Preaching and living the gospel
An African American mother’s advice on living alongside the Church
Jasmine Holmes has penned a series of beautiful messages to her young son in Mother to Son, a book named as an honorable mention in WORLD’s accessible theology category for the 2020 books of the year.
It’s not hard to imagine Holmes’ son coming to treasure these warm-hearted stories about his mother’s thoughts on his earliest days. It’s also not hard for Christian readers to find helpful insights by following a mother’s apprehensions and hopes for her black son growing up in America and in the church.
Holmes’ description of some of her experience as a black woman who grew up in predominantly white churches may make some people uncomfortable, but she explains: “What I want is for my siblings in Christ to consider that their experiences of evangelical culture are not universal. That our unique stories and experiences can serve to amplify the fact that Christ’s saving power infiltrates every tribe, tongue, and nation.”
In this excerpt, Holmes writes to her son (and other Christians) about the good news of the gospel that Christ saves, and then how to think about the implications for all of life—in all of its complexity. —Jamie Dean
You were born on the frozen tundra.
Not literally, but definitely in the mind of your Texan mama. 2016 found your father and me in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shoveling the driveway in order to make it to my prenatal appointments. You might have been born in the heat of summer, but most of my memories of carrying you are in the chill of my very first real winter. Back then, I thought that you would grow up a midwestern boy surrounded by snow flurries and four distinct seasons. I had no idea that we would make the decision to move to Mississippi shortly after you were born. Neither did I expect that the first winter I went back to work I would get the snow day that never arrived while teaching in Minneapolis.
The kids were pumped. No uniform, no scrambling to finish homework, no long-winded PowerPoint presentations!
Until Mrs. Holmes emailed them the assignments that they needed to complete by our next meeting. Then they remembered: snow days are a momentary reprieve, but once the snow melts there’s going to be a reckoning.
C. S. Lewis uses the analogy of an almost endless winter to teach young children about the coming of the king. In his book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it’s always winter and never Christmas until Aslan bursts back onto the scene, bringing with him the glorious festivities that have been lacking in the frozen tundra that was Narnia. I look forward to reading you these stories someday and telling you about how, even during the seasons of snow, we are preparing for an eternal spring.
The parallel isn’t exact, but I think about that Mississippi snow day every time the conversation of race and justice devolves into the proclamation that we need to “just preach the gospel.” As the conversation continues to reach fever pitch, I hear a barrage of familiar phrases coming from my more conservative brethren: social justice is worldly and imprecise verbiage; racism is hatred, and the gospel fixes that; everyone sins, and there is no need to highlight the specific sins of specific people groups (unless it’s time to rattle off statistics about abortion or drug busts in black communities).
And all of these tend to converge into that ultimate phrase: just preach the gospel.
It sounds so right! It’s like waking up dreading school and then getting the email that lets you off the hook.
“I know you felt really uncomfortable with all this race talk, but it’s all good. Just preach the gospel!”
We can heave a sigh of relief. God’s got this.
You Have The Answer
Truly. He does.
The gospel is the ultimate answer to all of life’s questions. Michael Horton describes it this way: “God’s promise of a son who will crush the serpent’s head, forgive the sins of his people, raise them from the dead, and give them everlasting life solely on the basis of his grace for the sake of Christ.”
We who were once alienated from God have been ushered into the family of faith through the death of God’s Son, not based on our merit (or melanin), but because of his grace.
My son, here is an important detail that you must never forget: our primary goal in this life is not to bring about racial reconciliation in the church. In fact, our primary goal isn’t even to bring about justice here on earth. The ultimate justice has been dealt to Christ on the cross, accomplishing our reconciling in him.
As believers, we are absolutely in the business of spreading a message of reconciliation. But that reconciliation goes far beyond the scars accrued throughout America’s spotty history of racial injustice. And so does our quest for racial justice.
