Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Tom Wright, the UK's greatest theologian: The Day The Revolution Began.

Tom Wright

Fast forward a hundred years and hardly anyone will remember the names of our present political leaders, let alone today's so called celebrities. However the whole church will still be talking about and learning from Tom Wright[1]. With the sheer volume of his output, the detail of his scholarship, and his fierce loyalty to what the Bible is saying in its historical context he is by far the greatest theologian Britain has ever had, outshining even John Wycliffe. He stands in the premier league of Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Bonhoeffer, men who have shaped the church, and so the world.

As a reader NTW has encouraged my own faith with his great work defending the historicity of Jesus Christ and his resurrection (The Resurrection of The Son of God), and his measured argument in favour of the authority of the Bible (Scripture and the Authority of God).

Moreover NTW has absolutely shifted heavy furniture in my mind over two topics: the afterlife and the impact of the cross.

In Surprised By Hope NTW shows us that there is no spiritual heaven; in the future there will be a joining of a physical earth and a physical heaven that will operate in time and space. We will live forever – much as we are now, except with incorruptible bodies, and with the massive responsibility of ruling the earth as co-regents. I found this a great relief.

In the book reviewed here, The Day The Revolution Began NTW has shifted my thinking on the cross to see that it is about much more than an individual’s salvation: it is about the inauguration of a new Exodus for humanity. The revolution has begun and this means the church can tear into the evil powers that oppress and demean people right now. There is no need to wait.

The Day The Revolution Began is a fascinating read. Below is an outline of its main argument followed by three problems it throws up.

Further down are my notes on the whole book which I trust might be helpful for those who might not have the time or inclination to read the whole book.

Main argument from ‘The Day The Revolution Began’

1. The cross in the Bible is not primarily about Jesus taking the punishment of an angry God for an individual’s sins to secure that individual a place in a spiritual heaven.

NTW calls this the Romans Road version of the cross –

‘Humans were supposed to behave themselves; they didn’t. God had to punish them, but Jesus stood in the way, so God forgave them after all (provided they believed in Jesus). Rather than going to hell, they can now go to heaven instead.’

2. This is wrong for three reasons

a. The cross in the Bible is not set in the context of a moral (works) behaviour contract with God where there is punishment if the contract is broken. The cross is set in the context of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham to bless the world through him. Furthermore the cross deliberately happens in the immediate context of the Passover which is not primarily about punishment.

b. Though the cross is about individuals, it is much more. With its Passover context the cross is about the inauguration of a new Exodus for humanity. NTW argues that the New Testament’s short-hand for this is the ‘forgiveness of sins’ whereby the root issue of idolatry (not sins) is dealt with.

c. There is no spiritual (Platonic) heaven in the Bible, so all teaching that the cross takes us there is wrong. Rather than talk about heaven, the Bible affirms the coming of the Kingdom of God. This is what the cross is all about. It is about the end of exile, the arrival of God’s Kingdom and the role of the redeemed in the new creation in physical time and space with Him. NTW argues this brings back humanity to its original purpose, a covenant of vocation.

3. The above misinterpretation has happened because the Reformers imposed a plan of salvation on the Bible to deal with the issues they were facing with the Roman Catholic commercialisation of salvation which was set against the fierce background of a literal heaven and hell. This was then further contaminated by the enlightenment’s exalting of the individual hence the 19th C evangelical concern about individuals finding a place in heaven.

4. This meant the Reformers and their followers have down played the actual context in both the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Regarding the Gospels Jesus deliberately chose to die during the Passover. Furthermore the Gospel writers underline that Jesus died as a king expecting the Kingdom of God; hence Jesus understood his death to be inaugurating a new Exodus. Regarding Paul’s letters the Reformers cut the salvation teaching adrift from the concern for God’s faithfulness to his covenant with the Jews who are looked at primarily as an example of people who made a mistake. This is wrong. NTW insists that Jesus’s death must be understood in its Jewish context and that Paul’s concern was not going to heaven, but how God would be faithful to his covenant with Abraham.

5. Mission therefore is not primarily about persuading people to believe that Jesus has died for their sins so they as individuals can go to heaven; it is about implementing the arrival of the kingdom of God. This means Christians must get much more involved with the world as it is, rather than just trying to give people a ticket to heaven, and confront the defeated gods of sex, money and power by the means of the cross: suffering, forgiveness and love.

