N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 6: Election, the Spirit, and Justification

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the sixth of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Part 6: Election, the Spirit, and Justification
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 10, Sections 4 – 5

I. The Spirit and the Gospel
The Gospel is the announcement that the God of Israel has been faithful to his covenant by fulfilling his promises through Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit. The Gospel is not how to “get saved” or “how to be justified.” It is the announcement of what God has done in and through Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. The Gospel announcement comes with the work of the Spirit. No one can say “Jesus is the Lord” without the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). Furthermore, the Spirit accomplishes in the renewed people of God what the Torah could not do in the initial people of God.

II. The Shape of Justification
Paul’s discussion of justification is in the context of his reworking of the election of Israel summed up in Jesus the Messiah and lived out in the one people of God by the Holy Spirit. The logic of the election of Israel was not God choosing one ethnic group in order to condemn the rest of the world or allow them to remain in pagan darkness. The logic of the election of Israel was God choosing a certain people through whom he would rescue the world with the light of his love. To be justified is to be put right as the people of God for the purposes of God.

A. The logical context behind Paul’s theology of justification
1. “God the creator intends at the last to remake the creation, righting all wrongs and filling the world with his own presence.” (926) We start where the Christian narrative begins, the actions of the one true God making the world as a place to be shared with humanity.

2. “For this to happen, humans themselves have to be ‘put right’.” (926) Because humanity is intricately connected to God’s world, they must be put right, that is, they must be justified.

3. “God’s way of accomplishing this is through the covenant.” (927) God intended to remain faithful in and through Israel.

4. “(The covenant) is how the creator God will put humans to rights.” (934) God is responsible for setting right a world gone wrong and he has the power and authority to do it.

5. “All these themes point forward to the decisive divine judgment on the last day, in other words, to ‘final eschatology.’” (936) There is a final justification coming, a final verdict and sorting out of things gone wrong. The present justification experienced for those in Jesus the Messiah is a foretaste of the justification to come.

6. “The events concerning Jesus the Messiah are the revelation, in unique and decisive action, of the divine righteousness.” (942) In the death of Jesus, sin (the source of humanity’s wrongdoing) is condemned and in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s new creation (where the world is being put right) has begun. Through the Messiah we see God’s righteousness displayed both in terms of his covenant faithfulness and his restorative justice.

7. “When Paul speaks about people being ‘justified’ in the present, he is (arguing)…that in the present time the covenant God declares ‘in the right,’ ‘within the covenant,’ all those who hear, believe and obey ‘the gospel’ of Jesus the Messiah.” (944) This declaration “creates and constitutes a new situation, a new status,” namely, those who are justified are a part of the people of God. It is not a description of a person’s moral character but a declaration of a person’s social identity. “Those who are declared or accounted ‘righteous’ on the basis of Messiah-faith constitute the single covenant family which the one God has faithfully given to Abraham.” (961)

B. Justification at work in Galatians 2:15-4:11
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through [the] faith[fulness of] Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15 ESV)

The context was the “Antioch incident” where Peter was not sharing a table with Gentile Christians. Paul confronts Peter, because his sin was fundamentally a gospel issue as he explains in Galatians 2:15. We are not justified—declared righteous and therefore members of God’s people—because we keep the law, but because of the faithfulness of Jesus. We believe in Jesus and are justified. Our justification is based on Jesus’ faithful death. Our faith is the badge indicated we are members of God’s people.

“Paul’s whole argument is about membership in the single family, sharing the same table-fellowship, not primarily about the way in which sins are dealt with and the sinner rescued from them.” (969) There is little mention of sin, and no mention of death, in Galatians. The letter focuses on the definition of Christian community, that is, what does it mean to be the people of God? What are the markers that define Christian community? This definition has been reworked around Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3) Paul is addressing the Galatians (plural) according to 3:1. This new shape of the people of God is the work of the Spirit.

This called people, the children of Abraham, redefined by Jesus and the Spirit will be the means by which God blesses the nations (Galatians 3:8). The promise given to Abraham was not merely for one ethnic people (the Jews) in one particular land (Israel); the promise was for the whole world. Jesus became a curse for us (N.T. Wright notes the “us” refers to Jewish people), redeeming them from the curse of the law so that “the blessing of Abraham may come to the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:13), so that “we (both Jews and Gentiles) might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14).

