TGC15 and a Controversial Day About Justice

Day 2 of The Gospel Coalition’s bi-annual conference began and ended (it’s main sessions at least) with expository sermons by Mark Dever and Voddie Baucham that reveled in the hope we have in our future glory because of the resurrection of Christ. The theme of the conference was “Coming Home” and the new heaven and new earth that is the joyful inheritance of each and every Christian. This provided the context for a significant portion of day 2 which was devoted to issues of justice in the here and now, particularly as it relates to the Black experience in the U.S.  Obviously I don’t know who decided that justice issues should be center stage for a significant portion of a day at a conference themed around the new heaven and new earth, but it was a great decision.

Don Carson led a panel discussion that included John Piper, Tim Keller, Thabiti Anyabwile, Voddie Baucham and others regarding why justice should be issue Christians concern themselves with. Tim Keller began by pointing out that the fact the each and every fellow human is made in the image of God is the key doctrine that undergirds our pursuit of justice. There is such a high value that should be placed on fellow humans, a value derived from being an image bearer of a holy God, that injustice should be intolerable to us. John Piper ended the talk by drawing attention to the fact that Gospel teaches us seeking justice is absolutely minimal for the Christian.

"You shouldn’t walk through the day, or through your life think ‘how can I be just?’ You should walk through thinking ‘how can I be gracious, how can I be loving, how can I be kind?’ How can I love my enemy? How can I go the extra mile?...the Gospel unleashes way beyond justice…Christ will be known in the culture when we treat people better than they deserve, not as they deserve."

Immediately following the panel, which was one of the main sessions, the Reformed African American Network hosted a workshop called “Doing Racial Harmony” which was designed to be more practical than the high level theological discussion of the panel. There were three brief talks. Jemar Tisby’s talk was titled “Acknowledging and Overcoming Your Implicit Bias.” Even though I have studied a bit on this issue and taken Harvard’s implicit bias test, Mr. Tisby’s visual aids were very fascinating and it was clear that many in the room were captivated by the presentation. He cited a study of NBA officials that showed the simple awareness of implicit bias, even when it is not acknowledged as true, causes behavior adjustment.

Trillia Newbell then spoke about how to build relationships cross-culturally, focusing on eliminating all the typical excuses through appealing to Scripture. Thabiti Anyabwile finished up talking about “the Do’s and Don’ts of Racial Reconciliation.” The highlight of that talk was his description of different types of characters and his wise advice about who to spend time interacting with. He warned against wasting time interacting with those who have no genuine desire to interact or learn about these issues, but at the same time not being afraid to interact with those who disagree as long as they are up front about it.

Later in the day there was a panel devoted to encouraging pastors to get involved in their communities and helping think through ways of doing so in a way that fosters reconciliation and growth in our communities. This panel had everyone from a music producer who gained influence on social media after Ferguson to the Chief of Police in Sanford Florida to an assistant US attorney in North Carolina. Each panelist urged pastors to involve themselves in one way or another, testifying to the effectiveness of ministers to lead through tough and tense situations.

This panel was controversial due to the fact that it contained at least one unbeliever and possibly wasn’t gospely enough. Phil Johnson (formerly of the Pyromaniacs and John Macarthur’s long time editor) tweeted an old blogpost in a way that insinuated The Gospel Coalition was sacrificing the gospel for the sake of the coalition. Not an insignificant accusation. Another popular Christian blog spilled a lot of ink finding all sorts of different ways of saying basically what Phil Johnson said. In one post, the Pulpit and Pen called the decision to invite unbelievers to comment on justice and mercy ‘bizarre and probably sinful.’ That article argued from 1 Corinthians that unbelievers are, well, lost and so why are we asking them for help? We should be preaching the Gospel to them! Another post on the same site argued that since unbelievers don’t understand the real problem (sin) and thus can’t speak to the real solution (the gospel).

What those critiques miss is actually what made day 2 of the Gospel Coalition so helpful and encouraging. Mark Dever preached the gospel, followed by a panel of Christian preachers discussing the relation of the Gospel to justice and mercy, followed by 3 people pointing out how the church can lead the way in showing the world how the Gospel effects change at the corporate level in local bodies of believers through individual Christians overcoming their sins toward their neighbors, followed by a panel of experts on the systemic effects of injustice testifying to the effectiveness of churches and church leaders who have credible voices to influence communities toward change.

In one day we were effectively led to see holistically how the Gospel is the solution to injustice.  The Gospel is the solution for all sin. It is the solution for my individual sins and it is the solution for systemic sin and injustice. Many Christians only want to think in terms of individual sins. But individual sinners join other individual sinners to create systems, and those systems can operate to perpetuate injustice. The Gospel is the solution for that type of sin as well. The Gospel changes the hearts of individuals, who then join together in local churches as a beacon of unity and justice which makes them salt in a decaying society and points to the day we will see perfect justice dispensed by an impartially just Judge. That saltiness is used by God to open hearts to hear the message of the Gospel and they are transformed and the Church marches on, until the day Christ calls us home.

The critics accused TGC of capitulating to culture at the expense of the Gospel, but this is of course nonsensical. In fact, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it wasn’t that TGC invited non-Christian experts to serve on a single panel during a three-day conference with 80+ speakers that so annoyed TGC critics, but that they were invited to speak particularly about racial justice. One would assume that if TGC put together a pro-life conference, with one panel that included a non-Christian scientists explaining the scientific basis for the fact that life begins at conception and a non-Christian Ph.D historian talking about connection between eugenics and the birth of the pro-abortion movement, critics would have been able to understand the reasoning between situating the educated experts in the context of a broader Gospel concern, even if the experts themselves didn’t see it that way. But most of TGC critics come from a particular subculture that does not believe there are systemic racial injustice that need to be overcome by the Gospel to begin with; such systematic racial injustice does not exist. Their problem is not with the experts, but with the fact that the topic does not fit into the grid of their subcultural lens. There appear to be some in the midst of this controversy that are capitulating to culture at the expense of the Gospel, but they aren’t the ones organizing TGC conference.

The Gospel Coalition wasn’t sacrificing the Gospel for the sake of the Coalition. It was casting a vision for how the Gospel is the solution for sin and all of its corruption. We would do well to take notice and learn.

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