Paul explains this ministry of reconciliation beautifully in 2 Corinthians 5, pointing out that we do not regard people according to their flesh but according to the new creation they are in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). Our ministry of reconciliation hinges on the truth Paul proclaims in this passage: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18-19).
We are ambassadors not of the amount of melanin in our skin, but of the good news of Christ’s redeeming work. This is the good news that we proclaim: we serve a God who is in the business of reconciling all that was lost in the Garden of Eden when our first parents sinned.
This message of reconciliation has to have implications for how believers relate to one another. We are united with bonds that are stronger than the familial bonds of our kinsmen (Mt 19:29). Our priorities are organized not around things of this world, but around another world entirely.
Yet the gospel we preach is a very specific message. It isn’t all of the good things we’re supposed to do. And we technically aren’t just preaching the gospel when we talk about the implications of the gospel.
I want to be careful because there are two different ways we could be talking about the gospel. We are either talking about the actual message—the good news, the protoevangelium—or the covenant of grace that it entails. The former is God’s fulfillment of the promise he made in Genesis 3:15. The latter involves the way that we live in light of that proclamation.
As you grow up, you will learn that your Christian brethren have a tendency to either use “the gospel” (the phrase, not the substance) as a catch-all for every good work Christians should be doing or as a silencer for anything too difficult to think about.
How many times do we mash the revelation of God’s Word into pat slogans to attack the world’s problems? “The gospel is the answer!” How conveniently the entire counsel of the Bible can be diminished to simple answers for our deepest problems—less like a textbook and more like the microwave instructions on a carton of ramen.
In a world full of complex beings, there are bound to be complex problems. As believers, we have been called to dwell in this world until Christ returns, spreading the message of the gospel in the hope that God will save sinners for his glory. Our most pressing issues have been laid at the foot of the cross.
Whatever struggles we face in this life pale in comparison to the glory that we have been promised in eternity. In our sinfulness, we deserved death, hell, and the grave. But “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).
Now, those for whom Christ died are God’s sons and daughters through faith (Gal 3:26). And he cares for us (1 Pet 5:7). He will never leave or forsake us (Heb 13:5). Even in moments where we feel most abandoned, he is near and he is at work (Ps 34:18; Rom 8:28). In the mire of our deepest regret, in the pit of our deepest longing, the gospel shines as our truest hope. We have been justified. We have been adopted. We are his.
Yes and amen. The gospel is the answer. You will get no argument from me on that point.
But … what exactly is the question?
You Have a Duty
The primary responsibility of the people of God is to preach the message of God.
As Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his disciples pretty clear marching orders:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20 NIV)
Jesus said a lot more here than “just preach the gospel.”
He gave a specific, authoritative command to make disciples—enter into meaningful relationships where the goal is to teach and admonish with the Word of God, teaching all that he has commanded them.
The gospel isn’t a command: it’s news. And yet here, Jesus is speaking beyond the news of his death and resurrection and giving his disciples not only the permission, but also a command to do the same.
In the epistles that follow the four gospels, we get a play-by-play of exactly where this discipleship is to take place—the church—and what it is to look like. When sinners become saints welcomed into the covenant of grace, the implications of the gospel get real, and Paul certainly preached them. The entire first half of Ephesians unpacks the gospel and the spiritual implications thereof, while the second half tells us what we are to do in light of that first half: walk in love (Eph 5:2).
And that love looks like doing more than just preaching the gospel. It looks like applying the implications of that gospel to every area of our spiritual walk and relationships … even when saying “just preach the gospel” is a lot more convenient than the actual application.
You Aren’t a Fixer Upper
We are uncomfortable with vulnerability.
We like to pretend that’s not the case. Our Instagram feeds are swimming with fake approximations of it, but in reality what we love are quick fixes, easy answers, and simple people.
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone came with a user manual?
We would never have to worry about sticking our foot in our mouths because we would have a rulebook. We wouldn’t have to worry about things like awkward silences, hurt feelings, or bruised egos, because there would be a script. Is your wife struggling after a miscarriage? Turn to page 519. Are you single and discouraged with the wait? Page 59.