To be declared righteous members of God’s chosen people (election) has been redefined. Members who once were marked by keeping the torah are now marked by both faith in Jesus as Messiah whose faithful death demonstrated God’s faithfulness to the torah and the reception of God’s Spirit.

C. Justification at work in 2 Corinthians 3:3
“And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3 ESV) The people of God has been redefined by and through the Holy Spirit who has come in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of a coming new covenant where the one God of Israel would write his laws on the hearts of his one people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The coming of new covenant implies a new definition of election, that is, being the people of God. “The spirit has redefined ‘election’, the covenant status of the people of God. The covenant is not now a matter of possessing or hating the Mosaic law. It is a matter of the transformation of the heart, wrought by the spirit.” (983) The Shekinah glory of God which under the old covenant dwelt in a particular place, the Temple in Jerusalem, now dwells in the hearts of his people.

D. Justification at work in Philippians 3:2-11
“The emphasis of the passage is precisely not ‘so that is how I shall be “saved”’, but ‘so that is how I will be demonstrated to be truly within the covenant people.’” (984) The context in which Paul talks about receiving righteousness from God is in the context of those who define covenant membership by circumcision and thus, adherence to the torah. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God…” (Philippians 3:3). This statement speaks of the redefined “we,” redefined by the coming of the Spirit.

Paul continues by recounting his Jewish heritage. He was not bragging that he had earned points as a Jew and was somehow self-righteous. He was providing the evidence that he was a legitimate part of the covenant family, but none of that matters now that Messiah has come. Paul describes his covenant status as in Christ. “…that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status (righteousness) defined by Torah, but the status (righteousness) which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status (righteousness) from God which is given to faith.” (Galatians 3:9 The Kingdom New Testament) “Being ‘in the Messiah’, as clearly here as anywhere in Paul, is the new way of saying ‘in Israel.’” (989) Justification here is not a matter of the forgiveness of personal sin, but an incorporation into Christ and into Christ’s people.

E. Justification at work in Romans 3:21-4:25
In this section, which is one complete thought, we see the righteousness of God on display, not the righteousness we receive from God (Philippians 3:9), but God’s own righteousness, his covenant faithfulness and faithful justice. God’s covenant faithfulness has been displayed apart from the law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus for the benefit of those who believe (Romans 3:22). There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, we are all a part of the plight, given to sin and subject to death, and we are justified, declared to be members of God’s family by grace (Romans 3:23-24). “What we loosely think of as ‘justification’ is very closely joined in Paul’s mind with the incorporation of believers into the messianic reality of Jesus death and resurrection.” (997) We are justified through the redemption that is in Jesus the Messiah (Romans 3:24). The death of Jesus is described by Paul using sacrificial terms: “blood,” “propitiation” or “atoning sacrifice,” and “passed over.” God is demonstrating his faithfulness to the covenant to bless the world through Israel which had a sacrificial system, but the Messiah’s death meant the fulfillment of the sacrificial system. The redefined people of God, the church, would no longer carry on that practice. “The ‘righteousness’ of God which was called into question by the failure of Israel to be ‘faithful’ to the divine commission (3:2-3) has been put into effect through the faithfulness of Messiah” (1000).

Because of the covenant faithfulness of God revealed in the faithful death of Jesus, no one gets to brag (Romans 3:27), not Jews and not Gentiles. God is the God of both (Romans 3:29), because God is one (monotheism!) (Romans 3:30). How does he justify? By faith! “This new people is composed, not only of Gentiles, of course, but of Jews and Gentiles alike who display this pistis (Greek word for “faith”), the badge of membership. This is the same badge, whether one’s covenant status is renewed or initiated” (1001).

Romans 4 moves to a discussion of Abraham, not as an example of how individuals get “saved” by faith, but as continuation of the display of God’s covenant faithfulness. Paul is bringing up Abraham, because covenant faithfulness is about God’s promise to Abraham. What was gained by Abraham? (Romans 4:1) He did not gain a personal relationship with God. He gained seminal membership into God’s family. Abraham wore the badge of faith and God declared him to be a member of God’s family. “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well” (Romans 4:11). The covenant was all about the one God having one family of Jews and Gentiles.

