N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 47 (Faith and baptism, Part 2)

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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.

Romans 6 – 8, Introduction

Wright dwells on these three chapters at some length. He begins with this observation:

These three chapters, in fact, are the full exposition of what Paul meant in Romans 3: 24 when he described the unveiling of God’s saving purpose as “the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus.” Romans 3: 24– 26, to be discussed in our next chapter, seems to be a shorthand summary of this “redemption.” Paul has waited until this point to provide his much fuller account of what he there summarized in advance.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4451-4454). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

It helps if we remember that “redemption” means to pay the price to free someone from slavery. We could also translate “manumission” or “escape from slavery.” And Wright notes that when the subject is freedom from slavery, the Exodus is nearly always in mind.

Why would Paul want to write an Exodus narrative at this point? Because Jesus chose Passover as the explanatory setting for what he had to do. The early church from then on, as we have seen, used Passover as the basic route toward understanding why he died. Paul picks this up and celebrates it. Passover, as we have seen, had to do with the overthrow of the powers of evil, the rescue of God’s people as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea, the giving of the law, and above all the strange and dangerous Presence of God himself, fulfilling his promises, coming to dwell in the tabernacle, and leading the people on the long, difficult journey through the wilderness to their promised inheritance. All of these themes find their home in Romans 6– 8 within the narrative of Messiah and Spirit. At their heart, again and again, is the Messiah’s death.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4455-4461). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Ironically enough, while Paul is writing about the Exodus and the Passover, which we re-enact in the Lord’s Supper, we only see baptism in Paul’s argument. Obviously enough, Paul does speak to baptism, but it’s in service of a larger argument.

Romans 6: 1-11

Wright writes,

Romans 6: 2– 11 is all about the death of the Messiah and about the fact that those who are baptized into him must “reckon” that they too have died. This death was like the passing of the Israelites through the Red Sea: those who pass through the waters of baptism are reminded that they have left behind the old world of slavery (“Egypt”) and are on the way home to their inheritance. Like Israel in the desert (Paul draws out this implication in 1 Cor. 10 too), they must learn to live in God’s new world, not slide back into their old ways.

But this still only declares that Jesus’s death has effected the “new Passover,” not how it did so— though when Paul says in 6: 10, “The death he died . . . he died to sin, once and once only,” we can see him bringing together the two strands of the Jewish narrative, the Passover strand and the end-of-exile/dealing-with-sin strand.

The result is that “Sin”— sin with a capital S— is personified, drawing on the same feature in 5: 12– 21. “Sin” in this sense is more than simply individual “sins.” It is the slave master, the jailer, the Pharaoh from whose grip one is freed by coming through the water. That is what Jesus’s death has achieved.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4462-4470). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

This book is not where Wright explains his theology of baptism. Rather, in atonement theology, Wright sees baptism as illustrative of our journey out of slavery to Sin and Death and so committing us to living as people traveling with God to the Promised Land through the desert rather than as slaves back in Egypt. That is, Wright offers a narrative interpretation — which I think is right but hardly exhaustive of the text and the meaning of baptism.

Rom 6:1-2

(Rom. 6:1-2 NET) What shall we say then? Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?  2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 

Remember that chapter 5 concluded with Paul’s defense of the Torah. The Jews’ possession of the Torah made them more aware of God’s will than the Gentiles, and so — ironically — the Jews were guilty of greater sin for their greater knowledge! What’s the solution? Grace abounded. God saved the Jews through faith — if they had faith — despite their greater accountability.

That leads quite naturally to the question of why not sin so that grace may abound, as grace is surely a good thing. I’m not sure it’s so much a question his opponents actually asked as a response to an obvious objection. Paul surely felt the need to explain why grace doesn’t justify license or antinomianism.

Romans 6:3-5

(Rom. 6:3-5 NET)  3 Or do you not know that as many as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life.  5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection.

Now, in 1 Cor 10, Paul very explicitly compares Christian baptism to the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea to flee slavery in Egypt. It’s hardly that clear in the Rom 6, and yet Wright sees the Exodus account as Paul’s template for chapters 6 – 8.

There are, of course, obvious parallels. The Israelites crossed to “live a new life.” They were united with God at Mt. Sinai. The Red Sea was not only like a burial, it was a literal burial for the Egyptian army that pursued them through the parted sea.

So I wouldn’t deny Wright’s point, but I do struggle to see how Paul would have expected to Romans to pick up on something that is pretty obscure unless you’ve already read 1 Cor 10. You see, to me, it’s not until we get to Paul language about leaving slavery in Rom 6:16 that the Exodus theme becomes evident — and we’ll discuss the slavery metaphor when we get there.

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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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