Below is an excerpt from a sermon I preached on 2 Peter 1:1-2. Peter's address to his readers having a faith of equal standing with his own seems to have implications for current cultural and political concerns regarding ethnic divisions in our society, and thus contributes to Scripture's teaching on how we must seek to address these divisions today.
The New Testament bears witness to the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer to ethnic divisions in this world. There was no greater wall of separation than that between Jew and Gentile, a division that was rooted in God’s election of Israel and the covenant he made with them at Mount Sinai. And yet, in the New Testament church, Jews and Gentiles worshiped together in the same churches, and even in places where they didn’t, churches felt kinship with other churches. Have you ever wondered why Paul was so zealous to gather a collection from his churches in Macedonia and Achaia in order to deliver it to Jewish believers in Jerusalem during a time of famine (2 Corinthians 8-9)? Was it simply Paul’s zeal for humanitarian efforts? No, it was much more! It was rooted in his theology of Jew-Gentile unity in Christ. Paul saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate and solidify the kinship between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, as Gentiles acted in sacrificial love for their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Note how Paul addresses his recipients in verse 1: “To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” There is powerful truth packed into that short statement. First, notice how Peter characterizes faith. Faith is not something we produce by our own power; it is something we have “obtained,” or “received.” It comes to us objectively when God sends someone to herald the good news to us. It comes to us subjectively when the Holy Spirit produces in our hearts the response of entrusting ourselves to Christ as a result of hearing that good news. Faith is not a work; it is a gift of God.
Furthermore, Peter identifies his readers as those who have received “a faith of equal standing with ours.” Who is Peter talking about when he says “ours”? It’s possible he means himself and the other apostles. In that case, he may mean that the faith of ordinary believers is of the same standing as the faith of the apostles themselves, who saw Jesus with their own eyes. We are not second-class Christians because we did not personally see Jesus in the flesh. On the other hand, it is also possible that by “ours” Peter means Jewish believers. In that case, he would mean that the faith of Gentile believers, who are outside the covenant God made with Israel, is of no less standing than the faith of Jewish believers, with all of their historic privileges. Or maybe Peter has both idea in mind, speaking of himself and the apostles, who were themselves the first believers among the Jews. However we read it, we clearly have here an example of the gospel creating unity by giving the same standing and inheritance to all who receive it in faith. In Christ, there is, as Paul says, “one new man,” no longer two divided along covenantal and ethnic lines (Eph. 2:15).
And how has this unity been accomplished? According to Peter, it is “by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” This is one of a handful of verses in the New Testament that explicitly identifies Jesus as God. He is fully God and fully man, he who alone has the ability to unite God and man. And it is specifically his “righteousness” that has accomplished the unity of one new family from all nations. In the Old Testament, God’s righteousness is often connected to salvation and deliverance. Consider Psalm 31:1, where David prays, “In your righteousness deliver me!” God acts in righteousness when he delivers his people because in doing so he is setting right something that has gone wrong in his world. When Peter refers to the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, he speaks of Christ as the one who has acted to bring salvation to sinners, including forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the devil, and unity with fellow believers in a new family that is not limited to ethnicity or class. It is Christ’s righteousness, not our own, that has saved us.
We are at a moment when the ethnic divisions of our country are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The issues involved in these divisions are complex, but I want to speak briefly to them in light of what Peter says here. It seems to me that there are two ditches we should avoid in our approach to these questions. On the one hand, there is a ditch that has no category for corruption and injustice in the systems of our society. I understand this impulse. I’m a man on the political right, and I think it’s important that we emphasize personal responsibility for our actions. But at the same time, as Christians, it should not surprise us at all to apply our doctrine of sin to the systems of society. When sinful people create and manage systems of law and culture, is it any surprise that those systems can be corrupted by sin? Here’s one example that I think most all of us could probably agree on: the federal government continues to fund Planned Parenthood, an organization that specializes in abortion services and has been exposed as trafficking in body parts of its victims, to the tune of half a billion dollars per year. There have been many calls for this funding to end, but powerful interests have kept it in place. This is a problem that is in the system. So yes, I think we do need to see that such problems exist and need to be addressed.
But the other ditch I want to avoid is addressing problems of systemic injustice on the world’s terms. The dominant way of thinking in our universities, media, entertainment industry, and big corporations is a set of ideas known as “critical theory.” Critical theory divides human beings into categories based primarily on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Some groups are oppressor groups, and others are oppressed groups. Included in this way of thinking is an idea known as “intersectionality,” which claims that the various categories of oppression to which you belong intersect, or combine in certain ways to enhance your status as one who is oppressed and, therefore, to enhance your power in the discussion. So a black man would be regarded at a certain level of oppression, but a black transgender woman would be at a much higher level. This is why in critical theory racial justice and the LGBT movement cannot be separated. They are all part of the same movement of oppressed vs. oppressors.
In this system, your own personal actions don’t determine whether or not you are righteous or guilty. What matters is the group to which you belong. And if you happen to belong to an oppressor group, you have various rituals of atonement that you are expected to perform to try to address your guilt. If you belong to an oppressed group, you have power to make demands of the oppressors.
What is most troubling about this way of thinking is that it reduces all human relationships to power dynamics. All that matters in critical theory is power and how it is exercised toward others. That is because critical theory is rooted in a philosophy that goes back to Karl Marx, who was an atheist and a materialist. As a materialist, Marx believed that all things—us included—are nothing but matter and energy. There is no spiritual component to man, nothing that transcends this physical world. In a materialist world, power is the only things that matters. As such, critical theory will always divide people from one another. It will not achieve unity, for it will always promote divisions between categories of people. Contrast that with the beautiful vision of gospel unity given to us in the New Testament. The gospel gives us all a new identity. It doesn’t erase our ethnic identities, but it does transcend them. It tells us all that what matters most is not skin color, ancestry, gender, or the social class to which we belong. What matters most about each one of us is that we either stand before God in Adam or in Christ. And if we are in Christ, our faith is of an equal standing, and that faith works through love to unite us to one another as family. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.
I’m not a sociologist. I don’t have all the answers about what we can do as a society to heal our divisions. But I am a pastor, so I can speak to what our church can do, and in fact what I believe we are already doing: we can embody the truth that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed about the church. In the creed we say that we believe in “the holy catholic church.” What does that mean? It doesn’t mean the Roman Catholic Church. The word “catholic” simply means “universal.” When we confess our belief in the holy catholic church, we confess that the church is a worldwide family of people drawn from every nation, tribe, and tongue, and that none of us are second-class citizens. And so, no matter who you are, what color you are, what your background is, what class of society you belong to, if you confess the name of Christ, you are a brother or sister in this church. Peter’s address to his recipients is full of powerful truth that addresses us right where we are at this cultural moment.