Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Eikon.
“Antiracists fundamentally reject savior theology, which goes right in line with racist ideas and racist theology. . . . Jesus was a revolutionary and the job of the Christian is to revolutionize society. The job of the Christian is to liberate society from the powers on earth that are oppressing humanity . . . so that’s liberation theology in a nutshell.”
–Ibram X. Kendi
The quote above is from an interview Ibram Kendi gave at the progressive Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan. It came in response to the following question: “I am curious if you see any role that churches, or communities of faith can play in this antiracist movement.” Kendi’s answer has since gone viral. It is rather jarring to watch the interview and see Matthew 28:18–20 etched in stone on the wall directly behind Kendi and his interviewer.
It ought not be lost on us that this man was invited into a church and is treated as an authority on the matter of antiracism and social justice. As one listens to the entire interview, it becomes abundantly evident how religious antiracism is. Kendi speaks of the need for constant self-examination and repentance from our racism, both implicit and explicit. He is fond of the word confession throughout the interview and calls for everyone to examine their heart to find manifestations of anti-blackness and turn from them. And, as the quote above captures, he is not shy about invoking the name of Jesus as a revolutionary who liberates society from oppressive structures and policies. This is the argument Kendi advances in his best-selling book How to Be an Antiracist, and it is directly related to the influence of black liberation theologian James Cone mediated through his parents. He tells the story of a time when his dad met Cone and asked him what his definition of a Christian was. Cone responded, “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” Kendi continues, “James Cone’s working definition of a Christian described a Christianity of the enslaved, not a Christianity of the slaveholders. . . . My parents arrived at a creed with which to shape their lives, to be the type of Christians that Jesus the revolutionary inspired them to be.” Kendi argues that this creed grounded his parents’ lives and his life and confesses, “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be an antiracist.” This admission makes sense of Kendi’s consistent usage of Christian terminology in his antiracist doctrine.
But the fundamental errors present in black liberation theology are even more pronounced as Kendi secularizes Cone’s logic further. He avers, “To be queer antiracist is to serve as an ally to transgender people, to intersex people, to women, to the non-gender conforming, to homosexuals, to their intersections, meaning listening, learning, and being led by their equalizing ideas, by their equalizing policy campaigns, by their power struggle for equal opportunity.” Antiracist liberation, according to Kendi, necessitates the licensure and celebration of a legion of immoral identities and behaviors.
I am convinced this error flows from Kendi’s rejection of savior theology, which he has explicitly disavowed, because in so doing he disconnects from the biblical presentation of Christ coming to fulfill the law of God and redeem humanity from the curse of sin (Gal 3:10–14, 4:4–5). Understanding the God-law-sin relationship is crucial to having a proper Christology and a proper view of the atonement. My aim in this essay is to argue for the absolute necessity of savior theology by providing a biblical presentation for how salvation is wrought for us in Christ. To do this I will (1) defend the classic Reformed understanding of penal substitution as central to all other atonement motifs and (2) contend that Christ’s identification and solidarity with his people is the precondition for atonement, not the atonement itself.
If Jesus Christ is not our Savior, He Cannot be our Liberator
By rejecting savior theology and claiming antiracism is fundamentally at odds with human beings standing in need of salvation, Kendi’s standard of justice and righteousness is divorced from the biblical presentation of Christ’s person and work. As Adam Johnson correctly points out, “Theories of the atonement are synthetic in nature, in that they necessarily bring together and depend upon a number of other doctrines.” Therefore, getting the cross and the reconciling work of Christ wrong is significant in that it exposes missteps elsewhere in our theology. As John Stott famously wrote, “At the root of every caricature of the cross there lies a distorted Christology.” And as Stephen Wellum rightly deduces from this logic, “[I]t’s crucial to remember that a true Christology is also dependent on a correct theology proper. Thus, it’s more precise to say: ‘At the root of every caricature of the cross is a distorted doctrine of God.’” While Kendi does not explicitly mention the cross, by rejecting savior theology and teaching that people are not the problem, we can rightly deduce that he has a significant misunderstanding pertaining to the cross. By decoupling liberation from salvation, Kendi betrays his distorted doctrine of God, anthropology, and hamartiology, just to name a few.
