N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 13 (Circumcision of the heart, Part 7)


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

(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 —

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. We forget, though, that there’s a list of other sins at the end of chapter 1 that should be preached as well.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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13 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 13 (Circumcision of the heart, Part 7)

  1. David says:

    Thanks, I’m beginning to understand what “the new perspective” is.

  2. Gary says:

    For anyone who might be interested in a thorough and comprehensive exchange of opposite views of homosexuality I highly recommend Jay’s series on homosexuality that began on August 30, 2015. The series ran for six or seven days. I believe it was entitled Vines: God and the Gay Christian. I thank Jay for allowing me to set forth at length in the comments in that series my understanding of the relevant passages and issues. The more I have studied this subject the more convinced I have become that nothing in Scripture forbids the physical expression of homosexual love in committed relationships of two adult men who freely enter in to such a relationship. Beyond such relationships not being forbidden I believe gay men and women are included in God’s stated desire in Genesis that all humans have the opportunity to have a suitable, appropriate and sexual relationship with a life companion. Nothing is to be gained by thrashing out again all the aspects of that discussion. But I continue to stand by my comments in that series. I believe that a fair reading of my comments in 2015 will show serious deficiencies in the conservative prohibition of homosexual love.

  3. Dwight says:

    Gary, Your spin argument of “love in committed relationships ” can be applied to everything that was called sexually immoral or fornication be it man or beast or woman. Let’s see incest if done out of love in a committed relationship, then is not sinful. Since a loving relationship is now opened up between a man and a man, then beastiality is now opened up. Why limit it to just people and why does it have to be based on love, since man and wife relationship were usually formed based on an agreement. And the argument goes on. For some reason in order to justify homosexuality you separate it our and then alter its context while leaving the other sins alone. This creates some of the worst scriptural bias imaginable where one sin can be changed to good by changing its context, but the others can’t. The fact is that the insertion of love really means little. Adam and Eve’s relationship wasn’t based on love, but based on God putting them together and then they were to love each other because they were man and wife. There are very few cases in the scriptures where love was the basis for the relationships between men and women, but love was born because people are to love one another despite the relationship or in conjunction to it. Just because the Jews were to love one another still didn’t allow them to form a homosexual relationship. Even if David would have fallen in love with Bathsheba before he had a relationship with her it still would have been adultery and it was still murder because she was the wife of another and he killed an innocent man for selfish purposes, even if it was for love. There is no example of love ever changing a sinful action to a not-sinful action.

  4. Gary says:

    Dwight, could you explain to me how Rahab’s lying about the spies she hid in Jericho was actually a righteous act that prompted the Hebrews writer to commend her in Hebrews 13? Isn’t lying a sin in both the Old and New Testaments?

  5. Dwight says:

    The scriptures never say her lying was a good thing, but then again she was not an Israelite, the focus is on her faith in God, despite her being a foreigner. This argument is a red herring argument. It doesn’t answer why the insertion of love changes one sexual sin to good, but not all of the others, especially when relationships weren’t typically based on love to begin with, they were based on cotracts/covenants/agreements.

  6. Gary says:

    Dwight, how is it that the relationship of a man and woman committing adultery with each other becomes a sinless relationship after they each divorce their spouse and marry one another? That is consistent with the One in Jesus understanding of divorce and remarriage, isn’t it?

  7. Larry Cheek says:

    If you think that OneinJesus blog has any jurisdiction over sinfulness. Then it might be important that you revise your commitment to your relationship. I don’t believe that God’s judgement will honor mans view of perceived technicalities in his Word.

  8. Dwight says:

    Gary, all I can do is quote the scriptures:
    1. Adultery was a sin and was punishable by stoning in the OT and in the NT it was still a sin according to Jesus
    2. In Deut 24:1-2 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, 2 when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife,” so accordingly divorce could happen for fornication or sexual immorality. This is basically repeated by Jesus in Matt.5 and 19 although reworded. Divorce was for the reason of fornication, whatever that fornication might be, and this broke the bond and allowed the people to remarry another. The divorce happens because of sin and divorce was not looked upon by man or God kindly.
    This is from the scriptures and was resaid by Jesus.
    Larry, is right. OneinJesus doesn’t dictate what is sinful, we might talk about what is sinful, but it is the scriptures that dictate sin.

  9. Gary says:

    Dwight, I can appreciate your agnostic position on making any definite application of Scripture to actual cases of divorce and remarriage today. I would encourage you to consider also taking an agnostic position on making definite applications today of even less clear biblical passages to same-sex relationships and marriages.

  10. Dwight says:

    agnostic means not believing or disbelieving in God, so I am not sure where you are going with this.
    I firmly believe in God and God’s words.
    Unlike many I do not try to add to the word of God and I believe that God is not vague in any sense of the word. Silence is not law, it is silence and thus within man’s ability to work.
    But where God has spoken, he has spoken clearly for or against.
    God was not vague in regards to sexual sins as he defined then by their actions. Homosexuality was a sin, no matter for love or any other reasons, even hate.
    Deut and Jesus was very clear on the reason for divorce, fornication, and what caused adultery and who could marry.
    God is not vague.
    We are on the hand can be very vague.
    So back to the question: Why pick out homosexuality from the list of sexual immoral sins that can be altered by the presence of adding love and changing the woman to a man, while the others cannot be changed? Are you not playing God and making new law, by changing the laws to accommodate you?

  11. JohnF says:

    Gary, you cannot find a single verse extolling the virtue(s) of homosexual relationships — only unequivocal condemnation. To attempt to justify one sin by man’s shortcomings in another area (you example of marriage / divorce / remarriage) is disingenuous. There is no parallel. It is to say, “Because you stole, I can murder.” Two wrongs never make a right. I guess mathematics would be an exception where two negative multiplied equal a positive. But we a speaking of morality, not math. Your argumentation is a hallow attempt to rebel against the clearly written will of God for man’s relationships. Perhaps I should not be so blunt, but in the words of Gwendolyn Fairfax in “Importance of Being Earnest,” “When I see a spade, I call it a spade.”

  12. JohnF says:

    Actually it was Cecily who used the phrase, and Gwendolyn replied “I have never seen a spade.” My memory sometimes (often) fails me.

  13. Alabama John says:

    We all dodge this, but we all have seen boys that looked and acted like girls and girls that looked and acted like boys.
    Somehow their genes got messed up. Whatever they are like physically will draw them to be attracted to the opposite sex.
    That is not a myth, but a fact and its not just in humans, but animals as well. I hae a hen in my pen today that instead of laying eggs like her sisters, she is strutting around riding the hens and trying to crow.
    She can’t read!!!
    Best to let this alone as we all know what the law says it doesn’t always mean exactly like it is written.
    Example: As a young man just starting to drive our old 37 Chevy I was to drive to my grandmothers church of Christ in Birmingham, Alabama from our country home. On the way I came to the first red light I had ever seen, I stopped and from it hung a sign that said “turn right on red”, so I did. About three chicken house lengths I came to another one red and it said the same so I did again. I was lost, but drove way around away from any other red lights and finally got there.
    The sermon that Sunday was obey the written law exactly as written and boy did that confuse me!!!

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