By John Piper
Editor’s Note: On this day, we honor Martin Luther King Jr. and his work. In doing so, we would like to share this excerpt from Bloodlines, John Piper’s seminal work on race and the gospel. You can purchase the book online at LifeWay.com or download a free PDF of the interior and find other related content at DesiringGod.org.
The horrors of racial and ethnic hatred are indescribable. All over the world, through all of history, the slaughter of human life because of ethnic, tribal, and racial animosities is beyond imagination. If you could imagine it—in vivid color—you would not be able to bear it. From the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915, to the holocaust in Germany, to the Soviet Gulag, to the massacres in Rwanda in 1994, to the Japanese slaughter of six million Chinese, Indonesians, Koreans, Filipinos, and Indochinese—the litany of ethnic hatred goes on.
The gospel of Jesus cuts the nerve of hatred and anger and the bent to be a blaming person. It does so in many ways. I’ll mention two that seem almost opposite but are both crucial in the quest for racial justice and harmony.
First, when we receive the gracious provision of God to forgive our sins through Christ, our bent to be unforgiving is broken. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 4:32–5:1). Our kindness and forgiveness of others is empowered by our being forgiven. Our loving others is empowered by our being loved by God.
We know we are sinners. We know that the offense we have given to God is greater than any offense others have given to us, and if God was gracious to us, we must be gracious to others. You cannot authentically rejoice in being treated better than you deserve while treating others the way they deserve, or worse.
The gospel cuts the nerve of hatred by making us feel the broken-hearted gratitude that God’s wrath was once on us and was removed, not because we deserved it but because of his absolutely free grace. Freely you have received; freely give. As the Father has sent me to love, Jesus said, so I send you. Love your enemies so that you may prove yourselves to be children of God, because that is the way he treated you. If you cherish grudges, you do not cherish God’s grace. But the definition of a Christian is one who receives and cherishes the grace of God in Christ.
Second, the gospel overcomes vengeance by promising that justice will be done. One of the emotional boosters behind our judicial sense is that justice must be done, especially when our rights are denied. And when it looks like justice will not be done to us, we feel the need to take matters into our hands and exact vengeance.
To this impulse, the gospel comes with a double message. All wrongs in the world will be punished justly, either on the cross (for the wrongdoers who trust Christ) or in hell (for the wrongdoers who don’t).
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’” (Rom. 12:19–20).
What God is telling us is that forgiveness and love do not mean the perpetrators get away with their abuses and injustices. They don’t. If they come to faith in Christ, their sins will be covered by his blood. But if they do not come to Christ, their sins will come on their own head, and God will see that justice is done. In this way, a life of love and forgiveness—a life of treating bad people better than they deserve—is not a foolish life. God’s mercy and vengeance frees us from the soul-destroying bitterness of hatred and anger and blaming and vengeance. It makes us merciful without making us naïve about evil.
This effect of the gospel of Christ would transform the world of race and ethnicity more than we can imagine. Who can begin to describe the possibilities of reconciliation and harmony where the work of Christ replaces hatred with love, anger with patience, and blaming with forgiving, and all of this without surrendering a passion that justice must be done?
Adapted from Bloodlines (Crossway, 2011)