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. 5:18-19 ESV) 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.
We’ve covered enough of Paul’s vocabulary words that we can attempt a re-translation without interruption —
(Rom. 5:18-19 ESV) 18 Therefore, as one [sin by Adam] led to condemnation for all men [that is, the loss of immortality], so one act of righteousness [that is, loving covenant faithfulness by Jesus on the cross] leads to justification [treatment of those with faith as covenant faithful and so part of the covenant community] and [immortal] life for all men. 19 For as by [Adam]’s disobedience the many were made sinners [because they inherited his weakness to resist Sin], so by [Jesus’] obedience [on the cross] the many will be made righteous [that is, declared covenant faithful by God].
As Paul’s dense writing style and unfamiliar vocabulary goes, this is not that hard of a passage, except for the phrase “for all men” at the end of v. 18. This sounds like universalism, and countless Universalists have so argued. Then again, the entirety of chapter 4 insists on the necessity of faith as a requirement to be deemed righteous — a theme that is also found plainly in chapters 1 and 3. It seems unlikely that Paul forgot that faith is necessary for salvation so quickly!
But this should be obvious from “one trespass led to condemnation for all men.” In fact, not all men are condemned. Some are saved. It’s just that humanity in general lost immortality because of the sin of Adam. But there are exceptions. Just so, Jesus’s obedience on the cross was more than sufficient to undo the condemnation caused by Adam, but “life for all men” is no more an absolute declaration than is “condemnation for all men” in the same verse. Both are speaking of what is potentially true of all but in fact only true of some.
Adam brings condemnation for all; Christ, justification for all. Our minds instantly raise the question of numerically universal salvation, but this is not in Paul’s mind. His universalism is of the sort that holds to Christ as the way for all.
“Condemnation” and “judgment” have been important themes in the letter since the second chapter; Paul here, as usual, refers to the final coming judgment, the time when there will be wrath for some and life for others (2:5–11). The theme remains central in the coming chapters, reaching its dramatic climax in 8:1 (“there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”) and 8:33–34 (“it is God who justifies; who will condemn?”).
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), 529.
In other words, “life for all men” intends that we understand that Jesus’ has made, through a super-abundance of grace, a path sufficient for all men, fully capable of completely reversing the Curse of Gen 3 as to everyone, but this righteousness will only be accessed by faith in Jesus — a problem that Paul will address in detail in Rom 10 when he pleads for the sending of missionaries so that the gospel will be preached, heard, and believed — and the lost may call upon the name of the LORD. (Any other interpretation contradicts much of the rest of Romans to the point of true absurdity.)
(Rom. 5:20-21 ESV) 20 Now the law [Torah] came in to increase the trespass [sin], but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death [the loss of immortality], grace also might reign through righteousness [deemed covenant faithfulness] leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul now introduces one of the most challenging questions in Romans: If the Torah makes Israel more accountable for sin by giving them special revelation and hence greater knowledge of God’s will, then all it’s done is brought more sin! How is that a good thing? Why would God want to impose greater accountability on his elect people if he intended to somehow bless them? Surely they would have been better off never having had the Torah!
Paul addresses this question briefly here and again in chapters 6, 7, and 9. But he’s intellectually honest enough to know he should wrestle with the hard questions. He is no avoider!
His first answer is perhaps his best: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”! Even though the Jewish people were more accountable for God’s will and so were more guilty of accountable sin than the Gentiles (how’s that for a Pauline twist??), God dealt with that problem by forgiving them. It’s just that simple.
Now, we know from chapter 4 that forgiveness came by faith. It’s the covenant with Abraham that brought grace through faith. The rule of grace overwhelmed the rule of Sin and Death. Israel’s faith allowed them to avoid the damning consequences of the Torah — for those who had faith.
Indeed, as I’ve previously argued, the Jews not only were forgiven, they were granted immortality — at least, the faithful Jews were — up until the Exile, when they fell out of grace as a nation (but with notable individual exceptions) (Again note the roll call of the faithful in Heb 11). On the other hand, as we covered in an earlier post, those without faith failed to gain immortality and were not gathered to their fathers when they died.
When did grace abound to cover their sin? Well, surely going back to the giving of the Torah. And yet the faith that Paul says provides eternal life is “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And here we must cover some deep, deep stuff.
Jesus as YHWH [JFG]
Abraham was saved — deemed righteous — because he believed God.
(Gen. 15:6 ESV) 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
If you read the translator notes at the beginning of your modern translation, you’ll find that YHWH is routinely translated LORD in all caps. The KJV says “Jehovah,” which is very poor Hebrew but perhaps less confusing for the English reader. YHWH is the holiest name for God.
Paul and Peter both refer to OT passages speaking of YHWH as speaking of Jesus — which is very surprising to most modern Christians. It was surprising to me. This first hit me when I wrote the series on 1 Corinthians, especially this post on 1 Cor 10. Over and over, events that in Numbers are attributed to YHWH are said by Paul to have been done by Jesus!
Then we get to Acts 2 and find Peter preaching from Joel 2:32a, which says that those who “call up on the name of the LORD” will be saved. Peter then declared Jesus to be “Lord” and urges his audience to call on the name of Jesus (in baptism) to be saved.
Then in Rom 10, Paul argues that those who confess the name of Jesus will be saved because, citing to Joel 2:32a, which he quotes as promising salvation to those who call on the name of the Lord (which in Hebrew is YHWH!).
So there is a very real sense in which the faith of Abraham was faith in Jesus — because the text says he believed YHWH.
Therefore, Paul refers to Jesus in Rom 5:21 as “Jesus Christ our Lord.” “Lord” is the standard Jewish euphemism for YHWH (although it’s not always used in that sense; the LXX routinely translates YHWH as “Lord”).
So it’s likely true that in Paul’s mind, Abraham actually had faith in Jesus — as revealed up that point in a very limited way. He believed in Jesus as well as anyone could at that point in history. And the same is true of Jews of faith from then until Pentecost.
Ray Vander Laan explains that the Jews believed in a Messiah who was yet to be revealed, while Christians believe in a revealed Messiah — and that makes sense to me.
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. … Abraham, unlike those spoken of in 1:18–23, “grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised” (4:20–21).
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5029-5040). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.