N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 38 (Grace abounding)

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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 5:14

(Rom. 5:14 ESV)  14 Yet [eternal] death reigned [ruled as a monarch] from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come [that is, Jesus]. 

This is no easy verse. First, Paul seems to say quite clearly that there was no immortality granted from Adam to Moses — and yet Jesus himself declared that the Patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (at least) — were saved and granted immortality (Matt 22:32). Hence, Paul must be taken to be speaking in very broad generalities.

For that matter, Paul had just penned Rom 4, where he points out how God credited Abraham with righteousness because of his faith. Clearly, Paul considered Abraham and the other Patriarchs as exceptional cases because of their exceptional faith. (Compare Heb 11 and the “roll call of the faithful.”)

Second, Adam sinned against special revelation. That is, God spoke to him in very plain, propositional language and told him not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil on penalty of death. This made Adam more accountable than those who followed, who might have been accountable solely because the presence of a Creator could be inferred from the good Creation and a moral Creator from the human sense of morality (as Paul argued in Rom 1 an 2). But even those with only “general revelation” were held accountable to the extent of being denied immortality — access to the Tree of Life. But they were not punished in the afterlife (3:25, 5:13).

To say that Adam was a “type” of Jesus is confusing to the English reader, because we would say “antitype,” that is, Jesus and Adam were opposites. But as Wright explains,

This is one of only two places where Paul uses “type” in this technical sense (the other being 1 Cor 10:6; see also 1 Cor 10:11). The thought is of a die or stamp that leaves its impression in wax: Paul’s meaning seems to be that Adam prefigured the Messiah in certain respects (other candidates for “the coming one” are sometimes suggested, but it is virtually certain that Paul intended to refer to Jesus), notably in this, that he founded a family that would bear his characteristics.

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), 527.

Although Adam and Jesus are opposites in some ways, they are similar in that they both founded families that take on their essential characteristics. The family of Adam sins just as Adam sinned — even against general revelation. The family of Jesus will be new creations in the image of Jesus.

Rom 5:15-16

(Rom. 5:15-16 ESV)  15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.  16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.

“Free gift”

Paul introduces a new concept: the “free gift.” “Gift” translates charisma. Charis is the Greek for grace, and the –ma ending makes it something like “grace thing.” Hence, “gracious gift” or “free gift.”

It’s not until v. 21 that Paul plainly identifies “free gift” with “eternal life” or even “immortality.” Immortality was lost in the Garden because of sin, but it was regained — for free! — by the grace of God.

“Grace”

The theologians want to complicate “grace.” The standard Bible class definition is “unmerited favor.” I rarely find that a class can define “unmerited favor,” so we’ve replaced one mystery with another. Paul says it’s a willingness to give something away for free. Modern English would be close if we were to translate as “generosity” — the willingness to give gifts.

(I’ve had far better educated theologians than me be horrified at “generosity” as a definition — but I think they’re just wrong. It doesn’t have to be complicated. BDAG defines it as “a beneficent disposition toward someone, favor, grace, gracious care/help, goodwill.” In other word, generosity.)

This is not the place for a full explanation of the ancient patronage system, but in Greco-Roman culture, “grace” was also the willingness of a person of higher estate — a patron — to do favors for someone of a lower social station. Think of it as a form of noblesse oblige, that is, the obligation of the rich and powerful to use their power and money to help less fortunate people. However, in the First Century, the benefited person was expected to respond with pistis (faith or faithfulness) by working to enhance the honor of the patron. Grace (charis) was free — but only an ingrate of the worst sort would refuse to respond in faith.

“Trespass”

In modern English, to trespass (paraptoma) is to violate someone else’s property by being on another’s land without consent. Hence, some translations use “transgression” or “offense.” The literal meaning is to fall outside the proper path. Palestinian farms were small and closely spaced, with narrow footpaths in between. Step outside the path and you were surely stepping on someone’s crop — supper or breakfast for his family. The language became a metaphor for giving an offense or committing a sin.

A revised translation

(Rom. 5:15-16 ESV)  15 But the free gift [of immortality] is not like [the sin of Adam]. For if many died [lost hope of immortality] through [Adam’s sin], much more have the [generosity] of God and [immortality] by the [generosity] of that one man Jesus [the King] abounded for many.  16 And the free gift [of immortality] is not like the result of [Adam]’s sin. For the [curse] following one [sin] brought condemnation [in the form of expulsion from the Garden and loss of immortality], but the free gift [of immortality] following many [sins] brought justification [a finding that the Jews and Gentiles are both considered covenant faithful and so part of the community granted immortality.]

“Much more”

In 15, Paul repeats the “much more” (πολλῷ μᾶλλον) repeated twice in 5:9-10 when Paul compares God’s willingness to justify and save those who’ve become converts compared to the salvation we receive at conversion. The grace/generosity of God — his willingness to grant immortality — is “much more” abundant — abounding — than the curse on Creation from Gen 3. The generosity of God overwhelms the curse. It’s not just barely enough. It’s grace abounding.

Rom 5:17

(Rom. 5:17 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. 

Now, we’ve earlier considered the biblical idea that Christians are saved to reign on the throne of heaven with Jesus. Consider —

(2 Tim. 2:11-13 ESV)  11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him;  12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us;  13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful– for he cannot deny himself.

(Rev. 5:9-10 ESV)  9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation,  10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” 

(Rev. 22:5 ESV)  5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 

We sing about this —

— “and he lives forever with his saints to reign” — but we never, ever preach it.

Here Paul contrasts the reign of Sin over the Creation because of Adam’s trespass (5:14, 17) with the reign of the saved in Jesus. We will “reign in life” rather than Sin reigning in Death. Therefore, the ones who will defeat Sin and Death are … us — the saved in Christ. Obviously, we’ll have some help from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they will defeat Death and Sin in part through the enthroned followers of Jesus. (We must have a pretty big job to do.)

Another re-translation

(Rom. 5:17 ESV)  17 For if, because of [Adam’s sin], Death reigned through [Adam], much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of [being declared covenant faithful and so part of the covenant community] reign in [immortal or eternal] life through the one man Jesus [the King]. 

“Christ” means “Anointed One” means “King,” and when the subject is reigning, it’s important to realize that the saved, the King’s followers, will reign “through” Jesus. We are in this together. We participate in his mission. We further his reign.

Our reign will be “in life,” meaning immortality or eternal life. Our reigns begin in this age but continue into the next.

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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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