N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 22 (Passing over sins previously committed, 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 3:24-25

(Rom. 3:24-25 NET)  24 But they are justified [declared faithful to God’s covenants with the Jews] freely by his grace through the redemption [freedom from slavery] that is in Christ [King/Messiah] Jesus.  25 God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat [place of forgiveness in the Holy of Holies, God’s throne on earth] accessible through faith [faithfulness/trust]. This was to demonstrate his righteousness [faithfulness to the covenant], because God in his forbearance [tolerant patience] had passed over the sins previously committed [by whom?]. 

Passing over previously committed sins [NTW]

Rom 3:25 has this mysterious, surprising phrase: “because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed.”

“Forbearance” is an unusual word in the NT, found only here and in Rom 2:4 —

(Rom. 2:4 ESV) Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Commentators disagree as to whether Paul is addressing Gentiles here, the Jews, or people in general. Rom 2:1 sets up the passage with “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.” Well, this also sounds like everyone ever born.

This follows the discussion in Rom 1 regarding condemnation from knowledge of God found in the Creation, which is clearly directed to the Gentiles, and Paul later spends a good portion of chapters 2 and 3 discussing the accountability of the Jews, and so it’s possible that Gentiles are particularly in mind.

Wright says,

In particular, God had passed over, that is, left unpunished, acts of sin committed in former times. God, it seems (Paul here takes this for granted), had been forbearing, patient, unwilling to foreclose on the human race in general or Israel in particular. Paul had emphasized this in 2:3–6, where the same word is used, and he now refers back to that point. The first question at issue, then–the aspect of God’s righteousness that might seem to have been called into question and is now demonstrated after all–is God’s proper dealing with sins–i.e., punishment. Whatever Paul is saying in the first half of v. 25, it must be such as to lead to the conclusion that now, at last, God has punished sins as they deserved.

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), 472-473.

Wright denies that Paul is speaking of the idea that sins were rolled forward (or “rolled back,” as some confusingly prefer to say) to only be forgiven when Jesus died on the cross.

Fourth, at the heart of this passage Paul says that God has passed over former sins in his forbearance. This is the very opposite of “punishment.” It could be of course (and many have suggested this) that God had previously “passed over” sins in order to save up the punishment until it could be vented on Jesus. But there is no indication that this is what Paul has in mind.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4859-4861). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

He declares that God had “passed over” former sins, in his anochē, his “forbearance.” (If there is a reference here to “Passover” it is very oblique. “Passing over” and “Passover” are close in English, but there is no such link in Greek.)

In the normal “works contract” approach, interpreters have looked at this passage for an account of how sins were punished. But the whole point of anochē is that sins are not punished. In Romans 2: 4, Paul asks his imaginary interlocutor whether, in his arrogance, he is despising the “riches of God’s kindness, forbearance (anochē) and patience,” which were supposed to lead one to repentance. Punishment is what would happen later, if this opportunity were missed: “By your hard, unrepentant heart you are building up a store of anger for yourself on the day of anger” (2: 5).

What we have in the present passage, though, is not a statement of how that punishment fell on Jesus, but rather a statement of how the sins that had been building up were “passed over.” God has drawn a veil over the past, as Paul said in Athens (Acts 17: 30).

Paul is not here saying, then, that God has punished former sins, whether of Israel or the Gentiles, certainly not that he has punished them in Jesus. There is no mention here of such a punishment then exhausting the divine wrath. That, as we saw, would leave 5: 9 looking very odd. Paul says, rather, that God has chosen to overlook the “former sins.”

Nor could one say— though this is a frequent line of interpretation, to which I myself have been drawn in the past— that the “forbearance” of God means that punishment for earlier sins has been merely delayed and is then meted out on Jesus. The assumption here must be, I think, that Paul is referring to Israel’s former sins. God is faithful in the Messiah to the covenant through Israel for the world, and to that end he has pushed the “former sins” to one side.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5298-5313). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Wright appropriately references Paul’s speech at Mars Hill (the Areopagus) in Athens. There, Paul says,

(Acts 17:30-31 NET)  30 “Therefore, although God has overlooked such times of ignorance, he now commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has set a day on which he is going to judge the world in righteousness, by a man whom he designated, having provided proof to everyone by raising him from the dead.” 

Forbearance as to the Jews [JFG]

So let’s first talk about the Jews. As we’ve covered, for 500 years, they’d been in Exile. They had a Temple but God’s presence was not in the Holy of Holies. God had left the building — as Ezekiel pictures so clearly and as the Jews of Nehemiah’s day knew. When they’d rebuilt the Temple, God’s presence did not return.

So how were the sacrifices to effect forgiveness if the Temple wasn’t really the Temple? I mean, if God doesn’t rest there, if he has rejected the building, doesn’t that imply a lack of forgiveness? I mean, forgiveness was promised only in the new covenant language. For example,

(Jer. 31:34 NET)  34 “People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.”

Doesn’t the promise “I will forgive their sin” mean that it’s not forgiven yet? That forgiveness will be denied until the new covenant comes into effect?

(Jer. 33:8 ESV)  8 I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. 

(Lam. 3:42 ESV)  42 “We have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.”

A case can be made that during the Exile God was not forgiving Jewish sin. He certainly didn’t forgive the sins that led to the Exile itself — or the Exile would not be continuing. And the strongest evidence for this is 70 AD. If the Jews were forgiven of their sins against God, why allow Rome to overthrow and destroy the Temple?

In fact, Daniel 9 seems to say exactly this —

(Dan. 9:8-19 ESV) 8 To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you.  9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him  10 and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by walking in his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.  11 All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him.  

Daniel confesses the sins of Israel and their Exile as a result of the curses written in the Torah. And so Daniel asks that God forgive his people —

17 “Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary [the destroyed Holy Place in the destroyed Temple], which is desolate.  18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy.  19 O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”

In short, Daniel does not consider Israel forgiven of the sins leading to the Exile. But he asks for forgiveness. God replies through the angel Gabriel —

(Dan. 9:24 ESV)  24 “Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.”

Gabriel says it will be  490 years (the usual interpretation of “seventy weeks”) before the Exile ends and for Israel to no longer be considered a transgressor. That would sure seem to imply that the sinfulness of Israel that led to Exile would not end until the coming of Jesus.

But if we understand Paul correctly in Rom 2:4 and 3:25, this was a time of forbearance, when God did not punish sin (other than through the earthly punishment of Exile, of course). How does that work?

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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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