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. 8:24-25 ESV) 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
New Perspective commentator James D. G. Dunn explains,
The not-yetness of the salvation process at present means that Christian faith is characterized as hope. Paul makes something of the point, quite likely because he feared that there were some in the Roman congregations who, like others at Corinth from where he was writing, overemphasized the “already” aspect of salvation, who took a too enthusiastic delight in the experience of the Spirit already given. …
His logic is straightforward: if we “hope” for something, that must mean by definition that we do not see it within our grasp, we do not yet have it. We exercise hope in relation to that which lies ahead of us, in the still invisible future. Paul the Christian will not allow his attention to become wholly absorbed in the present, whether its responsibilities or its frustrations. His gaze repeatedly lifts to the far horizon, and the hope of what lies beyond it is what sustains his faith despite the contradictions of the present.
He would probably have no need to remind his readers of the positive character of this “hope” (unlike the weaker modern version which merges into mere wishful thinking). And the no doubt deliberate use of the aorist (“we are saved,” rather than “we are being saved”) makes the same point. Salvation is something certain for those who have the Spirit and are led by the Spirit.
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, WBC 38A; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 491-492.
(Rom. 8:26-27 ESV) 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
At last, we return to Wright’s book, which does not address the earlier verses in Rom 8 in any detail. The trail picks up here.
Paul’s remarkable description of prayer in Romans 8: 26–27 indicates that there are times when “we don’t know what to pray for as we ought to; but that same spirit pleads on our behalf, with groanings too deep for words.” At that point, as we noted a moment ago, Paul declares that God, the “Searcher of Hearts,” knows what the Spirit is thinking. The Spirit, as we just saw, is taking the role in this passage that in the Exodus narrative belongs to the glorious divine Presence. There is, in other words, no question that for Paul the Spirit is (in later language) fully divine. We thus have here a conversation going on between the Spirit, groaning with sighs too deep for words, and the Heart Searcher himself; the two are deeply in tune with one another, but the Spirit is groaning like a woman in labor.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4706-4712). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Once we see the intimate relationship with have with the Spirit, and therefore with God, these verses point us toward even deeper truths.
In Philippians 2 we discover that the life of self-abandonment and humility to which the Son devoted himself was not undertaken despite the fact that he was “in the form of God,” but precisely because he was in the form of God. In Colossians 1: 15 the Messiah is the “image of the invisible God”; in John 1: 18 he is the one who makes known the God who cannot otherwise be seen. In Mark 10 Jesus insists that the power that overcomes the powers is the power of self-giving love. All these, it seems, converge in the actual events.
So what if it were true after all? What if the Creator, all along, had made the world out of overflowing, generous love, so that the overflowing, self-sacrificial love of the Son going to the cross was indeed the accurate and precise self-expression of the love of God for a world radically out of joint? Would it not then make sense to say that, just as the wordless groanings of the Spirit in Romans 8: 26– 27 are part of what it means to be God — to be both present in the depths of the world’s pain and transcendent over it but searching all hearts — so the cry of dereliction [“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”] was itself part of what it meant to be God, to be the God of generous love? Might that not enable us to give an account of the Trinity as overflowing, creative love?
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4717-4726). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Paul joins all these themes together in a unique passage, Romans 8: 26–27, that brings the inner personal dynamic of suffering together with the larger world-redeeming purpose. This time he is alluding to Psalm 44, which speaks of God searching the hearts of his people (v. 21) and whose next verse, which Paul quotes a little later, refers to God’s people “being like sheep destined for slaughter.” The world-changing task of God’s people in the present, rooted in the Messiah’s victorious suffering, has its ultimate depth in prayer, particularly the prayer that comes from the indescribable depths of a sorrow-laden heart:
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5890-5894). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
As we saw in an earlier chapter, Romans 8: 26–27 is the passage that supplies a vital clue to the otherwise shocking question of how Jesus, the living embodiment of Israel’s God, could cry out, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Here we have the Holy Spirit, who in Romans 8 is clearly the powerful presence of Israel’s God himself, groaning inarticulately from the heart of creation. And the Father — the Searcher of Hearts — is listening. This is the extraordinary “conversation” in which the suffering church is caught up.
And because it was always the will of the Creator to work in his world through human beings, this human role of intercession — of patient, puzzled, agonized, labor-pain intercession — becomes one of the key focal points in the divine plan, not just to put into effect this or that smaller goal, but to rescue the whole creation from its slavery to corruption, to bring about the new creation at last. Paul has a great deal to say about suffering elsewhere in his writings, but I think this passage goes to the heart of it all. It clarifies for us the way the revolution of the cross is worked out in the present time. Suffering was the means of the victory. Suffering is also the means of its implementation.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 5900-5909). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The combined ministry of intercession and “glory,” of which Paul speaks in Romans 8, is ours for the taking, given in the gift of the Spirit, though always— Paul warns us explicitly— in the context of suffering. We cannot assume (though sadly some Western Christians have) that we are now mandated to live the Christian version of a modern Western “good life.” Things were not meant to be like that: not that we seek suffering, but that, if we are acting as image-bearers, as the royal priesthood, there will be many times when we exercise this ministry, celebrating the victory of Jesus through tears and tiredness, through grief and the groaning of the Spirit.
This work of intercession and stewardship extends outward into all areas of life. It calls some to a life of contemplation and quiet intercession, others to move onto a rough housing estate to work with homeless kids and drug addicts, others to study (whether the Bible or modern textbooks of economics, land management, and so on) and to work at the highest levels to bring fresh wisdom into God’s world. The revolution of the cross sets us free to be the royal priesthood, and the only thing stopping us is our lack of vision and our failure to realize that this was why the Messiah died in the first place.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 6391-6400). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
You see, it’s not just that the Spirit helps us to pray. It’s also that the Spirit helps us to pray because, thanks to the work of Jesus, the Spirit understands our sufferings, indeed, understands them better than we do because the Spirit knows what being in the Presence of God is like. The Spirit is there within us as we suffer for Jesus’s sake, but there as a fellow sufferer, having participated in the sufferings of Jesus. And so the Spirit is enabled to help us in ways that are beyond our imagining.