N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 46 (Introduction to chapter 6; Faith and baptism, Part 1)


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.

Chapter 6, An Introduction

At last, we get to chapter 6, famous in the Churches of Christ because it begins with a discussion of baptism, closely tying baptism to our salvation.

Now, the problem with traditional Church of Christ interpretation of this passage is that we focus exclusively on baptism and ignore how it fits within the flow of Paul’s argument — thereby missing the points that Paul actually intends to make.

Again: you must first exegete the text to understand what Paul meant to say to the church in Rome. Only then can you ask what it means for today’s church.

Now, Paul has just spent chapters 1 – 5 speaking about the sufficiency of faith in Jesus for salvation. He discusses the atonement, the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the sacrifice of Jesus, the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit, and many other topics without a single word regarding baptism.

Therefore, chapter 6 does not add the fifth of five essential steps toward salvation. That cannot be Paul’s point because he says (over and over and over) that the Gentiles are saved by the same faith that saved Abraham! And Abraham was not baptized.

Indeed, it’s clear from chapter 5 that the Jews were saved by faith until they fell under the curses of Deu 28 and 29 and Lev 26. Those Jews that were saved were not saved by works of the Torah, Paul says, but by faith.

Just so we don’t forget the obvious:

(Rom. 3:21-22 NET)  21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed–  22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 

(Rom. 3:28 NET)  28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law.

(Rom. 3:30 NET)  30 Since God is one, he will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 

(Rom. 4:5 NET)  5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.

(Rom. 4:11 NET)  11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 

(Rom. 4:13 NET)  13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.

(Rom. 4:16-17 NET) 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants– not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all  17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed– the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do.

(Rom. 5:1-2 NET) Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 

Now, a chapter break and movement to a different part of his argument hardly erases all these statements already made by Paul (with more to come, especially in chapter 10). Justification by faith has been shown by Paul to be the path to atonement, in contrast to everything else.

(And yet I’m NOT arguing for the Baptist position. I think the Sinner’s Prayer is just as wrongheaded as our insistence that faith in Jesus fails to save if we don’t also have faith in the power of baptism to remit sins. PLEASE do not post comments arguing against the Baptist position. It’s wrong. So is the Church of Christ position. There are other possibilities. Rather, try to see how all that Paul teaches regarding salvation could be true.)

Paul’s opponents were arguing that you must become a Jewish proselyte to be saved by faith in Jesus. That is, you must have certain “works of the Torah” to be eligible for salvation. “Works” is not “anything you do.” “Works” in Paul is usually “works of the Torah.” It’s the requirements to becoming a Jew as a condition to salvation. It’s the issue that the Jerusalem council struggled with in Acts 15 —

(Acts 15:1 ESV) But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 

Circumcision was, in the minds of Second Temple period Jews, the ultimate mark of Judaism as the rite dated all the way back to Abraham. It was synecdoche (a figure of speech) for all the works of the Torah that a good Jew must obey, but it was seen as the first and most important step.

For a Gentile to be a proselyte, he had to be circumcised — and offer a sacrifice, be washed in a mikveh, etc. — but circumcision was the hardest and most important step. It was real commitment in an age without anesthesia or antibiotics — and it’s no surprise that there were Gentiles who worshiped God but never committed to circumcision — which would have been excruciatingly painful, even life-threatening in an age with no germ theory, and it was considered mutilation by the Greeks. This was the age of public baths and nude gymnasia.

Paul’s argument, therefore, is not “works do not save.” Rather, his argument is “only faith in Jesus saves” and therefore nothing else (circumcision included) does. Hence, those who wish to argue about whether baptism is an essential fifth step in being saved need not bother arguing whether baptism is or isn’t a work. I used to make that case, but I have since learned that I was in error. The question is whether baptism is a part of “faith in Jesus.”

Does “faith” include baptism?

A few argue that, because baptism is essential for salvation, and faith saves, that therefore baptism is included in the word “faith.” This is a purely circular argument and contrary to grammar and good sense. After all, if “faith” includes baptism, then Abraham must have been baptized, because we’re told plainly that he had faith. And yet Abraham was not baptized, did have faith, and was saved without baptism. And we’re told we’re saved under the same covenant terms, in chapter 4 especially.

So, quite frankly, this makes it hard to figure where to fit baptism in Paul’s thought. And most “discussion” on the subject has been pounding out proof texts with neither side bothering to understand the other side’s concerns and legitimate biblical arguments.

