N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: Week 5

I am blogging my way through N.T. Wright’s book The Day the Revolution Began, creating an outline of the book as a small group study I am leading at our church. This is the fifth of six blogs in this series. All quotations followed by a number in parenthesis are quotes from the book. Click here for previous weeks [Week 1] [Week 2] [Week 3] [Week 4]

The Death of Jesus in Romans
The Day the Revolution Began (Chapters 12-13)

Chapter 12: Romans (Part 1)

Romans is a wonderfully challenging and complex letter. In reading it we are, at times, standing on our feet applauding the poetic brilliance of Paul and at other times we are sitting, scratching our heads trying to make sense of where Paul is going with certain arguments. Nevertheless, in various places Paul says explicitly what the first Christians believed about the cross such as “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, see also Romans 3:25-26, 4:24-25, 7:4, 8:3-4).Too often the first four chapters of Romans have been read from the mistaken perspective of the works contract. Worse yet the entire letter has been wrongly summed up in the popular “Romans Road,” which skips through Romans completely missing Paul’s point.

Three important things to keep in mind before we begin to see how Paul describes the death of Jesus, and its effects, in Romans. First, Romans is a tightly woven, orderly, sophisticated letter with four identifiable sections connected together in a subtle but cohesive way. Second, Romans is not a collection of theological doctrines for us to pull out and examine in isolation. Often, people have gone to Romans looking to understand the doctrine of justification for example, missing both the context and the other important themes in the letter. Third, the letter underscores the goal of salvation is not going to heaven but new creation and the restoration of God’s image-bearing creatures to their intended role in God’s good creation.

According to Romans 1:18, the problem with humanity is not just sin, but ungodliness, Greek word asebeia, best translated as a “lack of proper respect for God.” In other words, human beings do not simply have a problem with behavior but with worship. We have routinely worshipped the creation rather than the Creator. This expression of idolatry has led us into sinful behavior (Romans 1:22-23). Paul uses homosexual activity as an example of the root problem of ungodliness (Romans 1:26). “Sin” is regularly how Paul describes the brokenness of humanity, but it is more than just acts of willful disobedience. Free from sin, humanity in Christ is now enabled to share in Jesus’ ministry “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (Romans 15:16). So how has the death of Jesus responded to this problem of sin, ungodliness, and idolatry?

Often, people turn to Romans 3:21-26 for answers, but this passage is a part of a different argument Paul is making about God’s righteousness, that is God’s covenant faithfulness. Some have argued Romans 1-4 describes sin and what God did about it, while Romans 5-8 is about other associated topics. Romans 5-8 is the second section of the four sections of Romans, and in this section we find more references to the the death of Jesus than in any other section in Romans. Paul’s recurring theme in this section, and throughout Romans, is the New Exodus, the freedom from slavery to sin and the journey to renewed creation.

Romans 5:1-5 sums up Romans 3:21-4:25, the long passage about justification by faith, a subject we will return to momentarily. The experience of justification produces a hope rooted in God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), a love Paul celebrates in Romans 8:31-39 right at the climax of the letter.

While Paul does not explicitly explain how, he writes “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). This reconciliation for those “justified by his blood” includes being “saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9). “Wrath” is that which is revealed from heaven against ungodliness (Romans 1:18) and is being stored up by those with stubborn unrepentant hearts (Romans 2:5). Wrath here is picture of God’s eschatology judgment. Most English translations include the words “of God,” but the Greek text only says “the wrath.”

With hope secured in Christ, “those who receive the abundance of grace” will “reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). This “reign in life” refers to sharing in the reign of God, that is the kingdom of God. Through the death of Christ, the covenant of vocation is back on track. The free gift of “righteousness” whereby “many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19), speaks not of our moral standing before God, but about our standing within God’s covenant family. The gift of righteousness for Wright is the “gift of covenant membership,” where we are declared “in the right” and thus members of the one people of God. The Mosaic law increased sin, which produced the kingdom of death. Grace as a summation of the work of Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection produces the Kingdom of God’s covenant faithfulness and justice.

