N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66C (Atonement Theories)

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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.

The heaping up of Sin

We just covered this as the theory is largely supported by passages in Rom 7 and 8. Wright points out that Paul is actually building on this chapter 5 passage —

(Rom. 5:20-21 ESV)  20 Now the law [Torah] came in [order] to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,  21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Wright points out that Paul logic in this verse is not simply that this happened. He emphasizes the “so that” in v. 21 and “in order to” in v. 20, both translating the Greek hina, meaning “in order that” or “so that.” That is, not only did the Torah increase sin, but one purpose of the Torah was to increase sin  or accountable sin. That is, the more I know of God’s will, the more accountable I am for having violated it. I can no longer plead ignorance of the Law.

In chapter 5, Paul explains that the presence of the Torah makes the Jews more accountable for their sins, as they were on notice of God’s will. In  Rom 7:7, he points out that the Law itself served as a temptation. Just announcing the command tempts the human heart to disobey. And so the Torah not only makes its recipients more accountable, it actually can tempt the reader to sin.

That is, although the Torah is the true commandment and word of God, holy and just, the intended result was a massive increase in accountable sin. We Western Christians tend to see the Bible in moralistic terms, that is, that God’s desire is that we not sin and the laws are given so we know how not to sin. And that is true but not the only truth that Paul finds in the Torah. Paul is arguing that the Torah was also given to show sin to be utterly sinful.

(Rom. 7:13 ESV)  13 Did that which is good [the Torah], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was [Sin], producing death in me through what is good [the Torah], in order that [hina] sin might be shown to be [Sin], and [so that hina] through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

God’s mysterious purpose, therefore, includes showing sin to be Sin (that is, contrary to God’s will. indeed, a power arrayed against God’s purposes) and even “sinful beyond measure” or “utterly sinful” (NASB, NIV). That is, while the Gentiles were guilty of the abominations described in Rom 1, the deeper, more sinful sins are those committed by Israel in violation of Torah — because the Jews had God’s very words declaring these things sinful and so were utterly without excuse.

We modern, Western readers would look back a judge the Jews far more moral and less sinful that the surrounding Gentiles. The Gentiles engaged in bestiality to worship the god Pan. They routinely used boys for homosexual purposes. Prostitution was built into the Grecian culture. Women were treated abominably. Classism, sexism, slavery, exposure of infants (leaving unwanted babies in the city square to die of exposure), and vast host of other sins may be placed at the feet of Greco-Roman culture. And yet Paul focuses on the sinfulness of the Jews — who were much more moral by Christian standards.

I mean, what Gentile philosopher would prohibit healing a lame man on a Sabbath? What Gentile priest would walk on the opposite side of the road to avoid giving aid to a beaten and dying Jew? What Gentile would justify overcharging pilgrims for sacrificial animals and coins to pay use to pay the Temple tax? These may not be the abominations of chapter 1, they reveal a truly, utterly sinful heart.

The Jews, however, were accountable for the heart of God as revealed in the Torah —

(Deut. 10:4 ESV)  4 And he wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments that the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And the LORD gave them to me.

(Deut. 10:14-20 ESV) 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.  15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.  16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.  17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.  18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.  20 You shall fear the LORD your God. You shall serve him and hold fast to him, and by his name you shall swear.

And so in chapter 3, Paul points out how even the Jews’ own prophets criticized their long history of disobedience — especially their idolatry — and so removed any right for the Jews to have a claim on God based on their supposed moral superiority to the Gentiles. That is, the Jews had been sent into Exile for a reason, and for of the Jews, that reason remained true. They had not purged themselves of the idolatry that sent them into Exile hundreds of years earlier.

To solve this problem, both for Jews and Gentiles, God sent Jesus as a sin offering, but there’s an important turn of phrase —

(Rom. 8:3-4 ESV)  3 For God has done what the law [Torah], weakened by the flesh [our propensity to sin], could not do [that is, free us from slavery to Sin and provide hope of immortality]. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh [he had the same fleshly nature, was just as subject to temptation, and yet did not sin] and for [a sin offering], he condemned [Sin] in in the flesh,  4 in order that the righteous requirement [verdict] of the law [Torah] might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 

How does God declare us righteous (covenant faithful) when we are hopelessly sinners by nature? Well, God heaped up the Sin of Israel (including sins yet to be committed by those in the Kingdom far in the future) and piled them onto the flesh (body) of Jesus so that he could condemn Sin in the flesh of Jesus.

Jesus the Son of God was not condemned, but he carried or bore the Sin of Israel and the Kingdom to come, all of which was crucified, killed, buried, and accursed by the cross. It’s not Jesus who bore the curse so much as the Sin he carried that was cursed, crucified, and killed.

In so doing, Jesus acted as the King and so as representative of Israel and the Kingdom, so that his actions were credited to his faithful subjects.

The story of “Israel under the Torah” was designed, he says, in order to accumulate sin, to heap it up into one place — and simultaneously to lead to Israel’s representative, the Messiah. The double narrative we see in “twin” passages like Psalms 105 and 106 — the resonant and hopeful story of election, rescue, and promise and the dark and sorry story of rebellion, failure, and exile — would run together at last, as the Messiah, the focal point of hope and promise, met the Sin that the law had heaped up. His death would then be the means by which “Sin,” accumulated precisely through the Torah, would finally be dealt with. If we want to understand what the early Christians meant by “he died for our sins,” this passage will offer us the fullest account.

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4537-4542). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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 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 8:31–39. 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. …

I have stressed that here as elsewhere the picture only makes sense if we take the view that all the early Christians shared, that the living God of Israel was personally present in and as Jesus himself. 

Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4629-4687). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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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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