I mean, for some reason, this is a very difficult question for modern Christians and yet doesn’t seem to have been controversial in the early church at all. What are we missing?

Step 1: Figure out what Paul was arguing to his readers in Romans. Don’t come to the text trying to answer arguments from the Protestant Reformation — 1500 years after the writing of Romans. Come to the text as Second Temple period Jews asking their questions in Paul’s actual context.

Is faith a work?

It is routinely argued in Church of Christ circles that faith is a work. Really. Obviously, you have to be proof texting (ignoring context) to get there, because Paul plainly sets faith and works in contrast to each other in many places.

(Rom. 3:27-28 NET)  27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith!  28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith apart from the works of the law. 

(Rom. 4:5 NET)  5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. 

(Rom. 9:32 NET) 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but (as if it were possible) by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone,

(Gal. 3:11-12 NET)  11 Now it is clear no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous one will live by faith.  12 But the law is not based on faith, but the one who does the works of the law will live by them. 

Now, you can’t read these passages and imagine that Paul considers faith a work. And yet Paul also says,

(1 Thess. 1:2-3 NET)  2 We thank God always for all of you as we mention you constantly in our prayers,  3 because we recall in the presence of our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

(2 Thess. 1:11-12 NET)  11 And in this regard we pray for you always, that our God will make you worthy of his calling and fulfill by his power your every desire for goodness and every work of faith,  12 that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Obviously, we can’t just wave our hands and announce that these passages in 1 & 2 Thessalonians overrule the other passages in Romans and Galatians. We don’t get to pick. That’s lazy exegesis — done with a concordance rather than a Bible — and at best dangerous and in reality highly distortive of the gospel message.  It’s a predicate for legalism of the worst sort. I know. I’ve had this discussion many times.

One of the great mistakes of Reformation thinking — and common among many Protestants — is the notion that even after we’re saved, we need do nothing to please God. As the church lady used to say on Saturday Night Live: “How convenient!” Paul addresses this argument in detail beginning in chapter 6 — and he does not agree. (We’ll get there shortly.)

Paul’s thinking is famously captured in this passage —

(Eph. 2:8-10 NET)  8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God;  9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast.  10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them. 

We were saved to do good works. The condition of our salvation is pistis (Greek word), which means not only faith but also trust and faithfulness. And so to be saved, we must not only believe in Jesus (that he is the resurrected Son of God) but also follow him. The great mission and calling that fills the Gospels is “Follow me!” And to follow Jesus includes emulating his faithfulness in good works.

Hence, the NIV translates well —

(1 Thess. 1:3 NIV) We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

(2 Thess. 1:11 NIV) With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith.

“Labor of love” (ESV) does not mean “love” and “endurance of hope” (ESV) does not mean “hope.” Rather, they refer to the labor prompted by love and the endurance prompted by hope.

Just so, it’s not “work of faith” = “faith.” It’s faith’s work (genitive) — the work that faith produces or prompts. To argue that “work of faith” means “faith” would be to ignore all the rest of Paul’s writings as well as the immediate context of Paul’s words and basic grammar.

We should not let our preachers fool us so easily. Context matters. Faith is not a work, but faith does prompt work.

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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One Response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 46 (Introduction to chapter 6; Faith and baptism, Part 1)

  1. JohnF says:

    From a class on James I am currently teaching: Our works / displays of faith become expressions of thanks, songs of praise, gifts of love, and offerings of appreciation. Our lives become a living, flowing demonstration of what it means to be a Christian; a living testimony to the beauty of the Christian life attracting others to the Savior. When truly submitted to Christ, we could no more fail to walk in “deeds of righteousness” than we could fail to breathe – it is a part of our very nature – part of a renewed DNA – part of being a new creation. The Holy Spirit indwells us, leading us with a gentle breeze into the very presence of God. God WANTS relationship with His people; He wants to have dinner with you, and He will provide the meal and has already “paid the bill.” From the seventy elders on Sinai to the Lord’s Supper to the banquet in heaven (Rev 19), God WANTS you in His home. And He has done, and will do everything within His power to accomplish that – except FORCE you to come against your will. This does not mean we live a perfect life — we still have to “put to death” the deeds of the flesh (Col. 3:5; but as we do put them to death through the Spirit (Rom. 8:13), we will live.)

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