Written by: Corey Latta
This is Part 2 of our series The Gospel, Unashamed: Race Relations in Romans. Click here to read Part 1.
When Paul begins his letter to the Christians in Rome by saying he’s unashamed of the gospel because it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes, first to the Jew, then to the Gentile, he both presents the central truth of the Christian faith and the theological reason why racism has no place in the Christian life.
I said in a previous blog that the greatest threat to the Christian faith in the first century was racism. Jews and Gentiles detested each other. Both Jews and Gentiles perpetrated stereotypes. Both made false assumptions about the other. Both Jews and Gentiles thought the best way to live was at an advantageous distance from the other. And in this context, Paul presents a gospel that addresses their need for right relationship with God and heals the racial prejudices that would halt that gospel’s progress.
I don’t need to convince readers of the need for just such a gospel today. Ours is a racially torn world. Just today, the video of Philando Castile’s shooting emerges with a wrenching cry for social change. Even today, the gospel that would bridge the Jewish/Gentile divide in Rome stands against our racially-wrecked world with a constructive answer.
That answer is found back in our verse of focus, Romans 1:16-17. It might be obvious to say—though always worth repeating—that the gospel is for everyone, Jew and Greek, because God loves everyone. Paul thinks this important enough to announce it right out of the gate in his letter. But what might not be so obvious is why Paul also feels it’s important to reiterate that the gospel is for the Jew first, then the Gentile.
That salvation came to the Jews first isn’t a point of racial superiority but historical reality. Paul’s point is to remind his readers that God’s method to reach the world was to fashion a people in monotheistic devotion and holy faith, so that they might go into the world to shine the light of God to the other nations of the world. And this is the vital point – what the Jews received first was meant to be passed on to every race and people group on the planet through interracial community, friendship and harmony.
“To the Jew first, then to the Gentile” is the programmatic, prescriptive path for the gospel’s spread throughout the world. God established the transmission of the gospel through testifying relationships meant to move in such an interracially sequential rhythm—from Jew to Gentile, then from this Gentile culture to that Gentile culture unto the ends of the earth—that by the time the world heard the news of God’s salvation, every racial divide and form tribalism that hindered the gospel would have collapsed under the weight of God’s love.
Among all else it is, Romans must partly be seen as one long appeal for racial unity. In fact, one of the truest threads through Romans is the call of racial unity in light of theological awareness. All of humanity stand before God equally, every person and tribe take on new harmonious identity in Christ, therefore, each race should treat all other races as equal members of the same spiritual body. Just to get a feel for how important this racial deconstruction was for Paul, trace his thinking through these verses:
There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. (2:9-11)
Are we Jews better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin. (3:9)
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (3:29-30)
…through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous… (11:11)
…so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (12:5)
…live in harmony with one another… (12:16)
Let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. (14:19)
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (15:5-6)
Not only does Paul circle back to racial healing through his letter to Rome, but he ties his most profound doctrinal points to his hope of establishing racial unity. The wrath of God, justification through Christ’s sacrifice, the election of the Jews, and life in the glorious reality of God’s love all serve Paul’s purpose of racial harmony.
Now, for believers today, the crisis of racism must be seen in light of scripture. We Christians are first people of book. And if we are to speak to culture from our faith, then we must be ventriloquists, allowing God to speak through us, His words to become ours. It’s here that Romans has something to say to contemporary injustices. It’s in Ferguson and Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights that Paul’s message to racially divided Rome should echo. And it’s from the Word that Christians today should forge their lamentations, outrage, demands and socially-mediated opinions.
As I—a Christian, student of the scriptures, and frustrated spectator to a steady stream of racial violence of which Philando Castile is the latest victim—try to find the words for our fallen world, I can only hope to repeat what scripture has already and eternally announced.
- Racism isn’t just a sin. It’s the antithesis of the gospel’s nature, purpose and trajectory. If Romans is clear on anything, it’s this. The gospel of which Paul was unashamed is the gospel that moves from one race to another, binding each in harmony.
- I cannot both hold to the Lordship of Jesus and to racial profiling, stereotyping, or sentiment. The love of God in Christ demands that I give myself to harmony among God’s people. Anything that hinders that harmony is an enemy to the gospel, and therefore, to me.
- Like Paul, I must spend great time, energy and passion to address racial divides. It’s no coincidence that Paul’s grandest letter is his most socially mindful. The glory of God through the sacrifice of Christ burdens and liberates us to obliterate those racial boundaries that would diminish his glory and socially sequester those for whom he died. We Christians can’t just rant against an unjust world, we must reconstruct it. Racial eradication takes poignant articulation, theological brilliance, resilience and guts. Paul has shown us what this looks like.
- Profound theology is only as good as basic obedience. I’m convinced that it does no good to wax on about propitiation if your heart doesn’t bleed for the wrongful death of a brother in Christ. The opposite is also true, base struggle will translate into a flourishing life apart from the gospel’s highest truths. It’s because the gospel is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes—Jew and Gentile, white and black—that I should strive for racial harmony. God approves no other theology than that which empowers us to live in unity.