Wright’s “Fresh Perspectives”: Let’s Look Further


There is gold to be found in N.T. Wright’s fresh perspectives on Paul, but there are also (I think) mistakes or inadequacies or things that need to be stated differently. Let’s not abandon the gold mine; let’s not take the “Nothing to be seen here—move on” attitude that seems to have been the response of many of the scholars who have criticised Wright. This is a situation where the combined wisdom of orthodox scholars is needed both to recognise what is mistaken or mistakenly phrased, and to extract the gold.


Having just completed a series of posts in which I attempted to show “The Crystal Clarity” of Romans 1-8 and “The Clarity” of Romans 9-11, commentaries made with only a superficial knowledge of N.T. Wright’s controversial “fresh perspectives” on Paul, I read two of Wright’s books, to see what difference, if true, his perspectives might make  to the conclusions I had come to in those previous series.

The two books were, “Paul: Fresh Perspectives” (2005), and “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision” (2009). I read, in the Greek NT every New Testament scripture Wright cited, in its context. I also read a number of the critiques of Wright that see him as seriously in error. While agreeing at some points with their misgivings, I fear that the vehemence of their disagreement may be blinding some teachers to other aspects of the case Wright makes that warrant thoughtful discussion. (More on that at the end of this post.)

My major conclusions from this exercise are these, so far:

1. Wright’s perspectives give many provocative insights into the theology and soteriology of the Apostle Paul, and his books deserve a prominent place in the libraries of every theologian and pastor, even the ones who disagree with him on certain of his contentions.

2. If I read him correctly, he does not think that his much-contested suggestions about the meaning of “justification” erase those aspects of a Protestant understanding of salvation that have traditionally come under the “justification” heading. Rather, Wright sees himself as providing a framework that is a superset within which we must fine-tune our understanding of all the soteriological terms in scripture and their relationship to each other: salvation, justification, adoption, redemption, sanctification, glorification, and so on. Key elements of a standard Protestant understanding of the gospel: by grace, through faith, not by works, sins forgiven, dependent on the cross of Jesus Christ, are still all present in Wright.

3. Romans 4 and Galatians 3 show me that the covenant of grace is the fulfilment of the covenant of promise that God made with Abraham.  Calvin in his Galatians commentary had seen the connection: “[Paul] tells us that God made two covenants with men; one through Abraham, and another through Moses. The former, being founded on Christ, was free; and therefore the law, which came after, could not enable men to obtain salvation otherwise than by grace, for then, ‘it would make the promise of none effect’” (comment on Galatians 3:17). No doubt the Westminster divines were equally aware of the connection, but when in WCF 7 they describe the covenant of grace, they do not mention Abraham, instead mentioning only the  realisation of the covenant of grace through Christ and the types-and-shadows administration of it that existed in the sacrificial system of the Law of Moses. And I think that this neglect of the straight-line connection between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant is typical of the confessing Protestant church. Has the church been guilty, as Wright would charge, of wrongly “de-Judaizing” the new covenant? The charge seems plausible, and worthy of humble exploration. Have we been missing something important?

4. While the fresh perspectives deserve to have their place in our deeper study of Paul’s letters and doctrine, I do not think they are essential to our initial study and apprehension of Paul’s teaching, even in those aspects where I think Wright’s insights are likely to be correct. (I think Wright may disagree with me about their non-essentiality, but note that I am referring to our initial study, not to our longer term study.)

In the providence of God, we can come to an adequate and saving understanding of the gospel from within our own cultural and intellectual background, an understanding that is conformable to God’s purpose, without needing a deep understanding of the Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures in the midst of which Paul wrote. It would be a rare new convert from any era who had the Athanasian grasp of the Trinity (if I may speak anachronistically) that Wright shows is intrinsic to Paul’s soteriology. That teaching can come later; a deep understanding of it is not required for faith to be sparked and righteousness to be reckoned. In a parallel way, it is not necessary to understand the nuances of Paul’s teaching as a 1st Century Greek, Roman or Jew may have done, to savingly grasp the essence of the gospel—further enrichment can come later.

