N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 73 (Putting to Death the Deeds of the Body)


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.

Romans 8:12-13

(Rom. 8:12-13 ESV)  12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 

This is a warning against falling away. After all, those who are in the Spirit live by the Spirit and fulfill the Torah of the Spirit of Life. Up to this point, Paul has spoken of two realms, two kingdoms, one in which Sin and Death reign through our fleshly natures and one in which Jesus is King and the Spirit is possessed. If we live according to the flesh, we have changed realms and rulers — and eternal fates.

Paul doesn’t go into much detail as to what living according to the flesh might mean. He instead speaks positively of what it means to live according to the Spirit: it’s to “put to death the deeds of the body.” That is, it’s to grow in holiness. As we allow the Spirit to defeat sin in our lives, we become more and more like Jesus and remain in the Spirit’s realm — saved.

The identical thought is found in 2 Peter —

(2 Pet. 1:3-4 ESV)  3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence,  4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 

We can escape the corruption of the world and so “become partakers of the divine nature.” I take this to refer to life in the Spirit by putting to death the misdeeds of the body.

(2 Pet. 1:5-8 ESV) 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,  6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness,  7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.  8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

If we grow in the Christian virtues (the resulting of defeating the misdeeds of the body), we will be effective and fruitful as Christians.

(2 Pet. 1:9-10 ESV)  9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.  10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

We “will never fall”  and will “confirm” our “calling and election” if grow in the Christian virtues.

Both Peter and Paul recognize that security is found in growing as a Christian. Many are reluctant to say this as it can sound like a works salvation. But the truth is that people who stall in their growth can easily slip and go backwards. After all, what are you doing to protect yourself from temptation? If you’re growing in the virtues, then you’re life is filled with the things that protect you — prayer, Bible study, fellowship with righteous people, encouraging others and being encouraged. If you’re standing still, you’re likely no longer doing these things.

As a runner or weight lifter, what regimen do you follow to not get better? Why would you not want to get better? What would be your reason for doing only enough to stay the same?

It’s the same thought we find in the Gospels when Jesus says,

(Matt. 7:19 ESV) Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Romans 8:14-17, Part 1

(Rom. 8:14-17 ESV)  14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”  16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17 and if children, then heirs– heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 

“Led by the Spirit of God” is another allusion to the exodus. The column of fire and cloud led Israel through the desert to the Promised Land. The Spirit leads those who possess the Spirit. How?

Well, by going there first. It’s often been observed that we should look to see where God is active and join him in his mission. I’m not sold on this thought as being the only way to proceed, but it’s not wrong. Just incomplete.

Another way the Spirit leads us is through gifting, as we’ll get to in chapter 12. We should assume that the gifts we have are given to us to serve God and so look for ways to use our giftedness in his service.

Although the Spirit is not limited to the Bible, the Spirit did in fact inspire the scriptures. And diligent study will help us find God’s will for his church. In particular, I’m a fan of Stanley Hauerwas’s saying that the church needs to be the church, that is, the visible church of today needs to become the church described in scripture. I’d start with Acts 2 and the next several chapters.

“Sons of God” is a subtle but important Torah reference. Deu 14:1 refers to Israel as “sons of God.” Paul is declaring those who have the Spirit the true Israel, even if their circumcision is circumcision of the heart by the Spirit rather than circumcision of the flesh.

“Spirit of adoption” rather than “Spirit of slavery” is where Paul finally completes the thought of Rom 6 in which he says we were slaves of Sin and Death and then became slaves of God — but God removes the shackles of slavery by adopting us into his family. We become his sons, and the “sons” does not mean “children.” Only the men inherited under the Law of Moses (with certain exceptions) and Paul is saying that we’re all God’s sons and so we all inherit.

The Jews generally did not practice adoption, but it was common practice among the Greeks and Romans, and under the law, someone who had been adopted became a new person. His old debts were discharged, because the old person ceased to exist. He became a new creation!

Regarding Abba!

There is a problem of punctuation to be addressed here. The last six words of v. 15 (ἐν ὧ κράζομεν αββα ὁ πατήρ en hō krazomen abba ho patēr) could go with what precedes, as in the KJV (“Ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father”; see also the REB). Although the NIV treats these six words as a separate sentence, they function more in relation to what precedes than to what follows (“And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’ ”). Or they could go with what follows, as in the NRSV (“you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”).

The issue is finely balanced, and not very much hangs on it; Paul clearly believes that it is by the Spirit that Christians learn from the heart to call God Father, and he clearly believes also that the Spirit, in doing this, bears witness with us that we are God’s children. The NEB is perhaps the most helpful, allowing the thought to flow more seamlessly forward: “a Spirit that makes us sons, enabling us to cry ‘Abba! Father!’ In that cry the Spirit of God joins with our spirit in testifying. . . .”

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), 593.

Also implied is the same sort of intimacy as Jesus’ own use of the word indicates. Jesus’ characteristic prayer address was unusual precisely because “Abba” was so much a family word, expressive of family familiarity and intimacy. For the typical Jewish piety of the period it was almost certainly too bold, overfamiliar, probably considered impudent and irreverent by most. But evidently it was just such familiarity and intimacy the first Christians experienced too; the intimacy of the son rather than the legally determined obedience of the slave.

What Paul has in mind cannot, however, be reduced to a merely inner sense, a quiet conviction of sonship. The verb used (“cry out”) implies an intensity of feeling or fervor of expression. And its inclusion in the established formula (Gal 4:6) implies that such intensity was a regular feature of the uttered phrase. … But the fact remains that Paul is able to assume such an intensity of spiritual experience as typically Christian, presumably on the basis of his own widespread knowledge of Greek-speaking congregations.

James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, WBC 38A; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 461-462.

Dunn, it seems, has a lot to learn about being decent and in order! So does Paul. I mean, would we really “cry out” “Abba! Father!” to the the Creator of the universe? Whatever happened to reverence and fear?

Or maybe we’ve pictured God as a little too decent, a little too formal, a little too inclined to stand on ceremony. Maybe?

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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