A White Evangelical Responds to “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”

a WHITE EVANGELICAL RESPONDS TO

(Editor’s Note: This article contains references to race-based slavery and racism, which could be distressing to some readers.)

Living in Mississippi has provided a unique opportunity for me to dive into the issue of race in America, because you really can’t live in Mississippi and not face the reality of a racialized society! Though much of my learning occurred through following a diverse group of people on social media, I kept hearing people reference a non-social-media medium (a book!) for learning about this topic—and specifically a book called Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. And so this month, I finally decided to give it a read. Spoiler alert: I loved it, I was challenged by it, and I quickly knew I wanted to share my findings with whomever would care to read them. And thus this article came to be. In it, I attempt to summarize the book, share some personal reflections, suggest ways for white evangelicals to respond, and pass along some additional resources.

Historical Overview

Emerson and Smith begin with a brief definition of terms such as “evangelical” and “racialization” and then make a case—using a myriad of statistics—that race is the defining societal divide in America. “Evangelicals” are defined as those who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, urge personal salvation through Jesus Christ, and self-identify as evangelicals. They define a racialized society as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” (page 7) And more specifically, “[i]n the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness” and in which we are always aware of the race of people with whom we interact. (page 7) They then spend several chapters recounting the story of race and Evangelicalism throughout American history, starting with the 1700s and going through the present day (or rather the 90s, since the book was published in 2000). I’ll share some of the highlights.

In the 1700s as Europeans colonized what would later become the United States, people from West Africa were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought over to work the land. At first, there was no particular concern for the religious beliefs of the slaves. But partway through the 1700’s, attempts to “Christianize” enslaved people began. At first there was some confusion about whether converting to Christianity necessitated temporal freedom from slavery, but religious leaders quickly allayed those fears. For example:

Cotton Mather forcefully argued that the Bible did not give Christian slaves the right to liberty. Just as forcefully, he argued that neither the canons of the church nor the English Constitution made a connection between christianization and temporal freedom. (page 23)

In fact, Evangelical leaders argued that enslavement was good for Africans because it gave them the opportunity to convert to Christianity. (Some Christians hold this view to this day, and it is repugnant!) The social stratification of masters and slaves was understood to be God’s design for a peaceful society. These ideas were diligently catechized to the enslaved Africans, with Frederick Douglass later explaining, “I have met many religious colored people … who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery and to wear chains with meekness and humility.”

The American Revolution brought a fresh look at race-based slavery. People wondered if the principles behind the fight for freedom from England applied also to enslaved peoples. Thus began the rise of the anti-slavery movement among evangelicals. They were largely moderates and “gradualists,” believing that slavery would slowly be put to rest overtime as both masters and slaves were converted to Christianity. As Emerson and Smith point out, “Evangelicals of this time … held that by changing individuals, social problems would eventually dissipate.” (page 29) This movement had minimal results and petered out in the early 1800s.

The 1830s saw a rise in Evangelical “immediatists,” who demanded direct and immediate action to end what they saw as the great injustice of slavery. One such evangelical was Pastor Charles Finney. He connected his faith with abolitionism, going so far as to deny communion to parishioners who were slaveholders, believing that it was impossible simultaneously to own slaves and to be a Christian. (Personally, I think what he did was awesome!) However, as the movement gathered steam and begin to emphasize amalgamation of the races, Finney distanced himself. He saw slavery as a separate issue from race, and did not support amalgamation or integration. (This line of thinking paved the way for Jim Crow laws.) Emerson and Smith see Finney as representative of the views of many Evangelical abolitionists of the time.

If the well-educated and progressive Finney willingly spoke out against slavery, but not racial prejudice and segregation, it is reasonable to suppose the grassroots evangelicals, though perhaps viewing slavery as wrong, were often prejudiced, continued to view African Americans as inferior, and were generally opposed to the integration of the races. Although calling for people to be freed, they did not call for an end to racialization. (page 33)

Not all evangelicals took exception to slavery. In the mid-1800s, a robust defense of slavery was developed using so-called biblical, evangelistic, social, and political support. Enslaved Africans were also frequently reminded of the supposed rightness of slavery. For example, when slaves attended church with their masters, preachers would share an additional sermon reminding them of their “Christian duty” to submit to their masters.

After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, with slavery officially outlawed, white northern evangelicals sent money, teachers, and missionaries to the South to “raise up the Negro.” Condescending? Yes. But still a generally positive endeavor. Overall, Reconstruction was a time of social and political success for freed slaves. However, Southerners soon began to fear for their way of life, wanting to get back to what they saw as “Christian America,” and therefore imposed laws to restrict and oppress black people. This was the start of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation. Northern evangelical interest declined, and most of them left Southerners to deal with “race problems” on their own.