5. In (2005), Wright makes what seems to me an unfortunate conflation of two ideas when discussing the meaning of justification, “…the passage [Galatians 2:17] works far better if we see the meaning of ‘justified’, not as a statement about how someone becomes a Christian, but as a statement about who belongs to the people of God, and how you can tell that in the present” (p.112, italics and emphasis mine).He also says something similar in (2009): “The second element in justification is of course … that of the covenant. The question is, exactly as in Galatians 2.11–21, Who are the members of God’s single family, and how can you tell? (loc 3567, italics and emphasis again mine). But, to my mind, if justification is something granted by God, the question, “How you can tell that it has been bestowed?” is a different question that should be kept separate from the definition of justification.

To best do justice to what Wright is saying about justification (even if, in the end, we disagree with him), I think we should work from definitions and comments such as these: “…justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right…” (2009, loc 2811), and “the verb dikaioō, ‘to justify’, … does not denote an action which transforms someone so much as a declaration which grants them a status. It is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of ‘justification’, not the character.” (2009, loc 1458).

That loc 2811 definition, however, continues on to another (to me) unfortunate conflation: “…justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family” (italics mine). It seems to me that being accepted as a member of God’s covenant family is a blessing that follows as a consequence of justification, and is not part of the definition of justification itself.

A similar conflation occurs at loc 4119, where dikaiosynē (righteousness) is equated with covenant membership, rather than the latter being seen as a blessing bestowed because of the righteousness that has been declared.

6. I think that my concern just expressed about what Wright is happy to include in the definition of justification, and I am not, also arises out of another implication of our Trinitarian faith that Wright has not addressed.

  • As re-emphasised by Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary last century, there is an equal ultimacy in the Godhead of the One and the Many, for “The persons of the trinity are mutually exhaustive1 and “Each is as much God as are the other two. The Son and the Spirit do not derive their being from the Father. The diversity and the unity in the Godhead are therefore equally ultimate; they are exhaustively correlative to one another and not correlative to anything else2  and “The space-time universe cannot even be a universe of exclusive particularity. It is brought forth by the creative act of God, and this means in accordance with the plan of the universal God. Hence there must be in this world universals as well as particulars. Moreover they can never exist in independence of one another. They must be equally ultimate which means in this case they are both derivative.3
    (As pointed out by Kreitzer, this insight “…was not unique in church history. The Cappadocian Father, Gregory Nazianzem (Gregory the Theologian)—a scholar John Calvin often quoted as well—used a similar insight.”4)

1 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1955), p42.
2 Cornelius Van Til, Apologetics (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953), p8.
3 Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1947), p7-8.
4 Mark R. Kreitzer, Review of Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, (2008), accessed 2019/05/19


  • Now, a consequence of this, it seems to me, is that humanity, created in God’s image, must also reflect this truth. If we ever set up or postulate a system that subordinates individual humans (the “many”) to a societal or ecclesiological “One”, or vice versa, we have gone wrong somewhere. Certainly, God would never establish such a system. However we define “justification”, it must be seen as applying to the individual, and in such a way that it does not suppress his or her individuality, or value as an individual to God. Any subordination of the individual to the collective must be entirely voluntary, as modeled by the relationships of the economic Trinity and impelled by the work of the Holy Spirit in those justified.
  • But Wright’s conflations seem to me to push the individual out of sight so that he or she just becomes a cog in God’s great plan, and the overall way he presents his doctrine of justification seems to likely to dampen that, “Wow, God did this for me!” feeling that has previously often accompanied effectual gospel presentations. (I know that Wright does not see individuals as cogs; I’m just saying that I think his unfortunate phrasing lends to that impression).
  • And, I suspect that the seeming elimination of the personal “wow” factor is part of what has made so many critics think that Wright is badly wrong, quite apart from their loyalties to the historic standards of the Church. Somehow, what he wrote did not resonate with their own experience of the gospel (nor mine!), so they decided that the whole scheme must be faulty. Yes, Wright brings to the forefront other things for us to gasp at, other doxologies, but that should not have been at the expense of the “Amazing Grace”, “And Can it Be”, “O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” sense of wonder at Christian conversion. But, whether he intended that result or not, that is what he has done. Perhaps adding yet another aspect of Trinitarian understanding into his exposition of “the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world… to rid the world of sin and establish his new creation” (2009, loc 1546) might solve the problem. For my part, I think it is an additional perspective that is crucially missing from his work so far.

