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 law of the Spirit of life
The emphasis in the prophets is on what God will do, not what we do in response to God’s commands. God will write his laws on our hearts. God will transform our hearts. And to a degree, this tells us the content of the Law of the Spirit of Life. I mean, Rom 5:5 is explicit that the love of God will be written on our hearts. Rom 12 tells us to use our spiritual gifts in God’s service and then gives ethical instructions all based on “love one another.” Rom 13 tells that the only commandments there are are “love one another” and “love your neighbor.”
(Rom. 13:8-10 ESV) 8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
This, of course, fulfills —
(Deut. 10:16-19 ESV) 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.
Paul finds the heart of the Torah in the love of our neighbors. Unless Paul expected his readers in Rome to obtain a copy of Ephesians or Colossians (which were not yet written), how did his readers know to sing a cappella? And to damn those who use an instrument? Did God write “Sing a cappella only” on their hearts? I rather doubt it.
But God does write “Love God” and “love your neighbor” on our hearts — even today? There’s no missing that point. I mean, we can see it happening in our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we can see in some of our brothers and sisters how very little influence the Spirit has on them as they are consumed with self-help Christianity — denying that God serves any role other than to pronounce commands and judge how well we performed them. It’s sad.
Back to chapter 2
All this takes us back to —
(Rom. 2:6-16 ESV) 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. 12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.
Up to this point, Paul seems to be saying that God will judge us based on our works, not faith in Jesus, and not receipt of the Spirit. How can that be?
15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
We get a key hint in v. 15 when Paul refers to the “law is written on their hearts.” This is taken straight from Jeremiah’s prophecy of the “new covenant” in Jer 31:31ff. The Gentiles he’s describing in v. 14-16 are Christians who possess the Spirit and so receive the new covenant promise that God’s law will be written on their hearts — as shown by their obedience.
Then we should recall that nearly all the OT passages about the Spirit and circumcision of the heart speak in terms of the result being obedience to God. The point of the Spirit’s indwelling is not only to change our hearts, but to change our hearts so that we obey.
(Ezek. 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
Therefore, Paul takes the prophets’ word for it. If we possess the Spirit, we are considered obedient — even though we’ll still sin. We won’t be perfect. But we’ll be in the process of being transformed.
[I]t is precisely by “walking according to the Spirit” that those in Christ “seek for glory, honor and immortality” (2:7). The commandment that was “unto life” brought death because of sin residing in the flesh (7:10); now the same commandment brings life because of the indwelling Spirit.
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), 580-581.
In other words, those who “seek for glory, honor and immortality” (2:7) are those who have faith in/trust in/faithfulness to Jesus, those who have the law written on their hearts, those who have circumcised hearts, those who are in Christ, those who have been baptized, and those who are led by the Spirit, walk according to the Spirit, and who possess the indwelling Spirit. After all, if someone has heard the gospel and truly seeks glory, honor, and immortality, that person will submit to Jesus in faith, will confess that faith, will be baptized (even now the nearly universal practice of believers), will receive the Spirit, and so will have the law of the Spirit of life written on their hearts, will receive an outpouring of love for God from the Spirit, will be indwelled, led, and so walk according to the Spirit, and will be among the redeemed who survive the purging of the Creation when Jesus returns.
Now, as true as that is, that same logical chain admits of exceptions. It’s entirely possible for a believer to fall away and no longer be saved (Heb 6:6-10, 10:26 ff). It’s unlikely but possible that someone comes to faith and dies before having the opportunity to be baptized. The promise remains that everyone with faith in Jesus will be saved, and the fact that Paul says nothing of unbaptized believers no more overrides that promise than the fact that Paul says nothing of falling away in Romans overrides the teachings of Jesus, Hebrews, and other epistles of Paul that do speak of that possibility. God keeps his promises — because he is a righteous God.