N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 36 (reconciliation; death through one man)

dayrevolutionbegan

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 5:10-11 [JFG]

(Rom. 5:10-11 ESV)  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.

We reverse field just a tad to deal with concept Paul keeps throwing at us: reconciliation. I think Kruse puts his finger on why Paul brings up this new concept here —

The juxtaposition of justification (5:9) and reconciliation (5:10) is noteworthy, and raises the question of distinctions between the two concepts. As used by Paul, the terms are very close but nevertheless distinct. Justification is essentially a legal term relating to decisions in a court of law, whereas reconciliation is a personal term relating to the restoration of relationships. But Paul’s understanding of God as the justifier of sinners cannot be separated from his understanding of God as reconciler. For Paul God is not the detached judge dispensing judgment, but the lover of sinners desiring reconciliation with them.

Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 238.

Just a couple of other thoughts. In English, “reconcile” sounds like the re-establishment of right relationships after they’ve fallen apart. A counselor might work to reconcile differences between spouses — to return them to an earlier, happier relationship. That’s not the Greek meaning. It does mean to bring into right relationship, but can include a relationship that never previously existed.

Intriguingly, the other place where reconciliation figure prominently in Paul’s thought is —

(2 Cor. 5:17-21 ESV)  17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;  19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.  20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

Paul writes about the “ministry of reconciliation” in terms technically known as inaugurated eschatology — that is, he sees reconciliation as a preview, foretaste, or firstfruits of the reconciliation that will take place when Jesus returns. Language such as “new creation” and “the old has passed away” and “the new has come” are Second Coming phrases that Paul says is already happening in the Kingdom today. “Reconciliation” is to bring about among Christians and the church today what will be the right relationship with God after the Second Coming.

The result is Christian mission: “so that in [Jesus] we might become the [covenant faithfulness] of God.” That is, we both display the wonders of God’s covenant faithfulness  — by being saved by faith in Jesus and becoming God’s Kingdom on earth — but also, like God, offering God’s grace and reconciliation to a dying, suffering world.

Rom 5:12-13, Part 1

(Rom. 5:12-13 ESV)  12 Therefore, just as [Sin] came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through [Sin], and so death spread to all men because all sinned — 13 for [Sin] indeed was in the world before the [Torah] was given, but [Sin] is not counted where there is no [Torah].

Paul now changes subjects to talk about sin and death and Adam and Torah and Jesus. He is, in fact, giving a lesson in salvation history. Chapter 4 covered the solution to the problem — counting faith in Jesus as righteousness because of God’s covenant with Abraham. This Paul assumes we will remember. Now, Paul explains in more detail why there was this need — but also how God solves the problem through Jesus.

“Original Sin” [JFG]

We usually approach this passage seeking to either prove or disprove the doctrine of Original Sin. There are two views of Original Sin. One is that we are all stained with the sin of Adam, even as infants, and so need to have the sin purged. This is one rationale for infant baptism, although the practice of infant baptism pre-dates the teaching of Original Sin by centuries. I find this theory absurd and utterly foreign to Christianity, for reasons we’ll be getting to.

The other view is that all humans old enough to be accountable for their actions sin — because of the fallen nature of mankind. I don’t know of anyone who disputes this, but it badly confuses the discussion of the sinfulness of accountable humans to be called “Original Sin.” Hence, I’ll only use that term to refer to the notion that even babies are damned because of Adam’s sin.

“Sin”

Just a reminder that Wright points out that Paul uses “sin” in at least two senses. There are those particular failures to hit the mark that individuals are guilty of. This is what we all usually mean by “sin.” But Paul also speaks of sin as a power that stands in opposition to God. Wright capitalizes “Sin” when he means Sin as a malevolent force.

When Paul is speaking of Sin, he always uses the singular form, but the singular form can refer to a particular sin by a particular person. But it’s helpful to watch out for Paul’s use of the singular “sin” and to ask which meaning he has in mind.