The vision is richer, but not without questions

The book is absolutely right to insist that the cross must be interpreted in its own Jewish context. Ordinary Christians now have a much richer canvas to gaze at when considering what it means when pondering the truth that Jesus ‘died for our sins according to the Scriptures.’

And the canvas is so much more positive.

Instead of an angry God determined to kill sinners and send them to hell unless they believe His innocent Son has paid the price He demands, Wright argues that the Bible teaches that God has always been for mankind (hence he loves and gives, John 3:16), and has planned to bring us back from exile – through his covenant with Abraham. The cross is where this revolution is launched for here sin in Jesus is dealt with. How still remains a mystery, but it is something that had to happen, like the original Passover, for the new Exodus to be inaugurated. The outcome is not a spiritual ‘heaven’, but it is a new heaven and earth in real time and space. The kingdom of God will have familiarity which is comforting for those of us uneasy about floating around on clouds. The campaign for that kingdom is already underway. Right now, as Wilberforce and countless others have understood, Christians can challenge the powers and help bring in a better way of living using the means of the cross – love and suffering.

So this is a tremendously important book giving us a much richer, and more practical, vision of the cross. However, like a sailing boat rushing through the ocean as it leans into the water, the sea easily crashes onto the deck.

Perhaps the most disturbing crash of waves onto the deck is the question of God’s wrath. It is all very well saying that God is for mankind and that He operates according to a covenant of vocation not a contract of works – but for ordinary readers of the Bible it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is a dreadful fury awaiting those who do not obey his commands. Take just Deuteronomy 28 where it is bluntly stated that a whole host of terrible curses will fall on people who do not obey God’s commands. There are fifty verses on this.

Here is a flavour of the tone from just a few of these verses.

The Lord will send disaster, panic, and frustration on everything you attempt to do…The Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation, with fiery heat…until you perish…Your corpses shall be food for every bird of the air…The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness, and confusion of mind....The Lord will take delight in bringing you to ruin and destruction.

This is a behaviour contract. If you obey you are blessed; if you disobey you are cursed. This is in black and white and if a theologian comes along and says, ‘Well, this is not what it really means’ then why is it set out to be understood in this way? It is either what it is, or it is criminally offensive in terms of miscommunication.

For this reader the issue of God’s fury towards people who were sinners was not really addressed by NTW. Indeed at one point NTW says the Gospels do not warn about hell, saying, almost as an aside, that Jesus’ references to hell is about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem. For the uninitiated that is quite an aside: what about the rich man separated from Lazarus, what about the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, what about the man who got cast out for not wearing the correct wedding garment, the unforgiving servant? Just one of these parables is enough to convince the reader that there is going to be a judgement, a terrible division and the discerning will want to make sure they are saved from the fury of God.

The rejection of the behaviour based scheme that could engender God’s wrath then opens wide another question. In the Romans Road it is quite clear why Jesus suffered on the cross and was abandoned by God. The wrath of God that should have fallen on the individual sinner, fell on Him. However in NTW’s paradigm this is not so clear. NTW argues that God has gathered all sin together in Jesus, and punishes sin, not Jesus, in Jesus. There is also reference to Jesus taking on all the force of evil which seems to hark back to the ransom theory of salvation.  Whatever the detail, something happens on the cross that deals with the issue of sin and the powers sin has invited in, so unleashing a new Exodus. God deals with sin in Jesus to bring back man to the original calling. This feels a little vague, but has a certain logic. 

The real problem is it is not clear where the individual stands. At the end of his book NTW urges the reader to join the revolution. That is great. But still – we are only human – we want to know along with the medieval people and the later Reformers how we can escape the wrath to come. NTW does not spell this out. Perhaps he has in other writings.

All of this impacts what mission is. NTW has a wonderful emphasis on all that Christians can achieve with the new Exodus paradigm. However unless this issue of where we as individuals stand vis a vis the coming wrath of God, the Christian missionary will not have a spring in their step. History bears witness to the great impact of evangelicals such as Wesley, Wilberforce, Booth, Hudson Taylor, William Carey and a host of others on society. But it is crucial to note what they all have in common. The assurance of their sins forgiven because of the great exchange that happened at Calvary. NTW might well argue that he is not taking that away; in which case it might be good if he wrote another book explaining how a sinful human being can have assurance of salvation because it is not clear in this book.

