February 18, 2016

Black and Reformed

by Jesse Johnson

A common push-back against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty (Calvinism/reformed soteriology) is: “What about a good person who doesn’t believe in Jesus? Did God want that person to go to hell?”

That is perhaps the most frequent objection that I’ve run into when talking about these doctrines with other Christians. But for many African-Americans that is not the most common question. The most common objection might be more along the lines of: “How can God be sovereign over a nation that practiced slavery, especially when many of the slave owners and traders claimed the name of Christ?”

In other words, if you think you have a hard time answering an objection about God’s sovereignty over the death of someone’s great-grandmother, try answering that objection when it touches someone’s entire culture.

This is why there is a need for a book written particularly about the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and how African-Americans should understand them. I’m grateful to Anthony Carter for writing Black and Reformed, because it is that book.  

It should be noted that Black and Reformed does more than simply explain how God can be sovereign over an institution as evil as slavery. Carter patiently and succinctly describes the five-points of Calvinism, then distills reformed theology down to three points (God is king, we are sinful, and this points to the need for Christ). He ends with an appeal for his readers to believe reformed theology because it does 2 things: it best fits with Scripture and it best explains the African-American experience.

Carter makes it clear that when he is describing reformed theology he is not advocating for confessional theology, any kind of millennial view, or infant baptism—in fact, I believe Carter himself is baptistic, judging by his church’s website. When he uses the term reformed theology he simply means the five points of Calvinism, plus an understanding of God’s sovereignty that is all-encompassing.

Black and Reformed only spends a few pages directly on the five points, but spends much more time dealing with God’s sovereignty beyond just salvation. This approach makes sense because the objection he is arguing against is not necessarily an individual’s election, but a country’s past which is rooted in evil. Carter doesn’t give God wiggle room, or try to diminish God’s sovereignty. Rather he proclaims that God “exercises kingly dominion” over all his creatures, and all his creatures are sinful.

The worse the sin, Carter says, the more evident our need for Christ. The worse the culture, the less education, ambition, sociological manipulation, or economic reforms can be seen as passible alternatives (“If you take a fool who is stealing railroad ties and educate him, he will come back and steal the whole track,” p. 55).

Instead, the doctrine of God’s rule over his sinful creation serves to direct us toward our need for Christ.

The last half of the book is spent on its main point: there are three reasons you should embrace reformed theology; it is biblical, it is historical, and it is experiential. All three of these should particularly have a home in an African-American culture.

The biblical argument is self-evident, but the other two were presented in a way I had never thought deeply about before. Understand that the existence today of any strong churches that are predominately African-American is in itself an argument for reformed theology. How else would you explain it? The African-American culture has grown out of a history that forbid slaves from reading, attempted to use Christianity to justify exploiting slaves, and ultimately resulted in several denominations forbidding the evangelism of blacks.

People were afraid that evangelism would lead to emancipation. People were afraid that if converted, slaves would not want to work on Sundays. And many simply believed that blacks were “too bestial” to be educated to begin with.

Despite this, God left a witness in the African-American church. Carter describes some black pastors (some of whom even pastored white congregations), and then he describes the denominational splits that came out of this. Yet 200 years later there is still a strong evangelical presence in the African-American community. The best (only?) explanation for this is the sovereignty of God. Carter writes,

“Why should African Americans embrace a Reformed theological understanding? Because like any segment of the church, African-American Christians should see their experience and existence as being ordained by God, according to his plan and for his glory” (p. 114).

The existence of black Christians in the Untied States today is public proof that “God literally raises his church up from chains” (p. 66).

Finally, Carter says that you should embrace reformed theology because it is uniquely “experiential.” In other words, the basis of salvation is regeneration, which happens to you, and then results in a changed life. Its not simply about an intellectual assent—something that seems to skate by so easily in many predominately white churches—but is rather a faith that requires you to live differently. This emphasis on action fits nicely in an African American culture.

“Reformed Theology sees all of life, every experience, as being in the sovereign plan and purpose of God, and thus for our good and his glory” (p. 116). I think that better responds to objections about God’s sovereignty than any other theological system.

I hope this book is widely read because it presents a convincing case for the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Carter succeeds in taking an area that many don’t often connect to God’s sovereignty (slavery), and turns it into a compelling appeal for you see God at work in your own life.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Jonesy

    … “an institution as evil as slavery.”

    Given that God actively planned to send His people into slavery, would not this statement implicate God in doing evil.

    Wouldn’t it be better to say something like: “Slavery, like many situations in life is one that many of us do not prefer, even despise and hate. However, God, because He is sovereign, uses many of these difficult, unpleasant, and unwanted situations to both disciple us (Heb. 12.9-10) as well as letting us know that there will be “Hell to pay” if we continue to run away from Him? (Cf. Lev 26, Amos 4, Hosea 2)?

    Under His Mercy,
    Mark

    • American slavery (which is what I meant, by the context talking about African Americans) is, in and of itself, evil. You have to be able to say that. Words like “do not prefer” don’t get it done when talking about denying basic human dignity to a whole class of people, selling them, abusing them, and finally barring their evangelism. I’m pretty comfortable calling it ‘evil.’

      I’ll grant that American/British slavery is fundamentally different than what was practiced in the Bible (esp. in the OT) as slavery.

  • Christina

    Thank you for the suggestion of this book. I am purchasing it right now and hope it will assist me when questioned by my friends/relatives about my faith.

