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. 8:2 NET) 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.
The “law of Sin and Death” is a reference back to —
(Rom. 3:20 ESV) 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
(Rom. 5:20-21 ESV) 20 Now the law came in 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.
(Rom. 7:8-9 ESV) 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.
(Rom. 7:22-8:1 ESV) 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver 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.
The “law of Sin and Death” is the Torah. But it’s also the command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It’s any commandment of God regarding how to live. Thus, it includes God’s will as revealed through the Creation as described in chapter 1 as well as the moral judgments we make about others described in chapter 2. It’s whatever law we are accountable for — that is, it’s the revealed will of God to the extent someone can be held accountable.
It’s “of Sin and Death” because even the simplest commandment — such as “Don’t eat of that tree!” — will inevitably tempt me to sin and hold me accountable for that sin, resulting in Death, that is, the loss of immortality.
This brings us to the cure for the law of Sin and Death: the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus. This phrase harkens back to —
(Rom. 2:26-29 ESV) 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
(Rom. 5:3-5 ESV) 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
(Rom. 7:6 ESV) 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.
Paul expects us to remember these verses, even though we tend to teach verse-by-verse in Bible class, meaning Rom 8 is taught months after we covered Rom 2. In Paul’s day, the entire epistle would be read to the church, perhaps in a single evening. Perhaps over a few evenings, but not over a term of months.
In addition, Paul assumes that we’ve read Deu, Isa, Jer, Eze, and Joel. We should already know that the promise tied to the Spirit in the OT is “life” based on Deu 30:6, in contrast to Exile from God and Israel’s inheritance.
Now, Paul explicitly contrasts the Law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus with “the letter” (gramma = letter of the alphabet) and the “written code.” Clearly, these are references to the Torah, although the principle is as broad as Paul’s words. That is, Paul isn’t offering better letters and a better code. Rather, the whole point of chapter 7 is the insufficiency of any commandment to save. Commandments only bring condemnation — even the highest, most holy commandments.
No, his point is that the “law” that brings life — immortality! — is the law written on our hearts by the Spirit. Only this can produce the true love of God that was commanded all the way back in Deu.
In fact, if I love God because God has threatened to send me to hell for all eternity if I don’t, well, I don’t really love God. I love myself. I’m acting purely out of self-interest and just pretending to love God.
If I worship God because he has threatened me with hell if I don’t, then I’m not really worshiping God. I’m serving my own interests. I’m an idolater — serving myself while I pretend to serve God.
The solution is not more hellfire and brimstone preaching. Such preaching produces idolaters in the pews. Hypocrites. The solution is the Spirit poured into our hearts so that we love because our hearts of stone have been turned into flesh, because our hearts have been circumcised by the Spirit, because God has written his laws on our hearts and in our minds, because God has transformed our dry bones into a mighty army.