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.
This key passage presents some translation difficulties we have to sort through first.
(Rom. 8:3-4 NET) 3 For God achieved what the law [Torah] could not do because it was weakened through the flesh [our propensity to sin]. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin [as a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh [of Jesus], 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law [that is, God’s righteous verdict] may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Wright corrects the translation of “and concerning sin” in v. 3 —
The phrase καὶ περὶ ἁμαρτίας (kai peri hamartias) can, it is true, mean simply “and to deal with sin” in a more general sense. But this is the regular phrase that, in the LXX, translates the Hebrew terms for the specific sacrifice known as the sin-offering.
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), 579.
Thus, contrary to the NET Bible and ESV, he follows the NIV, NASB, and HCSB to translate “as a sin offering,” which makes much better sense than the ESV’s “and for sin” or the NET Bible’s “and concerning sin.”
In v. 4, the “righteous requirement of the law” could refer to the requirement that the Law imposes on humanity to be righteous. But, Wright argues,
[I]n the passage to which the present one looks back, where dikaiōma is contrasted with katakrima, as here (5:16, 18), the dikaiōma is unquestionably God’s righteous decree or verdict, not the required behavior of God’s people. A similar use appears, in a negative sense, in 1:32. It is highly likely, therefore, that to dikaiōma tou nomou here refers to the verdict that the law announces rather than the behavior which it requires.
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), 577.
Hence, we translate —
(Rom. 8:3-4 NET) 3 For God achieved what the [Torah] could not do because it was weakened through the [weakness of our] flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [as a sin offering], he condemned [Sin] in the flesh [of Jesus], 4 so that the righteous [verdict] of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the [weakness of the] flesh but according to the Spirit.
The Torah is good and holy. But our flesh — our fallen nature — is too weak to meet the terms of the Torah. Therefore, God sent Jesus, in human flesh but without sin, to die on the cross as a sin offering to atone for our sins. In so doing, God did not condemn Jesus himself but sin bound up in his human flesh, so that God may render a verdict of “justified” or “righteous” for those in Jesus — because those in Jesus possess the outpoured Spirit, and the Spirit overwhelms our fleshly, sinful natures so that we walk as the Spirit wishes — in obedience to Torah — but Torah as understood through the lens of the cross and the Spirit, the Torah of love for God and our neighbors.
Wright and the Atonement
I bet you thought that I’d forgotten that Wright’s book is actually about the atonement. I didn’t. I just wanted to see Wright’s theories tested against a more thorough review of Romans. I just couldn’t accept Wright’s arguments while he was doing hopscotch exegesis. I mean, I just had trouble following him back and forth through Romans. So I’ve tried to understand it more fully in context. And maybe I’ve gone a little overboard, but I understand Romans much better than when we started, and maybe some of the readers were helped as well.
So to the nut of the problem, Wright focuses on Rom 8:3 “he condemned sin in the flesh.” The “of Jesus” I’ve added to the translation is plainly implied.
Jesus was tempted as we are — meaning he also had a fleshly nature — but he managed to nonetheless live without sin. “Flesh” is not sin but the tendency to sin, and Jesus proves that this is a tendency that can be overcome — but experience shows that we’re really bad at it.
Here is a point that must be noted most carefully. Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus. Now, to be sure, the crucifixion was no less terrible an event because, with theological hindsight, the apostle could see that what was being punished was Sin itself rather than Jesus himself. The physical, mental, and spiritual agony that Jesus went through on that terrible day was not alleviated in any way. But theologically speaking — and with regard to the implications that run through many aspects of church life, teaching, and practice — it makes all the difference.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4618-4622). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
That is, God punished Sin, not Jesus. How could that be?
What Paul has done is to locate the dealing-with-Sin within the larger kingdom-of-God narrative — just as, in their own way, the gospels did. The new Passover (rescue from the enslaving power) is accomplished by dealing with sins; only now, with “sins” growing to their full extent as “Sin,” the two stories finally fuse together into one.
To put it another way, Paul has told the long, sad story of Israel and arrived at last at the “slavery” of “exile” as in Deuteronomy 28. Israel needed a fresh start, such as is described in Deuteronomy 30, which Paul quotes in exactly this sense in Romans 10. But for that, as the prophets insisted, Israel’s sins needed to be dealt with so that “exile” could be undone.
Paul has now shown, through the complex but carefully consistent narrative he has told, how this joins up with the larger expectation of the “new Exodus.” At the heart of this conjoined double story, he has told the story of the Messiah, the one who represents Israel and who therefore becomes the “place” where Sin does its worst.
Again, this resonates with the narrative of the four gospels, in which, as we saw, evil of every sort was building up like a thunderstorm as Jesus went about announcing the kingdom. It gathered itself together and finally unleashed its full fury upon him. That is the story the gospels were telling. It is the story behind the use of Psalm 2 in Acts 4: 23– 31. It is the story Paul has now encapsulated in this powerful and crucial little statement.
In telling the story this way, Paul has resolutely located the deepest meaning of the cross within Israel’s narrative. That is where it should remain. Take it out of that story, as I have argued already, and we will tell instead a quasi-pagan story, separating the death of Jesus from the love of the creator God. That has happened often enough, despite the fact that here Paul explicitly rules it out.
It was, he insists, God’s purpose to allow the Torah to heap up Sin in this way; it was God’s son, his own second self, who was sent in the likeness of sinful flesh. It was God’s love that was demonstrated in action, as Paul insisted in 5:8 and reaffirms in 8: 1–39.
It is, after all, no demonstration of love if I send someone else to do the necessary but horrible task in my place. That would demonstrate, if anything, a callous or even cynical manipulation. For the death of Jesus to be an expression — the ultimate expression — of the divine love, that covenant love that as we saw lay at the heart of so many ancient Israelite expressions of hope for covenant rescue and renewal, we would need to say, and Paul does say, that in the sending of the son the creator and covenant God is sending his own very self.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4632-4652). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Ahh … the boldfaced text (my edit) ties this to, you guessed it, God’s blood covenant with Abraham where God himself promised to suffer death should Abraham and his descendants dishonor the covenant. It was not just the Son of God who died on the cross. It was God in all three persons.
Again, I quote —
(Acts 20:28 NIV) 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.
Remember the Nicene Creed (because it affirms what the Bible says): All three personages of the Godhead are fully God. Not just divine, but part of the same essence or essential existence. God himself died on the cross. Not God the Father, but God — indeed, YHWH.
This much I think I understand — and I’m good with the theory. It makes sense. Next, we need to consider this idea of heaping up Sin in Israel and Jesus dying as Israel’s representative. This idea is likely right (Wright has a way of being right), but I don’t understand it all that well … yet. Maybe tomorrow …