of the new people of God.
Grace Church is committed to “multi” in many ways: multi-generational, multi-socioeconomic and multi-ethnic ministry. With a multiethnic missional objective we want to be intentional in healing divisions and in celebrating God-given diversity. Our desire is that Grace Church reflects the diversity of our urban community and the diversity which exists in the body of Christ — not because it’s a great idea, although it is; not because we have overcome bigotry and eradicated all traces of prejudice from our hearts, because we haven’t; but because there is a biblical basis for this commitment, because multi-ethnicity is God’s idea.
The gospel teaches us that being part of the family or God, although it doesn’t remove differences, brings us to level ground at the foot of the cross. There is no superiority, no dominance of one group over another. What counts is that we are “in Christ.” In a 1963 speech MLK said – “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” Over 45 years later we need to ask ourselves if much has changed.
When we come to Scripture we need to ask ourselves – what does God say about the gospel and how it challenges our prejudices and tendencies to a form of tribalism where we find safety in being with people or in a church where most people are much like ourselves? For those who believe the Gospel, committed to the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ and to the power of the Holy Spirit to effect transformation, there is an answer and it lies in that world-changing, history-altering event of the incarnation, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and present reign of Jesus Christ.
In Ephesians 2:11 Paul tells the believers at Ephesus to “remember.” There are some things we need to forget or try to forget but we should never forget what we were before God saved us! Paul uses the terms “Circumcision” and Uncircumcision.” This was a common way of setting apart Jews from everyone else. Today we have our own descriptors which divide people. Some are helpful; others are not. What we need to understand that these categories are more often than not sociological, not biblical categories. From God’s perspective there is only one race – the human race – and we are all descendants of Adam and have a common lineage.
There are several contrasts in Ephesians 2:11-22 between our previous condition outside of Christ and our present privileged position in Christ. From Aliens to Citizens — From Outsiders to Insiders (in Christ, v. 13) – From Hostility to Peace since Christ is our peace (v. 14) and came and preached peace (v. 17]. From believing Jews and believing Gentiles God has made both one (14), created one new man (15), reconciled both in one body (16), and granted access to both in one Spirit (18).
In this passage he calls on believers to remember the hopelessness of their former condition apart from Christ. They were without Christ, aliens, strangers to covenant promises, without hope, and without God (v. 12). They were far away. There was a dividing wall which needed to be removed (a reference either to the balustrade or fence separating the Court of the Gentiles from the inner court and sanctuary in the temple complex or more likely perhaps as a reference to the Law, the Torah itself). What Christ accomplished at Calvary in removing the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile and in abolishing the “law of commandments” and bringing different ethnic peoples into one body, the church, in Christ, provides the foundation on which we build in seeking relentlessly and often failing to experience and express that unity today.
Jews and Gentiles, those who were near and those who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the cross and peace has been secured. The division experienced between Jews and Gentiles was an expression of alienation from God. The healing of the division took place at the cross and takes place there today. All human efforts, however well-meaning they may be, however wise they may appear from a human viewpoint, are powerless to bring about real change. Laws may be passed that outlaw hatred and sanction criminal acts against others but they cannot change the human heart where the hatred resides. God is giving his church in our day the opportunity to rectify the wrongs of the past, a past tainted with racism, segregation, and discrimination. Urban churches in particular have the privilege to engage in multi-ethnic ministry that may not be available in mono-ethnic areas. We cannot build multi-ethnic churches since Christ builds the church. We cannot coerce diverse ethnicities to worship together. However we can be intentional in reaching all people with the gospel without regard to their ethnic group or socioeconomic situation.
In my mind this poem summarizes the message of these verses – from hopelessness and despair to redemption and reconciliation.
It’s dark, it’s bleak, all is lost, despair;
Division, hatred, racial strife, beware;
All human efforts, worldly wisdom, lead nowhere;
Ah, the Son of God, in human form, our only hope appears;
His sacrifice, His precious blood, our awful sin did bear;
The cross of Christ, His blood made peace, oh hopeless one draw near.
