Evangelical theologian John Piper admits it: he was "racist to the core" and a born-again Christian at the same time.
But thankfully, he says, "God had mercy on this teenage racist who little by little was awakened to something beautiful – namely racial diversity – and to something horrible – namely my own sin – and to repentance as an ongoing way of life."
The influential pastor tackled the controversial issue of racism on Thursday at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly black church in Minneapolis. He addressed a diverse audience as he spoke about his latest book, Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, where he defined racism this way: The heart that believes one race is more valuable than another is a sinful heart.
While Piper has come a long way from his years as essentially a white supremacist, he made it clear that he was not there to lift himself up as a shining example for others to follow. But he wanted to convey the seriousness of the issue.
"I know that my tribe, my evangelical conservative white tribe, they're suspicious of social issues – 'that sounds like social gospel leading us away from Jesus and the cross' (they'd say)," Piper said. "So I'm playing to their music. I want to say this is not a social issue. This is a blood issue."
Piper grew up in Greenville, S.C., where racial segregation was enforced. Along with separate drinking fountains, schools and bus seating were also churches that excluded blacks. His home church voted in 1962 not to allow blacks into their services.
He writes in his book that he was "manifestly racist" during those years.
But God began to sow "seeds of deliverance" in his heart. Among those seeds was one sown during his senior year in college. He heard the general director of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Society respond to a student's question about the possibility of his daughter marrying a Pakistani while on the mission field.
His response was something like: "Better a Christian Pakistani than a godless white American!" Piper recalled.
Also, during his seminary years, Piper was given "shocking" readings on racial prejudice, detailing crimes of hatred toward blacks. He had a hard time coming away from the readings without trembling.
Such seeds have helped him to, as he says, "awake from [his] stupor." He has repented and grown in abhorrence to racism. But, he emphasized Thursday, he's not done. It's a process and he is continuously trying to bear the fruits of the seeds God sowed.
Piper is 65 now and currently serves as pastor for Preaching & Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. His church has grown in diversity and love but it's not a model church, he said.
Moreover, racism continues to plague America.
In fact, it was just in the year 2000 when Alabama removed its ban on interracial marriage. Piper's previous home state of South Carolina lifted its ban in 1998. And more than a quarter of the residents didn't favor it, the pastor lamented.
Piper also believes there are more "vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968."
The longtime pastor, who adopted a black daughter 15 years ago, was commended by African-Americans on Thursday for his courage in addressing a controversial issue. Piper told the audience that he wrote Bloodlines because of some profound convictions on what the Bible says on this issue – an issue, he acknowledges, that many people choose to avoid – and because of longings for what he wants to see happen.
"There are many pointers in the Bible concerning the rightness, the goodness, the beauty, the justice, the preciousness of racial harmony and diversity," Piper said.
"The most important one is the Gospel," he stressed. "You can talk about all of us … being in the image of God but I’m going straight to the cross."
Backing his argument with Scripture, Piper said Jesus died and ransomed his people – and that includes all ethnicities, tribes and races.
"He's gathering them by the power of the blood of Christ. That's huge if you believe in the blood of Christ," he emphasized. "This is a blood issue. This is a why Jesus died issue."
"The bloodline of Jesus," he highlighted, "is thicker, deeper, stronger than the bloodline of race, ethnicity and family."
Paraphrasing Romans 3:27-30, Piper added, "I (God) have sent my son into the world to provide a righteousness that no human being can provide on their own. There's one way to get it, and it isn't Jewishness. It isn't white. It isn't black. It's faith.
"So right at the heart of the doctrine of justification by faith on the basis of the blood of Jesus is God saying I did it that way because .... I mean there to be a unity in the way of salvation and that means I mean to gather people of every stripe because those stripes don't matter."
Racism still in the church
Piper addressed the question of why the church isn't better at racial harmony if all that he presented was scriptural truth.
The answer he offered was that either the church didn't really believe in the Gospel or the issue is just a major blind spot for many believers. Satan, pride and guilt are also factors that can deter racial harmony.
"Why does God sanctify us so slowly?" he posed, not having an answer to the question but trusting in God's ways.
Not blaming God, however, Piper said, "We shouldn't make any excuses. Just say 'God, help me be part of the solution and not part of the problem.'"
After decades of wrestling with this issue, the Minneapolis pastor owes his life to the Gospel, which he views as the only solution to racism.
"Without it (Gospel) I would still be strutting with racist pride, or I would be suffering the moral paralysis of 'white guilt,'" he writes in his book.
But not boasting of his new self either, Piper pointed Christians to the cross.
"I am 65 years old. I'm going to meet Jesus real soon. I’m going to stand before my judge real soon and I will give an account for how I served him," he said.
"My confidence before Jesus at that day does not rest there (my actions)," he emphasized.
"If he says 'why should I let you in here you former racist sinner?' You won't say 'I cleaned up my act.' If you say that, you don't get the Gospel."
"You're going to say 'there's no reason you should let me in ... I am expecting you to let me in ... because I held on to Jesus and he held on to me."
Piper invited Christians to join him in "a desperate dependence on the blood of Jesus."
"You've got to stand, if you stand at all, on the cross."