N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
(Rom. 2:13-16 ESV) 13 For it is not the hearers of the law [Torah] who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law [Torah] who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law [Torah], by nature do what the law [Torah] requires, they are a law [Torah] to themselves, even though they do not have the law [Torah]. 15 They show that the work of the law [Torah] is written on their hearts [by the Spirit], while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Remember: when Paul says “law,” he means “Torah,” especially the Law of Moses.
V. 13 tells us that Paul is speaking of at least the Jews. They heard the Torah but, Paul says, didn’t obey. Indeed, they were so disobedient that God sent them into Exile and visited the curses of the Torah on the nation of Israel.
The assumption made by most commentators is that verses 14 and 15 speak to Gentiles who obey God’s commands outside of the church. That is, it’s assumed that they haven’t heard the Torah and so have never heard the gospel, and so these Gentiles have no faith in Jesus but have meritorious works that save them.
That, of course, is quite impossible, and elsewhere (such as in his book Justification), Wright argues that Paul is speaking of converted Gentiles. Paul says, “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts,” which is language borrowed from Jer 31:31 ff, the promise of the new covenant —
(Jer. 31:33 NET) 33 “But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,” says the LORD. “I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people.”
If I were to say to my Sunday school class, “Judge not,” they’d immediately know that I’m referencing the Sermon on the Mount and the authority of Jesus. Just so, in his day, when Paul referenced Jeremiah’s promise of a “new covenant” — Christianity! — he was well understood by his readers.
So this is how I read the passage —
(Rom. 2:13-16 ESV) 13 For it is not the hearers of the Torah who are covenant faithful before God, but the doers of the Torah who will be declared faithful to the covenants. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the Torah, by nature do what the Torah requires, they are a Torah to themselves, even though they do not have the Torah. 15 They show that the work of the Torah is written on their hearts [by the Spirit, as promised by Jeremiah regarding those who respond to the gospel to come], while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that [Judgment] day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by King Jesus.
In other words, some Jews were arguing that they are saved by virtue of being Jews and, among other things, having God’s word in the form of the Torah (the NT wasn’t yet written, of course). But, Paul says, the Gentiles I converted honor the Torah rather than just listening to it in synagogue. They live it! And when they mess up and sin, their consciences accuse them because God’s Torah has been written on their hearts. Therefore, you Jews have no right to look down on the Gentile converts.
Paul may well be responding to an implicit Jewish interjection: “We at least have Torah; that sets us apart from the Gentiles.” Here we meet for the first time a crucial point, without which much of Romans remains incomprehensible: “Those apart from the law” means quite simply “Gentiles,” and “those under the law” (literally “those in the law”) means “Jews.” “The law,” here and more or less throughout Romans, means “the Jewish law,” the Torah given to Moses on Mount Sinai, the law that defines and directs Israel, enabling them (supposedly) to be God’s people. Gentiles were not “under the law,” unless of course they became proselytes, voluntarily submitting to the Jewish code and becoming members, of a sort, within Israel.
The point of v. 12, then, is once more the justice with which the condemnation will be meted out. God will not use the Jewish law to condemn Gentile sinners, but will use it to condemn Jewish sinners. The force of v. 13 is further to undergird God’s impartiality; it cannot be the case that mere possession of Torah, hearing it read in synagogue, will carry validity with God. Torah was meant to be obeyed, not merely listened to [JFG: And so being chosen hardly guarantees salvation, just the special opportunities and blessings of the chosen people].
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 440.
(Rom. 2:17-24 ESV) 17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law [Torah] and boast in God 18 and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law [Torah]; 19 and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law [Torah] the embodiment of knowledge and truth [about God] — 21 you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law [Torah] dishonor God by breaking the law [Torah]. 24 For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you [the Jews].”
With the reading of 2:13-16 in mind, this passage is greatly clarified. The Jews were claiming that the possession of the Torah made them God’s chosen or elect (same word in the Hebrew or Greek), and as God’s chosen people, they were saved.
They weren’t boasting in their good works or obedience to moral principles (which some call “law”) but rather in their elect status as possessors of the Torah and God’s chosen people.
Paul then very harshly points out that the Jews violate the Ten Commandments — the core of God’s covenant with Israel. These are the commandments written on the stone tablets stored in the Ark of the Covenant. It’s likely why it’s called the Ark of the “Covenant”!
What Israel has done with Torah has instead brought dishonor: The pagan nations scorn the true God on the basis of the behavior of the covenant people. Breaking Torah nullifies boasting in Torah. Israel, in fact, is in the state spoken of by Isaiah in 52:5. Exile has come because of Israel’s sin (the pagan behavior among YHWH’s own people that caused YHWH’s displeasure), because the pagan nations, looking at Israel, now blaspheme Israel’s God.
N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 447.
Now, the point isn’t that the Jews sin and so need a Savior (although this is true). At present, Paul’s point is more, “The Jews were called to be light to the nations, have utterly failed — even driving the nations further from God by their sins (as shown by their idolatry that led to Exile and the hatred they engender among most Gentiles).” Therefore, the nation of Israel cannot claim to be justified by the Torah. Rather, ironically enough, it’s the uncircumcised Gentiles who have become a light to the world!
Light to the nations
Paul references these passages in Isaiah to demonstrate the Israel was to be a light to the nations.
(Isa. 42:6-7 ESV) 6 “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
(Isa. 49:5-6 ESV) 5 And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him– for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength– 6 he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
This was not a new doctrine, though. Just a new metaphor. Deuteronomy often speaks of how Israel is to draw the nations toward God —
(Deut. 4:5-8 ESV) 5 See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples [nations], who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
It’s the same thought: If Israel will keep Torah, the nations will be so impressed with Israel that they’ll marvel at Israel’s God for having given them such wisdom and understanding. And Paul charges Israel with doing just the opposite and so deserving its Exile status.