7. Paul’s letter to the Romans (in particular) still provides an effective rebuttal to anyone who happens to teach that justification depends on keeping the moral law, even if 1st Century Judaism was not as guilty of that error as it has been portrayed in standard expositions of Romans.

8. However, I think Wright is mistaken when he presents the Jewish error regarding the law as one of seeing justification (however defined) just as depending on observance of the cultic/ceremonial aspects of the law. To my mind, some of the texts in Romans where Paul refers to “works of law” clearly have in view the moral law, not the ceremonial, and Wright’s arguments have not convinced me otherwise. Therefore, Paul (who was in a position to know) did not find his fellow 1st Century Jews as guiltless as their 21st Century apologists do of belief that their own keeping of the moral law contributed to their justification by God.

And, we might add, many of the interactions of Jesus (who also was in a position to know) with the Pharisees suggest to me that he didn’t see them in that light, either.

9. I read Wright’s 2005 work first, and the 2009 work second, and only in the second book understood (I think) what he meant about justification, and the grounds for his new perspective on it. I found Wright’s treatment of it in the first book quite unclear. I would urge anyone whose only knowledge of Wright’s perspective on justification is from sources earlier than 2009 (Wright himself, or third parties, including John Piper), please now read (2009) and critiques that are aware of it.

One such critique that I found particularly helpful is by Richard Phillips, Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works, in which he argues against an aspect of Wright’s thought that I, too, found especially problematic.

10. Despite the caveats in some of my previous paragraphs, I think that Wright’s perspective on justification is indeed worth further examination, namely, that justification is first and foremost and simply that act of God by which he declares us to be in right standing in his covenant, the covenant of grace that had its beginning in the covenant with Abraham, and that classical Protestant handling of the term has rolled too much else of the ordo salutis into it, and that we can do our theological studies with much clearer heads if we separate out the overload—not denying or erasing the truths that were contained in the overload, but dealing with them in a different place.

I hope now to further the discussion by publishing a reworking and augmentation of relevant statements in the Westminster Confession of Faith, to show how I think they might look if Wright’s perspectives were taken into account. My own expectation, which may be proved wrong, is that the result will show that all the substance of the Confession is still there—i.e. that there is no change to the saving faith that is being confessed, just to the framing of some of its details. One of the patterns I have noticed in the interchanges between Wright and his critics is this: the critic finds fault with some statement in Wright, then Wright replies and says, “Your criticism shows that you didn’t understand my statement—here’s a different way of putting it,” and the critic or some other spokesman finds fault with the revised statement, and so round and round the fruitless circle goes. I hope that by using the device of pinning what I take to be Wright’s meaning to a reshaped “WCF”, I can create something that can be objectively discussed by both sides.

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The Crystal Clarity of Romans — B

{B} 2nd Subsidiary Thesis: The Work of Christ, Apprehended by Faith, Brings us to God (3:20-24)

Νυνὶ δὲ χωρὶς νόμου δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ πεφανέρωται, μαρτυρουμένη ὑπὸ τοῦ νόμου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν, δικαιοσύνη δὲ θεοῦ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, εἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας, οὐ γάρ ἐστιν διαστολή. πάντες γὰρ ἥμαρτον καὶ ὑστεροῦνται τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ, δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ·
— “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:20-24, NIV).

Paul’s grand thesis asserted that the righteousness of God was revealed in the gospel (1:17). Now he develops that assertion further in six ways.

