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. 2:25-29 ESV) 25 For circumcision [the mark of a Jews] indeed is of value if you obey the law [Torah], but if you break the law [Torah], your circumcision becomes uncircumcision [of the heart under Deu 10:16 and 30:6].
26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law [Torah], will not his [physical] uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision [or the heart]? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code [Torah] and circumcision but break the law [Torah].
28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [merely knowing Torah rather than obeying Torah]. His praise is not from man but from God.
I realize that I’ve spent too much time on this one passage, but if you don’t get this passage, you don’t get Romans. If you assume that Paul is talking about the importance of individual Bible study, you’ve missed Romans. If you think that Spirit is irrelevant to the modern church, then you’ve missed Romans.
In fact, Paul did not write this passage to address the faith/works controversy. And he’s not focused on atonement theory (how we get saved). Of course, the passage does speak to those questions — profoundly. But that’s not the over-arching point. The main point is that Gentiles are welcomed by God into the Kingdom, along with Jews, without having to become Jewish proselytes. They may enter the Kingdom as Gentiles because their hearts are circumcised by the Spirit — and this is the true mark of a child of God.
Now, more than one preacher and Bible class teacher has studied the New Perspective on Romans (Romans rethought in terms of the worldview of Second Temple period Judaism, that is, in true historical context) and wondered just how all this is relevant to the modern church. And it is, of course. Very relevant. But I’ll admit that not many congregations are torn up over the circumcision question today.
Here’s the thing. You have to, first, read in historical context to understand what’s being said. You can’t skip the “to Jew first and also to the Greek” elements without missing much of what is being said. But once you’ve sorted out Paul’s actual points, the other stuff is largely still there. That is, he does indeed talk about faith vs. works, and baptism, and the Spirit. Those passages don’t go away — but they carry a different flavor.
So a few thoughts on how what we’ve covered speaks to the modern church —
- We begin to see that the “gospel” is not just “how to go to heaven when we die.” The gospel is about not just salvation but how we relate to others. The fact that the gospel is for all nations, speaks profoundly to our own nationalism as Christians. I mean, we’re going to inherit the earth — transformed but still in some mysterious way the earth. And the Tower of Babel will be reversed. We’ll be a common people with a common language.
- And it speaks to denominationalism. There is no place in the gospel for division of any kind — even over atonement theology or apostolic succession. There is one church. Period.
- It speaks all the more loudly about racial divides within the church. Paul fought to have Jews and Gentiles get along in a single congregation — even if it meant avoiding eating meat altogether (Rom 14) — because the gospel requires it. Paul could have saved himself a lot of trouble by forming Gentile churches separate from Jewish churches, but he insisted that the gospel requires them to be a single church — even though both groups had long histories of being discriminated against by the other. Even though the Jews were a conquered people and had no desire to part of Rome. Even though … well, there simply are no reasons that Jesus’ sacrifice is insufficient to join people of different racial and ethnic and social backgrounds with long, painful histories of brutality toward each other. No excuses allowed. There may not be churches divided by race or ethnicity — even if that violates church growth theory and makes some people mad. It’s a non-negotiable or else Paul never would have written Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, etc.
- We see that sin is a result of idolatry — or even of worshiping God while severely misunderstanding God. After all, the Jews worshiped God and yet they largely rejected Jesus and largely were lost — despite being morally good people compared to most. Their sin was so much like the sin of the Jews in the days of Ezekiel and Jeremiah that they suffered the same fate — destruction of their Temple by foreigners. In what sense were the Jews of Jesus’ day idolaters? Well, they so misunderstood the nature and character of God that they didn’t see God in Jesus. Therefore, they worshiped a false god by the right name and were lost. And their false worship led to sin. So we need to very carefully understand the personality and character of Jesus to better understand God — and because Paul calls Jesus YHWH, it works the other way around. Hence, our Christology should focus on the heart and purposes of God and Jesus — not merely their roles within the Holy Trinity. We need to study their hearts.
- We’ve covered the sinfulness of homosexual practices at great length more than once, but the lesson is there — and the better you understand why Paul says what he says, the harder it is to defend homosexual practices as pleasing to God.
- We forget, though, that there’s a list of other sins at the end of chapter 1 that should be preached as well.
- We see that God has given unbelievers over to debased lives. The cure is to convert them to Jesus — not to enact laws against debased behavior. Sometimes, of course, laws are needed and appropriate. But God is not looking for the damned to live like the saved out of fear of the government. He wants the damned to be saved out of a respectful, loving fear of God — out of circumcised hearts.
- Paul argument in c. 2 about our condemning others by standards we cannot meet ourselves is universally applicable. It’s the foundation of C. S. Lewis’s argument for the existence of God in Mere Christianity (although Paul’s point is not about Christian evidences). But underlying Paul’s argument is the fact that the moral nature of humanity is evidence of a moral Creator.
- Of course, we come closer to Paul’s point when we consider whether we judge others for sins we are guilty of ourselves. We condemn church X for celebrating Good Friday (to honor Jesus!), and yet we have a patriotic sermon on the Fourth of July. We can celebrate holidays to celebrate a war but not a sacrifice. We preach about mothers on Mothers Day, fathers on Fathers Day; we offer thanksgiving on Thanksgiving; but we refuse to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day (which is not the day Jesus was born, but my mother wasn’t born on Mothers Day). And examples of such hypocrisy could easily be multiplied.
- In the Churches of Christ, to speak in favor of the “direct operation” of the Holy Spirit is guaranteed to get you in trouble. And if you dare speak on the subject, you must make clear the that Spirit’s work ended around 100 AD — contrary to all historical evidence (by the way). If you are a Cessationist (the Spirit went into retirement after the apostolic age), you’ll find Romans largely irrelevant. Your exegesis will be, not an explanation, but an explaining away. N. T. Wright’s fresh interpretation of Romans should correct all that.
There’s much more there, of course, but we’ve only covered two chapters so far.