N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 62 (Wretched man that I am)


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 7:14-17

(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. 

Wright explains,

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.

Romans 7:18-20

(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.

Romans 7:21-25

(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.

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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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2 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 62 (Wretched man that I am)

  1. Robert says:

    You said a whole bunch of what is already said, I don’t feel that it needs redefined or unscrambled/broken down. It is spoken pretty well by Jesus through Paul. You act as though you’re shedding light on these verses . Jesus did a great job already! Apparently Wrights interpretation needed revised. Note that Jesus did not revise what he intended to say cause I believe it is said perfectly the first time.

    Jesus mentioned the “Sin Offering” or “burnt Offering here because we sin knowingly. Read 1 john 2:1 an followng. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
    1 John 2:1‭-‬2 NIVhttp://bible.com/111/1jn.2.1-2.NIV Because we chose to Sin! ” no sugar coating here” and we sin sometimes out of ignorance. The result is your guilty and therefore we have been seperated from God. This ” burnt Offering was placed here for the intended purpose of identifying Jesus as our true sacrificial Lamb. Here it is just a shadow of him. By placing our hand upon the head of the lamb or unblemished sacrificial animal they were admitting or confessing before God that they had sinned, that they needed God present with them. Accepting that this unblimeshed accepted sacrificial life being put to death because of my sin and that the sacrificial unblemished animal represents Jesus dying because of our sinis what is coming. He had no sin and was not guity of any sinful acts but he carried our sin whe he became our slaughtered Lamb. Allowing an attonement for the sins committed by those before the cross. Allowing forgiveness for those to follow after the cross. This was the first offering because through this offering of the law that they had accepted before God. God knowing and announcing though that they would not keep their covanantial requirements proclaimed by Moses and again through Joshua that they would fail! God explained the consequences so “we” not just the naton of Israel would know how utterly sinful we are. Not were to become. This was a temporary reconciliation process it would grant God Spirit to be in their/our presence. Romans is now claiming what the burnt Offering then needed was for there to be a better sacrifice. That the blood of the sacrificial animals was not enough to cover the sinfulness of man. The defect was not in the Law but was found to be man himself. The Law made us aware of THIS truth.
    Therefore since we have a more perfect sacrifice offered and accepted when we sin we have Jesus interceding for us. True reconciliation has been obtained. THE MESSIAH WAS ALWAYS THE SOLUTION it was not something that came about through the Babylonian captivity. This captivity happened and was prophesied by all the prophets mentioned above. In the end God prophesies were heard and understood but not believed by many they chose tp believe the false prophets that tackled their itching ears just as prophesied through Moses and th prophets the consequences of sin is death.
    The punishment was never for the animals if the process was completed with a heart that truely understood that they had a loving Father that sacrificed other loved created beings in the hope that they would see just how ugly their sin would become. If attonement were to happen the sinner had to come to God on Gods terms only. Unfortunately this process of sacrificing a animal of importance and that was supposed cut to the heart because they were killing tbeir very best young male animal with a personal beliefs that Gof coulfd and would bless and attone them but this suffering became nothing but a means of making Israel rich. This is seen after the Babylonian exile. Remember Jesus getting upset about the money changers turnng his house into a den of thieves. In retrospect I believe you migjt have been right. It became about the punishment of the animal. Suffering without attonement even happening. What a big disastrous disappointment they have become. The refinement of Israel was done for Christ glory! All Israel has become is dross. What was supposed to be obtained through the process was that we would see a clear image of Jesus.

    I have said too much!! Maybe a bit harsh in the beginning. Still trying to get over the Spiritual conversation we had a while ago where I understood you saying that the Spirit had not been given to the Samaritans that had been baptized in the name of Jesus, because God was mad at THE Apostles for not leaving Jerusalem . This is not written in scripture anywhere that I have seen. The Spirit received by the Samaritans was the promise of the gift of THE holy spirit given after being baptized in the name of Jesus. The Spirit thry had not recieved yet was received by the Apostles laying there hands on them. This was given to the Samaritans as fortold to occur to all men and women as a result of salvation becoming obtainable to all . Confirming what is promised in the book of Joel and retold by Peter and the Eleven on the day of Pentecost. This filling of the Holy Spirit and fire happened to the Apostles in a dramatic showig on the day of Pentecost this was promised by Jesus to the soon to be Apostles. The laying on of the hands was written about also, that the filling of the Spirit was permitted to be received by the laying of Apostles hands only. In every occasion that I have seen. It it happened as a sign confirming what the scriptures says about salvation offered to all by the empowerment received when this filling of the Spirit was received and confirmed by those nearby by miraclous signs. One must believe in or on Jesus to be chosen.

  2. Dwight says:

    Robert, you may be being a little hard on Jay and/or Wright. They are basically doing what one would do from a pulpit by your local preacher. Although I am largely in favor of just reading scriptures, for some reason we have preachers and pay them to disseminate to us what we have in front of us. Here you are getting this for free.
    Don’t know about the Samaritan conversation.
    All who come to Jesus, through Jesus come to God, whether Jew or Gentile (or even Samaritans, which was a little of both).
    We many times may be closer to the Jews than we think in that we have God in our hands, but at the same time take God for granted and then try to act as God’s chosen and Holy people while looking down on everyone around us.

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