There is a quiet rethinking of Reformed theology by some African-Americans who had previously embraced it. I say quiet because it has just recently begun to receive the attention it deserves in the broader evangelical world. It stands behind the decision of the hip-hop artist Lecrae to hand white evangelicalism a certificate of divorce. Lecrae’s stance against racial injustice had made him a target within sectors of evangelicalism. Something similar happened to Jemar Tisby, compelling him to wonder about the theology he had learned at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Tisby’s deepening awareness of the structural nature of racism, coupled with the response he received when he thought aloud about it, has caused him, like Lecrae, to rethink what Reformed theology has to offer on this matter.
John Piper’s initial response reflects hope and gratitude for this rethinking. Piper is grateful that Lecrae’s exploration of what it means to be black in America will not prompt him to file for a divorce from Christ. Yet Piper admits that he does not know where this process of rethinking the Reformed faith is going, and he confesses ignorance as to what its implications are for the future of ethnic relations.
Part of me wants to say that there is a reason why the three branches of the Black Church are Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal, and that until Reformed scholars reckon with this history, they will remain ignorant. Yet this claim belies the relationship of Reformed theology to abolition in the 1800s, as well as the splits within Methodism over slavery and the prejudices that haunted early Pentecostalism.
Within the evangelical world, there exists both a deeper chasm and a deeper continuity, which we need to grasp.
The chasm has been created by the effects of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. In certain wings of evangelicalism, there is a perennial concern—sometimes outright paranoia—that the liberalism J. Gresham Machen proclaimed to be antithetical to Christianity will creep back into the fold under a different guise. Efforts to seek social justice tend to be viewed as a warmed-over version of the social gospel, which becomes the sin that so easily entangles evangelical Protestantism. In this environment, statements about structural evil have Pelagian overtones and must be resisted. H. Richard Niebuhr’s concern in The Kingdom of God in America that the gospel has become institutionalized and Americanized by forces like cultural Marxism haunts the movement. Evangelicals have often taken comfort in Niebuhr’s indictment of liberal Protestantism that, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Piper’s relief that Lecrae had not succumbed to this kind of liberalism is readable between the lines of his “hopeful response.” The chasm created by this history within evangelical groups that define their existence in terms of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy will continue to cause folks like Piper to be cautious about what Lecrae and Tisby are doing. They interpret Lecrae’s and Tisby’s moves as cultural compromise just as Lecrae and Tisby have concluded that the white and Reformed evangelical world have sold out to American religion.
The continuity may be found in a deeper investment in an Augustinian outlook. Augustine viewed Jesus’s defense of almsgiving in the Sermon on the Mount and its Lukan counterpart as a vigorous statement about works of mercy. Broadly understood, giving alms is engaging in any work of mercy that benefits neighbor, which includes “whatever is necessary to a person in need.” For this reason, Augustine classifies social-justice activity as the church’s extension of the mercy of Christ to neighbor. It is part of the mission to proclaim and embody the city of God. Such works remain grounded in the reception of mercy on the part of the sinner. The first act of giving alms, according to Augustine, is to forgive yourself for Christ’s sake. The second act is to forgive the sin another person has committed against you. This is how you love your enemy, and it stems from the request “to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” It is to treat the enemy as the recipient of the mercy of Christ through a concrete action that embodies and extends that mercy, regardless of whether the person accepts it.
As Wesley understood, to place almsgiving in the context of works of mercy is to view it through the lens of sanctification, not justification or predestination. These ascetical practices are part of the God-ordained means by which the person cooperates with the Spirit to be conformed to Christ. Grace and works flow together in the context of sanctification. On this point, Wesley and Edwards agreed. This is because the extension of mercy in the name of Christ loosens the bonds of desire to earthly things that will be lost anyway. Acts of mercy are painful and purgative, requiring the believer to become a sacrifice rather than demand sacrifice from neighbor.
Such acts are also sacramental in the sense that they become places of encounter with the purifying fire of the Spirit of God. The pain of losing what you love burns, even when what you love is worldly and therefore destructive of your perceived identity. Either you engage in this sanctifying encounter with the Spirit of Truth by laying your life down now, or you will be purged in death as the Spirit finally and fully strips you of the disordered desires that continued to blind you and warp your relationships to others and the world. This is how Augustine understands the purgatorial fires that consume the works of the believer.
Within this Augustinian framework, social justice and racial reconciliation are works that extend the mercy of Christ to the earthly city. They purge believers from false loves under the sanctifying power of the Spirit even as they proclaim a love that mercifully forgives all and calls all to forgive. Far from watering it down, this approach helps Reformed and Wesleyan Protestants proclaim the full gospel in which sanctification binds together justification and glorification just as the resurrection affirms the cross and anticipates the ascension.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.