In response to legislated segregation, African American people started their own churches while white Christians largely denied that there even was a race problem. In other words, even while Jim Crow laws actively worked against equality for African Americans, white Americans believed that equality already existed!

In the twenties and thirties, evangelicals were generally critical of violence between the races, though not of segregation. In 1919, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation began.

The goal during this period was to provide a better racial environment. … It advocated an end to lynching, portraying African Americans in a more positive light, and better facilities, such as school buildings for African Americans, though still within the context of segregation. Indeed, the commission never attacked segregation itself, but simply strove to improve race relations and the lives of black Americans within the institutional context of segregation. (page 42-43)

The Civil Rights Movement highlighted the extent of differences between black Christians and white evangelicals. Most evangelicals were critical of the Civil Rights Movement while most black Christians supported it. Those white Christians who did support it tended to be non-evangelicals such as mainstream Protestants.

Billy Graham is an interesting case study of the Evangelical mindset of the time. He was for improved race relations, but believed that organized efforts were harmful, especially because he perceived them as being connected to Communism. (Sound familiar? I guess this argument has been around for decades.) On the one hand, Graham removed the segregating rope between blacks and whites at one of his southern Evangelistic Crusades. But in another instance, he stated that he tried to work within the social framework of each city he visited. He invited Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at one of his Crusades, yet declined to join King’s March on Washington, believing King’s methods to be flawed. In response to the “I Have a Dream” speech, Graham remarked that black children and white children would hold hands in harmony only when Jesus returned.

To understand this, we must account for the premillennial view that had come to dominate the American evangelical worldview and played a role in limiting evangelical action on race issues. According to this view, the present world is evil and will inevitably suffer moral decline until Christ comes again. Thus, to devote oneself to social reform is futile. (page 47)

Graham, like most white evangelicals of the time, opposed racism generally, but viewed organized social reform as fruitless, unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous.

The 80s and 90s brought a new wave of racial reconciliation efforts by evangelicals through organizations like Promise Keepers and people like Curtiss DeYoung and Tony Evans. Most whites who spoke against prejudice, urged personal repentance and reconciled relationships between individuals, while African American Christians generally focused on changing what they saw as oppressive structures, and unjust laws. The difference in approach is highlighted in the words of Pastor Cecil “Chip” Murray:

White evangelicals need an at-risk gospel. … Calling sinners to repentance means also calling societies and structures to repentance—economic, social, educational, corporate, political, religious structures…. The gospel at once works with individual and the individual’s society: to change one, we of necessity must change the other.

I’ll close this historical overview with a quote, which, though challenging, highlights Emerson’s and Smith’s overall analysis of evangelicalism and race relations throughout American history.

Because evangelicals view their primary task as evangelism and discipleship, they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities. Thus, they are generally not countercultural. With some significant exceptions, they avoid “rocking the boat,” and live within the confines of the larger culture. At times they have been able to call for and realize social change, but most typically their influence has been limited to alteration at the margins. So, despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time. Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism, but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity. (pages 21-22)

Evangelicals’ Thoughts on Race Today

Emerson and Smith conducted an extensive telephone survey of 2,000 people to determine present-day thoughts of evangelicals on racial issues. They then conducted 200 in-person interviews. The results were enlightning. Smith and Emerson asked people to describe the race problem in America. Many people admitted there was a race problem, describing it as a problem of discrimination or violence between individuals. Other evangelicals denied the race problem altogether, instead suggesting that those who talk about race are the problem. Very few referenced structures, laws, or societal values that contribute to racialization.

When asked about the reasons behind economic inequality between blacks and whites, the two most common explanations given were 1) lack of motivation and 2) flawed cultural values among blacks. Fewer evangelicals ascribed economic disparity to 3) lack of access to quality education and/or 4) discrimination. In other words, evangelicals tended to blame economic hardship on African Americans themselves as opposed to historical, structural, or systemic problems. Most black Christians, on the other hand, pointed to structural issues or discrimination as the main problem.