Romans 6-8 with its description of the struggle with sin in Romans 7 and the new life in the Spirit in Romans 8 is not a picture of the “normal Christian life.” Rather these chapters fully expand what Paul wrote in Romans 3:24-26 about the redemption found in Christ Jesus. “Redemption” is a word drawn from the Exodus, indicating that what Paul wrote in these chapters is a picture of the New Exodus in Jesus.

Romans 6:2-11 pictures baptism as the means by which we identify with the death of Jesus in order that we may “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Sin becomes personified as the slave-master, and baptism becomes a picture of the cross of the Red Sea, where the people of God leave behind the slavery of Egypt for a new life in God’s Promised Land. Jesus has died and through his resurrection “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). We were enslaved to sin. “You are slaves of the one whom you obey” (Romans 6:16), but Jesus has died to sin, freeing us from the dominion of sin and death. With these words Paul draws upon the Passover theme and theme of the end of exile through the forgiveness of sins.

In Romans 7:4, Paul reemphasized this point. We have died to the law through Jesus’ death “in order that we may bear fruit for God,” a reference back to Jesus’ words in John 15:5 and the words of Isaiah 4:7, 32:16, 45:8. Our covenant of vocation to be image-bearers of God is the fruit God is looking for. What Paul described is a New Exodus movement, a kingdom of God movement, and it works because Jesus represents his people; what happened to him, happened to us. He died and was raised. In Christ, we die to sin and are raised to newness of life. Jesus is both our representative and our substitute. Sin with its enslaving power has been defeated. None of this can be reduced to simple formulas or quick and easy summaries outside of “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”

What makes our pursuit of the meaning of the death of Christ complex is that it means what it means in connection to the Scriptures and story of Israel. For Wright, “Every step away from the Jewish narrative, in this case the Jewish narrative as reaching its focal point in Israel’s Messiah, is a step towards paganism” (281). Within the works contract view, Israel is just an example of people not keeping God’s rules and Abraham is nothing more than an example of how individuals develop a relationship with God by being justified by faith.
Much of what Paul is wrestling with in Romans is the role of the Jewish Law. In Romans 7, Paul makes the argument that the law pulled together sin into a single point so that sin could be condemned once and for all. The struggle with sin, described by Paul in Romans 7, is in the first person (“I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” – Romans 7:15). This use of the first person is a “rhetorical I,” Paul is speaking of “himself” as a representative of all of Israel under the law.

Romans 7 tells the story Israel which on a large scale of the story of Adam and Eve. Sin personified as a force of evil “seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me,” according to Paul (Romans 7:11). Sin did this through the giving of the law which is itself good and holy. God gave the law, not for sin to have its opportunity, but so that God could do what God did next. Through the law, and in Israel, sin was gathered together into a single point so God could condemn it in the flesh of Jesus who is Israel-in-person.

If we see any kind of “penal” aspect in Paul’s letter, it is in Romans 8:3: “For God has done 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 did not punish Jesus. Rather God “punished” sin in the body of Jesus. God declares that those in Christ are in the right, in the covenant family (Romans 5:19) and God declares sin condemned. In this way Jesus’ death is substitutionary. Sin has been condemned and now there is no condemnation for those in Christ.

Sin has now finally been dealt with, rescuing people from its enslaving power in the cross, which is the New Passover event, the New Exodus, leading people into new creation. Within the stories of ancient Israel and in Jesus as the conclusion of that story, we find the true meaning of the death of Jesus. In sending the Son, God was sending himself. God initiated a covenant with Abraham and remained faithful to the covenant in and through Jesus. Those who have been justified in Jesus are now justice bringers with Jesus as expressions of God’s love. Wright asks, “What if the Creator, all along; had made the world out of overflowing, generous love, so that the overflowing, self-sacrificial love of the Son going to the cross was indeed the accurate and precise self-expression of the love of God for a world radically out of joint?” (293).

