Modern Reformation editors wanted to take a look at how hip-hop artists are exploring the life and ministry of Christ in their work. We were privileged to chat with Shai Linne on justification, racial reconciliation, and Kanye West.
Shai Linne has appeared on numerous independent and national Christian hip-hop releases, including his 2005 full-length debut, The Solus Christus Project (see the lyrics for his song “Justified” following this interview), and his most recent album, The Attributes of God (Lamp Mode Recordings, 2011).
Do you think Kanye is a creative genius? Who are some of your musical influences?
Creative genius? I’m not sure about that. One thing I know for sure is that Kanye thinks he’s a creative genius. Kanye, to me, is like a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar in some ways. He’s certainly a good producer. However, with many of those at the top in the mainstream, they have scores of talented writers and musicians at their disposal, so it’s much more of a collaborative process than most of us think. Among my many musical influences, I would name Cross Movement, Ambassador, and Timothy Brindle.
Who first told you the doctrine of justification? What impression did it make on you?
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard it. One of my earliest memories of rejoicing in it was listening to the late Dr. James Boice preach on it at a Ligonier Conference. I remember him saying, “Justification by faith…is the gospel!” One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Romans 4:4-5. To this day, I marvel that God would declare sinners to be righteous before we actually become righteous. It’s the foundation of my life and something I must come back to again and again.
Why rap about it? Can this doctrine be understood without a seminary degree?
This truth is so glorious that it should be shouted from the rooftops! One of the advantages of rap as a musical form is that, based on word count, it gives the artist the potential to communicate much more information than other forms. Like much of Western hymnody (but, in my opinion, to an even greater extent), the form lends itself to expounding on deep topics. Seminary degrees are nice, but it’s clear from the emphasis in books such as Romans, Philippians, and Galatians that the Lord’s intent is for all Christians to understand, rejoice in, and feed upon the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
What will the fruit of a recovery of this doctrine look like in the life of an individual, in the church?
The implications of this doctrine are incalculable. In the individual, recovering this doctrine will help guard against two common tendencies: self-righteousness at one end of the spectrum, and despair at the other end. To be given a foreign righteousness from God frees me from having to establish my own righteousness or seeing myself as superior to others. It also frees me from relating to God based on my bad (or good) performance on any given day.
A failure to apply this doctrine, either to ourselves or others, is at the root of most relational conflict between Christiansâ€”especially in marriage. Unforgiveness, bitterness, and spiritual pride, among many other sin struggles, will be addressed in the lives of believers as, by God’s grace, we recover (again and again) justification by faith alone.
As for the church, one major area of concern for me is racial reconciliation. One sad and troubling fact of recent church history is that many of the churches that embrace and proclaim this doctrine have nevertheless struggled with racism. This tells me it’s not enough for us to preach it, but we must be committed to working out its implications in community with those who are different from us.
You make an interesting point regarding racial reconciliation in the church. How can a right understanding of the doctrine of justification facilitate a better unity among brothers and sisters of different ethnicities? What could this look like practically for both Anglo-American Christians and African-American Christians?
Understood rightly, the doctrine of justification removes all notions (conscious or unconscious, spoken or unspoken) of ethnic superiority. We’re taught that God’s acceptance of us is not only without regard to the works we do, but also without regard to our ethnic identity. In fact, justification teaches Christians that our primary identity is not our ethnicity but our union with Jesus Christ. This is the Apostle Paul’s point in Philippians 3:4-5: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” It is instructive for us that the apostle identifies particular areas of privilege that he was leaning on prior to his conversion. In this list, we see religious privilege (“circumcised on the eighth day”), ethnic privilege (“of the people of Israel”), ancestral privilege (“of the tribe of Benjamin”), and cultural privilege (“a Hebrew of Hebrews”), among other things. These privileges were not only insufficient to save him, but they were actually spiritual liabilities because his reliance upon them was keeping him from God!
After listing his credentials, he concludes powerfully in verse 7, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Later, in verse 9, he contrasts his futile attempts at righteousness with the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ through justification. We gladly apply this glorious truth to ourselves, but we often fail to consider its implications for those we consider as “other”â€”that is, ethnically “other,” culturally “other,” educationally “other,” and so forth.
There are a number of ways in which the unity Christ died to purchase can be practically pursued. One way is being intentional about pursuing deep friendships with people of different ethnicities in our churches. For white pastors of majority white churches, it may mean having meetings with the African-American members and simply asking them how they’re adjusting to the environment they’re in and if they have any concerns or difficulties. It’s common for whoever the majority culture is in a particular setting to assume their experience is normative for everyone. It’s important for white Christians to understand that what they perceive as the “normal” or “biblical” way is often perceived by minorities as the “white” way. One of the most helpful things a white brother did for me was invite me to lunch and simply ask me “What has your experience been like growing up as an African-American man?” and then listening as I talked for the next hour. It’s one of the most loving things I can remember another Christian doing for me.
The doctrine of justification can help us assume the best about the “other.” For African-American Christians, it means extending the benefit of the doubt to our white brothers and sisters and not being quick to jump to uncharitable conclusions of racism. For white Christians, it means truly embracing the doctrines of total depravity and indwelling sin by acknowledging that you may actually be guilty of holding racist attitudes and beliefs. If we are truly entering into authentic relationships with “others,” then these issues should come to light. A proper understanding of justification by faith alone sets the context for authentic dialogue on issues of racism among Christians. When rightly applied, it will keep us from being overly defensive when we’re corrected on these issues. It will also keep us from condemning others when we correct them. So much more could be said, but that’s a good place to start.
Shai Linne is an American East Coast Christian rapper. “Justified” originally appeared on his debut album, The Solus Christus Project (Lamp Mode Recording, 2005). You can follow him on Twitter at @shailinne and other Lamp Mode Recording artists at www.lampmode.com.
Christ’s Active Obedience
Christ’s active obedience refers to his act of keeping God’s law perfectly throughout his entire life (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom. 5:12-19; Gal. 4:4-6).
Christ’s Passive Obedience
Christ’s passive obedience is an aspect of Christ’s whole obedience, referring to his entire life of suffering under the curse of the law with its climax in his death and burial. Christ’s passive obedience is taught in Acts 1:3, Philippians 2:6-8, Hebrews 2:9, and 9:11-14.