As sociologists, Emerson and Smith explain that the cultural tools a person or group has affects the way they identify problems and solutions. They point out three cultural tools evangelicals use that heavily influence their views of race, which are: 1) accountable freewill individualism—“individual initiative conquers all;” 2) relationalism—“attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships;” and 3) antistructuralism—“inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences.” Applied to racial issues, this cultural framework necessitates holding African Americans accountable for their struggles (accountable freewill individualism) and focusing almost exclusively on personal reconciliation (relationalism and antistructuralism). To begin to explore societal and structural components of a racialized society, white evangelicals would have to reexamine these core beliefs.

Emerson and Smith end the book by discussing various sociological principles that describe ingroup dynamics and contribute to de facto segregation today. They close by calling for an honest look at comprehensive solutions to the issue of racialization.

My Reflections

I think that Divided by Faith is remarkably well-written and well-organized. I found it easy to follow, and I appreciated the variety of information—historical, sociological, personal interviews, etc. In other words, I was never bored. I appreciated that this work was neither a puff piece nor a hit piece, instead seeking balance and honesty, focusing on facts over value judgments.

I learned a lot about various historical movements and historical figures. I was particularly interested in learning about the great Evangelist Billy Graham as I’ve seen a lot of diverse perspectives on his relationship with Civil Rights; this book seems to carefully lay out both the positives and negatives. I was also fascinated by Emerson’s and Smith’s exploration of how the white evangelical worldview affects the way evangelicals understand and address racial issues. Their sociological insights into group dynamics that prop up prejudice and racialization were also helpful.

In general, this book helped me honestly examine the past—my past, if you will, since I am both an American and a white evangelical. I’ve always known some of the positive ways that evangelicals have fought for human rights and civil rights for African Americans, but this book helped me honestly face the negative actions evangelicals have taken as well as the discriminatory societal structures that evangelicals have helped to maintain. And so I feel both thankful and grieved. I now acknowledge that taken as a whole, white evangelicalism has done more to hurt race relations than help. This is a sobering realization to come to. But sometimes truth leads to lament, and sometimes lament is the first step to change. (Side note: this increases my empathy for those individuals, particularly African Americans, who have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Evangelical,” even while maintaining theologically-conservative Protestant beliefs.)

On a personal level, as I read some of the quotes by modern-day evangelicals, I was humbled to realize that just a few years ago I might have said some of the same things—things like “the breakdown of family structures is the main cause of problems in African American communities” or “playing the race card is as big a problem as racism.” I’m embarrassed even to type those sentences, and my heart is rightly grieved. And I am truly sorry. For me it’s been a process, starting 3 years ago, of seeking to comprehensively understand racial issues in America.

I am profoundly thankful to have read this book! I highly recommend it to any American—especially to white evangelicals—or to anyone who wants to understand why race continues to be a defining aspect of the American story.

What is a White Evangelical to Do?

Maybe this information is new, and you’re feeling like a deer in headlights. Or maybe you’re familiar with these perspectives, but you’re not sure what practical actions to take. Either way, here are a few suggestions. First, accept uncomfortable emotions; don’t reject new ideas just because they feel scary. Second, know that lament and anger are appropriate responses to sin and injustice, and can be impetus for change. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Third, get educated; read a book like Divided by Faith (purchase on Amazon or read the first 30 pages for free on Google Books here). Fourth, sit under the teaching of minority voices: on social media, by listening to sermons, and by engaging in conversations (with a focus on listening to learn). And fifth, financially support minority-led organizations.

Resources

Here some of the people and organizations that have been particularly helpful for me as I’ve learned about racial issues in recent years.

Two of my favorite African American pastors are:

  • Elbert McGowan at Redeemer Church in Jackson, MS. Listen to his sermons here.
  • Dr. Mika Edmondson at New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids, MI. Listen to his sermons here.

The following are some theologically-conservative people and organizations I recommend financially supporting as a practical way to support African Americans and racial reconciliation.

  • The Witness: A Black Christian Collective is an organization that puts out articles and podcasts on all things related to race and faith. Donate here.
  • Reformed Theological Seminary offers the African American Leadership Scholarship, a 50% tuition break for qualifying African American students who are training to be pastors, professional counselors, and leaders. Donate here with a note that your donation is for the AALS fund.
  • Kyle J. Howard is a Christian Counselor who works with and creates resources for those affected by racial trauma. Donate here.
  • Peace Preparatory Academy serves children and families in the heart of urban Atlanta. Donate here.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Hannah

Check out some of of my other articles:

Why Fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel are Different Manifestations of the Same Thing

When you hear the phrase “Prosperity Gospel,” you might imagine the luxurious mansions and perfect health supposedly promised to any person with faith enough to claim it. The term “Fundamentalism,” on the other hand, may conjure images of stern people in conservative clothing threatening others into good behavior. What could these possibly have in common? Quite a lot, actually.