No doubt libraries of books will be written in response to this attack by NTW on the Romans Road version of salvation. My summing up would be this. The book is tremendously strong on reminding Christians of what the cross achieves, the inauguration of the kingdom of God. This is a great encouragement. It is not so strong on how the cross achieves this – whereas the Romans Road version is very clear. The lack of clarity on the how will not just hamper mission, it might unsettle some people’s faith.

Here are the notes if you’ve got this far.

N.T. Wright



Chapter One: A Vitally Important Scandal

Shows the dominance and beauty and attractiveness of the cross. No one can escape the cross…but what does it mean?

Chapter Two: Wrestling With The Cross

The point of understanding the cross is to experience God’s power that operates through the cross. We are put right to then take up our role in God’s kingdom. But still need to know what it means when we say Jesus dies for us. NTW then gives a history of interpretation of the cross. There is the Christus Victor…and the substitution…Anselm…God’s honour impugned. Also Abelard, the moral example. In the East, more emphasis on the resurrection. The issue of salvation put into sharp focus because of the vivid heaven and hell pictures of the medieval church. Reformers got rid of purgatory, but very much kept the need for God’s wrath to be satisfied. The punishment on Jesus had been meted out, so there is no need for purgatory. The price has been paid. This also got rid of the Mass…there is no need for the priest to repeat the sacrifice.

This means that the Reformers were giving biblical answers to medieval questions – not to questions in the bible which are more important (? – what could be more important than avoiding the wrath of God)

The Reformers did not challenge the heaven and hell paradigm (i.e. NTW does…because he believes in a new heaven and a new earth) It should have been because the Bible does not teach that we will leave a time and matter universe for a spiritual heaven.

The above flaw in the Reformation worsened by the collusion of the church with the 18th C enlightenment. Penal substitution put the emphasis on my sin, my heaven, my saviour. So we have Moody and Graham and others and sinners being saved. Then the problem of evil in society was separated from the cross and the overall emphasis of the church, and ‘Christian society’. God though deals with evil on the cross.

Plenty of confusion over the meaning of the cross today…the charge of cosmic child abuse combined with the cross as a symbol of violence from some, and uneasiness with poetry such as:
And on the cross when Jesus died

The wrath of God was satisfied

NT is against this…says it makes it sound as if God is hungry for another to suffer.

Outlines the plan as often given, NTW also calls this the ‘Romans Road’: man sinned and God is angry; Jesus has died and that helps because he is innocent and divine; so now we’re in the clear and if we believe this we’ll go to heaven

Some think this makes God look like a blood thirsty tyrant and question the use of violence - so there is confusion and this obscures the more important truth which is that something happened on the cross and when we get caught up in that happening, we become a part of making the world different.
For crucial truth is that the cross bring heaven to earth (not taking sinners to heaven)
NTW doesn’t like this idea that ‘someone has to die’, ‘it made my blood run cold’.

Why not just forgive; why Jesus…

Instead of God loving the world and giving, we have God hating the world and killing.

So – now God is an angry pagan despot in NTW’s mind.

Says the death of Jesus happens because of the love of God…

NTW arguing that this type of God puts people off. (It doesn’t matter what people think; it only matters who God is)

What happens though if you rule out the punishment model of atonement?

Well – there’s the idea of winning a victory over shadowy powers.

And this is the supreme example of love…but there must be a reason to die, it has to achieve something.

Then there is the thought of what is happening in the father’s heart…there too is suffering.

NTW suggests

Accept that:

the cross has varied meanings

all things will be summed up in Christ (Ephesians 1:8 -10))

salvation is about new heavens and a new earth

salvation for us = a priestly vocation.

Chapter Three: The Cross In Its First Century Setting

This chapter puts the cross into its first century context. Latin and Greek literature filled with wrath and war. Cross part of this. About asserting power and humiliating the enemy. Idea of dying for someone strong in pagan literature. Must place Jesus’ death in his Jewish context. So – lens of Passover, and of liberation from exile.

What exactly does ‘Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Bible’ mean?

Rejects idea that animal sacrifice was a transferred death penalty.

Sketches outline of thinking

We are heading for a new heaven; the obstacle is not sin, but the idolatry which causes it; released from this we can get back to the plan, the vocation of stewardship.

