N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 29 (Abraham and the Law)


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.

At long last, we make it to Romans 4! The pace of the study should pick up considerably as Paul’s writing will be a bit less dense and more easily parsed — and we’ll have already covered much of the necessary background.

At least that’s the plan.

Rom 4:1-3

I’ll let Wright introduce the chapter —

When Paul quotes Genesis 15: 6 in Romans 4: 3 (“Abraham believed God, and it was calculated in his favor, putting him in the right”), he invokes the entire chapter, as his frequent references and quotations make clear. To be sure, Paul insists that Abraham’s faith (in the God who raises the dead) is in its essence the same as Christian faith (that God raised Jesus from the dead). But this takes place within the larger covenantal context. Genesis 15, after all, is where God establishes with Abraham the covenant: he will give him a family of many nations, which involves not just the single “promised land,” but the whole world.

That is what Paul says in Romans 4:13, implying that he is reading Genesis in the light of psalms such as Psalms 2 and 72, where the “inheritance” is extended under the Messiah’s rule from a single piece of territory to the entire creation. And this in turn depends, as he says in 4:5, on taking the Abrahamic promise to mean that God would “justify the ungodly,” in other words, that God would take “sinners” from throughout the world and bring them, forgiven, into his family. (The vital note of forgiveness of sins is emphasized in the quote from Ps. 32 in 4:6– 8.)

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5029-5038). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. (italics in original. paragraphing modified.)

(Rom. 4:1-4 ESV) What then shall we [Jews] say was gained by Abraham, our [the Jews’] forefather according to the flesh?  2 For if Abraham was justified [declared covenant faithful and so a part of the covenant community] by works [of the Torah], he has something to boast about, but not before God.  3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness [covenant faithfulness].”  

Now, back in chapter 3, Paul started talking about upholding the Law (Torah), the need for both Jews and Gentiles for a Savior, justification by faith … and now he seems to dramatically change the subject to Abraham.

The covenant in question is the covenant made with Abraham, which Paul expounds in Romans 4. As far as Paul is concerned from reading the ancient texts, this covenant is not just with Abraham, but is the promise that through Abraham and his family God would bless all the nations. In case there is any doubt on this point (which there often is), we can cite once again Paul’s closing summary of the whole message in 15:8– 9:                      

The Messiah became a servant of the circumcised people in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of God — that is, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy.

That is Paul’s own summary of his own message. We should beware of trying to summarize it in other terms that ignore most of the elements he has so carefully expounded.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4349-4356). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In v. 1, we have to take “we” and “our” to refer to the Jews, as Abraham was not the forefather of Gentile Christians “according to the flesh.” As John the Baptist preached earlier, it seems that many First Century Jews felt entitled to boast in Abraham as their common ancestor and the reason for their chosen (or elect) status before the God of the Jews.

Do works of the Torah make one a part of the covenant community? Am I elect or chosen because I am circumcised, celebrate Passover, and wear a prayer shawl with 613 tassels? Paul has already established in chapter 3 that true covenant faithfulness is not based on anything we can boast about. A Jew might boast over against a Gentile for having the Torah, but for purposes of being in the covenant community (among the saved!), it’s about whether you can boast before God (v. 2).

And Paul reminds his readers that Abraham was credited with righteousness (covenant faithfulness) because of his faith (Gen 15:6). The Torah itself declares that faith is the basis for righteousness before God — and so it cannot be works of the Torah.

Paul’s argument is not just a bit of history as an example of how God works. His point is that God’s covenant with Abraham is still in effect, and so what is true regarding Abraham is true regarding all people of faith — Jew and Gentile alike. If Abraham was credited with covenant faithfulness by faith, then so it is — and always has been — for all others.

Now, the “faith” that Abraham had was belief that God would honor his promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son despite their great age. It was not about the Nicene Creed. It was simple trust that God would keep his promises — along with faithfulness. Not perfection but Abraham’s decision to worship YHWH and live accordingly.

Contrary to nearly all the surrounding peoples (Melchizedek and presumably many who lived in Salem (Jerusalem) were YHWH worshipers), Abraham served and worshiped God and God only even though his ancestors and neighbors did not.

(Jos. 24:2-4 NET) 2 Joshua told all the people, “Here is what the LORD God of Israel says: ‘In the distant past your ancestors lived beyond the Euphrates River, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor. They worshiped other gods,  3 but I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and brought him into the entire land of Canaan. I made his descendants numerous; I gave him Isaac,  4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau.

