Did The Gospel Fail?

How should Christians respond to the sin of racism, i.e., the sin of “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” (Oxford Dictionary of English)? Let us be perfectly clear, racism is a violation of the second table of the moral law, which our Lord Jesus summarized thus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:39). To regard one’s neighbor as inferior, to harbor prejudice, to show favoritism (James 2:1-13; Jude 16) is the opposite of love.

The Reformation Impulse

How should sin be addressed? The instinctive answer of every confessional Christian from the Reformation (Lutheran and Reformed) traditions should be: by the preaching of the law and the gospel. They pedagogical use of the law is to teach us sinners the greatness of our sin and misery (Heidelberg 2 and 3). The normative (third) use of the law (Heidelberg 91, 114, 115) guides us as we seek to live out the Christian life, as freely justified persons, in the favor of God, in union and communion with Christ. The gospel, the good news of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary obedience, his substitutionary death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his return is the power of the Christian life.

This is the basic outline of the Reformed approach to sanctification, i.e., mortification (the putting to death of the old man) and vivification (the making alive of the new man). According to Belgic Confession art. 24, sanctification is the supernatural, gracious fruit of the gospel, new life, and true faith. Were we talking about other sins, e.g., idolatry, Sabbath breaking, murder, or covetousness, none of this would be controversial.

When it comes to the sin of racism, however, people sometimes take a different position. Sometimes when discussing how to respond to that sin, people assert that the gospel is not sufficient to address it.

It would seem that the gospel has a unique, special, and powerful role in addressing sin. Yet, it is argued that, in the case of American chattel slavery, in which Americans bought Africans whom slavers had stolen (Deut 24:7) and enslaved slaved for generations, was practiced in the midst of the preaching of the gospel for more than two centuries before slavery was abolished. Indeed, the economies of the slave states (and to a lesser degree of the free states) were premised on slavery and the dehumanization and subjection of an entire race. There is a reason it took, as Abraham Lincoln predicted, a century after the American Civil War for black Americans to receive their God-given, natural, civil rights.

Is Racism Uniquely Powerful?

Did the gospel fail? Is racism a unique sin such that the gospel is insufficient to address it? After all, as already suggested, the gospel proper is not intended to convict people of sin. That is the function of the law. The gospel proper does not norm the new life. That too is the function of the law.

The gospel has a unique role in our sanctification. The gospel, not the law, is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16). It is the preaching of the law that teaches us our sin but it is through the preaching of the gospel whereby God the Spirit brings us to new life and true faith (Rom 10:14–21). We confess this very thing in Heidelberg 65:

Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit  works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

“The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel.” This is our confession, i.e., our understanding of what God’s Word says. As believers certainly we read Scripture in light of history and other natural knowledge (e.g., botany—Scripture does not tell us what a tree is. It expects us to learn from nature what a tree is) but we do not use our natural knowledge to control our reading of Scripture. If Scripture says that it is through the preaching of the gospel that the Spirit brings his elect to new life and to true faith, then that is the truth.

How do we reconcile what we confess with what we observe in American history? One thing we can do is the question the premise of the objection. Was the gospel purely preached for the two centuries of American slavery or during during the century of Jim Crow after the Civil War? Certainly there were formally orthodox confessions, churches, and preachers during those three centuries? Was the preaching faithful to those confessions? That is an open question but let us assume that, in the main, it was. What happened? Why did not the preaching of the gospel lead to new hearts and to freed slaves?

The Assumption Behind The Objection

There is an unstated assumption behind the objection, however, that needs to be explored: that the gospel really led to new life then people would have realized the wickedness of the “peculiar institution’ of American chattel slavery and repented of it immediately or more quickly than they did. This assumption, however, is more about the nature of sanctification than it is about the efficacy of the gospel.