  1. δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ πεφανέρωται (dikaiosunē theou pephanerōtai)—righteousness from God has been made manifest: not just revealed (apokaluptetai, as in 1:17) but plainly so. (Would Paul — surprised that some people find his exposition here in Romans confusing? I think so!)
  2. διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (dia pisteōs Christou)through faith in Jesus Christ
  3. εἰς πάντας τοὺς πιστεύοντας (eis panta tous pisteuontas)—to all who believe/have faith
  4. δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν (dikaioumenoi dōrean)—(believers) are freely justified. (And we really need to coin a new English word, “righteousified”, don’t we, to convey that “justify” (dikaioō) and “righteousnessness” (dikaiosunē) are cognate words?)
  5. τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι (tē autou chariti)—by his (God’s) grace
  6. διὰ τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (dia tēs apolutrōseōs tēs en Christō Iesou)—through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

Note

While pisteōs Christou could refer to the faith or faithfulness of Christ, I doubt that it does, firstly because (as discussed earlier concerning 1:17), I don’t think it likely that Paul has muddied his explanation by assigning two shades of meaning to pistin and its cognates in such close proximity, and, secondly, because Christ’s own faithfulness only comes up in a secondary way in Apostolic preaching and teaching of the gospel. It is not a prominent part of the kerygma – not just Paul’s kerygma; the Apostolic kerygma generally. Therefore, I don’t think Paul would have expected that meaning to come to the minds of his Roman hearers, and so I don’t think he would have intended it.

I think the reason for the close collocation of pisteōs and pisteuontas is that the first throws the emphasis onto the object of our faith, and the second onto the universality of the blessing that is available. It is available to all who believe. And I think that is exactly how the Roman Christians would have understood it, who had all come to faith somehow or other as a result of the Apostolic kerygma.

  • I should add that I hope that all scholars now recognise that the idea has been well-discredited that what we have as the kerygma is just a late first century or even second century distortion of the original. (See, e.g., Richard Bauckham, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony”, 2e). We know what the kerygma was, and we can bring that knowledge to the study of Romans.

Despite the preceding discussion, though, please note that, even if pisteōs is after all a reference to Christ’s own faithfulness, that does not subtract from the force of the doctrine that Paul is stating: righteousness from God is taken hold of by faith. And, note again, even though we in the 21st Century have had to pause for that discussion, no such pause would have been necessary for Paul’s original readers, who would have taken his meaning immediately. Paul is not difficult to understand!

Further comments

In the above six points, Paul has made these identifications:

  • The source of the righteousness—God
  • The recipients of this righteousness—all who believe
  • The price to us of this righteousness—nothing
  • God’s motive—grace
  • There was a price, nevertheless, for apolutrōseōs is a release obtained on payment of a ransom
  • The agent of this redemption is Christ Jesus. (Note: we don’t need to resolve whether ἐν (en) is best translated here as “in” or “by”. The believer’s identification with Christ is not yet in focus at this point in the development of Paul’s argument. Accept either meaning, and you can still go forward with Paul.)

{B1} Christ’s Blood Makes Possible a True Mercy Seat (3:25-26)

(I know that, in the Greek, verses 25 and 26 are part of the same sentence that began at least at the “ou gar” in verse 22. However, in their content they seem to me expansions on what Paul has already stated, rather than new assertions. Therefore I have chosen to treat them as expository rather than as parts of the sub-thesis.)

ὃν προέθετο ὁ θεὸς ἱλαστήριον διὰ πίστεως ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι
(hon proetheto ho theos hilastērion dia pisteōs en tō autou haimati)
—(3:25a).

  • God has ordained that, when one puts one’s faith in the blood of Jesus, expiation/propitiation occurs that is analogous to that which was portrayed when sacrificial blood was poured onto the kapporet (mercy seat) in Old Testament times. (That is my paraphrase rather than a translation, but I think such a paraphrase is necessary if our 21st Century minds are to grasp the richness of Paul’s words in this clause.)
  • Roman hearers from Jewish backgrounds would have seen the force of this image immediately; those from Gentile backgrounds probably less so. However, Paul’s main target here will have been the Jewish-background believers so that they could see that, not only has Jesus made righteousness accessible without conformity to the outward symbols of the older covenant, but even the most profound and important of the sacrifices that were associated with that covenant had been consummated by him.
  • We don’t need to resolve the question of whether expiation or propitiation is the better translation for hilastērion. Whatever sense Jewish Christians had of it from their Old Testament background, in respect of setting sin-marred relationships right with God, that was a sufficient understanding for the point Paul is making here.

