N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 58 (if her husband dies, she is free from that law)


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 7:1 -4

(Rom. 7:1-4 NET) Or do you not know, brothers and sisters (for I am speaking to those who know the law [Torah]), that the law [Torah] is lord over a person as long as he lives?  2 For a married woman is bound by law [Torah] to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage.  3 So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress.  4 So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law [Torah] through the body of Christ [by joining in his death through baptism], so that you could be joined to another [that is, Jesus], to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God.

Paul is continuing the discussion begun in chapter 6. That is, he’s still answering why we shouldn’t sin so that grace may abound. In 7:1, however, he changes metaphors. He was talking about Christians as slaves to God. Now, he speaks of the “law of marriage” and freedom from this law through death.

Now, Paul is not teaching a lesson about divorce and remarriage. Rather, he is using marriage as an example to reason from — and he is making no effort to lay out a complete doctrine of marriage and divorce. His point is simply that death ends a marriage — which no one disagrees with. His point is not that only death can end a marriage. He simply doesn’t address that question at all in this passage, and we should not read more into the passage than is really there. In fact, the Torah allows divorce. Deu 24 is quite clear on the point. 

No, Paul’s point is that when we died with Jesus in baptism, we were freed from Sin and Death. The Torah bound us to Sin and Death pre-baptism because the Torah holds us accountable for God’s will. While Paul likely had Jews and proselytes largely in mind, God’s law is also evident through the Creation and our moral natures — so that even Gentiles who’d never heard of Torah are accountable to enough of God’s will to be subject to Sin and Death — as Paul explained in chapter 5.

Marriage and slavery

In the prophets, the giving of the Law of Moses at Mt. Sinai is sometimes pictured as a marriage between God and Israel. See, e.g., Eze 16. It’s from this imagery that the NT refers to the church (the new Israel) as the bride of Christ (who becomes to the church what God was to Israel). But this doesn’t seem to be Paul’s thought here, as he is speaking of death (through baptism into the death of Jesus) ending a “marriage” that the believer was bound by up until baptism — that is, marriage to Sin and Death imposed by even very limited knowledge of God’s law.

This seems really odd to Western ears, but the Bible’s language of marriage is very similar to the language of slavery. A wife is “bound” to her husband. This is evident from a close reading of 1 Cor 7 —

(1 Cor. 7:4 YLT)  4 the wife over her own body hath not authority, but the husband; and, in like manner also, the husband over his own body hath not authority, but the wife. 

(1 Cor. 7:11-13 YLT)  11 but and if she may separate, let her remain unmarried, or to the husband let her be reconciled, and let not a husband send away a wife.  12 And to the rest I speak — not the Lord — if any brother hath a wife unbelieving, and she is pleased to dwell with him, let him not send her away;  13 and a woman who hath a husband unbelieving, and he is pleased to dwell with her, let her not send him away; 

(1 Cor. 7:15 YLT)  15 And, if the unbelieving doth separate himself — let him separate himself: the brother or the sister is not under servitude [literally: in slavery] in such cases, and in peace hath God called us;

I use Young’s Literal Translation here to get closer to the Greek. Like a spouse, a slave has no authority over his own body. An unprofitable slave may be sent away by the master. But Paul declares that the wife of an unbelieving husband is not bound as a slave to him, and if she is sent away by her husband, the marriage bond is broken.

In the ancient world, a wife was often considered property of her husband, and this attitude is found in the human languages spoken. She was not a slave, but marriage and slavery both were sometimes seen in terms of property rights — and so they sometimes share a common vocabulary. This hardly means that Paul adopts the attitude that a wife is owned by her husband. In fact, he specifically declares to the contrary. But he does so in the language of the day.

Thus, a non-Christian is enslaved/married to Sin and Death. Baptism into the death of Jesus is a legal death of the believer, which breaks the marriage bond and ends the enslavement. The result is a new slavery and new marriage.

Now, if we’re a little too literal in our thinking, we’re horrified at the thought of comparing marriage to slavery and then our relationship with God as slavery. Paul will rescue the discussion soon. But for now, let’s go with what he says.

Finally, Paul says that we marry Jesus “to bear fruit to God.” In context, “fruit” means children. To the ancients, sex was seen in agricultural terms. The woman is “fertile” or “barren.” The man plants his “seed.” The result is “fruit.” Again, Paul’s use of the language of the day hardly means that he is teaching that this is how sex really works. He has no choice but to speak in the contemporary idiom unless he wants to insert a section on genetics and embryonics in the middle of Romans!

However, I don’t think we can press “fruit” to mean “evangelistic efforts.” After all, in verses 5-6, Paul will use “fruit” to refer to the product of our sinful desires that bring death. He’s not saying that we’re evangelizing for Satan. Rather, “fruit” is whatever is produced by the thing under discussion — which may be new converts or it may be dreadful sins of all sorts. It’s what we’d call “consequences.”

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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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One Response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 58 (if her husband dies, she is free from that law)

  1. Dwight says:

    While there is a similarity between husband and wife and slavery, I don’t think this is what is in mind.
    Bonding happened between those who agreed/made a covenant or upon the one who made a vow, they were bound.
    In the OT a man and a woman could become man and wife by agreement, this was often called betrothed. Joseph and Mary were man and wife and only betrothed. But they were bound.
    (1 Cor. 7:4 YLT) “the wife over her own body hath not authority, but the husband; and, in like manner also, the husband over his own body hath not authority, but the wife” reflects that they have equal ownership, even though the man has the authority as set up from the beginning.
    After all they were one in marriage. Joined by God.
    I don’t think Paul is saying marriage is like slavery is like us and God, but rather marriage is like us and God and slavery is like us and God, because there is a bonding.
    But in the case of Paul’s bonding it is a willing bond, unlike most cases of slavery, where it was unwilling. In this case we become a slave to who we call master….willingly.
    The Jews would have enslaved themselves either to the law or to Christ.
    People would have died in Christ and been released from the law to be joined to Christ.

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