N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 14 (Israel’s Unrighteousness and God’s Righteousness, Part 1)

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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 accomplish our salvation.

Rom 3:1-6

Wright probably spends more words in his book on Rom 3 than any other chapter of Romans. He sees the interpretation of this chapter as the turning point in how the rest of Romans should be read, especially the last few verses.

Wright explains,

Israel’s privilege was to be entrusted with the divine oracles; that is a way of summing up the vocation spelled out in 2: 19– 20 [JFG: to be a light to the world]. But Israel had been “faithless” to that commission, putting in question the divine “faithfulness” (3: 3) and the divine “truthfulness” (3: 4); but God will be seen to be dikaios, true to his covenant justice, despite it all (3: 4b– 5).

God will not change his plan. The Messiah, Israel’s representative, will complete Israel’s role. This is one reason, perhaps the most important one, why the badge of membership in the new covenant family is pistis, “faith” or “faithfulness”: it is the sign of Messiah people. (We should note that in Paul’s world the word pistis regularly carried associations of “fidelity,” “loyalty,” and similar ideas. For him it clearly included “belief” in the sense of both trusting in God and believing that God raised Jesus from the dead [4: 24– 25; 10: 9]. But we should not let that sharp focus screen out the wider meanings.)

The point about the Messiah’s death, then, is that it demonstrates in action the faithfulness of God to his covenant plan — the plan to rescue the world through Israel, to renew the whole world by giving Abraham a vast, uncountable sin-forgiven family. It was not a matter of Jesus’s persuading God to do something he might not otherwise have done. The Messiah’s death accomplishes what God himself planned to do and said he would do. Somehow, the Messiah’s faithful death constitutes the fulfillment of the Israel-shaped plan. Or, to put it another way (since Paul, like all the early Christians, had thought everything through again in the light of the resurrection), when God called Abraham, he had the Messiah’s cross in mind all along. 

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5129-5145). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

As in the last several posts, I’ll insert bracketed explanations in the text to demonstrate the reading Wright argues for.

(Rom. 3:1-6 ESV) Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?  2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God [the Old Testament, which charged and equipped them to be light to the nations, Rom 2:17-20.]

3 What if some [of the Jews] were unfaithful [to their obligation to be a light to the world]? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God [to his covenants, including his promise to bring light to the world]?  4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you [God] may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” [From Psa 51:4 where David takes the responsibility for his own sins.]  

5 But if our [the Jewish] unrighteousness [failure to be a light to the world] serves to show the righteousness of God [that is, his faithfulness to the covenants, including bringing light to the world through Israel], what shall we say? That God is unrighteous [violates the covenants] to inflict wrath [the covenant curses] on us [the Jews]? (I speak in a human way.)  6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world [if God can’t impose covenant curses on the Jews, then he can’t punish anyone]?  

This interpretation hinges on several conclusions. We earlier covered Wright’s argument that “God’s righteousness” refers to God’s loving faithfulness to his covenants. It’s not about “imputed righteousness,” but the actual goodness of God as shown by his keeping his promises.

When we take this step, the text takes on a very different character. No longer is the point the sinfulness of everyone, but the failure of Israel to honor its covenant with God. Wright insists that one particular failure is in mind: the failure of Israel to be a light to the nations, as Paul discussed in Rom 2:17-20.

Israel a light to the nations as a major theme

Paul considers God’s charge that Israel be a light to the nations as a driving consideration in his following arguments, not just one of several examples of Jewish sin.

(Rom. 2:17-20 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 [Totah];  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]–

Notice how Paul repeats the idea over and over. The Jews aren’t just “light” but also instructed, guides, instructors, teachers — all because they’ve been entrusted with the Torah as embodied knowledge and truth about God. This is highly emphatic language about what God wanted from his covenant with Israel.

The Torah frequently makes mention of how the surrounding nations should respond to Israel’s obedience and its righteous laws. This becomes increasingly explicit in Isaiah especially, but it’s not new to Isaiah.

(Deut. 4:6-8 ESV)  6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, 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?

(Deut. 26:18-19 ESV)  18 And the LORD has declared today that you are a people for his treasured possession, as he has promised you, and that you are to keep all his commandments,  19 and that he will set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised.”

(Deut. 28:8-12 ESV)  8 The LORD will command the blessing on you in your barns and in all that you undertake. And he will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  9 The LORD will establish you as a people holy to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in his ways.  10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.  11 And the LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your ground, within the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.  12 The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow.

I should add that this interpretation fits very well with John Walton’s book Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan covered in this series. Walton argues that the unifying theme of all of Scripture is God’s self-revelation, accomplished in part through his covenants. The covenants are not just laws imposed from on high but a central part of God’s plan to reveal his true nature to mankind. Thus, the Mosaic covenant was not mainly about what to eat and what to wear but showing the world the nature of God.

And Israel failed because Israel failed to be obedient. I mean, if you read Deuteronomy, the way Israel was to show the world the goodness of God was by being obedient to Torah. Hence, when God Incarnate comes to earth, he preaches the Sermon on the Mount, explaining just how badly his laws have been misunderstood.

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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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