In Galatians chapter 2, Paul mentions how the apostles testing his ministry wanted to ensure his commitment to the poor. It may seem like an odd concern in what amounts to essentially a doctrinal examination. But the apostles of course were establishing what too many evangelicals today conveniently forget, that the gospel does not exist in a contextual vacuum.
The ministry of Jesus Christ which saves us had (and has) a cultural and missiological context. The Scriptures that for thousands of years testified to him are a substantive foundation for understanding all of his works, both teaching and doing, in the four Gospels. And the extrapolation of his atoning work by the apostles in the rest of the New Testament represent an important “and then what?”—both for our thinking and for our doing—that the Holy Spirit determined we should feed on as God’s very words.
All of that is to say, Jesus did not come simply preaching the gospel as idea but the gospel as kingdom. One need only consider Paul’s words in Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15 to see how expansive the finished work of Christ really is, just how much it is supposed to impact.
Thus, “just preach the gospel” sloganeering is not an adequate solution to the problem of racism. While such a cry seems “gospel-centered,” it forgets that the gospel, if it’s true, has a multitude of implications that follow in the wake of belief.
When Paul recounts his confrontation of Peter for his sin of partiality, he says basically this: “You are not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14) The right walking was integral to the right affirmation. In other words, you can un-say with your actions what you say in your affirmations.
See, the gospel does not exist as an ideological abstraction. The gospel alone saves, yes. The gospel alone unites, yes. The gospel must be distinguished from its implications (lest we fall into the error of damnable legalism, which no doubt the “social gospel” is), but it should never be divorced from them. An implications-free gospel is merely a shibboleth, a theological golem built from the deadness of our self-comforting platitudes. The true gospel imputes to us the full righteousness of Christ and imparts to us the Spirit of obedience.
To be clear: Galatians as an epistle and justification proper as a doctrine are not about race. Paul’s ultimate concern is the good news of Christ’s work: that no person is justified by anything—whether religion or race—except for faith alone in Christ alone. But there are very important implications for ethnic concerns in the Jew-Gentile tension reflected in Galatians 2 and Paul’s rebuke of Peter for exacerbating them. Paul is concerned that Peter know, that the Galatians know—and that we know—that so-called ethnic justice, properly understood, is an entailment of the gospel.
If you want to see ethnic harmony in your church—if you want to see the unity that can only be explained by the gospel—you must fiercely proclaim justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but you must also not be afraid to both call out ethnic disparities in the church when you see them and confront them with the better way of grace. The apostle Paul’s recollection in Galatians 2 is our example and our mandate.
(This is an edited excerpt from my chapter “The Gospel and Ethnic Justice” in the book from Lexham Press, Ministers of Reconciliation: Preaching on Race and the Gospel, edited by Daniel Darling and featuring contributions from Dhati Lewis, Ray Ortlund, Juan Sanchez, Jamaal Williams, J.D. Greear, and more)