εἰς ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ διὰ τὴν πάρεσιν τῶν προγεγονότων ἁμαρτημάτων

to show his righteousness, because he had passed over former sins (3:25).

  • We don’t need to resolve, either, whether, by “former sins”, Paul has in mind what the author of Hebrews tells us, that “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4, NIV), or just God’s general forbearance whenever he has not brought down immediate judgment on sin. Either way, Christ’s definitive hilastērion has exonerated the righteousness of God.

πρὸς τὴν ἔνδειξιν τῆς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ νῦν καιρῷ, εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν δίκαιον καὶ δικαιοῦντα τὸν ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ

he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (3:26,NIV).

  • Just as the new hilastērion has vindicated God in respect of sins previously forborne, so it also vindicates his righteousness in his justifying those who now, in the present time (ἐν τῷ νῦν καιρῷ), explicitly put their faith in Jesus.

There is nothing in the foregoing that would have been difficult for even an ordinary, not theologically-minded Roman believer to have grasped.

{B2} Paul’s Summary of some Important Points and Implications so far (3:27-31)

  • ἡ καύχησις ἐξεκλείσθη … διὰ νόμου πίστεως.—Boasting is excluded, because of the principle of faith. This contrasts with the law-based Jewish boasting in God (καυχᾶσαι ἐν θεῷ) that Paul had reproved in 2:17-24.
  • δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου—man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Does Paul have in mind just the outward, ceremonial aspects of the law, or the whole package? Obviously the latter. It would be incongruous for him to be saying that the justification arrived at by faith only exempts you from the ceremonial law, but unfailing obedience to the Decalogue is still imperative for ultimate justification. Justification, like uniqueness, admits no stages or shades.
  • [Ὁ] θεός … δικαιώσει περιτομὴν ἐκ πίστεως καὶ ἀκροβυστίαν διὰ τῆς πίστεως—(3:30) circumcised and uncircumcised are justified on the identical basis of faith.
  • νόμον οὖν καταργοῦμεν διὰ τῆς πίστεως; μὴ γένοιτο, ἀλλὰ νόμον ἱστάνομεν—(3:31). This faith schema doesn’t nullify the law, it upholds it.

{B3} Proof Positive from Abraham and David (4:1-25)

Little needs to be said by way of commentary on chapter 4. Paul’s logic is sound. The seeming contrary view put forward by James is easily reconciled when one takes into account the different content that each man puts into the word “faith”, and in any case, understanding James’s view is not pertinent to understanding Paul’s view, which is abundantly clear.

  • Abraham, prior to doing any of the works that flowed from his faith, had his faith credited as righteousness—Ἐπίστευσεν δὲ Ἀβραὰμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην (Episteusen de Abraham tō theō kai elogisthē autō eis dikaiosunē).
  • Furthermore, this crediting happened prior to the establishment of the covenant sign of circumcision, and Abraham’s compliance with it—πῶς οὖν ἐλογίσθη; ἐν περιτομῇ ὄντι ἢ ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ; οὐκ ἐν περιτομῇ ἀλλ’ ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ.
  • Paul also supplies supporting evidence from words of David in Psalm 32 regarding the blessedness of those whose sins are not counted against them.

Inescapable conclusion: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith” (4:13, NIV).

Corollary: “The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:23-24, NIV).

Paul has not, of course, proven the corollary from Scripture, but is demonstrating that it was utterly consistent with the Abrahamic religion that the faith in Jesus which the Romans had come to via the Apostolic kerygma should be credited to them as righteousness, apart from works.

Therefore, regardless of issues some might wish to raise over details of the case he presents in chapter 4, Paul’s own meaning and intention is once again clear.

Next: Third Subsidiary Thesis: (5:1-5) Justification Brings Certainty and Begins Transforming Us

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No Easy Way, no Hard Way, no Middle Way – only the Jesus Way

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 3

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested … the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:21-25)

Good news! God is truly and amazingly good! We can stop striving and straining to get into his favour by good behaviour, because all of us, whether Jew or Gentile, have already blown that chance. St Paul tells us so in Romans chapter 3. We cannot earn our way into God’s kingdom by righteous living, because we have already failed the access test. Our goodness (such as it is) is insufficient: “…all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” and “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans  3:9 & 23).