    • We have a case of them for sale in the IBC bookstore 🙂

      • Christina

        Darn! I could have picked it up last night before rehearsal….but I will on Sunday. I’ll support the bookstore over Amazon since I got distracted and never actually purchased it, though it is in my cart.

  • Nikon1isAwesome!

    Jesse, can you point me to a source on denominations forbidding the evangelism of blacks?

    • Deke

      They need to repent and believe. If they want to restrict the preaching of the gospel, they themselves are not saved.

      • Nikon1isAwesome!

        I just don’t know that this is even true, there was no source cited, I have not gotten an answer, and I cannot find it with Google.

        • Sorry Nikon, I was away from the blog over the weekend. Carter has a whole chapter on this in the book with primary sources. I recommed the book!

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  • Jacqueline Jackyeo Owens

    As a black and reformed Christian I never question the sovereignty of God even in the light of slavery. God always uses evil to effect His ends.

    Consider how He used an evil nation to exile Israel in Babylon because of their sin, a nation more evil than Israel, and when the appointed 70 years of punishment had passed God destroyed Babylon through the Medes and Persians. I know that God never does anything unjustly, so, I think that because Africans were (and still are for the most part) mostly pagan, worshipping ancestors, and deeply involved in black magic, God would of necessity have to punish that. When He brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He punished the Egyptians drowning the leaders of Egypt. When He brought Israel into the land promised to Abraham. He threw out the people who lived in those nations. He gave Israel a list of do’s and don’ts and said he was driving out the nations in those lands because they had done all the things He told Israel not to do.

    Native African’s although rich in natural resources, have never been able to take advantage of those riches, interlopers came in and grabbed all the riches right from under their noses, and eventually took over the government of some of those nations. Does anyone see a pattern here? If not Let me say it this way.

    Man is fallen, and the fallen nature of man is evil. He can only do evil apart from Christ. Therefore, all people act within the confines of wickedness, having no other choice. Throughout history God has used the evil of man to effect His cause, as He is doing today. So God used the evil of greed and prejudice to punish the many Africans who were brought to America and enslaved.

    So someone may say what about the Africans left in Africa, they were not punished, But, I say the Africans brought to America got the better end of the deal although they suffered, so did those left in Africa; Those remaining in Africa were doomed to be imprisoned in the darkness of paganism, poverty, and ignorance. Those brought to America, were doomed to slavery with some cruel task master and some not so cruel, but nevertheless enslaved. But those of us who descended from those Africans brought to America, have it much better than those Africans still in Africa. The average black American has a place to live with electricity, heat, refrigerators, big screen TV’s, stoves,indoor plumbing ,and the latest fashions, Nike sneakers that cost more than the average African makes in a year, and a host of other items that Africans do not possess and that we take for granted.

    I have been to Africa twice and those native Africans still suffer in poverty and ignorance and paganism. I went on a short term missions trip and we stayed in a traditional village, no water, heat, stoves or refrigerators, no small screen TV, let alone big screen, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing, they still use outhouses. The children and adults are barefoot, they do not have designer clothes, or watches or rings or any of the “stuff’ available to us in America.

    In conclusion, How can anyone expect righteous behavior from unrighteous men? God never does evil but He does use the evil plans of men to punish one nation and then another and bring about His desired end. I think understanding God and His sovereignty goes a long way to explain the actions of men. Sorry about the length Jesse.

  • 4Commencefiring4

    If we consider the wider view of evil among nations throughout history, God has dealt with times and inhumanities that were every bit as awful as American slavery. At times, even worse. And yet, He’s still sovereign over them as well.

    We hear of God “abandoning a nation” because of sin and how there’s clear evidence that God (as Romans 1 says about individuals) has given America over to her sin because of abortion, or pornography, or the wealth disparity…pick your poison. Falwell once famously said 9-11 happened because of our tolerance of gays, feminism, and abortion. John MacArthur has all but written America’s divine eulogy and implied that God has essentially pulled the nation’s life support. I’m not defending our sin, but I’m not sure any of us really get a peek at heaven’s white board where plans for the nations are sketched out.

    Hitler killed 6 million people–most of whom were Jews, God’s “chosen people”–then Germany rose from the ashes and thrived in the post-war years. Meanwhile, you’d have to conclude that sub-Saharan Africa was really on God’s bad side: Everyone’s starving and they have no clean water–or any water–in many places. It’s been that way forever. Might look like God’s judgment to me, but abortion and gay pride parades and porn studios are not typical for that region of the world.

    So God is sovereign in ways that confuse us. Or at least me.

    • Starrocks923

      In His sovereignty, Almighty God deals with sin on His time, not ours. God punishes the wicked, but there’s a bigger picture that we won’t truly see with our own eyes in this lifetime. The Earth has existed for thousands of years, and there’s no telling how many more will pass before Jesus returns to rob the grave of its prize.

      Perhaps the easiest way to comprehend God’s justice is that Hell isn’t in this life, but the next. Unrepentant sinners like Hitler are eternally suffering in the lake of fire, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, and that’s a far greater punishment than plagues and genocides on Earth could ever be.

      And yes, starvation and lack of clean water will occur in nations where sins such as pornography and abortion are not (publicly) abundant because of total depravity. Every sin is deserving of sin, and there is no work we can do to redeem ourselves. As it is written in Romans 3:10: “As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one.””