God’s way of doing this is focused on Israel. So Jesus stands in for Israel. His work of atonement = the whole process of putting things right.


Chapter Four: The Covenant of Vocation

Wrong destination = heaven; right destination = everything summed up in heaven and earth in the Messiah, as in Ephesians 1: 8 - 10

Sin is rooted in idolatry; way out is not to be set in the covenant of works = I behave well I will go to heaven, I can’t, but Jesus has sorted this out…hence the root problem still = a covenant of works. This is usually backed up by Romans – but this is not what Romans is about.

‘Such a view of the relationship between God and humans is a travesty’

Bible offers a covenant of vocation, to bear his image, to stand where heaven and earth meet. To take responsibility for the world…it’s about getting back to the vocation (but what happens when this doesn’t happen, is there no punishment…what is the rich man and Lazarus all about?)

And we hand over to other powers. The root of all sin is idolatry which leads inevitably to death because it opposes the source of life.

Jesus’ death deals with this and sets us back on vocation road – so we will reign in life.

Want to show this in the whole Bible story

Chapter Five: In All The Scriptures

:Covenant of vocation clearly seen in God’s calling of Israel – Exodus 19.
But OT gives the feel of being unfinished.

Whole story about exile – so there is a strong theme of hope. Must connect Jesus death to this narrative. Must not make images of court or slave market the main context. (This is an important correction to the emphasis in Stott’s book)

Israel and land set in parallel with Adam and Eve – loc 1332. Must put cross in this context. Exile a sort of living death – for Adam and Eve, for Israel. What would God do, this is about a covenant, not about a work. And it’s about bringing people back to true worship, responsibility and away from sin which allows dark forces to destroy the vocation. So there is a need to deal with Israel’s sins so the project can continue…because God has chosen Abraham.
 Chapter Six: The Divine Presence and the Forgiveness of Sins

Sin causes exile. Israel in wilderness had the tabernacle, a place where God would meet with his people, especially where the Ark of the Covenant was…where the lid was – kapporeth, hilasterion. The ark went to Shiloh, then into the temple. God’s glory came here – this is physically where heaven met earth. The glory departs…in Ezekiel the vision of a rebuilt temple. The temple was rebuilt, but the glory never returned and it was destroyed forever in AD70. The NT says though that Jesus is the new temple, so John’s prologue, He tabernacled among us. And the glory moment comes on the cross. This happens in context of Jews longing for restoration in this world. This is the rescue from the death of exile. The context is of God being faithful to his covenant; not God deciding to punish sins. So forgiveness of sins is the communal restoring of Israel.

‘We have domesticated the revolution’ i.e. we have made it just a personal ticket to get to heaven.
The Good News of Isaiah 52 is the news that Babylon has been overthrown, so there would be a new exodus and this exodus – unlike the first – is seen as being about the forgiveness of sins. Same message in Daniel.

So the cross in the mind of the first Jewish Christians is about the coming of God’s kingdom. This happening through suffering ties in with 1st C resistance movements.

Chapter Seven

No thought of a suffering Messiah for 1st C Jews. This came when Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 were looked at. Important to keep to the context that Isaiah 53 is about the means not just the occasion of redemption. The issue of means kept alive in the suffering faced by Jews in the 160s BC under the Syrians. The Maccabean movement longed for that second exodus which will deal with sins. NTW’s point is that the Maccabeans establish the idea re the role of suffering…there is talk of the ‘native land’ being purified ‘by their endurance.’, and of ‘atoning sacrifice’.

There will be redemption and this happens because of God’s faithful love, i.e. the covenant.
NTW very blunt about sin –

‘The suggestion that sin does not make God angry…needs to be treated with disdain.’

In paganism people have to pacify this anger; in Israel God does this.

Out of covenant love God will rescue Israel, and this will be extended to the nations.

Non-Jewish peoples are to have their own Exodus. (See for example last chapter of Amos)
So it is divine love – through Israel.

So when the NT talks of Jesus dying for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures this means – in its own context – that the new exodus has begun because the sins that caused the exile have been dealt with.

Hence the emphasis during the cross of the Passover. The cross is the start of the new Exodus.
In Isaiah 53 this happens through the death of the servant who represents the sins of Israel. This is the work of YHWH himself.