Rom 4:4-8

(Rom. 4:4-8 ESV) 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  5 And to the one who does not work [obey the Torah] but believes in[/trusts/is faithful to] him who justifies [declares covenant faithful and so part of the covenant community] the ungodly [especially the Gentiles!], his faith[/trust/faithfulness] is counted as righteousness [covenant faithfulness and so part of the covenant community],  6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness [covenant faithfulness] apart from works [of the Torah]:  7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” [Psa 32:1-2].

Paul now makes some points about grace — which have been seriously misunderstood. First, the point is not that works of the Torah cannot save (although this is true). The point is that only faith can save. And “faith” means faith such as Abraham had — a faith that trusts in God’s promises and chooses to live in confidence that those promise are true.

It’s not merely that Abraham believed God to exist. It’s that Abraham placed his life in God’s hands. He submitted to God’s will.

And to some, anything beyond mere intellectual acknowledgement of who God is a “work” and so not part of how we’re deemed righteous and a part of the covenant community. But Abraham not only accepted what God said to be true, he lived in reliance on those promises.

For example, in Gen 17, Abraham had himself and every male in his household circumcised based on God’s promises. In an age without antibiotics or anesthetics, this was truly an act of faith!

Psalm 32 [JFG}

This is not a difficult psalm to understand, but there are a couple of nuances I want to mention —

(Ps. 32:1-5 NET) How blessed is the one whose rebellious acts are forgiven, whose sin is pardoned!  2 How blessed is the one whose wrongdoing the LORD does not punish, in whose spirit there is no deceit.  3 When I refused to confess my sin, my whole body wasted away, while I groaned in pain all day long.  4 For day and night you tormented me; you tried to destroy me in the intense heat of summer. (Selah)  5 Then I confessed my sin; I no longer covered up my wrongdoing. I said, “I will confess my rebellious acts to the LORD.” And then you forgave my sins. (Selah)

Notice the path to forgiveness is not Temple ritual or sacrifice. It’s confession of sin. And this is true even though sins of rebellion (high handed sin) were generally not subject to forgiveness under the  sacrificial system —

(Num. 15:30-31 ESV)  30 But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people.  31 Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.”

However, the psalmist declares that even the rebellious sinner may be forgiven if he confesses, does not hide the sin, and is truly remorseful.

As the Commentary shows, Psalm 32 recalls Psalm 1 and reinforces the understanding of righteousness articulated on the basis of Psalm 1. That is to say, to be righteous is not to manage somehow to obey all the rules, to be sinless. Rather, as Psalm 32 suggests, the lives of the righteous are pervaded by sin and its consequences (vv. 3–5). To be righteous is to be forgiven (v. 5). To be righteous is to be a witness to God’s grace (vv. 6–11).

J. Clinton, Jr. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in 1 Maccabees-Psalms, vol. 4 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 807.

And so the righteous person is not the sinless person or the person who obeys the entire Torah. It’s the person whose heart is soft and so, despite sin, even rebellious sin, can be brought to genuine penitence and remorse. This is part of what it must mean to have “faith” — that is, to be faithful.

(Ps. 32:10-11 ESV)  10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.  11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

And if we peek back at chapter 2 and ahead to chapter 8, we can see that Paul is setting us up for the idea that those with the Spirit, whose hearts have been made soft and have had God’s laws written on our hearts, fit within Psalm 32 as “the one to whom God counts righteousness [covenant faithfulness] apart from works [of the Torah].” No sacrifice. No trip to Jerusalem. A heart soft enough that it confesses its sins, relying on YHWH to forgive.

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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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3 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 29 (Abraham and the Law)

  1. David says:

    Good. I have heard one preacher a few times, but almost every time, he points out that intentional sins were not forgiven under the Mosiac system of sacrifice, suggesting it is the same now. I had never noticed the quotation and application of Ps 32 in Romans 4. Maybe the sacrifices made by David did not cover his intentional transgression, but his confession with a contrite heard did.

  2. Dwight says:

    This highlights a thought that I had earlier on David. David seemed to directly implore of God and seek forgiveness for his transgressions, this despite the fact that the Temple offered sin offerings. This could be because David had direct communication with God and other didn’t, but still this also showed the heart and faith of David.
    An interesting thing about Hezekiah is that he prayed to God because there were people partaking of the Passover who were unclean and God heard him and saw the people and forgave them.
    I wonder if there is something we don’t understand about the nature and function of the sin offering?
    Maybe its real function was to remind them of their sin and remind them who was their deliverer.
    Perhaps it made their sin visible and in the sprinkling, much like in the Passover, allowed God to Passover the people’s sins. Not forgiveness, but grace and mercy, until the real grace and mercy came…Jesus.
    But this didn’t mean that God still didn’t enact forgiveness upon request.
    And this still didn’t mean that God didn’t see the faith and reward the faithful.

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