N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 61 (the Law is holy)

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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 7:9-11

(Rom. 7:9-11 NET)  9 And I was once alive apart from the law [Torah], but with the coming of the commandment [Sin] became alive  10 and I died. So I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life [immortality] brought death [loss of any hope of immortality]!  11 For [Sin], seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it I died [lost hope of immortality].

Who is “I”? Most commentators debate whether “I” refers to a non-Christian in need of the Spirit or to someone already saved but struggling against Sin. Certainly, most if not all Christians have experienced the tension between wanting to do right and being unable to do right — both before and after baptism. And the rest of chapter 7 could certainly be read either way.

But Wright believes that “I” refers to Israel or, more generally, mankind. 

Who is the “me” here? The “I” and “me” of Romans 7 is a literary device through which Paul is telling the life story of Israel under the Torah. He doesn’t want to speak of Israel as “they,” as though he were dealing with “others,” people distant from himself. This is his own story not in the sense of straight autobiography, but in the sense that he, Paul, a loyal Jew, is part of that same Israel “according to the flesh.” (That, of course, increases the tension in Romans 9, but that is for another day.)

His analysis here is the subsequent reflection of one who has come to believe that the crucified Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. Only in the light of Jesus can Israel’s story be told in this way. Only in the light of Jesus can he look back and see not only that the God-given Torah had the effect of increasing “Sin,” but that this was the divine intention all along. Hence the “so that” in 5:20 and the doubled “in order that” in 7:13.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4556-4563). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Consider 7:10-11. The narrative that fits this language best is the Garden of Eden.

(Rom. 7:9-11 NET)  9 And [mankind, in the form of Adam and Eve] was once alive apart from the law [God’s command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil], but with the coming of the commandment sin became alive  10 and [mankind lost hope of immortality]. So [mankind] found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death!  11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived [mankind, in the form of Adam and Eve] and through it [mankind lost immortality].

Of course, what is true of Adam and Eve is also true of you and me and Paul. Their sin cost all of us possession of the Tree of Life and subjected us all to mortality. Hence, Paul can very truthfully speak of “I” although he means every “I” that there has ever been.

Now, Wright points out that the expulsion from the Garden is parallel with the Babylonian Captivity. The Jews of the Southern Kingdom (Judah) had escaped Egyptian slavery and were only required to keep Torah to remain in good stead with God. Of all the commands God gave, by far the most prominent one was to refrain from idolatry. The Torah is filled with warnings against false gods (71 references to false “gods”; 10 references to idols or idolatry).

And yet Judah insisted on practicing idolatry — even after the Northern Kingdom had been captured and destroyed by the Assyrians for their idolatry. The inevitable result was Exile.

Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden. Judah was expelled from Jerusalem and the Temple. And both expulsions resulted in curses that separated God’s people from God. No longer did Adam walk with God in the Garden in the cool of the morning. No longer was God present among his people in the Holy of Holies.

The solution in both cases proved to be God’s willingness to reckon faith as righteousness. God’s covenant with Abraham began the long process of reconciling God with the nations. The same covenant, through Jesus, would eventually offer the Jews a path to forgiveness of sins and the end of Exile.

Therefore, the “I” of mankind was separated from God by the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil — leading to idolatry (as Paul argues in Rom 1). The “I” of Israel (Paul speaks both as a representative human and a representative Israelite) was separated from God by idolatry.

Paul was unaware of Mark Twain’s bon mot, “History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes,” but what he says here makes that point nicely. (As we saw in Part Two, this putting together of Genesis 1– 3 and the later story of Israel was a fairly obvious move to make within the ancient Jewish world.) When the Torah arrived in Israel, Israel acted out on a grand scale the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4571-4574). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So the passage has an intentional double meaning. The other meaning would be something like —

(Rom. 7:9-11 NET)  9 And [Israel] was once alive apart from the law [Torah], but with the coming of the commandment sin became alive 10 and [Israel was Exiled and so lost hope of immortality]. So [Israel] found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life brought death!  11 For sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, deceived [Israel] and through it [Israel lost immortality].

Israel did not worship the golden calf until God gave Moses the Law at Mt. Sinai! We have no record of Israelite idolatry before the giving of the Law! But somehow the repetition of warnings against idols made idolatry irresistible.

Just so, growing up, all the sermons against drinking and smoking made us teenagers curious as to just what we might be missing! All the sermons against sex made us think all the more about sex. Such is the perversity of the flesh.

Romans 7:12-13

(Rom. 7:12-13 NET)  12 So then, the law [Torah] is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.  13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me [mankind/Israel]? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me [mankind/Israel] through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.

Paul is not about to declare the Torah as bad. It came from the hand of God himself! But he’s brutally honest about how badly things have gone under Torah. Thanks to the Torah, Sin has become “utterly sinful.” That is, sin is declared to be sin, and those under Torah become fully accountable for their sins because they’ve received God’s special revelation of his will. There is no excuse. Sin is utterly sinful because it is named and accountable.

Wright emphasizes the “so that” appearing twice in v. 13. Torah was given to show sin to be utterly sinful — even though the result would be an increase in sin by Israel. This was part of God’s cosmic plan. Sin needed to be named as sinful and God’s people needed to be accountable for their sins — as awful as these results are.

The preliminary picture is complete: (a) sin and the law are quite distinct; (b) sin has taken over the law, the law that promised life; (c) using it as a base of operations, sin has produced the opposite of that which the law promised.

This is of course why “no human being will be justified” in God’s sight on the basis of Torah (3:20); it is why the Torah became “a dispensation of death” (2 Cor 3:7–11); it is why, despite the glory of the first exodus and the first covenant, a new exodus and a renewed covenant were necessary.

However, this is not the whole story. As will shortly become apparent, through Paul’s raising of the necessary second question, even the apparently negative side of Torah has its remarkable and positive purpose in the strange divine plan.

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 564.

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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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