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Sinners one and all

Books | John Piper says an emphasis on sovereign grace is the key to racial reconciliation

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

In February we're celebrating Black History Month, but it would be much more of a celebration if fewer African-Americans had collaborated with Planned Parenthood and other abortion-wielders in the killing of more than 16 million black unborn babies.

Abortion, much higher among blacks than among whites, and abetted by Planned Parenthood's targeting of minority communities, is the ultimate racism in America today. But it has many other expressions, as John Piper's Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Crossway, 2011) shows. During past Black History Months I've written about Booker T. Washington and many other African-Americans who worked for improved racial relations from black-to-white: Piper's white-to-black account is also passionate.

Chapter 1 starts with Piper growing up in Greenville, S.C.: "I was, in those years, manifestly racist." Young Piper assumed white superiority "without knowing or wanting to know anybody who was black, except Lucy," who came on Saturdays for house-cleaning. "Of course, we loved Lucy. ... As long as she and her family 'knew their place.' Being nice to, and having strong affections for, and including in our lives is what we do for our dogs too."

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Piper in 1980 accepted a pastoral call to Bethlehem Baptist Church on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, where he remains to this day. He and his wife Noel raised four sons in a neighborhood that is now almost precisely ­quartered: one-fourth Caucasian, one-fourth African-American, one-fourth Hispanic, one-fourth everything else (mostly Native American and Asian). In 1996, soon after Piper turned 50, they adopted a black girl.

When Piper thinks about race, he writes, seven feelings arise in his heart. The first is "regret for my own sinful contributions to the seemingly intractable problems of race relations." Others are sorrow, anger, frustration, empathy, longing to see the gospel proclaimed, and hope that the power of that gospel will lead to breakthroughs that human attempts have not achieved.

Those last two feelings bring Piper to the point that distinguishes Bloodlines from well-meaning quasi-Christian books on race relations. Hope does not come from striving for moral uplift and then appealing to God for approval. The basis of racism is the belief that one person's ancestors are better than another's, but the gospel way to fight it is to realize that God chose many from all races for salvation not because the chosen are good but in spite of the chosen's ugly and deadening sinfulness.

An emphasis on sovereign grace, not sovereign race, makes the difference: The doctrine of man's depravity-our complete inability to move toward God on our own-"has a huge role to play in humbling all ethnic groups and giving us a desperate camaraderie of condemnation leading to the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ."

Piper realized early on (and I came to later) that an "I'm OK, You're OK" attitude doesn't cut it. We need to realize that no one is naturally OK: "God's choice to set His favor on us is unconditional. It is not based on anything in us ... every race, every ethnic group, is on the absolutely level field of unconditional mercy. ... Divine election, understood and embraced and cherished as utterly undeserved-as it is in the Bible-destroys racism and ethnocentrism."

That's the key, and dozens of recent Christian books on racial reconciliation miss it. As Piper writes, "Far more important in the long run than any particular strategy of racial reconciliation and harmony is that more and more Christians glory in the grace of the gospel of justification by faith alone." Zeal to magnify grace dissolves ethnic hostilities.

Briefly noted

Richard Rosenfield's African American Core Values (iUniverse, 2009) includes quotations from black leaders of the past two centuries that affirm the importance of marriage, education, work, and self-reliance. Carol Swain's Be the People (Thomas Nelson, 2011) shows how a socially conservative black professor views past and present politics. A just-published book provides some excellent theological insights: Keep Your Head Up, edited by Anthony Bradley (Crossway) examines (as the subtitle notes) America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, & the Cosby Conversation. It includes provocative and biblically orthodox essays on family, sexuality, masculinity, and other crucial questions.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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