What was the promise for this one family? “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world…” (Romans 4:13). The redefined people of God would be occupants of the whole world. There was a promise of land given to Abraham, but the land promise has been redefined, as with everything else, around the coming of Messiah and the gift of the Spirit, whereby we see the “holy land” as the whole earth. This promise did not come through the torah, rather it come through the display of God’s covenant faithfulness through the faith of God’s people (Romans 4:13) who share the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:16). Abraham was strong in faith “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21 ESV). God displays his faithfulness to do what he promised to do in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Abraham wore the badge of faith and was included in God’s family and we wear the badge of faith and are included in God’s family because Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead for our justification, or inclusion in God’s family (Romans 4:25).

F. Justification at work in Romans 5-8
We start somewhere in the middle. “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). This section continues with the theme of the covenant people of God redefined by Jesus and, particularly noted here, by the Spirit. “The spirit is not some alien force, but rather the fresh (though long-promised) manifestation of the one God of Jewish monotheism.” (1008) In Romans 7 Paul is addressing Jewish Christians specifically because in telling the story redemption of Israel, he is telling the story of the redemption of the world. This section reverberates with themes of a new exodus, where sin in the slave master, baptism is the Red Sea crossing, and the redeemed world is the promise land.

Romans 7:15-25 is not Paul discussing his struggle with sin either pre or post conversion. Paul is not describing the normal Christian life as a life-long struggling with sin. When Paul writes, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:15),” he is describing Israel under the law. He is using the rhetorical first person “I” to describe Israel struggle with sin under the law. The law is good in that it draws Israel to the one true living God, but the law imprisons Israel in sin.

Sin is the enemy, not the law. Sin is the slave-driver keeping Israel in slavery. Jesus the Messiah set us from from the slavery of sin. Paul repeats this fact in Romans 5:6-11, 6:7-11; 8:1-4. Jesus is the liberator, but the freeing of sin is in the context of the renewed, redefined people of God. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). The plural pronouns denote the context of Christian community. God show his love for us. Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). We have been justified. We will be saved from the wrath (judgment) of God (Romans 5:9). Death and sin have reigned, but in the renewed promise land, grace and life reign through Jesus the Messiah (Romans 5:12-21). The movement from death to life is through the red sea crossing of baptism (Romans 6:3-4).

Sin has, at long last, been condemned in the death of the Messiah (Romans 8:3). “This is the divine purpose: that sin be drawn onto this one place, onto Israel, so that it can be dealt with conclusively by the covenant God himself in the persion, in the flesh of israel’s Messiah, the son of this very God.” (1015) So what was the point of creating Israel as a chosen people and giving them the law? “The point of Israel’s election was not ‘for the creator God to have a favourite people’ but for the sin of Adam to be dealt with. Election itself, and Torah as the gift which sealed election, was designed – this is Paul’s point – to draw sin onto that one place so that it could be successfully condemned right there.” (1015)

In Romans 8, we see the newly defined people of God as the new temple where God’s Spirit dwells, a people led by the Spirit, as the people of Israel were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). The Spirit redefines the children of God as those who have been incorporated in Jesus the Messiah. The world-wide implications of the demonstration of God’s covenant faithfulness is experienced by creation itself in the rhetorical climax of Romans 8, where Paul writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility…(creation waits to) obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21)

III. Final Thoughts
It makes sense to talk about Paul’s theology of justification by faith in the context of Paul’s redefinition of election around the coming of the Holy Spirit, because justification is God’s gracious act of declaring in the right those who are a part of the chosen people of God who carry out God’s purposes for God’s world.


N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 5: Election, Righteousness, and Faithfulness

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the fifth of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Part 5: Election, Righteousness, and Faithfulness
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 10, Sections 1-3

I. Defining “Election” in Paul’s Theology
Election means “choosing,” but not in the sense of voting. Election-as-choosing for Paul is not what is reflected in Calvinism in their doctrine of predestination whereby God has chosen some for salvation (the elect) and chosen other for damnation (the reprobate). “The word ‘election’, as applied to Israel, usually carries a further connotation: not simply the divine choice of this people, but more specifically the divine choice of this people for a particular purpose.” (775) In other words, election for Paul is about vocation not salvation.

As with monotheism, election for Paul is a Jewish concept that has been redefined around Jesus the Messiah. Election includes salvation, that act of God rescuing, healing, and justifying. Justification is the act of God as judge in a court of law pronouncing “in the right” those who are guilty. “Paul’s thought is best understood in terms of the revision, around Messiah and spirit, of the fundamental categories and structures of second-temple jewish understanding; and that this ‘revision,’ precisely because of the drastic nature of the Messiah’s death and resurrection, and the freshly given power of the spirit, is not mere minor adjustment, but a radically new state of affairs, albeit one which had always been promised in Torah, prophets,and Psalms.” (783)

Israel’s purpose: bear God’s image and tend to God’s world, a direct echo of Adam’s purpose:

Adam was given a garden.

Israel was given land.

Adam received commands.

Israel received commands.

Adam disobeyed.

Israel disobeyed.

Adam was exiled.

Israel was exiled.

God came by the Messiah and the Spirit to do what Adam and Israel could not do. In this sense, Jesus and the Spirit do not replace Israel, but fulfill Israel’s vocation.

II. Defining “Righteousness” in Paul’s Theology
N.T. Wright uses the word “covenant” in his definition of “righteousness.”  By covenant he means Abraham as the answer to Adam, that is, the promise made to Abraham to form him into a great nation whereby God would bless (save) the nations of the world, a promise expressly seen in the Exodus event.  “Righteousness” in Paul’s writing can mean:
1) right behavior: …one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Romans 5:18)
2) legal status: Those who receive…the free gift of righteousness… (Romans 5:17)
3) moral character (in reference to people): For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:17)
4) covenant faithfulness (in reference to God): But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… (Romans 3:21)

A better English word for the Greek work dikaiosune (most often translated “righteousness”) is “just” or “justice.” Examples: His actions were just. Justice will prevail. As a parent, he is just. When we speak of God’s righteousness we are speaking of his covenant faithfulness and/or his restorative justice. God’s own righteousness is his faithfulness to his covenant to bless the world through the people of Abraham. (See Isaiah 9:7, 42:6)

III. Israel’s Election as the People of God
God’s righteousness is connected to the job of Israel to be the instrument by which God would save the world. “Yahweh’s choice of Israel as his people, was aimed not simply at Israel itself, but at the wider and larger purposes which this God intended to fulfill through Israel. Israel is God’s servant; and the point of having a servant is not that the servant becomes one’s best friend, though that may happen too, but in order that, through the work of the servant, one may get things done.” (804)

Through Israel the one God, the God of creation, the God of Israel intended to bring his righteous rule to the entire world. This promise has been fulfilled through Jesus the Messiah and the coming of the Spirit upon the body of Messiah, the church. Does this mean the people of Messiah have replaced the people of Abraham as the people of God (so-called “Replacement Theology”)? No. Jesus doesn’t replace Israel. The church doesn’t replace Israel. Jesus is after all Israel’s Messiah. He does not replace Israel, but embodies Israel and fulfills Israel’s vocation, since this was the purpose of election in the beginning. In fulfilling Israel’s mission, Jesus redefines what it means to be Israel. “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29 ESV)

IV. Messiah as the Focus of Election
Messiah is the location where the one God of Abraham (monotheism) and the one people of Abraham (election) met. When Paul proclaims Jesus as Messiah he is demonstrating how the entire purpose of Israel’s election has found its termination point. Paul draws on royal passages from Psalms and Isaiah in speaking of Jesus (See Romans 15:8-12; Psalm 18:49, 117:1; Isaiah 11:10). Christ (whenever you read “Christ” think “Messiah”) came as God’s servant to confirm the promises of Israel, so Gentiles would see God’s mercy. Messiah brings the end (the termination point) of the law (Romans 10:4), bringing the long awaited ending to Israel’s story.

Paul uses incorporative language in talking about Messiah. “Jesus, as Messiah, has drawn together the identity and vocation of Israel upon himself.” (825) In other words, Jesus as Messiah incorporates BOTH the defining markers of what it meant to be the people of God and the job the people of God were to fulfill. Israel was God’s servant, so Israel’s Messiah was God’s servant. What could be said of Israel, could be said of Messiah. Jesus was Israel in the flesh.

“To be ‘in the king,’ or now, for Paul, ‘in the anointed one,’ the Messiah, is to be part of the people over which he rules, but also part of the people who are defined by him, by what has happened to him, by what the one God has promised him.” (830) To be in Christ, i.e. in Messiah, is to be in “Israel” as the people of God. This Israel is a redefined, but not replaced Israel, redefined according to the Hebrew prophets to be a people of a new covenant, living in a new age. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16 ESV)

So what about the Torah, the Jewish law? “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Galatians 3:24-29 ESV)

“Paul regarded Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, and that he saw and expressed that belief in terms of Messiah’s summing up of Israel in himself, thereby launching a new solidarity in which all those ‘in him’ would be characterized by his ‘faithfulness’, expressed in terms of his death and resurrection.” (835)

V. Jesus the Faithful Messiah in Romans 3 and 4
“The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Greek: pisteos Iesou Christou) for all who believe. For there is no distinction.” (Romans 3:22 ESV)

Should we translate this as “faith in Jesus Christ” or the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ?” Wright says the the latter. “The faithfulness which was required of Israel, but not provided, has now been provided by Israel’s representative, the Messiah.” (837)

Back up to Romans 2:24-29. This text sets the context for our interpretive question in 3:22. The context a question itself: Who is a Jew? Answer: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (2:24-29 ESV) Paul here radically redefines what it means to be a member of the chosen people of God (i.e. a Jew).

We continue with Paul’s thought process into Romans 3. “Then what advantage has the Jew?” (3:1)  Answer: “Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” (3:2) Then Paul asks, “What if some were unfaithful (in their vocation)? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? (Romans 3:3). The context here is the faithfulness of Israel and the faithfulness of God.

Romans 3:9-20 makes it clear that Israel shares in the failure of humanity to reflect God’s image. Israel too is under sin. Israel has not been faithful to the oracles of God entrusted to them. “If the covenant God is going to bless the world through Israel, he needs a faithful Israelite.” (839) Now we return to Romans 3:22. First Paul writes that the righteousness of God, that is God’s covenant faithfulness, has been manifested apart from the Jewish Law, even though the law points to it. And now Romans 3:22: “God’s covenant justice comes into operation through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, for the benefit of all who have faith.” (Kingdom New Testament)

It is not faith in Jesus that demonstrates God’s righteousness (covenant faithfulness/justice), but rather the faithfulness of Jesus. Personal faith is still necessary if we are to be justified, which is why Paul writes “for all who believe” (Romans 3:22 ESV). Israel has been unfaithful. Jesus the Messiah as Israel-in-person proudly wears the badge of faithfulness. Faith, and not the law, then becomes the badge worn by the Messiah-people who are identified as the people of God. In wearing the badge of faith, human beings — both Jews and Gentiles — are justified. (More on this later.)

The faithfulness of God has been demonstrated through the redemption that is in the Messiah Jesus by his blood (3:25). Redemption language draws upon Jewish imagery, the celebrated passover event, where God rescues Israel from Egyptian slavery. God has passed over sin, but sin has been dealt with at the cross. We are now justified, set right, not by the law demonstrated by actions, but the law demonstrated by faith, because faith in Jesus sums up the law, it brings the law to its intended purpose (3:31).

The issue in Paul’s redefinition of election (those chosen to be the people of God who carry out the mission of God on the earth) is to make the point “Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also…” (Romans 3:29 ESV) The language used by Paul fits into both juridical and participationist categories.

Juridical = having to do with legal status, a courtroom metaphor
Participationist = having to do with human participation, a relational metaphor

We are justified by faith apart from the law (3:28). This statement implies we are “reckoned to be within the justified people, those whom this God has declared ‘righteous’, ‘forgiven’, ‘members of the covenant’, on the basis of pistis (faith) alone.” (847)

VI. Faithfulness and Justification
A person is not justified by works of the law but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 2:16)  “Justification is all about being declared to be a member of God’s people; and this people is defined in relation to the Messiah himself.” (856) When we are justified we are “declared to be in the right” and thus members of God’s covenant community.

Those who rely on the works of the law as the badge of membership in the family of God are under a curse, but Jesus redeems us from the curse by becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13) so that God’s promise to Abraham could come true and the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles (i.e. the nations, the people of the entire world). Jesus’ redeeming death is how he demonstrates God’s faithfulness to the covenant.

So why then the law (the Torah)? (Galatians 3:19) In a word: sin. The Torah served as as a stand-in, a babysitter, until Messiah came. “Torah offered life, it could not give it — not through its own fault, but through the sinful human nature of the Israel to which it had been given.” (871) The law was necessary, but temporary. It created two families where the one God desired one people. “How do we know that this God desires that single family? Because God is one….Monotheism, freshly understood through Messiah and spirit, provides the ground and source for the fresh christological understanding of election.” (872) The law was not wrong. It was not opposed to the promises of God, but because of human sinfulness (including the sins of Israel) it was bound to enslave God’s people.

VII. Messiah’s Action and Our Participation as the People of God
“God’s covenantal purpose to bless the world through Israel – has been accomplished through the Messiah.” (879) God acted in and through Jesus the Messiah and as Messiah’s people we participate in what he has done.

“He died for all (Messiah’s achievement), that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (the implementation and our participation).” (2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV)

“God through Christ reconciled us to himself (Messiah’s action) and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (our participation)…” (2 Corinthians 5:18 ESV)

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin (Messiah’s action), so that in him we might become (embody) the righteousness of God (our participation).” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The death of the Messiah brought sin, the plight, to a single point where it could be condemned and its power broken. “For God has does what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (God’s work through Messiah’s action), in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (our participation).” (Romans 8:3 ESV) “The cross is, for Paul, the sign of the centre: the centre for Israel, the centre for humankind. It is the middle of everywhere, the definite line which refocuses edge-lured minds, the axis of everything.” (910)

VIII. Final Thoughts
Monotheism, the one reign of the one God of Israel, informs Paul’s understand of election — God’s one promise to bless the world by choosing one nation, Israel, to reflect his glory in his world. “The elect” in Paul’s writings refers to the people of God identified by faith who have received the task of being the instruments of salvation, reconciliation, and healing of God’s good, but broken, world.

Prayer of Irenaeus

Prayer to God the Father
A Prayer of Irenaeus

I appeal to you, Lord,
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob and Israel,
You the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Infinitely merciful as you are, it is your will that we should learn to know you.
You made heaven and earth, you rule supreme over all that is.
You are the true, the only God; there is no other god above you.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ…and the gifts of the Holy Spirit,
grant that all who read what I have written here may know you,
because you alone are God; let them draw strength from you;
keep them from all the teaching that is heretical, irreligious or godless.


(Taken from Early Christian PrayersEdited by A. Hamman, Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1961, 30-31)

N.T. Wright and the Faithfulness of Paul: Part 4: Monotheism Redefined in Light of Jesus and the Spirit

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, creating an outline of the book as a part of a class I am teaching at our church. This is the fourth of a nine-part series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Check out the previous posts here: Part 1 |Part 2 | Part 3

This section begins N.T. Wright’s discussion of Paul’s theology around three central themes: monotheism, election, and eschatology. This section discusses Jewish monotheism.

Part 4: Monotheism Redefined in Light of Jesus and the Spirit
Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Chapter 9

I. Introduction to Paul’s Theology
“Worldview and theology go together in a chicken-and-egg sort of way, as opposed to a fish-and-chips sort of way.” (609) Paul’s theology is shaped by his worldview and when we look at his theology we begin to see his worldview in vivid detail.

Paul’s theology is built around three primary elements of Jewish theology: monotheism, election, and eschatology. Paul did not reject Jewish elements of life and thought, but he “rethought, reworked and reimagined them around Jesus the Messiah on the one hand and the Spirit on the other.” (612)

A. Monotheism: the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the creator God rethought in light of Jesus and the Spirit (Part 4)

B. Election: God’s calling and vocation for Israel to be the one people of the one God reworked through Jesus’ work to build his church through the Spirit (Part 5-6)

C. Eschatology: God’s future for God’s world reimagined through the coming of Messiah and the outpouring of the Spirit of Messiah (Parts 7-8)

II. Jewish Monotheism during Second Temple Judaism
“God the creator, God of Israel…is the constant refrain, not least for those who believe themselves to be living in a continuing ‘exile.’ Their God is the true God, and his rescue of Israel will reveal the fact to the nations.” (622) Jewish monotheism is connected to Jewish kingdom theology (i.e. the kingdom of God). The one God of Israel will rescue Israel and demonstrate his rulership over the nations. The oneness of God was not a reference to the inner nature of God (ontology), but to God’s supremacy over all other gods and rulers (politics).

III. Paul’s Reaffirmation of Monotheism
“Empires thrive on religious relativism; the more gods the better, since the more there are the less likely they are to challenge the ruling ideology.” (634) In the spirit of second temple Judaic monotheism, Paul expressed the cry of monotheism in a pagan world in passages like Roman 3:29-30: “Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, God is one—(and he) will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.”

If we take the Jewish Shema (Hear O Israel the LORD your God is one and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.) as the cornerstone of Jewish monotheism, we hear echos of it in places like Romans 8:28 “to those who love God….”

Paul further affirms monotheism in his reference to God as the creator and judge of the world as Jewish monotheism is best expressed not in speculative thoughts about the nature of God, but the actions of God in history (e.g. creation and judgment). See Romans 1:19; 11:33-36; 1 Corinthians 15:23-28

IV. Monotheism Rethought through Jesus

A. Thoughts on Christology (the study of the person and work of Christ)
Some have speculated that the early Christians, including those of the apostolic era of Paul, did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was God in human form because this was not a Jewish idea. There was a Jewish expectation of the return of Yahweh who would reign as king and rescue Israel from exile. Early Christians believe he had returned in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and “Jesus’ first followers found themselves not only (as it were) permitted to use God-language for Jesus, but compelled to use Jesus-language for the One God.” (655)

B. A revised Shema with Jesus in it
N.T. Wright chooses five texts as examples of monotheism rethought in light of Jesus: Galatians 4:1-11; Romans 8:1-4; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; Colossians 1; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Philippians 2:6-11. Here is one text: “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6 ESV)

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul address the issue of eating food used as a sacrificial offering in pagan idol worship. He offers his pastoral guidance upon sound theology based in the Shema: “there is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).  “To pray the Shema was to embrace the yoke of God’s kingdom, to commit oneself to God’s purposes on earth as in heaven, whatever it might cost. It was to invoke, and declare one’s loyalty to, the One God who had revealed himself in action at the Exodus and was now giving his people their inheritance.” (663)

We worship the one God in a world with many gods, but for us “there is one God, the Father…. Everything Paul has written so far is in line with Jewish thinking, but he adds “…and one Lord, Jesus Christ.” Compare the two lines (1 Corinthians 8:6):

one God, the Father,     from whom are all things             and for whom we exist
one Lord, Jesus Christ,       through whom are all things and through whom we exist

Paul has intentionally (and shockingly for a Jewish reader) expanded the Shema to include Jesus. He adds no explanation or argument, so we can assume a theological revolution has taken place among the primarily Jewish followers of Jesus the Messiah. In the Greek translation of the Torah, the Shema uses the word “Lord” (Greek: kyrios) for Yahweh. Paul is now using the word “Lord” to speak of Jesus.

Shema in Greek: akoue Israel kyrios ho theos hemon kyrios heis estin
1 Corinthians 8:6: heis theos ho pater…..heis kyrios Isous Christos

“Israel’s God has returned at last in and as Jesus, (this) anchors the key worldview-symbol, the single community of the Messiah’s followers. The revised Shema sustains both the unity and the holiness of the community.” (666) Not only has the one God returned in and as Jesus the Messiah, but the Messiah has been crucified (1 Corinthians 8:11), increasing the redefinition of monotheism in shocking terms.

“Paul sees the community of those who live by the rule of the One God, One lord — which is the community of the crucified Messiah, defined by him in his death and resurrection — as the community in and through whom God’s sovereign rule is coming to birth. To pray the revised shema, just as much as the ancient one, was to take upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom.” (668) The coming Kingdom meant God had returned to his people, which Paul proclaims has happened in the coming of Jesus. He thought of Jesus in categories belonging to Yahweh.

C. The resurrection of the one Lord Jesus
Jesus embodied the return of the One God of Israel in life, death, and resurrection. His resurrection on the third day, revealed Jesus was indeed the Messiah. “(He) was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:4). “Son of God” was already used by the empire to speak of the Caesar, but for Jewish listeners the term spoke of the one sent from God. Jesus himself had called God his “Father,” so it seemed fitting to refer to Jesus as the Son. The resurrection did not create something new, but revealed what was already there.

In using the title “Lord” in reference to Jesus, Paul is implying that Yahweh himself is “arriving in the person of the Messiah, at the climax of the story of Israel” (705) For example, the confession “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) brings about salvation for both the Jew and the Greek because, in quoting from the Old Testament, the “same Lord is Lord of all” and “all those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” “Lord” in the Old Testament is a reference to Yahweh.

V. Monotheism Rethought through the Spirit
“The spirit was not, for Paul and his contemporaries, a ‘doctrine’ or ‘dogma’ to be discussed, but the breath of life which put them in a position to discuss everything else — and more to the point, to worship, pray, love and work.” (710) An understanding of the full divinity of the Spirit came about in the fourth century, but the church fathers used the language of first century biblical writers to work out their descriptions of the Holy Spirit. For example, Irenaeus (second century church father) wrote: “For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, he made all things. This is to whom also he speaks, saying, ‘Let Us make man after our image and likeness.’”

