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 5:6-10, Part 1 [JFG]
(Rom. 5:6-10 ESV) 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ [our King] died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
When I was in law school, back in the late 1970s, I was invited by friends to join them at the beach for spring break — each of all three years. But my wife is a CPA, and for her, this was the middle of tax season. And it was made very clear to me that I was not to go to the beach while she was slaving away until 10 o’clock each evening to put me through school.
So I was at home, with all my friends at the beach, and bored. I used the free time to catch up on some projects — including trying to understand the NT’s teachings on grace and the Holy Spirit. I didn’t have nearly the Bible study resources I have today, and the literature available in the Bible bookstores was not nearly as helpful as what can be found today.
But somewhere in there, it started to come together for me — and among the most important passages I stumbled across was this one. It revolutionized my thinking. I mean, it turned my world upside down. In fact, it turned me into a Change Agent.
In verses 6, 8, and 10, Paul points out that before our salvation, we were “weak,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and even “enemies” of God. Ponder that one for a minute. Before we were saved, we are God’s very enemies. We weren’t merely “unchurched” or “pre-Christians.” We were enemies of God — among those people who are destined to be defeated by Jesus (1 Cor 15:25-26). (And this also includes the Jews in Exile, by the way.)
And yet, despite that fact, Jesus died for us — the very enemies of God. We have been “justified by his blood.” The crucifixion of Jesus somehow declares that we are “in the right” and covenant faithful — because of our faith but not because we are strong, godly, obedient, and allies. All that came later.
Now, in the Churches of Christ, it is commonly taught that we are saved because of our faith (provided we are baptized with the right baptismal theology, right mode, right reason, etc.). Most would agree that this justification — meaning initial salvation — is not by works, although there are those who disagree.
But the traditional teaching of the 20th Century Churches of Christ is that the rules change once we are baptized. At that point, we are accountable for getting every single doctrine and rule right. In fact, some preachers speak of being baptized to become a Christian but not yet becoming saved because the convert was not yet sufficiently obedient! Indeed, there’s a substantial body of teaching about “lost Christians” and “saved Christians.” A “Christian” has done the Five Steps, but he may not be saved unless he worships correctly, joins a congregation that is “sound,” and otherwise toes the Church of Christ doctrinal line — and not just that, but the line drawn by his particular sub-sub-subset of Church of Christ congregations.
There’s an old joke that is just too true not to be funny.
It seems that a Church of Christ preacher received an emergency call. A man was about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, and the police learned he was a Church of Christ member and so they called a Church of Christ preacher to help.
The preacher arrived on the scene and shouted to the man. “I hear you’re a member of the Church of Christ. Is that right?”
“It is,” the jumper replied.
“Does your church use instruments of music?”
“Of course, not.”
“Does your church take communion weekly?”
“Does your church practice five and only five acts of worship in the Sunday assembly?”
“Do you support orphans homes from your treasury?”
“No, but we believe it to be authorized — provided the orphans are Church of Christ members.”
“Do you believe in the direct operation of the Holy Spirit on the heart of the Christian?”
“Of course, not.”
“If the Super Bowl conflicted with Sunday night services, would you cancel services?”
“Of course, not. It’s better to obey God rather than men!”
“Does your church sing Christmas carols at Christmas?”
“No. We picket stores that don’t, but we would never do this in church. There’s no authority for it. We sang Christmas carols last July, just to demonstrate how we are not bound by the traditions of man.”
“Do you clap with the music?”
“Never. That would be an unscriptural addition.”
“Do you applaud good news or baptisms?”
“That would not be decent and in order. Applause is for entertainment, and we never have an entertaining assembly!”
“Do you allow elders to be re-affirmed by the congregation?”
“Yes, we did that last year and some very ungodly, unworthy men stepped down.”
“Then go ahead and jump, you damned heretic!”
But what does Paul say?
(Rom. 5:9-11 ESV) 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Now that we’ve been justified (declared righteous and so a part of the covenant community) we are “much more” saved. In fact, Paul says it twice: “much more shall we be saved” (v. 9) and “we were reconciled … much more, now that we are reconciled.” Redundant, yes, but for a purpose. The grace that forgives after the baptistry is “much more … much more” saving. After all, if God loved us when we were his enemies — enough to die for us on the cross and to save us, now that we’re his family, his children, his household, his chosen people, he will now much more save us!
If the death of Jesus was enough to wipe our slates clean and forgive us utterly at baptism into his death, his resurrection and life that we now participate in reconcile us all the more.
Now, it’s true that as Christians we are more accountable. We will know more of God’s will by virtue of being added to the faith community. But as Paul will declare at the end of the chapter —
(Rom. 5:20-21 ESV) 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yes, we are held to a higher standard. Yes, we are bound by our commitment to Jesus. Yes, we know God’s will far better than before we were saved. And so, yes, we will be accountable far more for our sins. And, yes, God deals with this by giving us abounding grace.
I can’t count the number of re-baptisms I’ve witnessed when a Christian felt so guilty that he felt the need to be re-baptized because, in our minds, baptism is the ultimate cleanser of sins. And yet Paul very plainly says that baptism is the moment in your Christian walk when you receive the least grace you will ever receive. It only gets better from there!