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. 3:9-18 ESV) 9 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
“Whatever Torah says, it speaks to those under the law” (lit., “in the law,” 3:19). This is the clue to the present paragraph [3:9-18], with its string of scriptural quotations. Having already argued for the universality of Gentile sin and guilt, Paul now needs to emphasize that the Jews must be seen in the dock [in British law, where the accused stands; an allusion to C. S. Lewis’s God in the Dock] alongside the pagans. This has been where his argument has been going for some while, but 2:17–29 and 3:1–9 are not just part of the indictment; they are aimed at answering potential objections, at getting rid of excuses, before the final word is spoken.
The biblical quotations come from Israel’s Scriptures and are themselves indictments, not of pagans, but of Jews. Scripture itself, in other words, bears witness against those to whom it was entrusted, leaving the whole world accountable to God (cf. 10:19–21). Paul sums up the problem in terms of the impossibility of anyone being justified by Torah, since all Torah can now do is to point to sin. This will enable him to move at once to demonstrate how the revelation of God’s righteousness in the gospel has dealt with precisely this problem.
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), 456-457.
The Calvinist interpretation is that Paul is arguing for original sin, that is, the fact that all humanity sins (true as to those who are accountable, but not children) and are incapable of a free will decision to follow Jesus (not true, in my opinion). That is certainly foreign to Paul’s purposes in making this argument.
We could go through each OT passage quoted in Rom 3:9-20 and demonstrate that in context none means that all humanity is incapable of any good deed without the Spirit. Rather, NT Wright points out that a recurring theme of these quoted passages is that, despite our wickedness, God will move among his his people to save.
Let’s take, for example, Rom 3:9-12, a quotation from —
(Ps. 14:1-7 ESV) The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. 2 The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. 3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. 4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the LORD? 5 There they are in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous. 6 You would shame the plans of the poor, but the LORD is his refuge. 7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.
Does the psalmist really mean that no one at all does good? Or is he being hyperbolic?Is he speaking only of those who deny God? After all, the psalmist is unlikely to be speaking of even himself if he means that no one can do anything good at all — in which case the Psalm itself would not be good.
The commentators explain,
Vv 2–4 provide a theological perspective on the fool and his folly. The designation “fool” is not a human label, for those so named in the psalms were anything but fools in a human perspective; the ultimate reason for the status of “fool” was provided by God, who “looked down from heaven” and saw the acts of human beings.
Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50 (WBC 19; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 147.
Verses 1–3 are perhaps hyperbolic, for v. 4 narrows the indictment to “all the evildoers” (see below on the tension between vv. 1–3 and vv. 4–6). These persons victimize God’s people (v. 4).
J. Clinton, Jr. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in 1 Maccabees-Psalms (vol. 4 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 729.
Fortunately, our interpretation of Psalm 14 may be helped by neighboring psalms. … Like our psalm, Psalm 12 also begins with what initially sounds like a universal condemnation of humanity (vv. 1–2), but we then learn that Yahweh offers special protection for the poor (Hb. ʿānî, v. 5, the same term used in 14:6) and for “us” who pray the psalm (v. 7). And Psalm 15 opens with the question “Who may live on your holy hill?” and answers it with “he … who does what is righteous” (15:1–2).
Robert L. Jr. Hubbard and Robert K. Johnston, Psalms, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series. 2012, 89–90.
So I think the Calvinists get a little too caught up in their theorizing. But that doesn’t mean we have to run to the opposite extreme. If humans are capable of some good without the Spirit, that hardly means we don’t need the Spirit! That fact that we are capable of some good doesn’t mean we do enough good on our own, that we don’t need a Savior.
Give Paul credit for not over-arguing his case. He wants to show that the Jews have no advantage over the Gentiles when it comes to needing Jesus as Savior, not that they are incapable any good whatsoever.
(Rom. 3:19 ESV) 19 Now we know that whatever the law [Torah] says it speaks to those who are under the law [Torah], so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.
At first, this passage makes no sense because Torah was only known by the Jews (and a handful of Gentiles). How does Torah mean that the “whole world” may be held accountable? Well, context matters. Paul has already shown — back in chapters 1 and 2 — that the Gentiles stand guilty before God based on God’s self-revelation through the Creation and by their own consciences. To Paul, the hard question isn’t why the Gentiles stand condemned but why the Jews do even though they are in covenant relationship with God. But the Jews stand condemned under the terms of the Torah and Tanakh (Old Testament) itself. Therefore, the whole world — Gentiles and Jews — are accountable.
Now, accountability is an issue Paul will focus on in chapter 5, and which our legalist and Calvinist friends tend to ignore. Calvinists see people as tainted with the sin of Adam and so guilty regardless of accountability — even infants. Legalists believe that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and yet Paul has just spent 2 1/2 chapters demonstrating that the Gentiles and Jews are not ignorant of God’s will and so may be accountable.
Therefore, as we prepare for a change in the depth of Paul’s theological waters, rid your mind of such nonsense. Accountability is a fundamental assumption of Paul’s. Only those who may be held accountable may be punished by God — because of God’s just nature. But God will, by grace, not punish all who deserve it and are accountable for obedience.
Then again, among adults with ordinary mental faculties, we’re all accountable for enough of God’s will to damn ourselves — both by God’s revelation through Creation and by our own consciences and our own cultures. Not a one of us lives up to our own standards! We condemn in others those things we’re guilty of. And God notices.
Then again, “damnation” does not mean “perpetual conscious torment,” but punishment that is just as to our particular sins and only those sins for which we are accountable (Luke 12:41-48). Worse sinners suffer greater punishment. Our sins are finite, and so will our punishment be. Nothing else would be just.
Thus, Paul does not speak of eternal conscious torment. Rather, he speaks of “condemnation,” “destruction,” “death,” and “the wrath of God.” But not eternal suffering. (“Condemnation” or “damnation” (krima) means a verdict, usually a verdict of “guilty,” and doesn’t means “burn in hell forever.”) And we’ll get to “death” in chapter 5 — if I don’t wear out before then. (The pace should pick up considerably once we get done with chapter 3.)