Reviewed by Carl Muller
John Piper is a man who has been wonderfully used of God to bless our generation. Even if you are not comfortable with the phrase “Christian hedonism” and find its mantra reductionistic (“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”), you must be thankful for his ministry and his impact under God. With Bloodlines, Piper has once again produced work which can be of immense benefit to the church of Christ. This is an important book. Piper’s stated purpose is to send the book into a world of “ethnic and racial discord” and impress upon such a world the transforming potential of the gospel of grace. He seeks to show that “racial harmony is a blood issue, not just a social issue” (p.13), and that “the death and resurrection of the Son of God for sinners is the only sufficient power to bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross” (p.14). The “dream” will become reality only in Christ. In seeking to do this, he succeeds admirably.
In his foreword to the book, Tim Keller suggests that conservative evangelicals “seem to have become more indifferent to the sin of racism during (his) lifetime.” The reasons are varied, he suggests: the stubbornness of the sinful human heart; a culture which lays an inordinate amount of blame for racism at the feet of social conservatives. I would add that perhaps many are weary of the indiscriminate playing of the “race card” by believer and unbeliever alike. Whatever the reasons, there is no justification for evangelical Christians ignoring the awful reality of racism in North America (and the world). Shelby Steele writes: “But if skin colour offers whites a certain false esteem and impunity, it offer blacks vulnerability. This vulnerability begins for blacks with the recognition that we belong, quite simply, to the most despised race in the human community” (p.93; I believe the statement to be ethno-centric in light of the plight of say, the “untouchables” in India; but it is, nonetheless, heartbreaking!). Everything about the gospel screams that the inhumanity that engenders this kind of brokenness must never be practiced in or countenanced by the Christian church, a body in which all people are one in Christ regardless of skin colour or another other distinction that tends to separate people in this fallen world. Thank God for this clarion call from Piper regarding the powerful implications of the gospel of grace for race relations.
John Piper writes as a reformed bigot. By this I mean, not that he is a Calvinistic bigot (though I have met some), but that he used to be a bigot! This book then is not a merely academic treatise, but a cry of the heart from a man who has sought to implement gospel realities in his church and his home (See chapter one, “My Story: From Greenville to Bethlehem,” and Appendix Three: “How and Why Bethlehem Baptist Church Pursues Ethnic Diversity.”). The words of a “reformed” anyone can often seem shrill, annoying and unbalanced. That is not the case with Bloodlines. Piper writes with balance and with sanity, with Christian grace and with Spirit-enabled boldness. He also writes with not a little wisdom!
The heart and soul of the book, he tells us, are chapters 6, 9, 15, and the conclusion. Chapter 6 is where “the gospel shines as the God-give remedy for the deadly realities that lie at the root of racial strife.” Here he applies the balm of gospel truths to the sad realities of hate, greed, feelings of inferiority and self-doubt, hopelessness and guilt, and even apathy! Here he writes in the hopes that the gospel which fired the revolutionary work of Wilberforce will have a similar transforming affect in our day. In chapters 7-14 Dr. Piper demonstrates with passion and eloquence the powerful implications of glorious gospel realities such as election, justification, atonement, grace, and the like. He shows that those who are chosen, justified, and who will be glorified by grace alone (and not on the basis of colour or culture) all stand on a level playing field before the God of grace. As such they will fight for justice in the world and practice justice in the church. It really is thrilling and inspiring stuff! It makes one long and pray for the reality of true Christian oneness in our churches. I was born and raised in South Africa and have personally tasted the bitter waters of racial segregation. In the old apartheid regime, we were classified as “coloured,” which in South Africa meant “brown-skinned” as opposed to black-skinned. Coloureds, Indians and Africans (black-skinned South Africans) were the objects of base and systemic racial prejudice and suffered immensely at the hands of the white (highly religious) minority. I must tell you that to read these chapters and be confronted with the Biblical reality of a redeemed community, a multitude that no man can number, drawn from all the nations of the world, chosen on the basis of grace alone, regardless of colour or nationality, is glorious beyond words.
Sometimes preachers preach, and sometimes preachers “get to meddlin.” This is where chapter seven comes in. It is an easy thing for Christians to pay lip service to the equality of the races and verbally express a desire for racial harmony. It is quite another thing when your daughter comes home and wants to marry someone whose skin colour is quite different from yours! How many Christians would be exposed as hypocrites in the same way as were the supposedly liberal, open-minded parents in the old movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”! Piper deals with this crucial “test case” by showing that all races have one ancestor and that for Christians the only people they cannot marry are unbelievers!
The heart and soul of the book are the chapters which expound the implications of the gospel for race relations. Beyond that, however, Piper dips his toes tentatively into the troubled waters of the debate as to the reasons for the plight of the African American in the United States today. “The heartbreaking reality is that since the decisive legal break-throughs of the civil rights movement, things have deteriorated for a huge segment of the black population in America” (p.61). Is it because of systemic and institutional racism, or are there issues within the African American community which need to be addressed? The debate is hot and heavy within the black community itself and Piper’s fourth chapter is a helpful introduction to the discussion. Further I found two of his four appendices particularly helpful. Appendix one discusses the issue of terminology. “Is there such a thing as race?” Appendix four examines the merits of an argument that has propped up many racist policies in otherwise Christian churches: a curse was pronounced on Ham, who is the father of the African peoples. The argument is shown to be specious.
At times in church history the Reformed faith and has been wedded to racist attitudes. Piper has shown that such a chimera betrays a tragic misunderstanding of that faith. On the contrary the gospel of grace and the miracle of life which it brings is the only hope for racial harmony in this dark world. It is only around the throne of the Lord Christ that men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation will stand and sing in perfect harmony in praise of the One who has made them kings and priests to God (Revelation 5:9, 10). Readers will not agree with everything Piper says. We might not want to pin as much significance to “Christian Hedonism” as our author does (p.243); we might not be as enthusiastic about the form of affirmative action that his church has adopted, but the vision he presents to us, of a racially diverse, multi-cultural, blood-bought community of the redeemed is one which thrills the soul and puts us all in Piper’s debt.
Every human effort to bring about racial harmony is ultimately doomed to failure. Every such effort is tantamount to bringing a knife to a gunfight. What is needed is a miracle of grace, and the omnipotence of the God of grace. That is Piper’s message. “We must never lose sight of this one phrase: “Brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Brought near to God and therefore brought near to each other. By the blood. By the cross” (p.126). Indeed!
Carl Muller is Pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, Ontario.