Your Ethnic Identity Is Important But It Is Not Ultimate

Christians are not Gnostics. Against the Gnostics, Christians have, since the first quarter of the second century, affirmed the essential, inherent goodness of creation. Against the Gnostics and Marcionites we also affirmed the unity of the covenant of grace. Both of those truths help us to address the problem of ethnic tensions in Christ’s church.

As part of recognizing the existence of the goodness of creation, while he preached the gospel of grace to Jews and to Gentiles, the Apostle Paul recognized the distinct nationalities and ethnicities of the various peoples to whom he preached. In short, for Paul, grace (redemption) did not obliterate nature (creation). Neither, however, did nature limit grace. We see this most famously in Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11. Taken in context, in Galatians 3, Paul was defending the essential unity of the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant of grace. He was explaining to the congregation, against the Judaizers, that both justification and salvation are by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) and that the covenant of grace (as represented by Abraham) is permanent but the national, legal aspect of the Mosaic covenant (it has a dual aspect, since it was also an administration of the one covenant of grace) had expired. In chapter 4 he will contrast Moses (as law) and Abraham (as gospel) by way of an allegory. Beginning in 3:23 he wrote,

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal 3:23–29; ESV).

The national, ethnic distinction between Jew and Gentile expired with the cross. Now, in Christ, there is, relative to salvation, no Greek (i.e., Gentile), or Jew, slave, free etc. Those categories, relative to the covenant of grace, relative to justification and salvation, are immaterial. Obvious, as a creational, sociological, and historical realities they continued to exist. That is why Paul was able to invoke them. He reasonably expected his readers to understand the referents to the words “Jew” and “Greek,” etc.

He made much the same point in Ephesians 2:11–21:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.

Paul was not a Dispensationalist. For him, the Mosaic covenant, with its ethnic barriers, was temporary and expired at Golgatha. He knew (Rom 4:10–11) that Abraham was justified sola gratiasola fide, in Christ alone, as a Gentile. Thus, he was the father of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. There is one covenant of grace, one baptism, one Savior, one salvation (Eph 4:5). There have never been two ways of justification or salvation. Adam was to enter into glory by obedience to the law. After the fall, the only way to glory was sola gratiasola fide. The gospel went out from Noah, a Gentile, to the the Gentile world (speaking anachronistically). It came to Abraham the Gentile and was communicated by Abraham the Jew to the Jews. Even then, under Abraham, under Moses, under David, and the under the prophets, God brought a smattering of Gentiles to new life and saving faith in the Messiah. Those were anticipations of the the ingathering of Gentiles that would commence after Pentecost.

The early church struggled mightily with the question of how to relate different ethnicities and how to overcome to the distrust and suspicions the Jews had about unclean Gentiles and how to help Gentiles see themselves as fully members of the covenant of grace. That is why Paul’s language in Ephesians is so amazing. The temple was a symbol of the exclusion of the Gentiles and Paul said that Gentiles are not only included, they are part of the true temple, the new temple, the very building and dwelling place of God. The Apostle Peter made the same argument in 1 Peter 2:4–10 and 4:14. The church, composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians is one holy dwelling place of God. The Shekinah Spirit of God and of glory rests upon the body-tabernacle-temple of Christ.

Ethnicity and one’s cultural history is a reality but it is not the Christian’s ultimate reality and identity. The Christian’s ultimate reality is that he is in Christ. The Christian’s new name is just that: Christian. We were all, Jewish and Gentile Christian alike, baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By grace alone, through faith alone, we have been united by the same Holy Spirit to the risen Christ. We are bound together by one gospel, one faith, one baptism, and one Holy Spirit.

In the new heavens and the new earth every tribe, tongue, and nation will be gathered before the throne: “And they sing a new song, saying,
‘Worthy art you to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for you were  slain, and did purchase unto God with your blood men of every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation, and made them to be unto our God a kingdom and priests; and they reign upon the earth'” (Rev 5:9–10; modified from the ASV).  The tribes, tongues, and nations are still evident but they are not ultimate. Our union and unity in Christ is pre-eminent because he is pre-eminent.

So should it be now, in the visible church, in Christ. Enjoy our cultures. Let the nations stream in. Let our potluck dinners represent the foods of the world. Let the parking lot be filled with the languages from across the globe. Let the tunes to which we sing God’s Word reflect the peoples of the earth but let our identity be pre-eminently one: Christian, bought and washed with the blood of Jesus and sanctified by the Holy Spirit and walking together, hand in hand, with each other to our shared promised land.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Here’s are some excerpts from PCA TE Randy Nabors’ position paper on integrated churches, published in PCA RE Mark Belz’s book Every Precious Stone, available on Amazon.

    3. White people as a group are indicted for America’s racism (pg 183)

    We confess that in the history of our country the Indian, Black, Oriental, immigrant, and Jew have all been oppressed at various times and in various ways. The majority race, in our country – specifically white people (some who even have attempted to name themselves Christians) – have consciously enslaved, sold, exploited, raped, murdered, and denied freedom and personhood to people of color. We confess that people of color, especially black people, have been deprived of their human rights.

    We admit that although there were some white people who did not engage in this oppression personally (some even struggled to champion the cause of freedom and died in the attempt) that all white people benefited from this system. This was for the simple reason that they could enjoy the benefits of living in a white society, by simply being white. This makes all white people responsible for their actions and attitudes concerning this historical situation. Either white people will be complicit with the system, or they will attempt to change it. There is no neutral ground.

    14. Demand for the negation of whiteness as superior or equal. (pg 190)

    We accept the fact that for white Christians to be able to join together with black Christians to build a specific local congregation, they must in a very real sense give up their “whiteness.” As they cannot change the color of their skin, which would be even a wrong inner desire, they must change the way they think and act. They must be willing, and practicing, aggressively to take a back seat. They must be servant. They must not let their culture dominate.

    15. Whiteness as opportunity for servanthood. (pg 191)

    It would be wrong for a white person to think that somehow they could be black. That by the way they sing, act, walk, talk or dress, that somehow black people will not recognize them. God makes us what we are, and he does not err. We should be thankful for what God has made us. However, our context defines our opportunity. White people have the opportunity to be servants.

  2. I think the over 600,000 Union soldiers who died or were wounded in the Civil War might have a somewhat different perspective.

  3. Good post!
    It’s a twist of irony that the social justice warriors have more in common with Kinists than not. It would not surprise me if interracial marriage starts being frowned upon by such people soon.

  4. Something lost in this discussion of racism: where does an understandable love of one’s own end, and a dangerous, hateful racism begin? This was driven home to me when I married and started my family while living in Taiwan. You can and should adjust to your host culture as far as loyalty to the Word of God allows. But, you can’t lose completely the heritage into which you were born.

    • I think Paul uses this idea in 1 Timothy 5:8. You still have obligations to your household even if they are not believers. The obligation to one’s nation is found in Romans 9-11 where Paul wishes he could be cursed for the sake of his natural Jewish family. He hints that God will graft the natural family of Abraham back in at the end of the epoch, so even God cares about it.

      Historically, you had natural obligations in multiple spheres, including to your family and nation. It would sounds strange to an ancient person to discard all natural relations and obligations when they became Christians. Christians in other countries understand this. Bluecheck elite evangelicals do not.

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