In my previous article, I laid out how the concept of systemic racism is a consequence not of “cultural Marxism,” but of the biblical understanding of sin. We ended with the question of how to move forward beyond personal prayer and repentance. A frequent sentiment I’ve heard during the current discussion on racism goes like this: “Even if there is systemic racism, only the Gospel can change hearts. Therefore, we should just focus on preaching the Gospel and not concern ourselves with questions of systemic racism.” In this article, I hope to respond to this position and show that, while the Gospel is the ultimate answer, it is the Gospel itself that calls us to do more than ignore injustice and hope that individual oppressors come to Christ.
The Only Power to Change Hearts
To begin, it’s worth pointing out the core of truth in the position we are examining. The Gospel truly is the only thing that can deal with the root of racism. Racism is one of many sinful attempts at building an identity for ourselves apart from Christ. It is an attempt to prove one’s worth apart from the cross, based on one’s ethnicity instead. As with all such sinful attempts, it inflicts damage on both the one seeking to prove their worth and on those whom he or she must sacrifice to do so.
Only the Gospel says that we are loved and valuable, not because of our race, social status, professional success, academic accolades, etc., but as a gift of sheer grace. The idol of race asks us to sacrifice the dignity of other ethnicities to prove our own worth. But in the Gospel, God sacrifices his own dignity on the cross to prove our worth. When that truth of being deeply loved by grace reaches our hearts, it undoes the need to prove ourselves by denying the worth of others. It kills both the pride and the fear that are at the real root of racism—and at the root of any sin.
This is all true and needs to be affirmed. The only hope for deep heart transformation is the Gospel. But does that mean we need to focus only on preaching the Gospel to individuals and ignore any questions of systemic change?
The Scope of Gospel Transformation
A question that will help us answer this is the following: What is God’s intended scope of Gospel transformation? Modern western Evangelicalism has sometimes been accused of shrinking the Gospel to be only about personal forgiveness that lets us escape the world after we die. Sadly, this accusation is not without grounds. But the biblical Gospel is about much more than just individual forgiveness. Its scope is nothing less than the restoration of the universe under the lordship of Jesus.
Christ came announcing the coming of a Kingdom. Forgiveness is what allows us to take part in that Kingdom, but forgiveness alone is not the ultimate goal. In the same way that sin is both individual and systemic, so Gospel transformation is both individual and systemic. It is the full biblical Gospel itself that demands we not content ourselves with individual transformation alone, but seek Gospel transformation in society.
An Underlying Assumption
There is an unspoken assumption in the suggestion to “just preach the Gospel” and ignore issues of systemic racism. The assumption is this: individuals shape society, but society does not shape individuals. The argument implies that only by seeing individuals changed piecemeal will society—maybe, eventually—be changed. Additionally, it suggests that if enough individuals are changed, society will change all by itself. Thus, societal change is a byproduct at best.
But this approach fails to take seriously the reality that not only do individuals shape culture, but culture shapes individuals. Surely we can see this realization behind the concern for our children to be raised with biblical values. Because culture is so key to shaping individuals, a true concern for individual hearts means we should also be concerned about the society which helps form them.
Moreover, even if every last person in a given society came to faith in Christ but no one dealt with the systemic changes necessary to reflect biblical values, the changes would be no more permanent than those individuals. The final chapters of Esther show just such an example. Even when the racist, genocidal Haman was removed, the evil system he had set in motion still needed to be dealt with directly. Systemic change is not automatic simply because individuals in that system have changed. Systemic change must be pursued directly if it is to be ubiquitous and enduring.
A Gospel Witness in Society
The suggestion to “just preach the Gospel” and ignore questions of systemic justice may seem right at first. After all, it seems to be lifting up the power of the Gospel—and who among us Christians would disagree with that! But there is another problem here.
First, the Gospel must always be accompanied by its fruits. While the Gospel must not be confused with its fruits, a Gospel without fruit is no Gospel at all. Therefore, when people suggest the preaching of a Gospel that does not bear as one of its consequences the fruit of racial justice and neighbor love, something is wrong. In fact, often the fruits of the Gospel act to draw people to the Gospel. Thus, a true concern for the Gospel to be lifted up in society must be concerned to show the beauty of the Gospel in all of its outflowing results.
Secondly, to argue that we must focus on the ultimate good (the Gospel) to the detriment of other real goods is a theological fallacy. We certainly don’t say, “Well, I’m no longer going to shower because I need to focus on preaching the Gospel.” No, we realize that regular hygiene is both good stewardship of our bodies and a very practical form of love to our neighbors—especially to their noses. If anything, practicing this simple good might aid us in promotion of the Gospel. How much more then if we seek to love our neighbors by promoting justice in society! A suggestion to preach the Gospel that cuts off that Gospel from its fruits and any other good smacks of Gnosticism in which God is unconcerned with this world.
A Consistent Approach
If you are among those who would be hesitant to tackle systemic racism, opting instead to simply “focus on preaching the Gospel,” ask yourself this: “Is my approach consistent?” For example, if you are content to ignore issues of systemic racism and “just preach the Gospel,” do you take the same approach with other issues in society—say, abortion? After all, even if abortion were outlawed, this would not “change anyone’s heart.” So why not ignore it and “just preach the Gospel”?
But many Christians are not content to merely hope that individuals inclined to get an abortion come to Christ and so change their minds. While that might represent the deepest kind of change, it does nothing to dismantle a system that promotes injustice against the unborn. Chances are, you want to preach the Gospel to individuals and work to reform the system. And that’s really the point: one approach does not contradict the other. We can and should be concerned about systemic justice as well as individual conversion.
It’s true that legislation cannot change hearts. That’s not its intent. Rather, its intent is to provide protection and order in society against abuses by those whose hearts are not yet changed. In the words of Paul, “the law is for the lawless” (1 Timothy 1:9). The argument to ignore systemic reform because it doesn’t change hearts actually ignores what the Bible says about the law. It is because hearts are not changed that they need systemic reform.
Policy changes cannot deal with the root issues that cause racism in individual hearts. That’s why we need to continue to preach the Gospel and specifically show how it deals with the idol of racism. But policy can make it less likely that people will act on sinful racist inclinations. At the same time, while legislation is not the same as God’s Law, where it aligns with God’s Law it can serve to convict and show the need for repentance. Ultimately, the choice to preach the Gospel or work to change systemic racism is a false one. Instead, we must preach the Gospel and work to change systemic racism because of the Gospel.
My intent has not been to lay out any specific policy prescriptions in this article. I do not claim to be an expert in the intricacies of policy and how best to reform it. My concern in these articles has been to help us as Christians see the reality of systemic racism from a biblical standpoint. These articles will not give an answer to how we go about tackling systemic racism—a complex task to say the least. Rather, my hope has been to show that, in line with the Gospel and as a fruit of the full biblical Gospel, we must begin the work. We must lay aside unbiblical and inconsistent excuses and take seriously the cause of addressing systemic racism in society. In so doing, we will “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior" with the beautiful fruit of justice.
Some readers will want to engage more with what pursuing racial justice could look like. I offer a few resources to help you consider this. Keep in mind that the resources are not necessarily written from a Christian perspective (though some are), so again, use discernment and weigh all things according to Scripture.
Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Anti-Racist
Austin Brown, I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church's Complicity in Racism
Corinne Shutack, 97 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice