N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 15 (Israel’s Unrighteousness and God’s Righteousness, Part 2)

dayrevolutionbegan

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

Let’s look a little closer as some of the verses to make sure that Wright’s interpretation really fits the text.

(Rom. 3:1-2 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. 

Remember the context. Paul had just argued that circumcision of the heart by the Spirit matters in preference to circumcision of the flesh, at the end of chapter 2. That gives rise to the very natural question: What’s the point of physical circumcision?

We would answer today: None. It’s been superseded by the Spirit. But Paul is speaking to Jews, and the theme is their failure to fulfill their covenant purpose — to be a blessing to the nations by being a light to the world. And Paul points out that they were specially equipped to do this by having the Old Testament — except “Old Testament” tends to imply that the 39 books are obsolete — and they are not. Therefore, we would likely have preferred to say “Tanakh” (the Hebrew word for the first 39 books) or “the Hebrew Testament” or “the First Testament.” You get the point.

(Rom. 3:3-4 ESV)  3 What if some [Jews] were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?  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.”

“Some” must refer to “some Jews” as the Gentiles were not under a covenant they could be unfaithful to — and the Torah is under discussion. Now, the Jews were in Exile and under the curses of Deu 28-29 and Lev 26. Does that mean that God is no longer bound by the covenant? Far from it, as the covenant actually contains promises by God as to what happens when Israel is under the curses and Exiled. God will honor his promises — both to bless and to curse.

The quotation is from Psa 51:4, famously credited to David following his sin with Bathsheba.

The verse indicates the abject sorrow of the penitent, acknowledging that when God condemns this sin there will be no question about the rightness of the verdict. God’s words are true, even if all human words prove false. It is interesting to observe that when Paul alludes to or mentions David, here and in 4:6–8, it is in connection with sin and forgiveness. The psalm goes on, of course, to speak of the new heart that God will create within the penitent and the gift of the Holy Spirit – “new covenant” themes, in other words, that tie in, via Ezekiel 36, with the close of chap. 2. The verse Paul quotes stresses that sinful humanity, and sinful Israel, can have no claim on 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), 453-454.

(Rom. 3:5-6 ESV)  5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)  6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world?

Again, “our” must refer to Israel (Paul and his fellow Jews) and their failure to honor covenant.

This raises an apparent problem, caused perhaps by the language of the psalm as much as anything else. It might seem as though God were acting as judge and executioner in a case where the two parties at law were Israel and–God’s own self! This would constitute flagrant injustice; how could the party on trial also judge the case fairly? But Paul is quick to point out that God is not actually at law with Israel; God is the cosmic judge, who must bring justice to the whole world. Some scriptural passages do speak of God having a lawsuit against Israel, but the more fundamental truth is that God is the judge.

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), 454.

I don’t follow Wright’s logic at this point, and he doesn’t directly address this passage in his new book. My own view is much simpler. Paul is now anticipating an argument: If our sin demonstrates God’s goodness, then perhaps we should sin all the more! It’s not so much a serious argument as an objection: Paul, your argument shows that human sin produces ultimate good by showing the goodness of God — thereby excusing human sin. You must be in error!

Paul responds that God may impose his wrath on Israel and yet be true to the covenant because God is going to judge the world. No one is free from his potential wrath! And, for that matter, God can impose wrath (curses) on Israel while still being true to his covenant (that is, “righteous”), because the curses are part of the covenant.

The challenge is how God can Exile and accurse Israel and yet still accomplish his purpose that Israel be a light to the nations. That would require — what? An extraordinary Israelite who manages to be light to the nations despite being part of an accursed, exiled people.

Rom 3:7-8

(Rom. 3:7-8 ESV)  7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?  8 And why not do evil that good may come?– as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

Paul was evidently being accused of being a liar and a sinner because he supposedly argues that we should do evil so that good — God’s forgiveness and righteousness — might come. A similar argument is made in the Churches of Christ today. When someone argues that God’s grace forgives sins, he’s accused of encouraging sin and not insisting on precision obedience.

Paul says that those who twist the doctrine of grace in such a way stand condemned. They deny God’s promises and so deny believers the ability to trust in God. It’s a warning that many in the Churches should take very seriously.

Wright’s interpretation is similar, but he takes “I” to mean “Israel,” which, of course, could be entirely consistent with Paul’s loose use of pronouns (I do the same thing at times). The difference in ultimate meaning is not great.

The question is then, if Israel’s falsehood means that God’s truthfulness shines out all the more brightly, why should God object? Surely “I” should not then be condemned–in other words, surely God cannot actually endorse what was said in 2:17–29, not least 2:27? The deepest charge against Israel in 2:17–24, after all, was that God’s name was being blasphemed because of Israel’s disobedience to Torah. Very well, if God’s glory is enhanced by this process, surely God will now be pleased? Why should “I” then be condemned as though “I” were a ἁμαρτωλός (hamartōlos), a “sinner,” a mere pagan, one of the lesser breeds outside the Torah? (This question again reflects the charge Paul has been mounting throughout the previous paragraphs: The condemnation incurred by the pagans falls on Israel as well.)

Paul does not deign to answer this question, but instead amplifies it by referring to a still more blatant attack on the integrity of his theology. Some, he says, have been slandering him (lit., “blaspheming” him; but the word had a more general sense); some are reporting him as saying “let us do evil that good may come.” In other words, the “evil” of Israel’s failure has brought the “good” of the gospel–a point one can understand people thinking on the basis of, say, Rom 11:11–15–so why not apply the principle more generally?

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), 454.

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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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2 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 15 (Israel’s Unrighteousness and God’s Righteousness, Part 2)

  1. Dwight says:

    Paul seems to be very wordy here, but his thought is that those that have the Law have a natural advantage, but that this advantage is null if they are as unrighteous as those who do not have the Law. God after all is the judge of the world and unrighteousness is unrighteousness. But even so God made a promise and is faithful to His promise, even when others aren’t. This is because God isn’t just looking at the Jews, but the world and it is for this reason “God so loved the world” that he have His only begotten Son.
    Rom.3:4 “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.” is very profound and I wish we accessed it more. The only true one is God and every man is a liar, thus sinful. Thus all are under the same grace.

  2. David says:

    Paul was wrongly criticized and scorned for preaching “cheap grace” by some, and if II Peter 3:16 is speaking of the same thing, others followed him, but misunderstood him as actually preaching “cheap grace”,

    Yeah, some today discourage teaching grace because people might misunderstand it as a license for immorality. Some people, no doubt. will misunderstand it that way. But that is not a good reason to avoid peaching the gospel as Paul preached it.

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