Chapter 8: New Goal, New Humanity

Jesus explained the Scriptures to the two on the road to Emmaus as a fulfilment.
NT interpretation has been pasted onto an idea that makes good people going to a platonic heaven, but that is not the NT interpretation of the cross.

In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting ‘souls going to heaven’ for the promised new creation) and therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting…moral performance for the biblical notion of human vocation) with the result that we have paganized our soteriology (substituting killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore)

Jesus’ death was the victory over destructive powers – because this achieved the forgiveness of sins (why?)

Zechariah talks about the forgiveness of sins in the context of national liberation, and the way in for Gentiles.

Same with Peter – asks for repentance so there can be forgiveness of sins and then the ‘restoration’ of all things.

This is both and…both forgiveness of actual sins, and the restoration.

Acts never talks of people going to heaven…it talks of the age to come.

In Acts forgiveness of sins is anchored to the coming kingdom of God.

Yes, this includes individuals being reconciled to God, but this belongs in a much larger context, that something has happened in the ‘actual world of space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different’

The cross is about ushering in the new age, not inventing a new religion.

Forgiveness of sins is short hand to explain this, a fact about how the world now was and this is played out in how the early church was...and how the marks of the new Kingdom were there: a. the power have been overthrown b. the Messiah is the ruler of the whole world c. God’s own presence comes to dwell with his people in the new temple which is Jesus, where there is true worship.
In Acts there is worship, witness, and the hope that Israel will be rescued from pagan rule…and that is because Jesus was the representative of Israel. And the church has become the new people of God. This has all happened through the death and resurrection.

Chapter Nine: Jesus’ Special Passover

To learn about the cross it is good to start with Jesus whose views on the atonement have been largely ignored by theologians. Need to see how the Gospels interpret the death of Jesus.
Interesting to note that Jesus has very little to say about souls getting saved and going to heaven
(what about all the parables about entering the kingdom of God or entering hell, e.g. The wedding guests; the sheep and the goats; unforgiving servant; and….)

Look at Gospels – cross for followers = end; resurrection total shock. Resurrection meant bodily resurrection, not going to heaven.

It is the resurrection that enabled them to interpret the crucifixion.

Jesus only says on the road to Emmaus that his suffering was a part of a divine plan…but he doesn’t say what that plan was.

Nor does Acts.

The resurrection convinced the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah.

Sign over cross said he was the king of the Jews…and he had always spoken of the kingdom of God.
Jesus was aware of this. And he knew his death was happening at the time of the Passover. So central fact is that Jesus chose the Passover as the time of his execution.

This means the cross from Jesus’ perspective has to be set in the context of a new Exodus.
So the temple confrontation connects to Moses and Pharaoh and the end of that story is worship in via the tabernacle; that is what Jesus saw. And so the centrality of the Passover Meal, which now looks forward rather than back.

How would the victory be won?

By dealing with people’s sins…that is what forgiveness of sins means…and here not an angry God bent on killing someone…but…a ‘covenant keeping God who takes the full force of sin onto himself’.

Hence at the meal…the exodus is about to happen.

The mention of blood does not have to be sacrificial, but to do with the covenant as in Jeremiah 31 and Exodus 24: 3 – 8. This is covenant renewal; and that is what Jesus is re-enacting. No suggestion that this is punishment to appease an angry God.

The reference to blood ties in with what we have from Hosea through to Qumran that the redemption of Israel would come via suffering. Isaiah focuses this on one person who is Israel’s representative.
Jesus is doing what God said the servant would do to bring about redemption.

So the cross is about the selfless love of a covenant keeping God.

Chapter 10: The Story of The Rescue

No going to heaven in the Gospels (What about all the parables about entering the kingdom of God – see above)

‘Almost nobody in the gospels warns about going to hell’ (Just the story of Lazarus and the rich man is enough. What about Matthew 25?)

Accuses preachers of imposing a salvation scheme on the story that isn’t justified and this story ignores the story about the kingdom (so the Gospels are not long introductions to a passion narrative).
Now wants to show how the story of the cross links the suffering to the coming of the kingdom and not to going to heaven.

‘The cross is the cross of the king of the Jews’

The Romans Road separates these two themes…the cross and the kingdom.

The Gospels are about a returning king. It’s about Israel’s God visiting his people.

And he is a loving God.