Chapter 13: Romans (Part 2)

We now turn our attention back to Romans 3:21-26, this very important, very densely packed, and very hotly debated passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Wright quotes this passage from the NRSV, which he calls “the least problematic” (295). I am working with the ESV which has some issues we will address below. Here is the text in its entirety:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Two things to keep in mind before diving into this text. First, early Christians saw Jesus’ death as connected to Passover, the exodus event, and thus, the great forgiveness-of-sins event. Second, Romans 1-4 should be read as a whole with Romans 3:21-26 as the center of the argument Paul is making. If we remove this text from its connection to the Jewish Passover and the entire context of Paul’s thought process in Romans 1-4, we will misunderstand Paul’s point. We will end up defaulting to the works contract perspective and wrongly assume Paul in Romans 3:21-26 is describing how (1) humans in general sin, breaking God’s rules, (2) Jesus keeps the rules and (3) Jesus is punished by God, so humans are now forgiven.

The proper context for understanding Romans 3 is the covenant of vocation, particularly the covenantal understanding of God’s work to set right a world gone wrong. Israel’s vocation is to be a “light to those who are in darkness” (Romans 2:19) and the promises given to Abraham included that he would “be heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). These two came together in Israel’s Messiah. In Jesus, God’s faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s faithfulness to God has been revealed. The key term underscoring faithfulness to the covenant is the Greek word dikaiosune most often translated in English as “righteousness,” but is best understood as “covenant faithfulness” or “covenant justice.”

Not only is the covenant theme necessary to keep in our minds as we look at Romans 3:21-26, but so is the idea of worship. In Romans 1, the problem Paul describes is the issue of exchanging the worship of Creator for the worship of creation. At the root of sin is a worship problem. Furthermore the primary object to Jewish sacrificial worship was the ark of the covenant, the lid of which is called in Greek hilasterion best translated as “the seat of mercy,” “mercy seat,” or the “place of atonement.” With the themes of covenant and worship from the perspective of the story of Israel fresh in our minds, we are almost ready to dive into this thick text, but first we have to deal with some of the problems we encounter with the average reading of Romans 3:21-26.

First, some readings of Romans jump over large portions of the text to individual verses they piece together to form the “Romans Road,” which is straight out of the works contract. “Righteousness” from this perspective is the moral quality of goodness which is given to us. This definition of righteousness fails to see the connection to the covenant and worship themes. Second, the word hilasterion is regrettably translated in the ESV as “propitiation,” meaning “that which averts to anger of a god.” A further problem is when Romans 4 is read with Abraham as merely an example of how individuals who are justified by faith, ignoring the promises made to Abraham.

The key problem with these readings is they miss both the immediate context established by Romans 2:27-31, namely raising the questions: Who is a Jew? Who are to be included in the covenant people of God? What marks people as covenant people? Paul’s argument about who are God’s people is built upon Romans 2:17-20 where he reminds the Jews of their vocation to be the light of the world. Paul is not accusing Israel of bigotry. Rather, Israel as the light of the world is supposed to be the answer to the problem, which is not just sinful behavior, but idolatry which has enslaved humanity, hardening people’s hearts, causing them to store up wrath “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Nowhere in Romans does Paul talk about the assumed themes of “going to heaven,” “getting right with God,” or “having a right relationship with God.”

The description of divine wrath in Romans 1:18, 2:5-8, 3:5, 4:15, and 5:9 have caused some to wrongly assume hilasterion, one of the key words in Romans 3:21-26, is how divine wrath is dealt with, an assumption made by the ESV in using the word “propitiation.” First, the context of covenant and worship leads us to see hilasterion refers not to wrath, but to the “mercy seat,” the lid to the Ark of the Covenant where blood was sprinkled once a year on the Jewish Day of Atonement. Second, the Jewish sacrificial system makes provision for animal sacrifice, but nowhere in the law is the animal offered in place of the worshiper. Third, Paul could not have implied that “justified in his blood” in Romans 3:21-26 meant “saved by wrath,” because then his statement in Romans 5:9 would not make sense. It would be the logical fallacy of tautology, “being saved by wrath, we shall be saved from wrath.” Fourth, Paul mentions that God did not punish sins, but “passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25).

One interpretive key to Romans 3:21 is how we translate the Greek word dikaiosune most often translated in English as “righteousness.” While it has often been understood as a status or quality of moral rightness, it is best understood in relation to God in the context of covenant as “God’s faithfulness to the covenant—the covenant not only with Abraham and Israel, but through Israel to the wider world” (303). In the Old Testament the word righteousness refers to right things God does, but always it is connecting to God doing right things in the light of his fidelity to the covenant with Israel. God did punish Israel as a part of his faithfulness in order to draw Israel back to obedience and faithfulness to the covenant on their part.

The problem with Israel’s faithlessness is that it challenges the faithfulness of God. How is God going to keep his promises to Abraham if the children of Abraham do not keep up their end of the covenant? Paul asks the question this way: “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?” (Romans 3:3). Paul answers, “No way!” God remains faithful. God shows his righteousness, his covenant faithfulness, in the face of Israel’s unrighteousness, that is their unfaithfulness. Paul then asks, “Is God unfaithful to inflict wrath on us?” (Romans 3:5). Paul admits he is writing in a “human way.” In other words, he is using a human description and attributing it to God as a metaphor. God does not literally inflict wrath, but God does punish his covenant people by “giving them up” to do what they want and experiencing the consequences of their actions (Romans 1:28). So God’s righteousness is not God’s moral integrity in a general sense, but a very specific faithfulness to the covenant demonstrated in Jesus for bringing justice to the world, that is, setting the world right.

Some fear that an interpretation of Romans 3:21-26 from the perspective of covenant will imply people take sin, punishment, and salvation less seriously, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is the “Roman Road” shortcut is “like a cocktail without the all-important shot of bourbon” (307). It has some of the flavors of sin and salvation in it, but it is missing the real kick of Paul’s primary argument. The “Roman’s Road” misses the story of Israel altogether. When Paul writes that we have “sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), he is using temple-language. The Jewish expectation and longing was for the glory of God to return to the Temple. Ignoring the story of Israel gives people the wrong impression that God has somehow given up on Israel. Paul’s point is that Jews and Gentiles are on equal footing. Israel has shared in the ungodliness of the Gentile pagan world and remain in exile away from the presence of God.

Jesus is the light of the world as Israel’s Messiah. According to Wright, “Incarnation does not cancel election; it brings it to its climax” (312). In other words, Jesus does not eliminate the calling of Israel, but rather brings the mission of Israel across the finish line. The very definition of God’s covenant faithfulness is that God has not abandoned Israel. Romans 3:21-26 deals with the problems of sin and idolatry, as well as establishing the ongoing faithfulness of God.

Romans 3:27-31 further grounds the discussion of justification in the context of Jews and Gentiles coming together to worship the one, true living God. God’s purposes for Israel are filled in that God welcomes the Gentiles in order to rescue the whole world. God offers Jesus as the hilasterion, the “mercy seat,” as the place where God washed Israel clean of their sins. The goal was to restore worship for Israel and for the world and the means by which worship was to be restored was the covenant.

When we return to look at Romans 3:21-26, we focus on the righteousness of God, the covenant faithfulness of God on display. God’s own faithfulness has been made known through the “faithfulness of Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22). While most English translations render verse 22 “faith in Jesus Christ,” the context requires a better translation. If we understand God’s righteousness as God’s covenant faithfulness, then we also need look at how we translate “faith in Jesus.” Is God’s covenant faithfulness revealed in our act of believing in Jesus? It seems like Paul’s entire point is leading us to see that God’s covenant faithfulness is revealed in Jesus’ death. We do experience the benefits of the faithfulness of Jesus, which is why Paul adds “for all who believe” (Romans 3:22).

God’s covenant faithfulness and the covenant membership God offers is a gift of grace. Those who believe and thus put their trust in the faithfulness of Jesus, wear faith as a “badge of membership in the new covenant family” (320). The death of Jesus does for Israel what Israel could not do, that is, responding to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness.

