In spite of its dehumanizing effects on image bearers of God, the sin of racism is not the unpardonable sin. God redeems racists and forgives the sin of racism through the finished work of his Son, Jesus. Ephesians 2:13–16 describes the deep hostility that once existed between a holy God and sinful humans along with the walls of hostility that existed between people. On the cross, Jesus crushed this hostility, making peace between God and sinners, bringing together all kinds of people into the family of God, and making ethnically different and formerly divided people into one new humanity. Through Jesus, God forgives sins, including racism, and achieves a peace that enables Christians to forgive and be forgiven for the sin of racism. Racism isn’t the unforgivable sin, but why does it feel like it is?
Perhaps we wouldn’t go so far as to say that racism is the unforgivable sin of which Christ spoke in Matthew 12:31–32. But I think we can easily fall into the trap of putting racism into the same general category of an unforgivable sin—something no one wants to confess or be found guilty of, something that shouldn’t be pardoned without penance or dismissed without accountability. Although we might acknowledge God’s forgiveness in the gospel, there is the tendency to view the sin of racism as unpardonable. Consequently, when we function in this way concerning racism, it means that there may, at times, be a withholding of forgiveness or a withholding of confession.
Racism Isn’t the Unforgivable Sin, So Forgive
Because of racism’s long, pervasive, and destructive record at every level against image bearers, an act of racism today causes deep and lasting wounds along with a pressing desire for justice. Withholding forgiveness can feel just; it can feel like a kind of accountability, especially when there’s either resistance to acknowledge and correct the racism or an unhealthy pressure to extend a quick yet meaningless forgiveness for it. But when forgiveness is withheld, it shows that while there may be a true understanding about the sinful reality of racism, there can be a misunderstanding about the reality of God’s justice and mercy. Without a glimpse or an experience with the grace and forgiveness of God in the gospel, withholding forgiveness makes sense; but through the transformative power of the gospel, we can trust in the justice and mercy of God to punish destructive sins like racism, transform racists, and heal those impacted by racism. By forgiving racism we neither give up the pursuit of God’s righteousness and justice nor give into a hollow gesture extended towards offenders. Forgiveness isn’t always a quick response or comprehensible concept, but it is an accomplished legal and just reality through Jesus that can be extended to the worst of sinners.
Racism Isn’t The Unforgivable Sin, So Confess
I once attended a panel about race and the gospel, and, during the event, one panelist, a white man, confessed in front of this room full of people that he had recently been repenting of harboring racism in his heart. It was a shocking admission which was met with a wave of silence followed by an immediate denial from another panelist who quickly responded, “You’re not a racist. Believe me, I’m sure of it.” This was a rare moment, and not just because voluntary confessions of racism like this are scarce, but because if there was ever a time to witness the grace and the beauty found in an honest and public confession of sin, and even a gospel opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation, here it was. But this shining glimmer of grace was quickly extinguished by sin’s two ever-present lawyers: denial and minimization. Why this response to this confession? Racism is perceived as an unpardonable sin, because it is often an unconfessable sin.
Many people think racism is a sin they are incapable of committing. That’s because they define racism by it’s most flagrant evils recorded in history: systemic oppression of entire people groups, slavery, lynchings, stealing of lands, forcing of people into internment camps, and spewing of racial epithets. When this is believed, the truth that racism begins in the heart and is something of which everyone is capable is neglected. The racism behind microaggressions and certain prejudices and indifferences is qualitatively no different from the systemic racism or racial injustices that are seen at a societal level.
When racism is defined only by its worst manifestations, it becomes easy to denounce it, distance ourselves from it, and even defend others from it. Known racists are either uniquely hateful and violent or well-meaning, yet unenlightened “people of their times,” and, instead of confessing racism, sinful humanity’s inner lawyers of denial, rationalization, and minimization plead their case.
Furthermore, racism is often treated as an unpardonable sin when people believe that by confessing it or being charged with it they’ll be permanently marked by it. In an unforgiving society, contributing to racism or being called out as a racist is to bear a perpetual label. The cost of identifying oneself as guilty of racism in any way is too high and, consequently, confessing to racism is repelled. When racism is treated like an unpardonable sin and confession is withheld, it reveals that there is both a misunderstanding about what racism is along with a misunderstanding about God’s grace and forgiveness in the gospel. God’s mercy is deeper than our darkest sins, ready and waiting to drown them in forgiveness and grace that’s given to us in Jesus.
Overall, forgiving racism is not forgetting it or foregoing the pursuit of a resolution. Confessing racism is not an immovable mark or an impossible admission. Sometimes believing that racism is unconfessable can enable the belief that racism is unforgivable. Sometimes believing that racism is unforgivable can enable the belief that racism is unconfessable. But the gospel offers real justice and mercy for sins committed by and against image bearers, and it offers real peace and forgiveness achieved between God and one another. Racism isn’t the unpardonable sin, so let’s forgive and confess.
Originally Published: October 5, 2021
- Pray that hearts would be moved by God’s spirit to confess and forgive racism.
- Pray confession and repentance would uproot where denial and minimizing have prevailed
- Pray that forgiveness and mercy would overpower retribution and resistance.