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. 6:19 NET) 19 (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Paul begins next to back away from the slave market analogy. He is speaking in “human terms” because of our fallen natures. We’ve been justified and reconciled to God, but we are still broken eikons — images of God. We’re still prone to sin, and our comprehension of spiritual truths is still difficult for us.
Paul then restates his conclusion. Before our baptisms, we were slaves to impurity and lawlessness — both Jews and Greek. To the Jews, this would have sounded particularly harsh as they had the Law (Torah) and tried to comply. But, Paul says, lawlessness leads to ever greater lawlessness (remember Rom 1!)
This should give some sense of how God (and his apostles) viewed the Jews of the day. They honored the Temple rituals and studied Torah, but their hearts were far from God and so he saw them as lawless and impure — unworthy of his presence. And this only makes sense in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that was soon to come. And it further demonstrates the truth of Wright’s claim that the Jews were still in Exile — except for those Jews who’d decided to follow Jesus.
Now that we’ve been baptized in Jesus, we should offer ourselves — our “members,” that is, our physical bodies — as slaves to righteousness (covenant faithfulness) leading to “sanctification” (becoming holy).
The thought here of “impurity” and “sanctification” is more in line with ritual cleanliness. That is, Paul is borrowing Temple language. To “present” can be used of presenting a sacrifice (as in Rom 12:1!). “Holy” is a word used in Torah regarding suitability for sacrifice or worship more than good ethical behavior. Of course, “lawlessness” and “righteousness” do speak to ethical behavior. Paul’s point is that how we act, more especially, whom we worship and serve, affects our suitability as living sacrifices.
Without Jesus, not only are we lawless, we are so impure that we can only be presented (sacrificed) to an idol. To be worthy of dying on God’s altar, we must submit righteousness — to the covenant sealed in the blood of Jesus by living like Jesus.
(Rom. 6:20-23 NET) 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. 21 So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. 23 For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul now comes at the lesson from the opposite direction. When we were slaves of Sin, we were under no obligation to the covenants with God. But the result of this kind of freedom is Death (loss of the hope of immortality). Being enslaved to God, however, produces eternal life (immortality). So some kinds of freedom aren’t all that free. Freedom from God costs your immortality.
Paul then makes clear a point to which he’ll return: Death is the fair price paid for submission to Sin. Immortality is a free gift from God.
But both are forms of slavery? How is it that immortality is a gift? Well, Paul assumes that we remember the earlier chapters of the book. Eternal life is received by faith in Jesus, which only costs us our shackles.
What did freedom from Egypt cost the Israelites? God fought the battles and the war. God parted the sea. God fed and gave them water. God gave them Torah. God brought them into covenant relationship. God destroyed Jericho. God won their battles for them. All they had to do was follow God through the desert — and leave their shackles behind.