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. 7:14-17 NET) 14 For we know that the law is spiritual – but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. 15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want– instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.
When we read this passage in the light of our other investigations into the early Christian understandings of the “end of exile” and the “forgiveness of sins,” we get a clue as to what Paul is saying. Israel’s long “enslavement,” the “continuing exile” of Daniel 9 and many other texts, was not just a long, dreary process of waiting. It was the time in which the strange power called “Sin,” the dark force unleashed by human idolatry, was doing its worst precisely in the people of God.
God’s people were captive, enslaved, to Babylon and its successors and to the dark powers that stood behind them. What God was doing through the Torah, in Israel, was to gather “Sin” together into one place, so that it could then be condemned.
If anywhere in the whole New Testament teaches an explicit doctrine of “penal substitution,” this is it— but it falls within the narrative not of a “works contract,” not of an angry God determined to punish someone, not of “going to heaven,” but of God’s vocational covenant with Israel and through Israel, the vocation that focused on the Messiah himself and then opened out at last into a genuinely human existence:
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4598-4606). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
In other words, Sin was shown to be utterly sinful among the Jews during their time of Exile. The problem of Sin and Death became manifest as the Torah failed to check Sin. God’s own chosen people became so sinful that the need for a solution other than Torah — or a new Torah or a better Torah — had become manifest. Something very different from the written code and the letter (gramma) of the Law was needed.
Verse by verse
(Rom. 7:14 NET) 14 For we know that the law [Torah] is spiritual– but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to [Sin].
“Spiritual” translates pneumatikos. Wright explains the use of this word —
But when [Paul] describes someone as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikos) he does not simply mean that they are more in touch with their own ‘spirit’ than the ‘soulish’ person is, but that the Spirit of the living god has opened their hearts and minds to receive, and be changed by, truth and power from the age to come.
… [T]he forms ending in –kos are either ethical or functional, and refer to the sphere within which it belongs or the power which animates it.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 283.
To say that the Torah is pneumatikos is to say that the Law is from the Spirit of God — empowered and animated by God’s own Holy Spirit.
For Paul to then say that “I” (mankind or Israel) is “unspiritual” (sarkikos) he means empowered and animated by the flesh (sarx). And as we’ve covered earlier, in Paul, “flesh” refers not to our physical natures but our fallen natures — our propensity to sin.
Thus, the Law comes from the breath God himself and so is good — but as a person subject to the Law, I am fleshly and so incapable of adequate obedience. Indeed, I am a slave to Sin.
(Rom. 7:15-17 NET) 15 For I [mankind/Israel] don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law [Torah] is good. 17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but [Sin] that lives in me.
Mankind/Israel is therefore in a sense helpless when confronted with God’s will in the Torah. Because of our fleshly (unspiritual) natures, we are enslaved to Sin, and so we sin even when we don’t want to.
(Rom. 7:18-20 NET) For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but [Sin] that lives in me.
Paul uncharacteristically repeats himself. Mankind/Israel wants to be good, but our fleshly nature makes it impossible. Rather, the Sin that lives in me (through my fleshly nature) does evil.
Paul’s language is so strong that he almost excuses sin on the basis that we have no choice but to sin. But he has a very different agenda.
(Rom. 7:21-25 NET) 21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive [aichmalōtizonta] to the law of sin that is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Beginning in v. 22, Paul draws a distinction between the “inner being” and “my mind” in opposition to “my members (body parts)” and “body of death.”
V. 23 contains a nearly direct reference to the Exile suffered by the Jews. Wright explains,
Rather, like so many other Second Temple Jews, Paul saw Israel’s history standing under the rubric of Deuteronomy 26– 32. The covenant always envisaged blessings and curses, and the curses, the result of disobedience, ended in exile.
One of the regular words for that “exile” or “captivity” when Israel’s scriptures were translated into Greek was the word that Paul uses in his dramatic summary of Israel’s plight under the law in Romans 7: 23: aichmalōtizonta, “taking captive.” Only after that would there come the great divine act of liberation and transformation through which the covenant would be renewed. Only then would the divine plan for the whole creation— the covenant plan through Israel for the world— be put into effect.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4521-4526). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Summary so far
Torah, apparently, was not after all given in order that Israel might become a sin-free zone. Rather, God’s way with sin takes account of the fact that sin has infected the entire human race, Israel included, and that no law could possibly be given that would deal with the problem. If life could come by the law, then the law would have been the means of covenant membership and hence of life (Gal 3:21b; cf. Gal 2:21). If “the commandment which was unto life” (Rom 7:10) really could have given life, God would not have needed to do anything further (8:3–4).
No: sin needed dealing with in a more radical way, at the place where it had become resident, that is, at the heart of the human race itself. And it was Torah’s peculiar task to draw sin to its height, to let it appear in all its true colors, to be shown up as “exceedingly sinful.” Sin must be seen to be sin.
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), 565-566.
But why does Paul go to such lengths to argue that our sins are sins against our own wills? That we do what don’t want to do? Because under the Torah, only unintentional sin could be atoned for. Rebellious sin — intentional sin (sin committed with a “high hand”) against known Law — was outside of the sacrificial system.
Paul describes Jesus’s death as “a sin offering” [in 8:3. See NIV, NASB, HCSB.]. This may seem strange. Why mention this particular sacrifice, one of many different sacrifices in Leviticus and Numbers, at this moment? It would be a mistake, as I hinted earlier, to think that the animal presented as a sin offering was being punished for the sins of the worshipper. That is not the point. The point is that in the Bible the “sin offering” is, again and again, the particular sacrifice that has to do with sins that the Israelite performed either unwillingly (not intending to do them) or unwittingly (intending to do them but not realizing that they were sinful).
And Paul has analyzed the actions of the “I” in 7:13–20 in such a way as to place Israel under the Torah in exactly that position. “I don’t understand what I do” (v. 15) is literally, “I do not know what I am doing”; this is unwitting sin, the sin of ignorance. “I end up doing the evil thing I don’t want to do” (v. 20); this is the unwilling sin. The remedy is suited exactly to the problem.
The forgiveness of sins, the major return-from-exile theme in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, is now available. The exile is over. The slave master’s power is broken. The covenant is renewed in and through Israel’s Messiah. With that there is the assurance that the powers themselves are defeated, because Sin, the very foundation of their power, has been condemned.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4657-4667). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
In short, Paul is setting up the argument in Rom 8 that Jesus’ sacrifice — as a sin offering — suffices to forgive the sins that led to the Jewish Exile and the curse on all Creation that separate God from humankind.