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.
2 Corinthians 3:4-6
(2 Cor. 3:4-6 NET) 4 Now we have such confidence in God through Christ. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as if it were coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who made us adequate to be servants of a new covenant not based on the letter but on the Spirit, for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
Paul now makes the reference to Jer 31:31 ff explicit when he refers to the “new covenant,” which is always a reference to this passage. The “new covenant” is not based on the “letter” but on the Spirit.
Many a Bible class has been confused by the double meaning of “letter” in English. Paul earlier uses “letter” to refer to an epistle (epistole). But here he uses a different Greek word referring to a letter of the alphabet (gramma). “The letter [of the alphabet] kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Why? I mean, how does writing something down in human language produce death? Well, this is exactly the question Paul wrestles with in Rom 7 — so maybe this will help us understand a bit better. But even if we don’t understand at all, surely we can see that Paul can’t imagine his readers being saved by a mere written set of rules. The question is no longer whether a written law can save (it cannot), but why not?
2 Corinthians 3:9-11
(2 Cor. 3:9-11 NET) 9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it. 11 For if what was made ineffective came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory!
The “written code” and “letter (gramma)” are now clearly identified as the Law of Moses, given at Mt. Sinai with great glory. Therefore, the new covenant of Jeremiah will “excel in glory” — so much so that the old written code is now shown to be ineffective despite the glory with which it arrived.
(2 Cor. 3:12-16 NET) 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness, 13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the result of the glory that was made ineffective. 14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds, 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Law from God, his face shone so brightly the Israelites begged him to cover it with a veil. Paul declares that the veil also served the purpose of hiding the fading of the glory. Moses’ face did not remain lit forever.
The problem was that the minds of the Israelites were closed. Even today, their minds are “veiled” to shield them from the brightness of the glory of God. They can’t perceive it, because God’s true glory and true will can only be seen through Jesus. The veil is only removed when “one turns to the Lord.” Only then can we bear to see the intense glory of God’s revelation.
2 Corinthians 3:17-18
(2 Cor. 3:17-18 NET) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Here we come to one of those passages that hold the rest of the NT together. I refer to it frequently because it says and explains so much.
First, the Spirit produces freedom, whereas the Torah produces enslavement to Sin and Death. As a teenager in Bible class, I used to literally laugh out loud at such passages, because the theology we were being taught was the furthest thing from freedom. And yet Paul is quite serious.
(Gal. 5:1 ESV) For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
So it took me a while to understand, but the more I read my Bible, the more I realized that freedom is truly intended and promised. (We’ll return to this question anon.)
We Christians have “unveiled faces.” We’ve been to the mountain top. We’ve died with Jesus and been resurrected with Jesus. And we’ve received the Spirit just as Moses received the Torah. And our Spirit is far more glorious than the Law, meaning that our faces should shine all the more brightly. But our glory won’t be fully revealed until Jesus returns (Rom 8 — we’ll get there, Lord willing).
(Phil. 2:14-16 NIV) 14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.
(Dan. 12:2-3 ESV) 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Finally — and this is my favorite point — the Spirit is in us transforming us from glory to even greater glory. He’s polishing our stars. He’s preparing us to radiate God’s glory.
Paul states this in terms of being transformed into the image (eikon) of Jesus. That is, when the Spirit writes God’s laws on our hearts and in our minds, the laws he is writing are the image of Jesus — who is the image of God. He is making us more and more like God.
The technical term is theosis, which we’ve covered many times. And this tells us not only about the work of the Spirit but the nature of God’s laws for Christians. It simply this: Follow Jesus; be like God.
It’s not complicated. It has little to do with instruments and the use of the church treasury and such like. It’s far more about understanding — knowing — God so that we can emulate him.
(Matt. 5:43-48 ESV) 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
(Matt. 22:35-40 NET) 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked him a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
I see these as equivalents. To be perfect as God is perfect is to love your neighbor as yourself.
And if the commandments and laws of God are these, then it makes perfect sense that the Spirit could be our hearts writing God’s commandments on our hearts. The Spirit doesn’t write “Sing only a cappella” or “No missionary societies” on a heart, at least not in my experience. But the Spirit most certain can and does write “Love your neighbor” — and where would a command to love be best written if not on the human heart?
And as we learn to love others better and better, we become more and more like God — and our glory intensifies as God’s love for others is poured into our hearts by the Spirit.