The Gospels link all that happens to Israel’s story – which includes plenty of darkness. There is no Galilean springtime for Jesus either and so in this story evil overreaches itself and is dealt with – as with Pharaoh. Jesus lives out Psalm 2.

So – the Gospels and Acts is about evil being overthrown and Jesus enthroned.
Emphasis on kingship in John’s passion narrative is well known.

Jesus wins the crown by suffering as representative substitute for the Jews. The servant dies for the nation.

An intimate and personal exchange achieves the victory (but who is the exchange for?)

In Luke this is underlined through the Barabbas story and the thieves on the cross…the good one saying…remember me when you come in your kingdom.

NTW suggesting that Jesus died because of evil, not God’s wrath

‘Jesus, by taking upon himself the weight of Israel’s sins, dies under the accumulated force of evil’

Matthew also massive emphasis on the kingdom…and the Sermon on the Mount outlines how it will come about.

The link back to Abraham shows that Jesus is the continuation of a story…and how he fulfils God’s saving plan in Israel.

Same story line in Mark…Jesus’ death accomplishes God’s Kingdom in fact Mark 10: 35 – 45 ‘contains within itself…the whole of the NT’s vision of how Jesus’ death overthrew the dark powers.’

Must let the story tell its own truth, not push abstract theology into it.

And the Gospels invite us to make this story our own.

Chapter 11: Paul and the Cross – apart from Romans

Paul believed that:

People are redeemed to share in priestly work for the new creation

The means for this is the death of Jesus

These two fixed.

Paul often talks about Christ dying for our sins according to the Scriptures. And great emphasis on the power of the cross…so again, this overthrowing of evil rulers.

According to the Scriptures for Paul meant what?

The one who died was Israel’s Messiah…so in Paul’s mind he goes back to the Torah and the Exodus… (not how ‘the punishment of sins was heaped onto the innocent victim)

The background story for Paul is immensely important. It can’t be ignored to drag penal substitution centre stage.

Galatians: the letter is not about salvation but unity. That we are a single family – because of the cross, which has thrown out the evil powers, echoing the Exodus. The only thing that matters is the new creation that has happened because of the cross. Everyone in this new creation can be welcomed as sons and daughters. Circumcision denies the new creation. Abraham was promised one family, and now he has it. This is about the covenant of vocation, that the seed of Abraham would be a blessing for the whole world. Jesus now undoes the curse from Deuteronomy that cause exile. All other identities disappear in the light of what the cross has achieved.

Corinthians: Paul never fully explains what he means by the cross here. Emphasis on the Passover, even with a Gentile background church. And in 1 Cor 15 the assumption is that Jesus is ruling the world…because sin has been dealt with.

In 2 Corinthians, responding to the super apostles, Paul emphasizes the role of suffering in the overthrow of evil, i.e. he models himself on Jesus. The cross has unleashed the power of generous self-giving in the world. (This is meaningless – was there no self-giving in the world before?) The cross is about giving us a ministry, not booking a place in heaven. We are liberated from sin to be God reflecting. And the liberation happens – 5:21 – by the substitution of one who alone is the true representative.

Philippians: The cross is the means of victory in chapter two, and this is worked out in our humility to love others. As in Corinthians, the cross unleashes a stronger power in the world. (Poem very early, shows the essence of Biblical theology – that God did this because He is God. This is his character)

Colossians: Emphasis on the defeat of the powers, being nailed to the cross. Ironic but true. When sin is dealt with, idols lose their power. That is why the cross defeats the powers.

Chapter 12: The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter To The Romans

Romans 1 – 4 been taken as the works contract. Humans were meant to behave themselves; they didn’t; so God punished Jesus and now all is fine.

Must always remember the large canvas of the letter; can’t pick and choose.

Ideas about justification by faith have been superimposed on the book, especially by the Reformers.
Paul’s emphasis is not about going to heaven, but about the new creation.

Paul doesn’t start off with sin, but with idolatry, the problem of the wrong worship, worshipping that which is not God. That brings havoc. Paul looks at Abraham as the one who truly worshipped, and sees God as seeking a new priesthood, hence Romans 12 begins with the reference to being a priest.
Romans 3 is about God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant with Abraham, through which all nations will be blessed. Promises to Abraham are played down; he is just used as the example of a man who had faith.

The paradigm that has the problem of sin (1 – 4) and how it is dealt with (5 – 8) is all wrong. It is a superimposition.

