The gospel message isn’t something we graduate from

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Dhati Lewis is the Lead Pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia and the Vice President of Send Network with the North American Mission Board. He is a bold and innovative leader, and has written a number of books, including Among Wolves about urban planting, and also Advocates, a book about Biblical Justice.

Below is an excerpt from his book Advocates:


 

The gospel message isn’t something we graduate from. We don’t move on to bigger and better things. The gospel is the bigger and better thing. Paul writes in Colossians 2:6, “So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him . . .” The English Standard Version says it like this: “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” We come to Christ through the gospel. And we walk with Christ through the gospel.

This is the same concept I have applied to our heart’s posture when it comes to dealing with matters of racial division. Ensuring that our heart is aligned with Christ is not a one-time item on a to-do list that we check off and move forward from; it’s an ongoing work to fight to keep our heart in line with Christ. And that is why, regardless of your experience with this subject matter, my hope and prayer is that this book challenges and encourages you toward deeper and ongoing alignment with the heart of Christ.

Before we jump in, I want to stop and give you a few definitions and disclaimers. Please don’t skip over this section to get to “the start of the book.” Without this, we may not be on the same page when it comes to specific terms, and without defining our terms, we can’t have a helpful conversation. In a day when so many arguments are shallow and tweetable, I want to have some space for nuance and reflection, and be able to press into the gray areas. So let’s start by defining a few key terms.

Advocate

Webster’s definition of an advocate:

1. one who pleads the cause of another; specifically: one who pleads the cause of another before a tribunal or judicial court.

2. one who defends or maintains a cause or proposal

3. one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group1

My use of the term throughout advocate will align with the definitions above with the exception of one nuance. I make the distinction that to be an advocate, you must have the goal of reconciliation. Advocates advocate for reconciliation to Christ and to his body. If the goal of someone’s “advocacy” is anything less than reconciliation, then, I would argue, it is not biblical advocacy.

Look at 1 John 2:1–2 where John writes, “My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the righteous one. He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.” Jesus advocates for us and atones for our sins, making a way for us to be reconciled with him. The goal of biblical advocacy is reconciliation, and while we see it most clearly in Jesus, we also see it modeled by many others. In 1 Samuel 19, Jonathan advocates for David before his father (King Saul) in an effort to reconcile their relationship and spare David from being killed. In Acts 9:26–30, Barnabas advocates for Saul (Paul) when the disciples did not believe his conversion was authentic. In Galatians 2, Paul advocates for the Gentile believers when Peter refused to eat with them.

Being an advocate doesn’t mean you have to engage in conflict perfectly, and it doesn’t mean reconciliation always takes place. What’s key here is the posture of your heart—your intentions. Everyone’s going to make mistakes and misstep at times. The distinguishing mark of an advocate is a heart whose goal is reconciliation.

Aggravator

Webster’s definition of an aggravator: one that aggravates2

  1. to make worse, more serious, or more severe: to intensify unpleasantly
  2. to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading
  3. to produce inflammation in3

How I use the term aggravator:

My use of the term aggravator is be nuanced from the formal definition. I use the term aggravator to describe any type of engagement where the goal is not reconciliation. A person who engages issues or people without a heart set on reconciliation will only intensify division and produce greater inflammation that does not lead toward unity. You can think of it like throwing gasoline on the fires of division— aggravators only make it more severe.

There is a difference between an action that causes aggravation or irritation (in people or systems) and an action that is done with the heart posture of an aggravator. I know this is nuanced, but I think it’s critical for us to understand.

Let’s look at Jesus as an example. Remember when the religious leaders were misusing the temple and taking advantage of others? Look at Jesus’ response. “Jesus went into the temple and threw out all those buying and selling. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, ‘It is written, my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of thieves!’” (Matt. 21:12–13). Did Jesus’ response cause aggravation in the temple? Of course it did. But what was the posture of Jesus’ heart? What was his motive? Reconciliation. The practices of the religious leaders were causing distraction and chaos that prevented people— specifically, Gentiles—from worshiping God, and therefore, prevented reconciliation between people and God. Jesus was working to stop sinful actions and unjust practices that were hindering people from truly knowing God, from being reconciled to him, and from being reconciled to one another.

So for the purposes of this conversation, I maintain a nuanced difference between advocates and aggravators that lies within the heart’s motives. One who stirs up and disturbs the feelings of others or engages issues or people for any purpose other than reconciliation is an aggravator. Jesus is not an aggravator because Jesus’ goal was always reconciliation.

Since the heart posture of reconciliation is the distinguishing factor between these two (advocates and aggravator), I also want to make sure you understand how I will use the word reconciliation throughout the book.

Reconciliation

Webster’s definition of reconciliation:

  1. to restore to friendship or harmony: to settle, resolve
  2. to make consistent or congruous
  3. to cause to submit to or accept something unpleasant
  4. to check (a financial account) against another for accuracy(4)

The New Bible Dictionary’s definition of reconciliation:

Reconciliation properly applies not to good relations in general but to the doing away of an enmity, the bridging over of a quarrel. It implies that the parties being reconciled were formerly hostile to one another.(5)

The Dictionary of Bible Themes’ definition of reconciliation:

The restoration of fellowship between God and humanity and the resulting restoration of human relationships. The NT affirms that the reconciliation of the world to God is only possible on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ.(6)

How I will use the term reconciliation:

Many Christians don’t like the term reconciliation, especially in regards to ethnic or racial issues, because in our common language, it seems to imply that there was a time when things were not divided. “Restoring friendship” implies that there was once a friendship to begin with. And, as many of us likely know, that is not often our experience.(7) However, I think the biblical term goes back much further than our own limited experiences. Let’s pause and take a quick look at 2 Corinthians 5:18–21:

Everything is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.

We plead on Christ’s behalf: “Be reconciled to God.” He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

If reconciliation only means the restoration of a previous experience, then which of us would have hope of being reconciled to God? Before Christ we were enemies of God (Rom. 5:10), dead in our trespasses and sins (Col. 2:13), slaves to a different master (Rom. 6:20). In our lifetimes, all of us began as enemies of God. The reconciling work of the cross did not reconcile us back to our state as enemies—it went further, reconciling us back to God’s original design for humanity and reconciling us forward toward the future hope of heaven. And that is the same type of reconciliation the gospel makes possible for us to have with one another! People have been divided by language, tribe, ethnicity, color, gender, age, wealth, and many more issues since the beginning of time. Praise God that is not what we are hoping to get back to! No, we want to be reconciled with one another, receiving one another into the favor that God originally designed and toward the promised peace coming to us when Jesus returns.

Because of the clarity with which the Scriptures use this term, we should stick with it. If we have been given the “ministry of reconciliation,” then I think it’s worth taking the extra time to really press into what the word means in the Scriptures so that we can rightly apply it in our lives.

References:

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/advocate
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/legal/aggravator
  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aggravate
  4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/reconciled
  5. D. R. Wood and Howard I. Marshall, The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, Logos, 1996).
  6. Martin H. Manser, Dictionary of Bible Themes, word 6716, Logos.
  7. This is especially true in the case of Black-White relations in the United States.

In the eighth episode of Candid Conversations on October 1, 2020 at 2:00 p.m. ET, co-hosts Efrem Smith and Todd Wilson will discuss a video of Dhati Lewis addressing this issue, and take your feedback and questions. Register here.

We are better together!

“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
John 17:22-23

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