To be “justified by his grace” (Romans 3:24) is to be declared members of Abraham’s family and thus “in the right.” Paul has established that the people of God are no longer marked by circumcision (Romans 2:28-29) and that people will no longer be justified by observing the law (Romans 2:20). A new thing is happening through the death of Jesus. The purposes of Israel will be fulfillment but the meaning of “Israel” as the covenant people of God will have to be rethought in order to make room for the Gentiles. This justification reveals God’s faithfulness, because God is dealing with sin through the death of Jesus. If sin would have been ignored, then God would not have been faithful to the covenant.

Something new has broken in on the earth through the death of Jesus. A revolution has begun and the resurrection of Jesus is the first sign of both the newness and the revolution. The renewed people of God with faith in Jesus have received a present verdict that they are in the right (justified), in anticipation of a final judgment that is to come. Those in Christ are no longer under condemnation (Romans 8:1) as sin has already been condemned in Jesus through his death (Romans 8:3).

In Romans 3:24, Paul calls the death of Jesus the apolytrosis, or “redemption.” The Greek word here is used of redeeming or purchasing a slave from the slave market. This is exodus-language. Israel was enslaved in Egypt and God redeemed them, by freeing them from slavery and leading them to the Promised Land. Exodus is the heart of redemption in the story of Israel; the death of Jesus can be viewed as a New Exodus for the new people of God.

In taking a deeper look at hilasterion, we turn to look at the instructions to construct the Ark in Exodus 25:10-22. The lid or covering for the Ark was called “the mercy seat,” Hebrew word kapporeth. This covering was not the place where sinners were punished. It was a place of meeting. “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony…” (Exodus 25:22). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Greek word used for mercy seat is hilasterion. When Paul writes of Jesus offering his blood, Paul uses the word hilasterion, which has nothing to do with punishment and wrath, but of worship and cleansing. In Leviticus where an animal, the scapegoat, has sins confessed over it, that animal is not killed as a symbolic act of punishment. Rather, it is sent away (Leviticus 16:21). Hilasterion is a word drawn from Temple theology and not pagan religions with sacrifice offered to the gods to avert their anger.

God has put forth Jesus not a propitiatory sacrifice to satisfy God’s wrath or honor God’s justice. Far from it! For God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God put forth Jesus as the meeting place between God and humanity, where humanity could be cleansed of sin by the taking away of sin. In this way, the death of Jesus shows forth God’s covenant faithfulness (Romans 3:25) and demonstrates God’s love (Romans 5:8). These themes echo back to the vocation of Israel’s servant in Isaiah 40-55. The servant of Isaiah takes upon himself the punishment of Israel, releasing Israel from exile that they would be free to carry on with their image-bearing, fruit-producing life. Punishment in this context is a metaphor for the consequences of the nation in disobedience to God. Punishment has a part in the story of redemption, but it cannot out-maneuver what Paul has made central in Romans 3, that is the never-ending love and covenant faithfulness of God.

Noting the temple-language and temple theology in Romans 3, we can see that Jesus in his humanity and divinity is the meeting place where God and God’s people come together. Indeed heaven and earth have come together in the very place God has chosen to meet with God’s people. Jesus’ death as described in Romans 3:21-26 further connects with what we have seen in the gospels. Jesus’ death is both a New Exodus and a New Passover. According to Wright, “The death of Jesus was the moment when the great gate of human history, bolted with iron bars and overgrown with toxic weeds, burst open so that the Creator’s project of reconciliation between heaven and earth could at last be set in powerful motion” (349).

Discussion Questions

  1. Where do you see “ungodliness,” that is, a lack of proper respect for God, in your world?
  2. Why is the story of Israel important for understanding what Paul wrote in Romans about the death of Jesus?
  3. In the past how have you understood “righteousness”? What does the righteousness of God as “God’s covenant faithfulness” mean to you?
  4. Why do Christians often assume that someone has to be punished in order for others to be forgiven?
  5. Below is one version of the “Roman Road.” What is missing from this summary?
    + All have sinned. (Romans 3:23)
    + The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23)
    + Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
    + Confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and you shall be saved. (Romans 10:9)
  6. In what ways is Jesus our substitute?