The emphasis is on the new creation the cross has inaugurated.

‘The Adam project for humans to share in God’s rule over creation is back on track’

The cross is the inauguration of the reign of God’s grace.

Misunderstanding about the law which some think is given to terrify people so they will run to Jesus for rescue.

This is not what it’s about.

The law came and Israel sank – this was God’s will. It was not an accident.

Romans 6 – 8 is not Paul’s description of the Christian life. This is about the redemption, which is an Exodus narrative.

So baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea; leaving Egypt, on route for the promised land. Jesus’s death has dealt a blow to SIN, as Moses did to Pharaoh. Again this is all about the defeat of the powers…Paul develops from sins, to sin as an active power in Romans.

Paul very much tied to Israel’s history and to showing that the Gospel and Israel’s history belong together.

Christians often ignore the Old Testament. They go from Isaiah 53 and Daniel 7 straight to the NT. In this Israel just becomes an example of humans getting things wrong.

For Paul the purpose of the law was to ‘heap’ sin into one place. And then the Messiah would meet this Sin. This is what he meant by Jesus dying for our sins.

Jesus died for our sins according to the Bible = the Jewish Scriptures = the history of Israel. All this comes out in Romans 7:13. It was the divine intention all along for sin to increase under the law. Israe- repeated Adam’s sin. The two are being woven together. So the famous passage about doing what you don’t want to do this is about Israel under the Torah – for Paul was a loyal Torah loving Jew.

Through the law God is gathering sin together in one place so it can be dealt with. And this is happening in the context of Israel’s calling.

So in Romans 8 we read that the punishment has been meted out on Sin.

‘Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. He declares that God punished Sin in the flesh of Jesus’.
This is certainly penal. And it is substitutionary…because sinners who are in the Messiah are not condemned.

‘This substitution finds its true meaning not within the normal ‘works contract’ but within the God and Israel narrative, the vocational narrative…in accordance with the Bible’
This resonates with the four Gospels.

Paul has ‘resolutely located the deepest meaning of the cross within Israel’s narrative. That is where it should remain.’

Take it out of this context and we have a quasi- pagan story about Jesus placating an angry god.
There is no angry god…this is God’s plan, carried out by God’s Son, to fulfil God’s love. The result is that the human calling is restored…a ruling priestly (hence intercession in Romans 8) role. And the Holy Spirit is like the cloud in the wilderness for God’s people.

Chapter 13: The Death of Jesus in Paul’s Letter To The Romans (special focus on Romans 3: 21 – 26)
Romans 3: 21 – 26 is where people pin atonement theology. ‘Read as the vital move in the wrong story: humans sin, God punishes Jesus, humans are let off.

Need to set this in its proper context of a covenant, of the cult of idolatry and that of the ark.
Central word in the passage is hilasterion which is the lid of the ark.

Another explanation of the works contract location 4316. Paul is not saying that God justifies people who are morally bankrupt through the death of Jesus. NTW unpacks why the reading is wrong in great detail: e.g. undermines Abraham in chapter four. Blanks the Jews as a light to the world. Ignores the root of idolatry; instead focuses on sin; there is talk of God passing over former sins (passing over, not punishing)

Nothing here about going to heaven.

NTW outlines four major problems with the works contract interpretation. Adds that beyond these the main one is a misunderstanding about the meaning of the word righteousness.

God’s righteousness is NOT God’s moral standing, but God’s faithfulness to his covenant.
The whole emphasis is on covenant, not morality.

Here is the problem for Paul: How is God to be faithful to his covenant if Israel has been faithless?
NTW very wary about Western interpretations drifting away from the Jewish roots of the passage. Paul is not just interested in sin, punishment, pardon: he is interested in Israel. (Absolutely correct)
The passages which look as if they are underlining the human propensity to sin are in fact underlining the human propensity for idolatry. Hence the overall issue is worship, not behaviour. And he is making a different point about the Jews in chapter two. He condemns their behaviour to focus on how they are violating the covenant. The Jew does have a special status in Paul’s scheme – and this is blanked in Western interpretations. What Jesus has done is to restore Israel’s vocation, he is restoring the covenant. In other versions the Jews were essentially like a broken car, to be parked on the side of the road and abandoned and people are now to join the new Jesus movement. But the Jesus movement is very much a part of the Jewish movement. They can’t be separated. When they are all too often we end up having an anti-Jewish story with terrible results.

