N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 59 (the new life of the Spirit; 2 Cor 3, Part 1)


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 7:5-8

(Rom. 7:5-6 NET)  5 For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law [Torah], were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death [the loss of the hope of immortality].  6 But now we have been released from the law [Torah], because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve [as a bond-servant or slave] in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code [Torah].

Here we hit a major turning point in the discussion. In fact, Paul has had the Spirit very much in mind going back to chapter 2, but he has been speaking in other terms — faith, justification, righteousness, death, sin, eternal life, and such — in order to set up the problem that can only be solved by God’s Holy Spirit.

“When we were in the flesh” means before we received the Spirit. In Paul’s vocabulary, “flesh” refers not to our bodies but to our fallen natures, our propensity to sin, our rebellion against God.

“Sinful desires, aroused by the law” is explained in the next two verses —

(Rom. 7:7-8 NET)  7 What shall we say then? Is the law [Torah] [Sin]? Absolutely not! Certainly, I would not have known sin except through the law [Torah]. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law [Torah] had not said, “Do not covet.”  8 But [Sin], seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law [Torah], [Sin] is dead.

That is, the Torah not only gives us the rules, but by describing a long list of sins, actually tempts us to sin. I might never occur to someone to engage in incest or bestiality until they read a law prohibiting that conduct.

This most obvious example of this effect is the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The command itself produced the temptation to eat. Had God never given the command, Adam and Eve might have never thought to eat the fruit. But once the command was given, the temptation became overwhelming and the sin nearly inevitable. (It’s like telling your three-year old to do anything but think about pink hippopotamuses. The command is the temptation.)

So we have this problem. We can’t be obedient to God unless he reveals his will to us, and yet the revelation itself is a temptation to sin — such is the perversity of our fallen natures, our flesh. Hence, a written code, a mere law, is doomed to failure. Humans cannot, as a practical matter, conform their behavior to a book of rules. Indeed, the rules can actually make it harder to obey — and they certainly make us more accountable for our sins and hence damn us all the more.

“Released from the law [Torah]” means that our joining in Jesus’ death in baptism has ended the dominion of Torah over us and replaced it with the Spirit. “Died to what controlled us” is death to our fleshly natures, you’ve got to figure.

In short, the Spirit defeats our fleshly natures and becomes our new master. It makes it possible to be considered faithful to the covenant even though we fail to be as faithful as we should be. It’s a means of grace.

We are no longer enslaved to Torah, Sin, and Death but to the Spirit. But the Spirit is radically different from those other things. It brings immortality and freedom.

Freedom? Well, Paul will get there. In the meantime, just realize that the entire problem of how we’re saved and why we’re no longer subject to the law of Sin and Death is solved by the Spirit. Take the Spirit out of Romans, and  you’d may as well throw the entire book away. It’s a linchpin argument.

And this is why those in the Churches of Christ who deny the direct operation of the Spirit are legalists. There are only two possible ways to obey — the way of the Spirit or the way of the written code — and many of my brothers have chosen the written code, which is the path to being dominated by Sin and Death. They have not chosen wisely.

2 Corinthians 3:1-18

Wright spends a little time pointing out the similarities of this passage to portions of 2 Cor 3. Because the Holy Spirit’s work is so foreign to the thinking of many in the Churches of Christ, I’m going to expand a bit on Wright’s thoughts.

2 Corinthians is a difficult book in many respects, and we rarely cover it in our Bible classes. Too long for a single quarter. Really difficult to interpret in some places, especially if you start with a no-direct-operation of the Spirit assumption. (Which means I just have to do a series on it at some point.)

(2 Cor. 3:1-3 NET)  Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? We don’t need letters of recommendation to you or from you as some other people do, do we?  2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone,  3 revealing that you are a letter of Christ, delivered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on stone tablets but on tablets of human hearts. 

This stone/heart contrast should, by now, be obvious and familiar to the readers. It’s taken straight from Ezekiel —

(Ezek. 11:19-20 ESV)  19 And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,  20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 

(Ezek. 36:26-27 ESV)  26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. 

Speaking of the end of Exile and the Messianic age yet to come, God promises through Ezekiel to change the hearts of his people from stone to flesh and to put his Spirit in his people so they’ll be obedient. (This is the true “precision obedience” we ought to be discussing, but the Spirit is forbidden territory for many of my brothers.)

And so, Paul tells the Corinthians that they are among the people who fulfill the promises made in Ezekiel. God himself has written on their hearts by the Spirit — in further fulfillment of —

(Jer. 31:31-34 ESV)  31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah,  32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.  33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

The Corinthians are “new covenant” people, with God’s law written on their hearts, which are hearts of flesh and no longer hearts of stone.

Paul extends the metaphor further by comparing their former hearts of stone with the Ten Commandments literally written on stone. Not only has God not written on stoney hearts, he’s replaced the stone tablets of the Ten Commandment with the hearts of his people on which he’s written his commands.

Thus, the mark of a true Christian, a true member of the covenant community, is the Spirit. The hearts of the saved bear the very words of God. The presence of God’s commands in their hearts should be far more obvious than something as superficial as circumcision or eating kosher. It’s changed lives that mark us as God’s people — letters from God telling the world about God and his Son.

[more to come]

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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 59 (the new life of the Spirit; 2 Cor 3, Part 1)

  1. David says:

    Yep, rebellion against the do’s and don’ts of parents, religion, culture, and God is a very strong motivator for bad action, not only in the immature, but in all people. Being made with freewill, we rebel at attempts from those “above” to control our actions. Freedom in Christ and our being given part of the divine nature quells that natural rebellion against God.

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