Those within the Reformed stream have long held to the conviction that liberation from the curse of sin is integral to the atonement. Because mankind’s main problem is sin, the solution God has arranged for sin’s remedy is the incarnation of the Son and his substitutionary atonement. This Reformed conviction stands opposed to Kendi’s understanding of Christ’s work, because he does not view people as the problem, but instead argues policies that create disparity are mankind’s main problem. Kendi emphasizes sin’s systemic character to the exclusion of its personal nature, and thus he understands humanity’s plight as not fundamentally vertical, but horizontal. In other words, he does not prioritize the reconciliation between God and man, but rather equality between genders, races, and classes. As such, Kendi sees the aim of salvation as the restoration of the personhood and dignity of the victim of oppression. In this view, Christ’s mission is one of identifying and standing in solidarity with those who are marginalized by societal constructs. True preachers of liberation theology thereby “fundamentally preach about the problem being structural, racism, and society. They use Jesus and the word to galvanize people to challenge society.” This perspective on Christ’s atonement is woefully reductionistic, at best, and is guilty of rejecting the primary reason the Son of Man came to earth, namely, to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
When we follow the unfolding narrative of Scripture as it relates to salvation, central to its presentation is salvation’s propitiatory character. This is by no means to denigrate or push aside other motifs. But for the other atonement motifs to have a secure foundation, we must not reject the wrath-bearing nature of the cross. Further, these other motifs of Christ’s atoning work are contingent on God’s nature and law, for he must be true to himself in bringing about man’s salvation.
Stephen Wellum is right to argue that penal substitution best captures the view of the Reformation and post-Reformation era, however he is quick to qualify this assertion by stating, “In thinking of the cross in this way, the Reformers and their heirs were not reducing the diversity of the biblical presentation merely to one concept. Instead, they were attempting to capture what was central to the why and what of the cross. Central to their view of penal substitution was increased clarity on the God-law-sin relationship.” Wellum makes two crucial claims here that need to be unpacked as they relate to Kendi.
First, the God-law-sin relationship Wellum mentions captures the biblical connection between God’s righteousness and his hatred of sin. The wrath of God is not an intrinsic perfection as is his love or holiness, but his perfect nature requires that he judges and punishes sin (cf. Exod 34:6-7). As John Owen taught, “God enjoys eternal and infinite happiness and glory.” This speaks to his intrinsic perfection, but when the Creator-Covenant Lord is disobeyed by those created in his image, his jealous and righteous wrath flows from his all-consuming love for holiness. As Joel Beeke says, “Wrath is not an intrinsic perfection of God, but rather the exercise of righteous love.” Because God is holy, sinners rightly receive God’s personal opposition. And God must be personally opposed to sinners, for, as Owen put it, “God hates sin, not merely by choice but by nature.” Thus, since God is holy, sinners justly and necessarily receive God’s personal opposition as the expression of his eternal love for righteousness. Since Kendi rejects savior theology, he has discarded the only solution for man’s greatest need. If Christ did not come to save us, then we are a people to be most pitied and are without hope of reconciliation or liberation.
Second, Wellum points out that the Reformers did not reduce the diversity of the biblical presentation regarding Christ’s atoning work to that of penal substitution. But they did argue it is central to the why and the what of the cross. What this means is all other motifs are grounded in and flow from penal substitution. We must never divorce the fruit from the root. As Stott said, “Substitution is not a ‘theory of the atonement.’ Nor is it even an additional image to take its place as an option alongside others. It is rather the essence of each image and the heart of the atonement itself. None of the images could stand without it.” But this is precisely what Kendi has done.
In rejecting savior theology in favor of liberation, Kendi denigrates the severity of sin and distorts God’s justice. In so doing, he reframes Christ’s mission: “And so, to me, the type of theology liberation theology breeds is a common humanity, a common humanity against the structures of power that oppress us all.” He incredulously asks those who hold to savior theology, “The way you change people first is by becoming saved?” The Bible offers a resounding “yes!” in response. Paul could not be clearer on this matter:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (Eph 2:14–16).
Christ is the remedy, granting peace and reconciliation between Jew and Greek by dying in their place to remove the hostility aroused by the fact that all are lawbreakers. Everything that is true of Ephesians 2:14–16 is contingent on the glorious expression of God’s mercy towards us in Christ, in which we have been saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:4b, 8). Christians who have been saved by God’s grace are first transformed by his grace, and then enabled to walk in the good works prepared beforehand for them by God (cf. Eph 2:10, 14–16). Yes, the way people are changed is by first becoming saved. To reject savior theology is to reject the gospel and leave liberation floating in midair, disconnected from its life source, and the crash landing is inevitable. If our Savior did not die on the cross in our place, there is no hope for killing the hostility. It is vital that we do not miss Paul’s clear teaching that Christ reconciles Jew and Greek “both to God in one body through the cross.” By his death on the cross Christ saves us by redeeming us from sin, restoring us to God and our fellow man, and freeing us from sin’s dominion over us.
