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 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 Gentile sins [JFG]
If anything, the case for Paul to be referring to passing over Gentile sins in these passages is stronger than the case for passing over Jewish sins. After all, at Mars Hill, Paul declared to an entirely Gentile audience,
(Acts 17:26-31 NET) 6 “From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 28 For in him we live and move about and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 “So since we are God’s offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination. 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.”
“Overlooked such times of ignorance” seems to clearly imply a forbearance to punish sins. Just so, “He now commands …” implies that things are changing. The present rules are different from the previous rules. Now, repentance is required of the Gentiles (just as God is requiring it of the Jews). In particular, Paul calls on the Gentiles to repent of their idolatry (v. 29). Obviously, this would require giving up many kinds of immorality, but as Wright as noted in his discussion of Romans, sin is a product of idolatry. Thus, repentance begins by worshiping the true God.
There are other passages in Acts that bear on this question. For example, in Lystra Paul said,
(Acts 14:15-17 NET) 15 “Men, why are you doing these things? We too are men, with human natures just like you! We are proclaiming the good news to you, so that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to go their own ways, 17 yet he did not leave himself without a witness by doing good, by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and your hearts with joy.”
Paul says that God previously “allowed all the nations to go their own ways.” That is, the rules have changed.
In Acts 11, after baptizing Cornelius and his household, Peter defended his actions to the Jewish Christians. After his explanation, the Jewish Christians declared,
(Acts 11:18 NET) 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.”
Notice the language. We assume that the ability to repent and so be saved is in the nature of forgiveness itself. But the Jews concluded that the ability to repent and so be saved is a gift from God, given first to the Jews (Acts 2:38) and then to the Gentiles (beginning with Cornelius).
Much later, Paul defended his mission to the Gentiles to King Agrippa,
(Acts 26:17-20 NET) 17 [“Jesus told me] ‘I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles, to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but I declared to those in Damascus first, and then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds consistent with repentance.”
If Wright is right and “forgiveness of sins” had become synecdoche for all the Kingdom blessings — the Kingdom itself, the Messiah, the outpoured Spirit, repentance leading to forgiveness and salvation — then this makes a whole lot of sense. Not only had God given the Jews the ability to escape Exile and enter into the “forgiveness of sins,” he’d given the Gentiles the same ability — to escape the curse on Creation that Sin brought and so receive the same blessings as the Jews. And, of course, Paul urges the Gentiles to “turn to God” because worshiping the true God leads to “deeds consistent with repentance.” That is, if you worship the true God, you must leave behind idolatrous practices.
So it fits.
There is, I think, a very important distinction here. “Forbearance” does not mean forgiveness. Obviously, God granted forbearance to the Jews for 490 years and to Gentiles going back to Babel at least (when God assigned each people to its own territory (Acts 17:26; Deu 32:8). But in Romans and in Acts, the language speaks of not punishing only. There is nothing about forgiving the Gentiles. In fact, the scriptures are quite clear about the Jews being unforgiven during this time.
Now, if we remember that immortality is a gift from God and that neither we nor our souls are innately immortal (Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:53-54; 1 Tim 6:16), then we have to reckon with more than two possibilities.
- The unpunished Jews and Gentiles were all saved to live forever in heavenly bliss despite their sinfulness.
- The unpunished Jews and Gentiles were all damned to perpetual conscious torment.
- The unpunished Jews and Gentiles suffered a temporary punishment and were then annihilated, never to live again.
- The unpunished Jews and Gentiles received no resurrection and no afterlife at all.
Well, 2 and 3 can’t be right because you can’t be both punished and unpunished. What about 1? Most contemporary Christians would hear “unpunished” to mean “go to heaven when they die.” But could a just God reward murderers and rapists with an undeserved, blessed afterlife?
Miroslav Volf writes, “A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.” Perhaps the reason we have trouble with this is that we are ourselves accomplices. Yet most people will say at some point that their “blood boils”; the question then becomes, what is the boiling temperature? If our blood does not boil at injustice, how can we be serving the God who said the following through his prophet Isaiah?
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive degrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people. (Isa. 10:1–2)
Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves.
Fleming Rutledge, “The Wrath the World Needs,” Christianity Today (December 23, 2016).
It is, to me, unimaginable that idolatrous serial murderers, cruel totalitarian kings, and other great sinners would go to heaven when they die. So that eliminates 1.
That leaves option 4: No afterlife at all, neither punishment nor reward. Forbearance means punishment is escaped due to ignorance or just God’s good grace, but it does not mean that impenitent, idolatrous sin is rewarded.
[to be continued]