Alas, no such rulebook exists. People are complicated creatures. And why shouldn’t they be? They are made in the image of the most complex being in existence—the triune Creator of the universe. God reveals himself to us in his Word, but even that is just a small snippet of who he actually is!
This aversion to vulnerability extends far outside of the bounds of the church. It lurks everywhere. We are people who are only comfortable with anecdotal intimacy: you can only be vulnerable with me if you can express whatever problem you’re handling with a solution. We want neat and tidy stories, like Aesop’s Fables.
We have become so frightened by our culture where emotionalism reigns supreme that we are uncomfortable with any displays of emotion that aren’t immediately followed by a fix. We want facts over feelings, answers over questions, and strength over honesty, and we could not care less about unique experiences.
Enter you, little boy, and your brown skin along with all of the complexity that it brings. Someone comfortable with the quiet space of learning to know another would welcome a relationship where you could unfold your heart about your identity and ethnicity, all the while striving to bring it under submission to the truth of God’s Word. However, others who prefer simple fixes over your complications will find your brown skin to be an inconvenience they would rather overlook.
Enter the mantra “just preach the gospel,” and you have a recipe for a guilt trip. Because that’s what you’re supposed to be doing, right? You are never supposed to deviate from that biblical script.
True enough, in a very real sense. But that script extends far beyond those four words. It is fully capable of diving deep and staying under without coming up for air. Not only is the Word of God (what people sometimes mean when they say “the gospel”) enough, it’s the only truth that gives our lives on this earth any real meaning. But saying “the gospel is enough” is not sufficient. Sure, it saves a lot of time and turns the Bible into a handy dandy, people-fixing manual. But it’s not enough.
You see, son, when it comes to race, “just preach the gospel” often means “just shut up.” Just tell people that Christ died to save sinners, and the race stuff will take care of itself. In Joel McDurmon’s book, The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, we get an excellent example
of how “just preach the gospel” can be misused:
When Unitarian minister William Furness preached his first antislavery sermon in 1839, some wealthy members of his Philadelphia church sitting before him held investments in southern slavery, in one case between 200-300 slaves. After his sermon, he received ugly notes inquiring how long he intended to preach such obnoxious doctrines, and that he would be better off to ‘preach nothing else but Christ and him crucified.’ As he continued, members left and others threatened to withhold crucial funds.
Just preach Christ and him crucified. Don’t talk about how my worldview should change as my mind is renewed (Rom 12:1-2). Stick to the gospel.
This is how a nation that embraced the Great Awakening could embrace slavery at the exact same time: give me that spiritual experience that absolutely wrecks me while I stand in the pew but doesn’t really touch my idol of comfort when I leave the church.
I know, son. Shots fired. We’re not supposed to talk about the Great Awakening like that. But how else can we reconcile a so-called revival that left so many saved brethren languishing in chains? People are people, and we will always find a way to embrace the parts of biblical truth that we like while maintaining our cherished idols.
But the Spirit is the Spirit. And when he comes in power, he reveals to us that our only hope in this fallen world is to surrender every area of our lives to the God of the universe. Even those closest to our comfort. For John Newton, it meant surrendering the lucrative enterprise of the transatlantic slave trade. For you and me, it could be something as simple as exercising patience with fallen people.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son (Jn 3:16), not for a quick death on the cross immediately followed by Christ’s ascension back into heaven, but for years of intensive ministry with broken people. If anyone understands the complexity of humankind, it is Christ himself who lived as a man and is intimately acquainted with our struggles (Heb 4:15).
Our Savior is not merely sympathetic. He is empathetic. He did not shake his head on the sidelines merely imagining what we were going through—he lived it, complete with a painful death in our stead.
So you and I should be patient with brethren who are impatient with the complexity of our skin tone and history. But we also have the recourse to call them to be patient with us as well.
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