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.
The second half of chapter 5 deals with salvation history, filling in gaps remaining after chapters 1 – 4. It should never be read as though the earlier chapters hadn’t already been penned by Paul.
When we read the text in the New Perspective way, that is, in light of the ancient covenants between God and Israel, the Calvinist issues evaporate. Paul is simply not talking about “Original Sin.” He’s clear that humanity inherits Adam’s propensity to sin, but not that we inherit the guilt of his sin. That’s just not the point being addressed.
Rather, Paul is trying to explain how it is that both Jews and Gentiles need a Savior, both are saved by faith in/faithfulness to/trust in Jesus — the Messiah and Lord. He’s continuing to show how God has been faithful to his covenants — saving the Jews with faith by faith.
But he also shows that God is not at all the wrathful deity of the Romans Road theory of atonement. Not only does God take the initiative to save, God forgives the faithful Jews with “abounding” grace — so that he can bless them with a greater revelation about himself without damning them all. After all, the more God shares about himself — surely a blessing — the harder it is for us to live up to his wondrous, beautiful image. We know that we need to be restored to the image of God, and yet the more we learn about God, the more impossible it seems to be to actually achieve. The solution? Grace abounding.
Now this grace is, in some sense, through Jesus the King our Lord. But Jesus is in some sense a part of God — and our minds are just not wired to fully comprehend the Trinity or even the Nicene Creed. Putting words to the marvels of the Trinity does not really explain it. It just gives us a vocabulary to help us express our amazement.
We learn that Jesus reverses not only the curse of the Exile (covered by Paul in earlier chapters) but also the curse of Gen 3. Thus, both Gentiles and Jews are cleansed by the blood of Christ and so allowed to approach him as the mercy seat of God — the place not only of atonement but of God’s very presence.
Now, the second half of chapter 5 is not a complete lesson. The rest of Romans is heavily built on many themes barely introduced here. We cannot stop so early in the book (despite spending so many words on explaining this as best I can). After all, we’re coming up on chapter 6, which begins with a section on baptism. What kind of Church of Christ expositor would I be if I stopped here?
But let’s also not forget the first half of chapter 5 — which tells us about God’s work in our hearts through the Spirit to fulfill the promise of Deu 30:6 to pour out the love of God into our hearts through the Spirit.
And perhaps even more important are the “much more” passages that tell us that now that we’ve been saved, God will “much more” reconcile us to him. His forgiveness will be much more accessible. As members of his family, while the standards do get higher, because of his abounding grace, the grace is “much more” greater. We should rest assured not only of God’s love but his willingness to forgive. His goal is our salvation. He’s not looking to trap us into damnation. Rather, he’s looking for ways to save us despite our best efforts to mess up.