Both Fundamentalism and the Prosperity Gospel see good things as a reward for good people who make good choices. For the Prosperity Gospel, faith and positivity unlock wealth and health. For Fundamentalism, holiness and submission lead to happiness and success. In essence, the Prosperity Gospel says, “If you have enough faith, then you will be happy and successful,” while Fundamentalism says, “If you make good choices, then you will be happy and successful.” But God doesn’t work that way, and nowhere does he promise health in exchange for faith or happiness in exchange for holiness.

There are some unsettling and heartbreaking implications to this way of thinking. For one, trials in life are seen as the result of personal failure, whether failure of faith or of holiness. Success, on the other hand, is a reward for those who do enough or believe enough. If a person struggles, it is because they are inadequate. And if a person is happy and life is going great, it is because they are great. Those who experience difficulty, therefore, can be judged and should be fixed. And those who are successful can be honored and should be followed.

Let’s look at some examples. In the case of sickness, the Prosperity Gospel urges people to “just have faith” that a reversal of fortunes is just around the corner. A person who believes such nonsense will tell the sufferer to believe better so they can get better, rather than compassionately sitting with the sufferer in the midst of the mess. In fact, when people with this view encounter suffering, they must either believe that the sufferer lacks sufficient faith or reexamine their entire worldview!

In another example, Rachel Joy Welcher recently spoke on Twitter (@racheljwelcher) about Fundamentalism’s view that abstinence guarantees a happy and problem-free marriage. The idea is that abstaining from sexual activity before marriage earns you the reward of blissful marital intimacy and lack of relational conflict. In other words, do good to earn happiness. One problem with this is that when these rewards do not manifest, people feel confused and guilty. Here’s what Rachel says:

Common in Christian dating and purity books from my teen years was the promise that waiting until marriage for sex guaranteed a good marriage. Included in this promise was the idea that the greatest trial your relationship would endure was this waiting. The expectations this creates. The turmoil and fear and false-guilt when marriage is difficult – more difficult than abstinence. One book I read last night promised that “if you wait…you’ll make babies with great celebration” and that sex will be “a blast.” What happens when starting a family is full of loss and pain? When your sex-life is not “a blast”? When those who did all the “right things” and wrote the “lists” are getting divorced?

There are other commonalities between the Prosperity Gospel and Fundamentalism besides false if-then promises. These include the idealization of leaders and a theology that is too enmeshed with a specific cultural context. However, these are topics for another time. For now, let’s look at what the Bible actually teaches and how it challenges these faulty beliefs. 

First of all, the Bible teaches that all people, including good Christians, will experience difficult times (take a look at the book of Job!) and the full range of emotions (see the book of Psalms or Jesus in the Gospels). It does not promise that we will see happy resolutions to our suffering in this lifetime or that we will be successful if we work hard enough. To teach otherwise is inconsistent with what is true.

Second, life’s challenges–ill health, marital strife, or other difficulties–are sometimes the result of our own sin or foolishness. But other times they are because of the brokenness of this world, another person’s sin, a corrupt society, or the Devil. Most often, difficulties occur because of some combination of these reasons. To assume the cause of suffering is always just one of these is not fair to the teaching of Scripture.

Third, the Bible urges us to have faith, to trust in God’s character and God’s promises. However, it is not our faith that unlocks God’s character or allows him to keep his promises. He is who he is regardless of our belief or unbelief; our faith does not create reality. The very fact that God’s character and promises are not dependant on us is the one of the reasons he is worthy of our trust!

Fourth, God does call us to holiness in all areas of life, both as individuals and as communities (see Romans 12-16, Ephesians 4-6). The Book of Proverbs even enumerates the ways that living according to goodness and wisdom may lead to blessings! But our right choices do not guarantee blessings and may even lead to more difficulties (again, see Job).

And finally, regarding motivations for holiness, the Bible provides several motivations beyond the potential happy outcomes. There is the hope of reward in heaven, the call to live according to our new life in Christ (Romans 12:2-2), and the desire to bring God glory. Again, Rachel Joy Welcher has some excellent thoughts on this specifically as relates to sexual purity.

Lovers of God, do we need more motivation (great marriage, lots of babies, great sex, easy-sailing after the alter, etc.) to obey our Savior, than His glory? These books. So full of promises. Dangled carrots. Cultural references. There are lots of reasons people practice abstinence before marriage. Christians should not pursue purity to ensure a trial-free future (this is never a promise in Scripture) or their own personal fulfillment. Christians pursue purity for the glory of God. Because He is our King. And we fail & fumble at this. Some endure theft & rape. Purity isn’t virginity, fitting into a white dress or having the same story, history or future as everyone else. It’s about loving God so much that obeying Him is worship, failing Him is repentance & accepting grace is daily.