The Spirit, like Jesus, was doing the sorts of things a first century Jewish person would expect Yahweh to do. The Spirit dwelling in the temple of our bodies (1 Corinthians 3:16) is a picture of the long-awaited return of Yahweh to the temple. The Spirit here plays the role of the Shekinah presence of God dwelling on the earth. Yahweh has returned to Zion through Jesus and the Spirit as he promised (Isaiah 52:6-8).

“The Spirit is the personal, powerful manifestation of the One God of Jewish monotheism, the God who, having given Torah, has at last enable his people to fulfil it and so come into the blessings of covenant renewal…” (719) The Spirit enables us to do what the Shema requires in a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34) forming a new exodus out of sin and death and into the family of life (Romans 8). The new temple where the Spirit works out this new covenant and new exodus is the “fellowship of Messiah’s people.” (726)

In identifying both Jesus and the Spirit as accomplishing the work of Yahweh, the one God of Israel, Paul has radically rethought and redefined monotheism using Jewish language, imagery, and intent. The oneness of God in Jewish monotheism was not theoretical speculation on the essence of God, but rather the rule of God as creator over the pagan gods worshiped by so many others. Paul redefines monotheism within this framework. “The kingdom has been inaugurated through the work of Jesus, who, both as the embodiment of Israel’s God and as the single bearer of Israel’s destiny, has defeated the old enemy, has accomplished the new Exodus, and is now, by his spirit, leading his people to their inheritance — not, of course, ‘heaven’, but the reclaiming of all creation.” (735)

VI. Monotheism and the Problem of Evil
“The stronger your monotheism, the sharper your problem of evil. That is inevitable: if there is one God, why are things in such a mess?” (737) Paul viewed the problem of evil through his redefined Jewish monotheism. Scripture does not provide a detailed answer to the the question, “Why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Paul works within the Jewish tradition of not providing answers to the “why” question, but offering responses regarding what the creator intends to do about evil in his world. “Paul’s radical rethinking of creational and covenantal monotheism contained within itself both an intensification of the problem and an equally radical solution.” (747)

VII. The Plight in Paul’s Theology
The problem of evil, that is the plight of Israel and humanity, have been rethought by Paul in light of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit. Paul understood the problem of idolatry and injustice contributing to evil and suffering in the world, but he came to find the “solution” to the problem in the death/resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. If the solution required the death of the Son of God then the plight is far worst than Paul first imaged.

A. The plight in light of the cross & resurrection
If the plight was essentially a problem with pagan/Gentile nations oppressing and preventing Israel from fulfilling her vocation to be a light of salvation to the world, then why did the Jewish Messiah have to crucified? The problem was not merely the Gentiles not acting like Jews or the oppression of Jews by the Roman Empire. The problem was sin and death itself. Israel, while the chosen covenant people of God, had become a part of the problem. The Messiah is crucified so sin could be condemned and death could be defeated (Romans 8:3). The plight is both personal and cosmic, both individual and corporate, both a Gentile problem and a Jewish problem.

B. The plight in light of the Spirit
The Spirit came to do what the Torah alone was unable to do, transform and renew the hearts of God’s people. The transformational work of the Spirit would produce the life promised in God’s covenant with Israel. “The One God had revealed this ‘life’ both in the resurrection of Jesus, in the promise of resurrection for all Jesus’ people, and in the new moral shaping of their present lives. This was what the Torah could not do, because by itself it could not in fact deal with either sin or death.” (759) The problem revealed by sin and death is not simply that individuals were guilty and subject to the judgment (wrath) of God, but that sin and death prevented the covenant community of God from carrying out God’s purposes to save and restore the world.

C. The plight in Romans 1:18-2:16
The wrath of God has been revealed against unrighteous and ungodly men (Romans 1:18). For Paul the “wrath of God” is a picture of the divine punishment of sinners (Romans 1:32). This is future judgment coming upon those who are “storing up wrath yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Gentiles are without excuse because they have seen God’s attributes in creation. Jews who practice evil and yet judge the Gentiles are equally complicit in the plight. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:9-11).

VIII. Final Thoughts
What Israel and Torah could not do, the one God of Israel did in the coming of Jesus and the Spirit. “Idolatry-and-immorality was not simply a pagan problem to which Jewish Torah-possession and Torah-keeping would provide the answer, either in terms of protecting Jews from catching the infection or more positively, enabling them to bring the world back to its senses.” (770)