Identification and Solidarity are a Prerequisite to Atonement, not the Atonement Itself
Another mistake made by liberation theology that enters Kendi’s logic is an error that makes the root the fruit. In the previous section, our focus was on how antiracism plucks liberation from the fertile soil of salvation from sin. But the error here is how a precondition for atonement is made out to be the atonement itself. James Cone, for example, said, “Jesus is not a human being for all persons; he is a human being for oppressed persons, whose identity is made known in and through their liberation.” This sentiment is commonplace in liberation theology, which tends to emphasize Christ’s identification and solidarity with the oppressed as the atonement. The Bible, however, foreshadows the coming of Christ through the various sacrifices instituted under the Old Covenant, and it uses substitutionary and identification language in this system of atonement (see Lev 1–7). The graphic scenes of Abraham taking Isaac to slaughter him on the mountain, only to be granted a ram to sacrifice in his son’s place, or an Israelite taking his best animal from the herd to the temple in Jerusalem to slit its throat and burn it on the altar, are laying the groundwork for the principle of substitution. Yet we are told in Hebrews 10:1–4 the perpetual nature of animal sacrifices reinforces a sobering reality: it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. What can wash away our sin? Not the blood of animals. Nothing but the blood of Jesus will do. Though God was gracious to Israel in providing high priests who could deal gently with wayward and sinful people, these priests were themselves sinful, subject to the same weakness (Heb 5:1–3).
Therefore God sent us a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and he is one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15). It is vital for our salvation that God the Son incarnate be made like us in every respect to be a sin offering. By bearing our sin in his body on the tree he condemns sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3; 1 Pet 2:24). In this we find freedom from the tyrannous dominion of sin: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:15). This salvation from the fear of death flows from both Christ’s identification with us and his taking our curse upon himself. So, as the author of Hebrews argues later, “Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). For us and for our salvation, it is necessary the Son of God take on flesh to identify with his people, to stand in solidarity with us as a fellow human, to live a sinless life, and then to die in our stead, bearing the wrath of God against sin so that we would be free from the fear and lifelong slavery resulting from our sin nature and its necessary consequence. As Wellum summarizes, “Our redemption requires incarnational identification and atonement. Christ’s identification and solidarity with us is a prerequisite to atonement, not atonement itself.” Contrary to liberation theology, Christ’s identification and solidarity with us is necessary for atonement to be possible, but it is not to be confused as the atonement in and of itself.
The gospel according to Kendi is a message of human autonomy (self-law) untethered from God’s law which leads to the message that Jesus did not come to save lawbreakers, but to free victims from oppressive human power structures. But “liberation” apart from God’s righteous character and law is no new deception; it is a death work that has been perpetuated by the serpent and his seed since the beginning (Gen 3:1, 4–5; 2 Cor 11:14). In divorcing liberation from salvation, Kendi unravels the God-law-sin dynamic central to the person and work of Christ. This separation simply will not do, as the flower of liberation from oppression withers and dies when uprooted from the reality that God is holy and therefore personally opposed and hostile towards sin. Moreover, it is a mistake to take the prerequisite by which Christ was uniquely equipped to do away with sin (incarnational identification) and make it out to be the atonement itself. The Bible emphasizes the necessity of Christ identifying with us so that he could bear the wrath of God in his human body on the tree, thus bearing the curse of sin for all who would believe in him (Gal 3:13; 4:4–5; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 2:17).
Though Kendi claims liberation theology breeds a common humanity, it actually does the opposite. It removes any perceived oppressor from Christ’s reach by emphasizing his exclusive solidarity with the marginalized. The Bible, on the other hand, speaks to what is truly common in our humanity: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Moreover, as Paul adds elsewhere, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim 1:15). The most equalizing reality available to mankind is found at the foot of the cross where all who come to Christ are one in him (Gal 3:28). There is nothing that will establish a more common humanity than the scriptural teaching that all have sinned, and that Christ Jesus came to save sinners. In rejecting savior theology, antiracism fundamentally rejects the gospel of Jesus Christ and thereby forfeits the experience of true liberation.
Michael Carlino is a Ph.D. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Systematic Theology.
 Ibram Kendi, “How to Be Anti-Racist: Ibram X. Kendi in Conversation with Molly Crabapple,” Judson Memorial Church, June 19, 2020, https://youtu.be/BhbbmjqcRvY.
 Kendi, “How to Be Anti-Racist.”
 Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, (New York: One World, 2019), 17.
 Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 17.
 Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 17.
 Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 197.
 Adam Johnson, Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2015), 37.
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 159.
 Stephen Wellum, “Answering 4 Common Objections to PSA,” 9 Marks Journal (August 2019): 81.
 Kiratiana Freelon, “Is Your Church Anti-Racist?: An Interview with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi,” The Christian Recorder, accessed October 13, 2021, https://www.thechristianrecorder.com/is-your-church-anti-racist/.
 Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 193 (emphasis original).
 Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 260n.
 John Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice in The Works of John Owen, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 10:543.
 Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology Volume 1: Revelation and God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 859.
 Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice, 10:550–51.
 Stott, The Cross of Christ, 158–59.
 Kendi, “How to be Antiracist.”
 Freelon, “Is Your Church Anti-Racist?”
 James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 85–86.
 Wellum, Christ Alone, 114–15.
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