Now reconciled, one body we, what wondrous grace we share.
How Does the Gospel Transform Us?
Dr. John P. Davis
The question of how spiritual transformation takes place is perhaps one of the more perplexing questions of Christianity.
Misunderstanding the nature of spiritual transformation has disastrous consequences, such as pharisaical pride, dark despair, and even abandonment of Christianity. These sad consequences reflect either a neglect of the gospel or confusion on what the gospel actually is and accomplishes. A clear grasp of the gospel displaces pride, overcomes despair, and grounds one firmly in the love of God.
The gospel is primarily about what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection in behalf of sinners. Additionally, the gospel also includes His entire person and work. Essentially, the gospel is Jesus. Because the promise of the gospel is external to us in a person who lived, died, and rose again, it offers an unwavering, unchangeable hope and source of joy. The promise of the gospel is immutable, since Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever,.
Consequently, transformation never offers more than the gospel.
The gospel establishes and continues our acceptance before God. The gospel offers us the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ freely imputed to us when we experience repentance from sin and faith in Christ. This imputed righteousness remains our gift from God forever. Never was there, is there, or will there be a moment when we stand accepted by God on the basis of anything other than the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is always the unchanging source of our joy. No experience of spiritual transformation can offer more than or even compare to the joy of the gospel. The eternal, steadfast joy of the gospel overrides the fluctuating joys of our experiencing incremental transformation. The eternal, steadfast joy of the gospel remains the true joy both in the disappointments and the satisfactions of our experiencing incremental transformation.
Losing the joy of the gospel and seeking a replacement joy through any experience of incremental transformation produces the disastrous consequences of pharisaical pride, dark despair, and even abandonment of Christianity. The only stable, constantly satisfying joy is the joy of the gospel.
Transformation receives its power in the gospel.
When transformation loses its dependence on the gospel, it easily becomes more about what we are doing to achieve a righteous life that reflects our spiritual disciplines than about what God is doing to produce a righteous life that reflects the power of the gospel. Certainly the Scriptures talk both about our obedience and God’s working in our life, but the primary focus of transformation is God’s working through the gospel to transform our hearts and minds. William Edgar describes God’s part very well:
“Only God can effect such a change… The great difference between self-generated transformation and biblical conversion is that God is the one ultimately at work to effect the change… The only way we can be transformed is by operating, in all areas of life, under the grace of God, who gives to all who believe in him unconditionally.”
The outward transformation of obedience is empowered by the inward transformation of a mind being filled with love and thankfulness for Christ that grows as the Spirit of God through the Word of God increasingly discloses to us the glory of Christ in the gospel.
The gospel is the fuel that sets aflame the fires of love and thankfulness which generate obedience to the will of God. Without hearts that are set aflame by the gospel, attempts at transformation remain only external and continue to produce the disastrous consequences of pharisaical pride, dark despair, and even abandonment of Christianity.
In our meditation on Scripture and listening to the Word, let us seek a prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit that He would continue to unfold to us the glory of Christ in the gospel.
Only in this way can our outward obedience be the natural fruit of gospel transformation.
Transformation progressively reflects the person of the gospel.
One of the evidences of genuine conversion is that one’s values, beliefs, and behavior progressively reflect the values, beliefs, and behavior presented in the Bible. Spiritual transformation reproduces gospel values in our lives. Gospel values are values that are exemplified in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Transformation is the process of believers being recreated in the likeness of Jesus Christ as described in the following verses:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
-2 Corinthians 3:18
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
-2 Timothy 3:16-17
Focusing on the glory of Christ in the gospel is never simply a ‘spiritual, naval-gazing exercise.’ Contentment in the joy of the gospel and dependence on the power of the gospel do not result in spiritual inertia.