Is that really how the Christian life works? Consider the history of the pre-Reformation church. Sincere, regenerated, Bible-believing, orthodox (creedal) Christians perpetrated a number of crimes for centuries. E.g., for most of the period known as Christendom, from the time that Christianity became the state religion of the Empire (AD 381), virtually all faithful Christians were convinced that it was right and necessary for the state to put religious heretics to death. For centuries, under Christendom, orthodox believing Christians persecuted Jews and even put them to death. From the late 11th century, for several centuries thereafter, Christians engaged in a project ostensibly to recover, by force, the so-called Holy Lands for Christ and sometimes to bring the Byzantine empire and church under the control of the Papacy. In other words, it is not unknown for orthodox, believing Christians to engage in gross sin for centuries.

Has the gospel failed? Paul gives us a helpful analogy by which to understand what happened. In Romans 11:1 Paul asks, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (ESV). Did the gospel fail? No more than the God had failed to fulfill his promises to Israel. All the Israel of God is being saved and shall be saved. In Romans 11:11 Paul says that God was working out his myterious purposes (Rom 11:25) through the fall of the Jews. For one thing, “salvation has come to the Gentiles.” All the elect, Jew and Gentile alike, shall be saved.

In the case of American slavery we see sanctification delayed. Slavery had become such an embedded part of the economic life of the nation (particularly in the South) and the accompanying justifications for slavery had become so widespread (e.g., Africans are not fully or truly human) that it was difficult even for believers to see how they had been blinded by their own prejudice and economic self-interest. Psychologically it can be difficult for people see when they are in the midst of a great sin. Were there no faithful Lutherans who knew about or suspected what was taking place in the camps in Germany during World War II? Of course there were. How many Christian eyes were opened to the depth and width of evil in the human heart as they were made to tour the camps where their neighbors worked? How many Christians in the the USA, after the Civil Rights movement, came to see that they harbored sinful, racist attitudes in their hearts along with ignorance and lies about black Americans in their minds? Repentance is a real thing and many white people had much for which to repent.

History tells us that, sometimes, sanctification is really, really slow. Tragically, it can take centuries to see that a set of assumptions that were widely, almost universally held, e.g., it is good to kill religious heretics or it is justifiable to enslave Africans and black Americans (after a generation on this soil, those black slaves were not Africans. They were Americans being denied their God-given, natural rights).1

If the objection means to suggest that what is needed is less gospel and more law, we should reject any such conclusion. The law is good, right, and necessary but it can only do what it does. The law does not bring new life. The law does not justify. The law does not change hearts. The law convicts and norms. If we are truly concerned about the sin of racism then we should redouble our preaching of the gospel. To preach the gospel less frequently or to ask the law to do what only the gospel can do will do nothing to change human hearts, which is a most necessary precondition to addressing sin, including racism.

One final thought: The major premise in the objection is probably misleading. In fact, under slavery, the Christian faith was corrupted in significant ways, particularly in the way sin was defined, in the way the Christian anthropology (doctrine of humanity) was revised, and the way in which Christian ethics were understood. Was “the gospel” corrupted? Perhaps but perhaps not in every case. Those errors, however, changed the context in which the gospel was preached and understood and in which the implications of the gospel were worked out.

If a Klansman says that he loves Jesus but feels compelled to burn a cross on his black neighbor’s lawn, we have a right (James 2:14–26) to question the reality of his faith, his grasp of the law and the gospel, and his preacher’s grasp of the law and the gospel. In any case, the gospel has not failed. The gospel will do its work or the Spirit will do his work through the gospel. It may take a long time for the consequences of the gospel to work themselves out but those consequences do come to fruition.

©R. Scott Clark.



1. In this essay I have not capitalized “black” in “black Americans.” On this see
Glenn Loury, “Why I Don’t Capitalize ‘Black’.”

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One comment

  1. Some Christians (e.g., Reformed Presbyterians) did stand up against slavery and against racism.

    It is also easy to be blind to the sins of one’s own generation. Today, for instance, most dating couples succumb to the sin of fornication, a genuine blind spot of our own generation. One could probably add sloth and ingratitude and disrespect of parents and other authority as “normal” sins of our generation. When a sin is normalized, it appears less ugly.

    C. S. Lewis expressed that as one reason one should read more old books than new ones–he said it was helpful to step away from one’s current eyes to see through those of others, and since we can’t read the books written in the future, that means reading those written in the past.

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