N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 65 (the heaping up of Sin)


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 8:3-4, Part 2

(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 heaping up of Sin

Wright also presents a theory that the Torah was given so that Sin (the power of sin in opposition to the power of the Spirit) would be heaped up in Israel and Jesus could, as Israel’s representative, defeat it on the cross.

We’ve covered that theory already but not even to my own satisfaction. Wright gives a more thorough explanation in his commentary of Romans —

God, says Paul, condemned sin. Paul does not, unlike some, say that God condemned Jesus. True, God condemned sin in the flesh of Jesus; but this is some way from saying, as many have, that God desired to punish someone and decided to punish Jesus on everyone else’s behalf. Paul’s statement is more subtle than that. It is not merely about a judicial exchange, the justice of which might then be questioned (and indeed has been questioned). It is about sentence of death being passed on “sin” itself, sin as a force or power capable of deceiving human beings, taking up residence within them, and so causing their death (7:7–25).

To reduce Paul’s thinking about the cross to terms of a lawcourt exchange is to diminish and distort it theologically and to truncate it exegetically. For Paul, what was at stake was not simply God’s judicial honor, in some Anselmic sense [Anselm was a Medieval Christian theologian who argued for penal substitutionary atonement], but the mysterious power called sin, at large and destructive within God’s world, needing to be brought to book, to have sentence passed and executed upon it, so that, with its power broken, God could then give the life sin would otherwise prevent. That is what happened on the cross.

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), 578.

So how does this work?

But how could Jesus’ human flesh, and his human death, be the appropriate locus of this judgment? Why, if Jesus was himself in some sense sinless, would it make any sense that sins be condemned in him?

I have already suggested that part of the answer lies in the phrase “in Christ Jesus.” Because (as the resurrection revealed) Jesus was the Messiah, he represented his whole people; what was true of him was true of them. His death could therefore be counted as theirs. That is the underlying logic, rooted in the biblical picture of Israel’s monarchy, that binds the unique event of Calvary to the status of all those “in Christ” from that day to this.

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), 578-579.

That is, in the Hebrew mind, the king stood for the people as their representative before other nations and, most especially, before God. If the king repented, then the nation would be blessed — in part because the king would initiate reforms, being the king, and in part because the people were bound to honor their king’s wishes. So there’s an OT sense in which the Messiah, as Israel’s rightful king, could act on behalf of his subjects.

But the other part of the answer is found in the whole sequence of thought that, begun deep in chap. 7, reaches its climax in this verse. This is the point envisaged by the repeated “in order that” (ἵνα hina) of 5:20 and 7:13, the point indeed that must be grasped if the further argument of Romans 9 is to become comprehensible.

Once again we are following through the train of thought over which 5:20–21 stands like a gold-lettered heading on a page. The law came in in order that the trespass might abound; sin worked death through the law in order that it might be shown up as sin, in order that sin might be exceedingly sinful. The law caused sin to be heaped up in one place, to flourish and abound in that single location.

As many have seen, the “place” implied in 5:20–21 was Israel. As not so many have seen, God’s purpose in and through all of this–in giving the Torah with this strange intention–was that sin might be drawn together, heaped up, not just in Israel in general, but upon Israel’s true representative, the Messiah, in order that it might there be dealt with, be condemned, once and for all.

God sent the Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” to bring this sequence to its appointed climax, that in his death Torah might do the necessary, if apparently negative, work for which it was designed. We are not far, here, from what Paul says in Gal 3:22: Scripture (i.e., God, working through the written law) shut up everything under sin, in order that the promise, effective through the faithful obedience of Jesus the Messiah, might be given to all believers.

And now we are not far, either, from the conclusion to the argument of Romans 9–11: God shut up all in disobedience, in order to have mercy upon all (11:32). In the strange plan of God, to deceive and defeat “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:6–8), the personified forces of Sin were lured onto the one field where they were bound to lose the decisive battle. Sin, the real culprit throughout chap. 7, needed to be condemned; on the cross, it was.

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), 578-579.

Now, for this to be true, we have to take the Israel of Jesus’ day as being a dreadfully sinful place indeed. And that is Paul’s point, although we struggle to see it. We see the legalism of the Pharisees, but we miss much of the sinfulness that confronted Jesus in Israel.

And we have to remember that Israel was more accountable for sin than the Gentiles because it had the Torah. So the Gentiles did despicable sins that the Jews were not guilty of, but the sins the Jews did commit were more sinful because the Jews had greater knowledge of God’s will. So Paul is measuring sinfulness in part by accountability — by whether the sinner should be expected to know better. And by this standard, the Jews were necessarily more sinful than the Gentiles, even if they committed fewer and less abominable sin.