Jesus is the incarnated Son of God – who is Israel’s Messiah.

The heartbeat of NTW is that God has not put aside his covenant with Israel.

God promises to rescue the world through Israel; does that mean that because Israel has failed, God now should break his promise? Of course not. Israel remains centre stage.

Hence Abraham and chapter four. It is God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham that the problem of sin and idolatry will be solved. And this happens through the cross.

It is the God of Israel that the Gentile must have faith in.

The hilistarion is the place where people are cleansed so they can meet with God. This is the cross. This is the restoration of true worship.

In 3: 21 – 26 there is a lot of repetition of the word righteousness…= God’s faithfulness to his covenant. So the passage is about the covenant. Which is an act of grace – as all covenants with God are. Renewal of the covenant means a new Exodus.

The Israel shaped purpose to which Israel had been faithless has been fulfilled in the Messiah himself.

We join this by faith – which means faithfulness.

Israel shaped purpose seen in Isaiah 53.

Justified means a. declaration as a part of the family b. being in the right. And the verdict of the future has been declared in the present. As happened with the resurrection of Jesus. He was declared in the right. That happens to all who join Jesus in baptism. The resurrection proves the justification happened on the cross.

The use of the word redemption is not random. It relates to Egypt and the Exodus. So the cross is a new Passover, a new Exodus which sets us free – as it did the Isreaalites – to worship. The Exodus led to the tabernacle, i.e. worship. There is a place of meeting, where the blood cleanses. The lid of the ark. Nothing about punishment here; cleansing yes. It’s about a holy God being able to meet with sinful people without ‘disastrous results’. Sin offerings were a sign of penitence, not punishment. When he says we are declared to be righteous by the blood this is just the prerequisite for the rescue from the wrath to come; it’s not the actual rescue.

Another indication that this passage is not about a mechanism whereby an angry god pardons individual sins…b/c it talks about how God ‘passed over’ former sins.

That’s massive. It means that God can just overlook sin if he wants to. (What about – God will by no means clear the guilty?)

Punishment in Paul’s mind – as in all Jews’ minds – was for the future. No mention here of divine wrath being satisfied over the suffering of Jesus.

Instead the suffering of Jesus is about providing a meeting place for man and God where idolatry is overthrown. So the exile is ended. That is what forgiveness of sins means. And it happens through the one who is Israel. That links back to Isaiah 40 – 55.

Instead of thinking in terms of punishment it is better to think in terms of consequence…the consequence of sin which is exile, it is dealt with.

Just as we must not make righteousness mean moral standing; so too we must not make punishment mean some individual being hit for his or her sins; but rather the consequence of sin.

Conclusion = Redemption Accomplished, Revolution Launched


This is whole section is about mission. Basic point is that because this revolution has been launched we must take our place, heralding the arrival of the kingdom of God in word and action.
Mission. Unlocking the prison doors.

Mission is not primarily about persuading people that Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven. There is a personal side to mission, but it must be set in the larger context of a massive revolution, the true human vocation.

Christian mission means implementing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.

Handel’s Messiah is celebratory, a welcome to God’s kingdom on earth. This was then overtaken by the going to heaven sort of mission. This encouraged Christians to leave the affairs of the world. Huge mistake. Need to address this balance and get mission more involved in the world, rather than saving souls from the world.

Mission needs to both have victory over the powers and forgiveness of sins at its heart. Being a royal priesthood has many dimensions. Work for God’s kingdom on earth with heaven’s energy. Need to bring Christ into the public square.

The victory of the cross will be implemented through the means of the cross, i.e. there will be suffering. And prayer. And the sacraments.

Chapter 15

The Powers and the power of love

Forgiveness is the new reality; it’s the way creation is. A new way of being human has been launched. Forgiveness is the new reality. Free to give allegiance to God the creator. The defeat of all gods – and powers. Especially money, sex, and power.

Mission = cross shaped work that bring true worship, and signs of the kingdom in human lives and institutions.

Embrace the covenant of vocation and be embraced by its creator. In the power of that love, join the revolution.

[1] His proper title is: The Right Reverend N. T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St Andrews. He is widely known as Tom Wright, and in this blog he will be called by his initials, NTW.

No comments:

Post a Comment