The Doctrine of Justification and Ethnicity

Shai Linne
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Some may be reading this and thinking, “Amen. I agree that these things are true. But what does this have to do with ethnicity? My answer? It has everything to do with ethnicity! In Philippians 3:4–9, the apostle Paul speaks about the advantages he had before coming to Christ. What he came to realize is that the very things that he thought were spiritual assets were actually liabilities because they were keeping him from Christ. Nevertheless, from a human standpoint, his resume was pretty impressive. Check out what he says:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Did you notice the advantages he mentioned? There are seven things on the list:

Circumcised on the eighth day—Religious advantage
Of the people of Israel—Ethnic advantage
Of the tribe of Benjamin—Ancestral advantage
A Hebrew of Hebrews—Cultural advantage
As to the law, a Pharisee—Educational advantage
As to zeal, a persecutor of the church—Personality advantage
As to righteousness under the law, blameless—Moral advantage

Out of the seven advantages mentioned, the first four certainly fall under the ethnicity umbrella, based on how we saw it defined in chapter 7. As impressive as those advantages may have been, however, none of them got him any closer to God. It’s only when Paul was willing to reject his own righteousness and embrace the righteousness of Christ that he was saved. This is true for each one of us as well. There are a number of implications here:

The Doctrine of Justification Equips Us to Address Ethnic Sin in the Church

“We don’t have to lie about the past, or do verbal gymnastics to avoid naming sin.”

The very fact that we need to be justified assumes some things about us that are not flattering, to say the least. It assumes that we are guilty before God. It assumes that our sin against God deserves an eternal punishment. It assumes that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It assumes that, by nature, we regularly commit all kinds of evil in our thoughts, words and actions. Therefore, we can now recognize sin and call it what it is. We don’t have to sugarcoat it or use euphemisms. We don’t have to lie about the past, or do verbal gymnastics to avoid naming sin. Notice how the apostle Paul speaks when he addresses the church in Corinth:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9–11)

Paul pulls no punches when it comes to naming the sins of the culture that characterized the Corinthians before they came to Christ. He’s speaking very plainly. And before the believers with a tender conscience sink into despair or others allow their pride to deceive them into thinking they weren’t that bad, what does Paul do? He reminds them that they were justified (v. 11). God set them apart and declared them to be righteous through faith in Christ.

The gospel is big enough to cover the ethnic sins of Christians. When a Christian or a church truly embraces justification by faith alone in all its glorious practical ramifications, it will render defensiveness, rationalizing, and excuse-making obsolete.

The Doctrine of Justification Exhorts Us to Acknowledge Our Own Ethnic Sins

Maybe it’s because of the confusion surrounding the term “racist,” but many behave as if “racism” is the unforgivable sin in our culture. Hopefully the list of ethnic sins I listed earlier will help more of us to see ourselves and our own sinful tendencies in this regard. But it really baffles me that so many of us who embrace the doctrine of Total Depravity have such a hard time imagining that we might be guilty in this area. With a proper understanding of the doctrine of sin, we should actually find it surprising if most Christians didn’t struggle with ethnic sins to some extent. For those of us who acknowledge that, justification by faith alone is really good news for us! As Pastor Tim Keller has stated:

The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.[1]

Justification by faith alone frees me up to admit my sinful tendencies toward ethnic pride and ethnic favoritism. The Holy Spirit gives me the power to turn from those things by God’s grace. And the death of Christ on my behalf covers me when I fall short.

The Doctrine of Justification Empowers Us to Forgive the Ethnic Sins of Other Christians

In the same way that justification by faith applies to me, it also applies to my brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that I don’t have to hold grudges against those who have confessed their own ethnic sins. I remember being in a small group book study at a predominantly White church I was a member of. At the time, we were studying the book Bloodlines by John Piper, which deals with Christians and ethnicity. There was a sweet White Christian lady who was committed to coming to the group. In fact, she was one of the few White Christians who showed up consistently. She had always been friendly toward Blair and me, and she seemed like the type of person who was willing to step out of her comfort zone in order to pursue understanding with different kinds of people.

“The gospel is big enough to cover the ethnic sins of Christians.”

One day, as I was walking home from the study, she called to me and caught up to me on the street. Her house was in the same direction as mine, so we walked together for a few blocks. As we walked, she said, “Shai, I have to confess something to you.” “Okay,” I said, not really knowing what to expect. She said, “Since I was young, I’ve really struggled with…well…I guess the only thing I can call it is racism.” “Oh really?” I replied. I wasn’t sure where this was going. She continued, “And it’s not Black people in general. But it’s specifically been toward Black men in particular. I’ve really struggled in this area, and I’m so sorry and I felt like I needed to ask your forgiveness.” “I forgive you, sister,” I said. It was one of the few times as a believer that I can remember a White Christian personally confessing to me that they were guilty of “racism.” In the moment, it was an awkward conversation, but over time, I’ve really come to appreciate her willingness to humble herself in that way. Who was I to withhold forgiveness from someone that God has accepted through Christ?

The Doctrine of Justification Emboldens Us to Call Out the Ethnic Sins of Our Own Group

What justification by faith alone teaches us is that we’re all sinful and guilty before God. No one ethnicity has cornered the market on sin. There’s enough sin to go around for all of us. As a Black Christian, I can say that while historically in America Black people have been on the receiving end of much ethnic sin from White people, that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own sinful tendencies in this area. Ethnic pride, ethnic favoritism, ethnic hatred, and ethnic idolatry all have their manifestations in the Black community as well. But often, we get a free pass as we shine the spotlight squarely on White guilt. Something is wrong when God’s Word is given to an ethnically mixed crowd and the sins of only one part of that crowd are addressed as though everyone else is guiltless. Justification by faith alone reminds us that even those who have historically been uniquely on the receiving end of sin are still sinners who also need a Savior.

The Doctrine of Justification Encourages Us to Find Our Ultimate Identity in Christ

Understood rightly, the doctrine of justification removes all notions (conscious or unconscious; spoken or unspoken) of ethnic superiority. We’re taught that God’s acceptance of us is not only without regard to the works we do, but without regard to our ethnic identity. In fact, justification teaches Christians that our primary identity is not our ethnicity, but our union with Jesus Christ. As I said in the last chapter, this isn’t an argument for so-called color blindness. Rather, it’s our primary identity in Christ that puts everything else about us that makes us unique in their proper place. This is Paul’s point in Philippians 3:8:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

This is what it’s all about. Ethnicity has worth. It’s valuable, beautiful, and reflects the wisdom and creativity of God. But compared to knowing Jesus, it’s “loss” and “rubbish,” along with anything else that would keep us from gaining the Lord. I love being Black. I’m thankful for how God made me. But God forbid I ever toss Jesus to the side for the sake of “Blackness.” And God forbid I toss my White brothers and sisters in Christ to the side in some misguided attempt to prove my authentic Blackness. As Paul would say, that’s rubbish. Jesus is so glorious that my aim is to be exactly who He’s called me to be while at the same time being willing to let anything go that’s not Him if it means getting more of Him. Because at the end of the day, He is what we all need. And He is more than enough.

[1] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Dutton, 2011), 48.

For Further Reading:

The New Reformation

by Shai Linne

In the sixteenth century, the church faced a doctrinal crisis. Today, the crisis is race. We all know that racial unity is important. But...

book cover for The New Reformation