Rather than promising escape from earthly trials either through faith or through holy living, the Bible promises that God is with his people in the midst of difficult times. Christians may or may not see success and happiness on this Earth, and we do a disservice when we promise otherwise. Instead we can walk in faith and obedience, coming alongside those who are hurting in order to be a tangible reminder of God’s presence with them in their troubles.

So let us not fall prey to the lies of if-then religiosity in any of its forms. Instead may we embrace the whole counsel of Scripture, walking in holiness and putting our faith in God, not because we believe we are guaranteed happy results, but in order to live as those who are in Christ and whose destination is heaven, where all things will be made whole. ❤️

~Hannah

Check out Rachel Joy Welcher (@racheljwelcher): https://twitter.com/racheljwelcher?s=09 A big thank you to her for her insights and inspiration! 

Reflections on the Valley of Vision: Sincerity, Part 1: Some Thoughts on Authenticity

reflections-of-sincerity

“You desire truth in the inward being;
Therefore teach me wisdom in my secret being.”
– Psalm 51:6, NRSV

(Full prayer may be read here)

In this post, I mostly want to share some introductory thoughts going into the prayer, and in the next post, I’ll give some personal thoughts and commentary over the prayer.

I don’t know about you, but I have doubts about my salvation. Sometimes the thought plagues my mind that I could be one of those to whom  Jesus says, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who practice evil!” (Matthew 7:23, ISV)

When this happens, I often pray from the Valley of Vision because there are times when I know what I want to pray, but I can’t seem to find the words, and usually when I read the prayers I think, “This is exactly how I’m feeling and this is exactly what I want to say to God.” I had one of those moments this past Sunday as I was flipping through the Valley of Vision and came across the prayer for sincerity. It was so fitting because I believe that God’s people just aren’t authentic enough in their faith.

Not all Christians feel this way. Some people think, I suppose, that we should drink lemon juice for communion so we look holier. Bill Muehlenberg wrote, what I would describe as, an almost scathing article against the idea of “authentic” Christianity. He made statements like, “Forget this foolishness of avoiding hypocrisy by embracing and settling for carnality and second-rate Christianity….Forget this lousy talk about “authenticity” and start talking about biblical holiness.” Now, all that talk of ‘biblical holiness’ sounds nice to the red tie-wearing, conservative, church goer that arrives to worship 15 minutes early every Sunday, makes sure they always have the same spot in the sanctuary, but reality is that biblical holiness is not something we can accomplish in and of ourselves. Holiness is given to us in Christ. That’s the only way one can reconcile Ephesians 2:8 (“by grace you are saved and not of works”) and Hebrews 12:14 (“without holiness no man shall see the Lord) without believing that you can lose your salvation or that you have to finish the work of salvation.

We’re not perfect. We struggle. We fall. We sin. And we have a tendency to hide behind a mask and we may (intentionally or unintentionally) lead people to think that we’re better than what we are. Dr. Steve Brown said “Christians are masters at hidden agendas and masks” and I couldn’t agree more. We all have a mask that we like hiding behind because it’s comfortable so that’s when I read the prayer for Sincerity in the Valley of Vision, I feel convicted of my sin and yet at the same time I’m comforted because I access to the Father by His grace so I don’t have to wear a mask in front of Him. He knows how bad I am and He loves me anyway.

There’s no reason to have a mask on before the throne of grace. Jesus has seen all the ugly parts and He’s not going anywhere. In Hebrews 13, the writer reminds his audience in verse 5 that Jesus has promised that He will never leave us nor forsake us, and then in verse 8 the writer says boldly that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Life is unstable and the challenges that we face in life can cause us to become unstable, but Jesus is a friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24). Jesus is stable foundation you can build your life on. Trust Him.

Resources:

The Valley of Vision

Agendas and Masks by Steve Brown

Hidden Agendas with Steve Brown

And if you thought the Muehlenberg article was bad, check out “Has ‘Authenticity’ Trumped Holiness?” by Brett McCracken on The Gospel Coalition.