“Pagan Pass” won’t get you through the mountains to God. St Paul proved that in Romans chapter 1. (See my previous post, A Tale of Three Passes). Nor will “Jewish Pass” take the descendants of Abraham through the mountains on any favoured basis, for God is impartial. “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Romans 2:9-10). Actual behaviour will be judged, not lineage. That is what St Paul argued in chapter 2.

And now in Romans 3, he adds that actual behaviour will always be found wanting. St Paul reminds his readers that, back in the Old Testament, God had already pronounced his verdict on Jews and Gentiles alike: “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). The Psalm itself makes it clear that this applies to the whole human race, whom the Psalmist calls the “children of man”, but in case a Jewish reader should somehow think him or herself exempt, St Paul underlines the point: “…we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).

Good news upon good news! Our own efforts at righteousness are futile, but God has not written us off and condemned us to live and die without him. He has provided a different righteousness and made it available to everyone who believes. He can give this righteousness to us because the blood of the Son of God, Christ Jesus, has dealt with the offence our sin caused (that’s what Romans 3:25 means).

God’s righteousness is a free gift. We can have it just by believing that God’s offer is true, but we must believe. The gift is received by faith. It is not bestowed on those who don’t believe. Why, then, do so many who hear the offer reject it, even if they would say of themselves that they want to live good, God-pleasing lives? St Paul’s words in Romans 3:27 suggest part of the reason, and that’s what I will talk about in my next post.

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Image:
Agnus Dei.jpg – by Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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A Tale of Three Passes

The Power of God in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Part 2

Imagine a mountain range, infinitely wide, and so high that even the known low points between peaks are higher than Everest. On the far side of the mountains lies the plain of right relationships with God – the plain of paradise.

Popular opinion has it that there are possibly two passes through the mountains to that place of glory. The first supposed pass we might call the Pagan Pass. Its followers believe that, if you set up idols in the names of gods and worship them in a prescribed manner, the gods will conduct you across Pagan Pass to the land beyond.

A second opinion is that there is a pass especially for the descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jews. Believers in that pass agree that Pagan Pass is a cul-de-sac, but that God’s covenant with Abraham, with the legal riders that God added through Moses, provides a sure way through.

St Paul’s purpose in the first three chapters of Romans (beginning at 1:18) is to show that those passes are illusory. They don’t and cannot get anyone through to the far side of the mountains. He provides those proofs in the section from 1:18 to 3:20, and then introduces the one and only pass that does go through: “For there is no distinction [both of those other purported passes are cul-de-sacs]: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:22-25).

It is important to understand that this was the destination Paul was working towards and that everything prior was designed to support that conclusion. If we do not have that understanding, we are likely to misunderstand and misapply some of what he says when he closes off “Pagan Pass” in chapter 1 and “Jewish Pass” in chapters 2 and 3.

The Dead End that’s Pagan Pass (Romans 1:18-32)

Some Christians loudly proclaim that God’s wrath is being brought down on America, or New Zealand, or wherever, by homosexual activity or abortions, or suchlike. They are wrong. They have up­ended what St Paul teaches in Romans 1. Here is what St Paul actually says: ”For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18, 21‑25).

St Paul teaches this sequence of events:

  1. Despite knowing Him, humankind stopped worshipping the one true God and started worshipping what was not God.
  2. Therefore, humankind incurred God’s wrath.
  3. Therefore, God removed his restraining hand and allowed sin to become rampant. The explosion of sin is evidence of God’s wrath, not the cause of it.

Yes, St Paul mentions sexual deviations first, but in verses 28-39 he expands the list to cover a much greater number of sins: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”.

As John Calvin says in his commentary, “…though every vice … did not appear in each individual, yet all were guilty of some vices, so that everyone might separately be accused of manifest depravity.” If you are using Romans 1 to rank some sins as worse than others, you have missed Paul’s point. He’s closing off “Pagan Pass” to everyone, not just to those who commit a particular shortlist of sins.

