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


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 indwelling Spirit

The Spirit is not a major theme of Wright’s book. Personally, I would place far greater emphasis on the outpouring of the Spirit in atonement theology. Let’s start with some background observations, that ought to be second nature to the readers by this time.

  1. As we previously covered at the end of Rom 2, there’s a major theological thread that runs through the OT, beginning with Deu 30:6, in which God promises to circumcise the hearts of Israel when they repent and return to him, thereby ending the curses of Deu 28-29 and Lev 26. This circumcision of the heart will be accomplished by the Spirit, whom God will pour out over Israel in the Messianic age.
  2. Joel prophesies in Joel 2:28-32a that the Spirit will be poured out on all peoples regardless of social station or gender — so that all who call on the name of the LORD will be saved.
  3. Jer 31:31 ff promises that God will write his laws on our hearts, resulting in forgiveness.

The entire chain of verses (covered earlier) speak to the Spirit bringing about both obedience and forgiveness of sins. That is, there is this whole pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) in the OT that is about atonement but which speaks in terms of the Spirit rather than a crucified Messiah. Obviously, this is no contradiction. Rather, it’s yet another way to understand the atonement.

In John’s Gospel, John connects the coming of the Spirit with the glorification of Jesus —

(Jn. 7:37-39 ESV)  37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'”  39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. 

This passage raises a number of challenging questions. We start with the translation. The New Revised Standard Version is true to the best Greek manuscripts —

(Jn. 7:39 NRS)  Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

The Spirit was not yet given

Most translations read “the Spirit was not yet given,” but the actual Greek is more stark. That is, in John’s view, although the Spirit was given to a handful of OT prophets, kings, and artisans, the Spirit had not yet been outpoured as the prophets had prophesied. It was not yet providing Living Water to all who believe in Jesus. And to John, the Spirit’s real role in salvation history was not his work in the OT (including even its role in inspiring the OT) but his final role in indwelling Christians to fill them with Living Water. (See John 4 and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.)

The Church of Christ tradition is to consider the Spirit’s work in inspiring Scripture as most important and his role as the indweller as either of little consequence or no longer even true. Many teach that the Spirit is no longer given after the apostolic age. Obviously, the author of John did not attend a Church of Christ preacher school — because, to John, all the rest of the Spirit’s work pales into near nothingness compared to the Spirit’s work after the glorification of Jesus. Until Pentecost, “there was no Spirit,” meaning nothing compared to what was yet to come!

Jesus was not yet glorified

What does “glorified” mean in John? The commentators agree that John refers to Jesus’ glorification in terms of the events where Jesus was “lifted up,” his Triumphal Entry, crucifixion, and ascension (John 12:16 (the Triumphal Entry); 12:23-28, 31-32 (crucifixion); 17:15 (ascension)).

But why couldn’t the Spirit be given without Jesus being first “glorified”? The same point is made in —

(Jn. 16:7 ESV)  7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.

The Spirit, of course, was already present in Jesus himself and in the prophets mentioned in the Gospels, such as John the Baptist, Anna, and Simeon (Luke 2). So it’s not as though the Spirit was trapped in heaven until Jesus could return to set him free. Rather, the Spirit in his role as Living Water — provider of eternal life (John 4:14) and true worship (4:24) — as well as his work as Paraclete (Helper, Advocate, or Comforter, depending on translation), as discussed in John 13-17, could not begin until the Ascension. Why not?

If we picture Jesus’s sacrifice as a purification of the temple by his blood, and if the “temple” is the church (including individual Christians), then of course the Spirit could not come to dwell in the church until the church had been purified by the blood of Jesus (which, I believe, is part of the symbolism of baptism (although baptism is not just a symbol)). Just as the Levitical sacrifices served to purify and cleanse the tabernacle so that God’s Presence could dwell within it, Jesus’ blood purifies and cleanses the church so that God’s Presence can dwell in it through the Spirit.

This is surely part of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Rather than sprinkling blood on the members, as Moses did Israel in Exo 24, we each consume a sprinkle of blood. And, of course, the grape juice or wine does not literally cleanse us. Rather, it shows us tangibly and sensually what is going on continuously.

(1 Jn. 1:7-9 ESV)  7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.  8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

Israel’s covenant of blood

Compare this to the “covenant of blood” made by Israel with God at Mt. Sinai —

(Exod. 24:3-8 ESV)  3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.”  4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.  5 And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD.  

6 And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar.  7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”  8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

Moses sprinkled the blood of sacrificed animals both on the people and on the altar. The ceremony surely had the effect of purifying and cleansing both the worshipers and all that was used in worship, making it suitable for God’s Presence. The result was a theophany (the coming of God’s presence on the earth) —

(Exod. 24:9-11 ESV)  9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,  10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.  11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

Blood cleanses defilement and uncleanness so that God can be present. The crucifixion of Jesus therefore purifies those in Jesus so that the Spirit can dwell within them.

And the result for us is also a theophany — but a continuing one —

(Matt. 18:20 ESV)  20 “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

(Matt. 28:19-1:1 ESV)  19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  

A continuous theophany requires continuous cleansing — which we receive through the blood of Jesus and the work of the Spirit.

(Tit. 3:4-7 ESV)  4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

According to Paul’s epistle to Titus, we are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” That is, Paul credits the Spirit’s coming with regenerating and renewing each convert, resulting in salvation. (Some commentators would say the Spirit only renews us and so our regeneration is credited to the “washing,” that is, baptism).

The Spirit is poured out through King Jesus — who is the ultimate source of salvation — but he saves us through the Spirit’s regenerating and renewal work. Hmm …

Paul paints a picture of dramatic reversal. God himself has brought his people from wrath to blessing, from immorality to godliness, by the provision of his Spirit. What was promised to God’s people in exile is “now” being enjoyed by God’s people in Christ. And in a way continuous with 2:14, the promise of the Joel text is combined creatively with the the Spirit texts in Ezekiel and new-covenant prophecy to locate the Cretan Christians within redemptive history.

Philip H. Towner, Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, 2007, 917.

If we properly credit the Spirit with the work of renewal (and regeneration), then Paul can appropriately credit the Spirit with saving us. Which sounds a lot like the Spirit being the (or a) means of atonement. It’s a classic chicken or egg paradox. Does the crucifixion cleanse us so we can receive the Spirit? Or does the Spirit renew us so we can be included in Jesus and be crucified with him?

But I really just don’t care. I mean, the Medieval scholastic scholars wrangled over the ordo salutis, that is, the order in which the steps of salvation occurred, but to me the order is quite irrelevant. I mean, Paul credits our salvation to the Spirit in Titus 3:4-7, but he normally credits Jesus. Peter credits baptism (1 Pet 3:21). If the apostles cared about the order of things all that much, they would have spoken in very different terms.

So I subscribe to the all-mooshed-together doctrinal position: it’s all mooshed together except when God wants to unmoosh it all to make a point. Otherwise, it just doesn’t much matter.

What does matter is that the receipt of the Spirit by the convert is a critically important part of the Atonement. It’s through the Spirit that we’re renewed and regenerated — becoming “new creations” and having our hearts turned from stone to flesh so that God can write his will on our hearts and in our minds. Without that, there is no new covenant and no grace and no salvation.

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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