Book Review: Bloodlines, by John Piper
John Piper. Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian. Crossway, 2011. 304 pps.
Even if your head is in the proverbial sand, you cannot ignore the matters of race and racism in American culture. There is no hiding from this critical and ongoing issue. It’s in the water. Racial perspectives and prejudices affect every one of us, to one degree or another, and unfortunately, the church is not exempt.
The Lord Jesus prayed that all who believe in him would be one (John 17:20-21). This is not an unanswered prayer. We are one in Christ (Ephesians 4:4-6), and our oneness in Christ encompasses every tribe and language and people and nation. The gospel is big enough to embrace our diversity. But we must not shrink the gospel down to our size. The grace that has gripped us compels us to embrace all who have been gripped by the grace of God.
This is the glorious vision of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not, however, the reality on the ground in many Christian circles. The epidemic of race and racism that plagues society has also infected the church. It’s an unavoidable and accepted fact that we have to live with people that are different than us. We live and go to school and work and even play together. But then we retreat to social, cultural, and racial comfort zones when it is time to worship.
The church has a long way to go to live out true Christian unity before the watching world. And our progress is hindered by the fact that we seem unable to talk about the issues, much less work together to address them. Thank God for giving John Piper the courage to push this subject higher on the agenda by writing Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian.
John Piper, founder and teacher of Desiring God Ministries, has written arguably the most important Christian book on race and racism in our generation. With deep conviction, pastoral wisdom, and gospel-centered theology, Piper challenges the church to put the cross before race and to see racial issues through the lens of the atoning book of Christ. Piper states the burden for this work as follows: “It is the aim of this book to encourage you to pursue Christ-exalting, gospel-driven racial and ethnic diversity and harmony—especially in the family of God, the church of Jesus Christ. I have tried to argue from the Scripture that the blood of Christ was shed for this. It is not first a social issue, but a blood issue. The bloodline of Christ is deeper than the bloodlines of race” (227).
Bloodlines is divided into two major sections. The first is “Our World: The Need for the Gospel.” Piper begins by retelling the story of the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet the heart of this first section is the story of Piper’s own journey from racial superiority to a cross-shaped view of race. This chance was clearly evident in Piper’s pastoral leadership of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where he sought to flesh out his gospel convictions.
The second section of Bloodlines is “God’s Word: The Power of the Gospel.” This latter section is longer and more theological than the first. Starting with the story of William Wilberforce and his gospel-informed efforts to abolish slavery, Piper confronts the sin of racism in light of the accomplishment and application of the gospel. Chapters in this section bring the issues of race to the foot of the cross, where God redeemed sinners by the blood of Christ and created a brand new race of humanity in him.
Piper’s well-known passion for the glory of God is evident throughout Bloodlines. To read his application of that passion to this important subject is greatly encouraging. Yet Bloodlines is not heat without light. Piper call to racial reconciliation is deeply rooted in God-exalting theology. He simply applies his biblical convictions about the gospel to the perplexing dilemma of racial division and disharmony. Piper calls sin what it is: “The heart that believes one race is more valuable than another is a sinful heart. And that sin is called racism. The behavior that distinguishes one race as more valuable than another is a sinful behavior. And that sin is called racism” (18-19). And the only solution for the problem of sin is the cross of Jesus. Racism cannot be fixed by any other means than the gospel.
Although unabashedly theological, Bloodlines maintains a pastoral tone throughout. This heart of the true pastor is put on display through a high view of the church. Racism cannot be fixed without the gospel. Therefore, racism cannot be fixed without the church. Piper argues: “The church is not called to be responsible for the way unbelievers run their lives. But we are called to be responsible, by the power of the Spirit and for the glory of Jesus, for the way believers live and the kind of relationships that are cultivated in the fellowship of the church” (46). This theological work is also practical. Sections addressing such hot-button topics as interracial marriage and the pursuit of ethnic diversity in the local church make important statements about how to live out our Christian faith in spiritual unity.
Bloodlines focuses primarily on racial tensions between blacks and whites. Of course, race matters in the church transcend these two groups. But you have to start somewhere. With the history of slavery, segregation, and civil rights struggles in America, this is the most obvious place to start for Americans. Some who do not share Piper’s Reformed convictions may be turned off when they get to the latter, theological section of the book. But to dismiss this book as just a defense of Calvinism is to miss the point and rob yourself of the biblical and pastoral insights it provides.
To be sure, Bloodlines won’t solve all the problems or answer all the questions you have about race matters in our society and in the church. But you will find essential solutions and vital answers. This is a wise, clear, and faithful treatment of racial ethnicity and biblical Christianity that should be read widely. May the Lord use is to spark a revival of gospel-transforming unity to the glory of God!