In my quotations of the Romans text, I’ll usually indicate which meaning I think Paul has in mind by inserting “[Sin]” for “sin” when it seems to me that Paul has in mind the sinfulness of mankind as a power that stands opposed to God.

“Death,” “die,” and other variations [JFG]

One of the most important decisions to make in interpreting the rest of Rom 5 is whether “death” refers to physical death — which all earthly beings are subject to — or eternal or spiritual death, that is, damnation.

Even a casual reader of Genesis will come across this question. For example, the serpent tempts Eve in this exchange —

(Gen. 2:16-17 ESV) 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,  17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” 

(Gen. 3:2-5 ESV)  2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,  3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'”  4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.  5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

This is normally taken to be a conversation about physical death, and if that’s right, the serpent was right. Eve and Adam did not die “in the day that you eat of it.” But, it’s often taken to mean “you shall surely become mortal,” with the assumption that Adam and Eve would have lived forever but for their sin — not that the text actually says this.

It is clear from 3:22 that the fruit of this tree [of life] was understood to bestow immortality upon the eater. … [T]he text presupposes a belief that man, created from perishable matter, was mortal from the outset but that he had within his grasp the possibility of immortality.

Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, The JPS Torah Commentary, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 18–19.

Rather, immortality was not and never is referred to as an innate characteristic of humanity (or man’s soul). Rather, God is able to grant immortality to those whom he chooses — and he chose to provide Adam and Eve with a source of immortality — the tree of life. The tree of life is later pictured as being in the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE) (Rev 22:2, 14) — granting immortality to God’s children and no one else.

From the time of the curse on Creation of Gen 3 until the Second Coming, all humanity is subject to physical death. Even Christians die. But Christians do not die the Second Death. They don’t die for all eternity. Rather, they will be resurrected to enter the NHNE  and will never die again. But most will have died once.

Hence, consider such passages as —

(Rom. 5:17-19 ESV)  17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 

This is nonsense if physical death is in mind. It would mean —

(Rom. 5:17-19 ESV)  17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, [physical] death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life [in the NHNE] for all men.  19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 

Notice that Paul parallels “death” with “trespass,” “condemnation,” “disobedience,” and “sinners.” And yet all die a physical death, even those who “reign in life,” even those who receive “justification and life,” and even those who “will be made righteous.”

Plainly, this makes far better sense if eternal death (the Second Death of Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) is in mind in parallel with eternal life. Either you are resurrected to eat of the Tree of Life and enjoy immortality with God (eternal life), or not. If not, then you either simply die and stay dead with no hope of resurrection or else you are raised from the dead to face judgment, suffering God’s just punishment, and then die — to remain dead for all eternity. Hence, “eternal death” is the antitype of eternal life, not physical death. Of course.

We therefore might translate,

(Rom. 5:17-19 ESV)  17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, [eternal] death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in [eternal] life through the one man Jesus Christ.  18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation [and so eternal death] for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and [eternal] life [in the NHNE] for all men.  19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners [and so condemned to eternal death], so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous [and hence immortal, enjoying eternal life]. 

Obviously, as retranslated, the passage still has its difficulties, but not nearly the same difficulties as teaching that Jesus somehow rescued his followers from physical death. He didn’t.

Now, this fits the Genesis accounts, because the Garden of Eden was a prototype of the New Heavens and New Earth. Had Adam and Eve remained in the Garden, where they had access to the Tree of Life, they would have dwelled with God, just as God’s children are destined to live in the New Heavens and New Earth with God, eating of the Tree of Life.

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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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One Response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 36 (reconciliation; death through one man)

  1. Eric Thomas says:

    So I’m thinking on the note of not being judged for what you don’t know. If Adam never eats the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil he never knows if he does evil and therefore God never has need to judge him. Adam only knows what God tells him. The knowledge of good and evil makes Adam responsible for all his actions not just leaving that particular fruit alone. And I guess we all inherited that knowledge and so the responsibility that comes with it. More than we are ready for.

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