In the presence of ongoing sin and imperfection, gospel-centered transformation will allow for neither despair nor complacency. Despair or complacency in the life of a Christians is a warning signal that we have lost sight of the gospel of God’s grace. The remedy is not to work harder but to gaze more deeply in the glory of Christ revealed in the gospel. The gospel assures us that we are loved and accepted and empowers us in our weakness. As we look to the glory of Christ in the gospel, love and thankfulness are set aflame and generate the natural flow of obedience.
Also, gospel-centered transformation will never allow for either pride or triumphalism. Whatever successes may be achieved, they are imperfect. The gospel remains the ground of our acceptance and the gospel reminds us daily that only the righteousness of Christ justifies us before a holy God – never our own righteousness.
As we remain fixed on the glory of Christ in the gospel, we experience the joy of the gospel, we experience the power of the gospel, and we experience the renewed life of the gospel.
Frequently, I dialogue with nice, moral people who genuinely believe that they are “good” and that Jesus came to help them discover their ultimate potential in life. They believe that he can help them by unleashing some kind of untapped, or dormant, power inside of them.
I’ve asked people who believe this sort of thing to explain to me what they believe Jesus meant when he said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Usually, I get an explanation that sounds something like this: “Well, Jesus can help us discover how much love and greatness we have inside of ourselves so that we can live better lives.”
In this type of religious system, Jesus the omnipotent God-man is reduced little more than a self-help guru. Sort of like Tony Robbins with a halo.
Those who are deceived (or have deceived themselves) into thinking such strange and unbiblical things are usually people who have some type of (very) limited knowledge of the teachings of Scripture, attend church on occasion (either presently or in their past), and know some facts about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I confess that, in the months leading up to the day I was saved, I believed something very similar to what I described above (although, for the life of me, I don’t believe I could have offered such a creative explanation as to what being “born again” meant).
Following are some excerpts from a fabulous book I am currently reading and re-reading. In it, the author adeptly addresses the type of culturally-popular / ungodly / vapid / powerless / counterfeit “spirituality” I just described above.
Excerpts from Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 78-80:
“Spirituality” is as successful as materialism in feeding our narcissism. Keeping us preoccupied with our inner self and its experiences, morality, and activity, the “search for the sacred” is as godless as atheism. There are plenty of resources on the market to feed our culture’s anxiety over self-improvement. But they are all different ways of dressing up the old Adam. Furthermore, their moralistic prescriptions never actually reduce stress but pile more expectations upon us to try to make ourselves acceptable to God.
We are not sick, but spiritually dead. We are not good people with room for improvement, but the ungodly. We are not children who need a little direction, but lost. The gospel comes not to help us get our act together, fixing us up for a night on the town, making us more respectable to ourselves or others. Rather, it comes to kill us and make us alive as completely new creatures. Not a new and improved self, but a self buried and raised with Christ, is the gospel’s message of genuine transformation.
Moralistic, therapeutic spirituality is part of that narcissistic complex about which Paul warned Timothy that makes us “lovers of self…, having an appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:2, 5). And the power that it denies is the announcement of free justification in Christ, apart from works. The power of God does not lie in programs, strategies, self-help formulas, seven steps to a better life, or political reform. Like someone trapped in a burning building, we cannot rescue ourselves. There is no hope inside of us! There are no inner resources or possibilities – no Archimedean point at which we might pry ourselves open to God and begin to climb the stairway to heaven. Our whole nature is in bondage to sin, so we cannot even repair our condition by an act of the will. Our only hope lies outside of us, from the God who rescues us in his Son! Paul said that he was “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16)….
This gospel – the Good News of God’s justification of sinners in Christ – …is the ocean that we swim in, the air that we breathe, the identity that defines us….
The gospel is not a general belief in heaven and hell or hope for a better life beyond; it is not even confidence in a resurrection at the end of the age. It is the announcement that Jesus Christ himself is our life, for he is our peace with God. He does not merely show us the way; he is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Following is a brief review of Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).
