Christ, His Gospel, and Ethnicity – Jeremiah 31:27-34

First, the sins of fathers and grandfathers has recently been brought into the discussion. Insofar as we should not desire to repeat the sins of our fathers, we must recount our familial and national histories with realism, not romanticism, as our guide. We must allow our forefathers to own their sins as well as their virtues. The question is whether or not it is biblical for us to require men, women, and children of today and tomorrow to answer for the sins of those who preceded them. Jeremiah 31 makes clear that we should not.

27‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and with the seed of beast. 28As I have watched over them to pluck up, to break down, to overthrow, to destroy and to bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant,” declares the Lord.

29‘In those days they will not say again,

‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,

And the children’s teeth are set on edge.’

30But everyone will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge,” (Jer. 31:17-30; NASB).

The theological term often assigned to this area of study is the term hamartiology (doctrine of sin). What must be understood about the effects of sin in the Old Testament vs. its effects in the New Testament is the fact that there was a very real sense in which the covenant people of God were expected to repent of the sins of their fathers. Lack of such repentance would lead to great cultural consequences among the people. As such, we see corporate repentance when there is a clear, divinely established covenantal union made with a national people (i.e. Daniel and Ezra praying for the nation of Israel). To say that men are responsible for their forefathers’ sins or, as has been recently suggested, responsible for the sins of people who share their skin color assumes that they are covenantally united to them and share in their actual sins.

To his credit, Pastor Anyabwile (follow the hyperlink above) has not demonstrated an ignorance of the discrepancy between his hamartiology and that of his detractors. In fact, he specifically addresses it (however deficiently) in a recent article published on The Gospel Coalition’s website. He writes:

“Finally, and this is where our disagreement is sharpest, the New Testament does indeed sweepingly speak of ethnic, national or ‘racial’ groups and their shared guilt and need due to sin. Again, we’re keeping with the New Testament, which is good because the Old Testament examples are legion. Consider Titus 1,” (Anyabwile, “Four Ways the New Testament Identifies Ethnicity in the Church,” The Gospel Coalition).

At this point, Pastor Anyabwile quotes Titus 1:12-14: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth” (NASB). What the honest reader will notice from this passage is the fact that missing from Paul’s description of the Cretans is any insistence that they must be rebuked for sins that are not individually their own. Also missing is any mention of skin color, facial features, hair texture, or any other marks that would be used by the modern Western politician or sociologist (you can apparently add pastor now) to distinguish between races.

What is being described here is a geographically unique collective, most likely with a multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds and genetic, visible differences, who share in certain culturally enshrined sinful tendencies away from which they need to be discipled through the ordained means of grace God has given the church. A modern application might be to tell a West Texas church planter today that he should prepare for an abundance of American Rugged Individualism in the thoughts and habits of many of the people (of all colors) coming out of the world and into his local assembly. He should be prepared to hold up the mirror of Scripture to the people so that they see this sinful tendency to forsake the assembly and disobey clear, biblical commands toward hospitality in their own hearts. Having demonstrated the biblical requirement, the pastor must be ready to lovingly admonish and rebuke those who willfully disobey it.

Those who have come into the fellowship of the saints in the New Covenant era are not bound together under an earthly, national covenant head like Moses. Rather, we come under the covenant Head of Christ Himself. There is no ethnic or national mandate here. I do not have a unique covenant with “white” Christians or American Christians that I do not share with Christians of other races and nationalities. The New Covenant demands that I admonish and rebuke particular sins that are clearly present in the lives of my “white” and American Christian brothers, but I do not share in their guilt merely by virtue of the fact that I too am “white” or American. At the same time, I have the liberty. . .  no, the duty to admonish and rebuke my Christian brothers of all ethnicities in the same way for the same sins. I can and should do so, because the same law that binds me binds them, regardless of ethnicity. That is the nature of the New Covenant.

31Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. 33‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more,’” (Jer. 31:31-34; NASB).

Any understanding of repentance and sin in the New Covenant must take this passage very seriously. The requirement for forgiveness from God and admittance into the New Covenant community is repentance of one’s own personal sins, not any committed by previous generations. Each man stands or falls in the New Covenant on the basis of his own sins. In fact, each man is fully forgiven his sins in the New Covenant and his sins are remembered no more.

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