Francis J. Grimke was a Presbyterian, African-American pastor that preached powerfully against race prejudice in the early 1900’s. One of our assignments in the internship has been to read a very powerful sermon that he preached in 1910 regarding Christianity and race prejudice. Although I very much agreed with his message, I regret that he did not rightly emphasize the importance of the gospel in fighting race prejudice. Below is my response to his article:
Dr. Francis J. Grimke’s sermon is a powerful message regarding the incompatibility of Christianity and race prejudice, and a call to all Christians to fight against this evil. Grimke does a great job in describing the wicked nature of race prejudice. One of the more interesting things to me about his description of race prejudice in 1910 is just how overt, and yet deceptive, it was. Race prejudice caused white Christians to segregate their churches, reject blacks from church memberships, and refuse to live with any blacks in their communities. These are clear demonstrations of race prejudice, and yet, at the same time, there were “meetings by day, and meetings by night, preaching services, prayer meetings, revival meetings, religious conventions…” and even “great missionary meetings for the conversion of the world, for carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth” (p. 12). In other words, even while living in such seemingly obvious sin, they continued to practice their religion as if nothing was wrong. It is astonishing to think of how these Christians could have had a passion for missions and longed for conversion of the heathen (perhaps even those in Africa), yet while being deceived by sin into maintaining race prejudice in their lives! Sin can be so deceptive in our lives, even when it is blatant, and this was certainly the case with race prejudice in 1910.
I strongly agreed with the main points of Grimke’s sermon regarding the evil of race prejudice, the incompatibility of Christianity and race prejudice, and the need for Christian action. This is a message that still needs to be sounded today, not only for race prejudice, but also for many other forms of prejudice. However, I do think that Grimke’s message could have been made more powerful on a couple of points.
Grimke is absolutely right to press the fact that Christianity is utterly incompatible with race prejudice. You cannot live in unrepentant race prejudice and claim to be a Christian at the same time (p. 5). However, the reason he gives for why this is true does not hit at the heart of the matter. He claims that everything about the character of the Christian religion is opposed to race prejudice, namely “the character of Jesus Christ, and… the great principles of the Christian religion, such as the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the Gold Rule, loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, following things that make for peace and edification, and the unity of all believers in Christ” (p. 1). All these things are true and certainly do oppose race prejudice, but Grimke fails to mention an even more fundamental truth to the Christian religion that strikes to the core of race prejudice, namely the gospel of grace. The fundamental reason why racial prejudice does not accord with the Christian faith is because of the message of the grace of God in the gospel. This gospel declares to us that all of us at one point were separate from God because of our sin and the only thing we have earned for ourselves is everlasting wrath. Yet God, in His mercy, sent His Son to die and bear that wrath of God in the place of all sinners who will turn from their sin and trust in Him. Additionally, God freely and graciously provided the Holy Spirit in order that we might be able to do so and keep doing so. On top of that, we have been given pastors, Christian friends, Bibles, opportunities to hear the gospel, healthy minds to understand the gospel, and thousands of other graces that were purchased by Christ’s blood and have worked together to bring our sinful souls to God. In light of the infinite wickedness of our sin and the infinite grace of God shown in our salvation, how can we look at anyone who is lost and not feel compassion? God has saved us from everlasting judgment into everlasting joy not according to our race, or our riches, or our righteousness, but freely and unconditionally. Having received God’s grace in this way, can we then deny someone fellowship in our churches or put up barriers to the gospel because of the color of one’s skin or the appearance of his clothes? It would be as ridiculous as strangling a debtor who owes you ten bucks when you have been forgiven of a million dollar debt (Matt. 18:28). Race prejudice, or any other kind of prejudice, is ultimately non-Christian because it is utterly incompatible with the message of the gospel. Therefore, a life that has truly received the grace of God in the gospel cannot, and ultimately will not, live in race prejudice.
Clearly, this has great implications for how we should respond to race prejudice. Grimke is right about the need to speak out against race prejudice as Jesus spoke out against it and to fight against race prejudice as Jesus fought against it. However, I don’t think that is the place to start. If a Christian or a church is struggling with race prejudice, you begin counteracting this by preaching the gospel to them. If they are living in prejudice, then there must be some aspect of the gospel that they have not fully grasped. Perhaps they haven’t grasped the unconditional nature of grace, or what it means to repent and believe, or how the lordship of Christ affects our everyday lives. Regardless of where the deficiency is, the first step must be a continual and thorough instruction of the whole gospel, because the Holy Spirit most powerfully works to transform people to Christ-likeness through their beholding the glory of God in the gospel. It is only when we have been transformed by the Spirit that we will be enabled to speak as Christ spoke and to love as Christ loved.
How should we think about the role of the church in social activism and fighting race prejudice? Grimke emphasizes the impact that Christianity should have on the world. He writes, “Christianity is not clay in the hands of the world-spirit to be molded by it; but is itself to be the molder of public sentiment and everything else… The mission of the church, of Christian men and women is to mould, not to be moulded by encircling influences of evil” (p. 12). I do agree that Christians have a role to play in this world in fighting for social justice and living out the kingdom of God through their public involvement. However, we must be careful to recognize that our mission is not simply to influence the world to behave in a way that is loving and peaceful, even though that would be a good and gracious thing. Rather, the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel and to call people to repentance and reconciliation with God and this is the only way race prejudice can truly be overcome. Therefore, even though we will fight injustice and exert our influence in the world in order to overcome race prejudice, we do so recognizing that this evil will only be truly overcome in the invisible church, where the kingdom of God has been manifested in the lives of sinners saved by grace. Christianity as an institution cannot bring about the sanctification needed to defeat race prejudice, but only the Holy Spirit working through the gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of individuals.
Today, race prejudice is no longer as blatant as it was in 1910. By God’s common grace, many reforms have been made in this culture to oppose race prejudice. Yet there still remains a need and a longing among many (both inside and outside the church) for greater racial reconciliation and social justice. What this tells me is that though race prejudice might not be as blatant as it once was, it still continues to harm lives and communities, and to deceive people into thinking everything is fine. The danger for us in the church is to think that the battle has ended, but Grimke’s challenge, combined with the message of the gospel of grace, is as applicable today as it was a hundred years ago.
Note: Grimke’s sermon is out of print, but Lord willing, it will be included in a volume of sermons called The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors (Crossway) next Spring.