This is a book that describes what it looks like to live submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ in twenty-first century America. Boyd addresses the sad and discouraging fact that many professing Christians appear to be totally submerged in the worldly norms and values of our fallen and wicked culture. In this, they are “indistinguishable” from the agnostics, atheists, and peoples of other faiths around them. There is a “radical contradiction between the lifestyle Jesus calls his followers to embrace…and the typical American lifestyle” (11). Boyd calls on Christ-followers to embrace the extreme counter-cultural call of the gospel and lifestyle of the Kingdom.
At the heart of much of our consumer-oriented evangelicalism today is the “magical” sinner’s prayer. Boyd points out that the misuse of Romans 10:13 has done much to empty the gospel of its saving power: “We’re basically [teaching people to purchase] fire insurance with a magical prayer” (167). This has, in my opinion, created legions of unconverted, unloving, gospel-inoculated, church-going sinners who may mistakenly believe that they are co-heirs with Jesus Christ in His Kingdom. People who have no intention of submitting their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ have placed their trust in the power of a prayer rather than in the power of the One who commands their ultimate love, affection, and allegiance. The object of the prayer is thus ignored in pursuit of the prayer itself. In this, modern evangelical Christianity has become no different than the pagan religions of the world, with their magical incantations and recitations.
Boyd points out that a saving relationship with Christ “must be one of submission. We are ‘saved’ when we authentically surrender our life to Christ, enthroning him as Lord” (167). The remainder of this work details what it looks like, from a biblical perspective, to live out the radical implications of the lordship of Christ in our daily lives.
After two foundational and introductory chapters on the nature of the church universal and the separate nature of the “two kingdoms” (the Kingdom of the Cross and the Kingdom of the Sword) that many evangelicals tend to so easily confuse and conflate, Boyd concisely and adeptly tackles what I believe to the largest issues confronting the body of Christ in America today: heart idolatry, judgmentalism, religiosity, Western individualism, nationalism/patriotism, violence, social oppression, racism, poverty and greed, abuse of the creation, sex, and secularism. A failure to live like Christ in each of these areas has done much damage to the church’s gospel witness and credibility.
This book may be extremely difficult and challenging for many within the conservative evangelical church. All the more reason, then, to honestly and openly engage the truth it contains. I commend Boyd for the courage it took to write this book and to take the bold stand that he takes for the Kingdom and the cause of Christ.
At the beginning of this New Year, I am asking all of those associated with Grace Church of Philly to reflect often on Psalm 67 and 2 Corinthians 9:8 and to consider memorizing these passages.
Psalm 67:1-7 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah 2 that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. 3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! 4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah 5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! 6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. 7 God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!
2 Corinthians 9:8 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
Psalm 67 lays out clearly the relationship between God’s grace and blessing on us and its effect, not only upon us, but on the nations of the world through us. 2 Corinthians 9:8 assures us of the sufficiency of God’s grace to make us adequate to do His will.
We desire that “Grace” be, not only in our name, but in our relationship with each other and our relationship with a world that needs Jesus. Grace is that bountiful favor that God shows to the undeserving because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since we have experienced God’s grace we should live and share God’s grace.
In our relationship with God we can readily come to Him as grateful, forgiven sinners who have experienced His grace. What a joyful, satisfying, confident, and restful Christianity we have when we rest in His grace.
In all our relationships with the people of God we want to live as grateful, forgiven sinners who have experienced God’s grace. What a forgiving and affirming place the church becomes when filled with grace. Family relationships and friendships are transformed when people are grace-filled.
In our relationship with a world that needs Jesus we want to faithfully share the good news of God’s grace never forgetting that we are grateful, forgiven sinners who have experienced God’s grace. What a welcoming message the gospel is when God’s grace is at the center of our lives and our conversation.
I pray that we all will keep growing in our understanding and experience of the joyful, satisfying grace of God. I pray that we will extend that grace to the church, our families, our friends, and, yes, even to our enemies. I pray that our commitment to live and share God’s grace will be used of Him to reach the world around us with the good news that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, God offers grace to the undeserving.