Consider —

  • In a generation, God would be so unhappy with his chosen people that he’d bring the Roman armies in to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple in a historical parallel to the Babylonian Captivity. The sin of First Century Israel was not just rejection of their Messiah — as bad as that was — but so bad that even if Jesus had come at a different time, the Temple still would have been destroyed. This is an event parallel to God’s threat to destroy the entire nation and replace them with the descendants of Moses. The Jews had utterly exacerbated the patience of God.
  • Part of this was, of course, the legalism we see in the Pharisees and, from the Dead Sea scrolls, the Essenes.
  • The Sadducees were Levites and Temple officials — and collaborators with Rome to rule over Israel through the priesthood, with the office of high priest evidently available to the highest bidder.
  • The Zealots wished to defeat Rome through a brutally violent rebellion, contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the prophets.
  • The cleansing of the Temple by Jesus, one of only four narratives found in all four Gospels (together with the baptism and Jesus, the feeding of the 5,000, and the crucifixion and resurrection) demonstrates God’s disgust with the treatment of the Jewish pilgrims by Temple officials.
  • The fact that most Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah because they did not recognize YHWH in the flesh tells us that they deeply misunderstood the nature and personality of their God.
  • A number of commentators have shown that Luke is built on the Jubilee celebration, which had evidently been ignored for centuries. This revealed a deeper problem: a lack of concern for the poor. Many officials had become wealthy off their profiteering at the expense of the poor.
  • Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount can be read as a plea to read through the Law to the heart of God. The goal of Torah is not so much to lay out a civil code of conduct as to reveal the heart of God. But a civil code only tells you what the minimal standards of society are — what you must do or not do to stay out of jail — but the culture of the society shaped by Torah should hold to a higher standard. Alabama law makes murder a crime. But hatred is the real evil — even though it’s not illegal. You have to read through the Law to the heart of the Author, and the Jews had done quite the opposite — looking for loopholes rather than obedience, as Jesus’ condemnation of Corban shows (Mark 7:11). We see much of the same attitude in the series of Sabbath-breaking stories, where the Jewish thought leaders were upset that someone was miraculously healed on a Sabbath — placing their love of legalism over their love of the suffering people.
  • It seems clear that a combination of Roman taxes and abuses by Jewish leaders placed a great number of Jews in poverty, contrary to the heart of the Torah. Rather than banding together to help each other out, many Jews took advantage of the political impotence of the weak, so that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. If this isn’t so, then why did Mary exult in the Magnificat that the rich would be brought low?

In short, there is much more Sin in the Gospels than the crucifixion of Jesus — although crucifying your own God and King was a horrific crime, compounded by the countless ways in the which the “trial” was conducted outside the requirements of both Jewish and Roman law. It was the assertion of raw political power for the purpose of securing the blessings of Caesar — who claimed to be son of god, savior, and lord. It was the ultimate act of idolatry — placing the Jews in the same position before God as just before Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple and carried the Jews into Babylonian Captivity.

So here we have the political power of Rome and the Jewish authorities conspiring to destroy Jesus because he might lead an insurrection against Rome — a pagan, occupying force that represented nothing but a challenge to the rule of God. The Jewish leaders chose fear of Rome over fear of God. They couldn’t even consider the possibility that Jesus might really be the Messiah — a Messiah who preached turning the other cheek and who represented no military threat — because they couldn’t see past their fear of Rome. Ironically, this was exactly the wrong move to protect themselves from Rome, but fear can make anyone stupid.

And so Wright’s theory that sin was heaped up in Israel makes some sense. You have to have read the Torah and the prophets to really get it — but it’s easy to see how far removed the Jews were from the heart of God as revealed in Torah. (The Parable of the Good Samaritan may be the best demonstration of the Jewish mindset that so upset God.)

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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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4 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 65 (the heaping up of Sin)

  1. Larry Cheek says:

    It sure sounds like there was a great burden placed upon Jesus as he answered to the cleansing of all the sins of the previous generations of mankind and provided that same cleansing for all mankind until the end of the world. Penalties or judgment fulfilled or reversed, it still looks the same.

  2. Dwight says:

    This sounds like many churches today.
    When you are driven by Law, you are condemned by it.
    When you are driven by grace and love, you are commended by it.
    Jesus in giving himself, showed that love was superior to the law of works, because Jesus was faithful to God in giving his all to God.
    We often argue that Jesus lived the life of a Jew perfectly by doing the law perfectly, but in reality it was his compassion for others that showed his perfection.

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    According to these scriptures, I believe that we did not place the perfection of Jesus in the wrong place.
    2Co 5:21 ESV For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
    Heb 4:15 ESV For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
    1Pe 2:22-24 ESV He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. (23) When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (24) He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
    1Jn 3:5 ESV You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.

  4. Dwight says:

    Larry, I didn’t mean to suggest he sinned. Jesus gave Himself to God, which meant doing His will. The Law on doing work on the Sabbath was pretty strict,
    Num.15:32-36 “And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses.”
    Why was he gathering sticks, may be to start a fire to keep warm, but this is something he should have done before hand. It is not even clear if he was an Israelite.
    So when we forward to the NT and Jesus heals on the Sabbath, he was doing something that could be considered work and He is accused of this by the Jews, but Jesus makes the argument that if one of their animals falls into a ditch, even though on the Sabbath they will do work to get it out in opposition to the Law of no work.
    Jesus then says, “How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well(good) on the sabbath days.”
    His argument was that doing good for another took priority in the Law even if is doing work on the Sabbath, which was technically against the Law.
    Matthew 12:7 , “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice.”
    To not do anything for another in help, even on the Sabbath and involving work, would have been sinful and would have countered the second greatest command, “to love your neighbor”..

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