by Tim Keller
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We started a new mini-series last week on racism and God’s plan to restore humanity. Recently Tim Keller who is a pastor and author has been writing articles on the same topic. We wanted to share part of his most recent writing about racism being a sin over two blog posts. Today we are sharing part 1.
Biblically, sin is anything that falls short of God’s will and glory, that violates his law and his character (1 John 3:4, Romans 3:23). There are at least four ways in which what we will be calling racism is a violation of God’s glory and therefore is a sin. It is sin.
IS RACISM A SIN?
1. Because of the image of God.
It is a sin to violate–in thought, word, or deed–the divine truth that all humans have equal dignity and worth as persons created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). One of the many ways that truth can be violated is given in James 3:9, where we are told that to even curse a human being—to address them without respect—violates the image of God. When Jesus explains “You shall not murder” (Matthew 5:21), he says if you treat someone with contempt, calling him or her ‘Raca’ or ‘fool,’ you are violating the principle of the command and are “in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). To modern ears this seems excessive, but behind the sixth commandment is the doctrine of the image of God as expounded in James 3. It is a sin to treat any class or group unequally, as being less worthy of respect, love, and protection.
Treating people unequally on the basis of race is only one version of this sin, though it is a particularly prevalent, grievous, and pernicious one. To presuppose one’s own race or nationality is inherently superior to another, and to treat those of other races and nationalities with (a) unfairness or unequal justice, with (b) dismissiveness (the probable meaning of ‘Raca’ is “you nobody”) or with (c) active contempt is a sin, and one that is “in danger of the fire of hell.”
God’s law is based on his character. The Lord is, literally, “no respecter of persons.” (Deuteronomy 10:17) The context for this statement is a discussion of race and class prejudice. “[H]e shows no partiality… He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:17-18). In Acts 10:34, Peter learns that “God shows no partiality” on the basis of national or ethnic status. It is a sin to be partial, and discriminatory, because it falls short of God’s character and glory.
2. Because of the commandment to love your neighbor.
Jesus summed up all the laws of God into two “great commandments” (Matthew 22:36-40). The second is to love our neighbor as we do ourselves. When Jesus is asked to define love of neighbor, he depicts someone who, at great risk and sacrifice, meets the physical and material needs of a man of a different race and religion from himself (Luke 10:25-37). “Go and do likewise” Jesus says to us, meaning that we must treat people of other races, nationalities, classes, and groups with the same amount of care, respect, and love that we would give to ourselves or members of our own communities.
When reflecting on this second great commandment, John Calvin sees it as overlapping with the doctrine of the image of God. Calvin had heard people say that a person who is a foreigner deserved no help from them, and that many others were immoral, so why should they go out of their way to meet their needs? In a remarkable passage, Calvin responded that we must treat everyone as if they were the Lord himself, because his image is upon them all.
Say [about the foreigner] that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits which God has bound you to himself… You will say, ‘He has deserved something far different from me’. Yet what has the Lord deserved? … Remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.
This calls out racism or prejudice of any kind, and he goes on to say, “Each [Christian] will so consider with himself…a debtor to his neighbors, and that he ought in exercising kindness toward them to set no other limit than the end of his resources” (Institutes, II.8.7).
3. Because of the new creation.
At the end of Galatians, Paul says: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Galatians 6:15). “Circumcision and uncircumcision” is a metaphor for racial and ethnic differences, and when Paul says such distinctions mean nothing, he is not speaking absolutely. Elsewhere, he points to his love and proportional pride in his Jewish heritage (cf. Romans 9:1-5). What he means is that such racial and cultural distinctions are nothing in comparison to the new creation. And what is that?
The new creation is a renewed material world, wiped clean of all death, suffering and tears, war and injustice, sin and shame (Isaiah 25:7-8; 65:17-25). It will be established at the end of time, but part of the good news is that this is brought forward partially into the present. Herman Ridderbos writes that the new creation in Galatians 6:15 is: “the new reality of the kingdom of God. Through Christ this new thing is not merely future-eschatological (Revelation 21:1–5, 3:12 and Mark 14:25) but is already present, is already in man. This new creation is first of all a gift, but it brings its task with it.”
Many Christians think that Jesus saved us merely through the cross, where he paid the penalty of our sin, and the resurrection was just a grand miracle by which God proved that Jesus was the Son of God. It was that–but far more (Romans 4:25). This inadequate view conceives of the gift of salvation in exclusively individualistic terms––as a new personal relationship with God and little else. But Jesus rose as the “first fruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) of the future resurrection from the dead, and as such he brings us the Holy Spirit which is the “downpayment” or “first installment” of the future renewed world and universe (1 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14-16).
Through Christ’s resurrection we are united spiritually and vitally not only to him and to all others who believe, but to that future world cleansed of all suffering, tears, injustice, evil, and sin. The same power that will purify the universe at the end of time is what regenerates and comes into our lives now through the new birth (cf. word palengensia–in both Matthew 19:28 and Titus 3:5). The new heavens and new earth will not only contain saved individuals–it will have a new humanity without violence and conflict, war and injustice. The power of that new creation is partially but actually with us now. That is why Ridderbos can say this gift “brings its task with it.” We are to behave not according to the old age of sin and darkness, but to live in accordance with the world of light which is to come (Romans 13:11-14).
One of the marks of that new future world will be the end of all racial, ethnic, and national strife, alienation, and violence. God will say: “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance” (Isaiah 19:25)—a vivid expression of racial equality before the Lord in the new heavens and new earth. When Isaiah describes that new creation (Isaiah 65:25), he speaks of the nations and kings of the earth uniting before God (Isaiah 60:1-7). Revelation echoes this when it foresees the kings of all the nations bringing their glory into the City of God (Revelation 21:4) and the people of God consisting of “every tongue, tribe, people and nation” (Revelation 7:9).
These remarkable visions of the final new creation show that our distinct ‘peoplehoods’ and nationalities do mean something. They are so important that they will be carried over, not eradicated, into the new creation. They will be purified of all the sinful distortions, just as our bodies with their distinctions will be brought in and purified of all weakness and decay. It is this future—this new creation—that Christians must bear witness to and practice now, to the greatest degree that we can. The Bible shows us that one of the important features of that new creation is to practice equality of the races and the healing of their relationships, because “in Christ…there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3:26-28).
Next week we’ll share part 2 of this article that was written by Tim Keller for Gospel In life, a ministry of Redeemer Churches in the United States.