If you want to trumpet God’s wrath in a way that is consistent with Romans 1, the people you should have in your sights are the university professors and intellectuals who use their platforms to teach contempt for the name or idea of God. Even if they happened to be opposed to abortion and old-fashioned about homo­sex­uality, they would be the ones – according to St Paul – to draw God’s wrath down upon a society. But, actually, I think your vocal cords would be better used to announce with St Paul that, though God’s wrath is evident (regardless of whom is to blame), the mercy God offers in Christ Jesus is greater.

By the way, if you are someone who believes that some forms of same-sex relationship are not sinful, I am sure you nevertheless believe that other forms are, so that discussion does not weaken St Paul’s argument.

The Dead End that’s the “Jewish” Pass (Romans 2)

The Jewish people were right that they were a chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:6), but many were wrong about how that gained them, generation by generation, access to the blessings of God. There were two ways their thinking could go wrong. Some might think that blessing and salvation were theirs just by virtue of their descent from Abraham. Others might not count on descent alone, but added to it the condition of a sufficient obedience to the Law of Moses. St Paul’s words in 2:1 to 3:20 combat both those errors.

In 1:18-32, St Paul had shown that the pagan way of life and “worship” was evidence of the wrath of God. One can imagine applause for Paul from a Jewish reader who had read just that far. However, St Paul now turns the tables. He says “…you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1). We find out in verse 17 that “O man” is a representative Jew. Simply being a Jew by descent, therefore, is not enough to evade the wrath of God irrespective of quality of life.

St Paul doesn’t ask his readers to merely take his word for it. In verses 2 to 29, he makes an argument that is based on the judicial impartiality of God, and whose core is found in verses 9 to 11: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

“There you have it,” St Paul is saying to any Jew who thinks that Jewish inheritance alone will shield a person from God’s judgment, “– it won’t.” And he adds, in verse 27, “…he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law.

As St Paul develops his argument, he makes a number of statements that can be (and often are) misapplied. This will happen if we don’t remember what St Paul’s overall objective is in chapters 1 to 3, and what his particular objective is in chapter 2. His overall objective is to defeat any idea that either the Pagan or the Jewish pass goes through to God, and to establish that the only viable pass is that of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. His chapter 2 objective, however, is to demonstrate the judicial equality of Jew and Gentile before God. In doing so, he makes some statements that, if pulled from their context, would undermine the overall objective. Therefore, we can take it for granted that he does not intend them to be used that way.

Besides verse 10, which I have already quoted above, the passages in question are these:

Romans 2:6-8 – “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 2:14-16 – “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

Those passages seem to open the door to a doctrine of works-based righteousness. Verses 14‑16 are also sometimes used to suggest an answer to the “What about those who have never heard” problem. (Confession: I’ve done so myself). However, St Paul’s chapter 3 doctrine is that there is one and only one pass, and he would never intimate that there was even the roughest, most ill-defined of an alternative way.

In the context of the judicial impartiality of God, everything St Paul says in those passages is true. What is unsaid (because it is not relevant to his chapter 2 purpose), is that no Jew or Gentile (excepting, of course, Jesus) has ever achieved a standard of obedience that is high enough to clear the bar. St Paul will deal with that issue in the first twenty verses of chapter 3, and I will follow him there in my next post, I hope.

Why Gentile Believers don’t need to be Circumcised

I haven’t quite finished this post, though. It’s worth noting that, as well as furthering progress towards his main objective, St Paul has also slipped in the answer to a question that might have been troubling any members of the church in Rome who were from Jewish backgrounds, or who had been Gentile converts to the Jewish faith. The question is “Why do Gentile believers in Jesus Christ not need to be circumcised?” St Paul gives the answer in verses 28 and 29: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

Note re “A New Perspective on Paul”

I don’t believe it is necessary – for the purpose of understanding the central teachings in his letter to the Romans – to decide between the classic and new perspectives on the view of Judaism that St Paul reflects in Romans 2 and Romans 3. However he saw the Judaism of his day, and however the Jews saw themselves, the arguments St Paul provides are sufficient to show that there is no Jewish “pass” that exists apart from the way provided by Jesus Christ.

 

All Bible quotations are from the ESV, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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