Sanctification in Community: Reflections on Philippians 1:27-30

sanctificationincommunity

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For He has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for Him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.  – Philippians 1:27-30, NRSV

I’m currently preparing to preach over this passage at my church as we continue our series in the book of Philippians, and the key thing that I see in this passage is Paul’s desire for corporate sanctification in the midst of suffering and persecution. That’s really a major theme in the entire book.

Notice first, Paul says that he wants us to live a life in a manner worthy of the Gospel. That sounds like the “Christian thing” to do, right? But what does that really look like? The first answer that comes to my mind (and it may come to your mind as well) is sanctification. But what is sanctification? The biblical definition of sanctification is ‘setting apart.’ But I feel like we, in the Church, have a distorted  view of sanctification. We’ve got it all boiled down to an individual moralism where we have to make sure we do all the things we’re supposed to as Christians and then we get to stand back, look at our giant pile of good works that we’ve done for the day, and make sure that those good things outnumber the bad things that we do. But the problem is that our giant pile of good works is just that – A GIANT PILE (of what, I’m sure you can figure out).

In his sermon on Galatians 1:1-10, Daniel Emery Price talks about how we often look at the free gift of Gospel and we might think that it’s too good to be true, so what we do is think to ourselves, “there’s got to be more to the Gospel than this, there’s got to be some rules and regulations.” So, we know that Jewish dietary restrictions and other certain laws are done away with in Christ, but we end up creating our own rules and regulations. We’re perfectly allowed to eat bacon, but God forbid we light up a good ol’ Marlboro Menthol cigarette or even better, a nice Oliva V cigar.

So then, we turn sanctification into something that we offer to God through obedience to laws that we’ve made for ourselves and in the process we deceive ourselves and others by believing and proclaiming that we’re following the law of God.

What then does the Bible actually say about sanctification? The Apostle Peter gives us this insight:

Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. – 1 Peter 1:14-19, NRSV

The word, “holy” means “other, set apart.” What Peter is telling us is that just as God is “other” or distinct from His creation so we should be “other” or distinct from those who do not embrace the Gospel of Christ. There is then a responsibility to conduct ourselves different from the rest of the world. And we often refer to this new conduct as holiness. One might be inclined to ask the question, “how does that not result in moralism?”

Imagine if you’re a father or mother and you’re teaching a child to walk. You’re not looking for any skills in the child that would contribute to him learning to walk, you’re simply trying to guide the child until it can walk on it’s own so it is with God who sanctifies us. He’s drawing us close to Him, and guiding us with His Spirit so we can walk with Him. Will that result in behavior modification? Maybe, but behavior modification isn’t the point, the Gospel of God coming to us and letting Him work in our lives is the point. When we understand this, we can then see that sanctification is process that we join and participate in with God rather than something that we contribute to our salvation.

(For more information on this, I highly recommend Dallas Willard’s lecture on Spiritual Formation as Natural Part of Salvation.)

Now, when we get back to our passage in Philippians 1, we see that Paul wants that to happen in community. Notice verse 27, Paul fully expects them to be “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” When we consider this, we see that our sanctification isn’t a static, individual act, but it is an active community project that we assist one another in as God works in us to do so.

Reflections on Psalm 2

“Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king

    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

He said to me, “You are my son;
    today I have become your father.
Ask me,
    and I will make the nations your inheritance,
    the ends of the earth your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron[b];

    you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
    and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
    and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
    Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
– Psalm 2:1-12 (NIV)

So, I’ve been trying to pray through the Psalms for the last couple of days and I just wanted to share my reflections with you on this passage. I’m going to try not to get into the deep theology of the text, and just get to what I felt that God was trying to show me.

This morning as I as was getting ready to the open the store that I work at, Psalm 2:1 just kept going through my mind. “Why do the heathen rage? Why do the people imagine a vain thing?” (I think Scripture in KJV because I was raised on it.) What is the psalmist really asking here?

In this passage, the psalmist is addressing kings and leaders that would try to overthrow the dominion of God in the earth. In Colossians 1, we read about how Jesus has created everything, sustains everything, and is ruling all of creation. Any power or authority that anyone has politically or otherwise comes from God.

“Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.”
– Romans 13:1-2 (NLT)

So, what does all this mean on a practical level?

Revelation 1:6 tells us that we are kings and priests unto God. Because we are kings and priests unto God, we always answer to Him for everything we say and do. As a matter of fact, the Scriptures are clear that we will have to give an account for our works (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14; Matthew 12:36-37; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15). When we don’t surrender our lives under the full authority of Jesus Christ we become just like these foolish rulers that David is addressing in Psalm 2. When we try to direct our lives without God we are simply plotting in vain and setting ourselves up for disaster.