Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God– Part Forty Seven

In dealing with pp. 880-92, we are dealing with one of the more revealing passages in this whole book, a passage which depends, again and again, on the notion that ‘dikaiosune tou theou’ literally the righteousness of God, refers to God’s covenant faithfulness. We have had occasion to make clear some of the real problems with that whole idea, but here in dealing with materials in 2 Cor. 3-5 it becomes really evident that that dog just won’t hunt. It does not make sense of texts like for instance 2 Cor. 5.20-21 (more on this below). Furthermore, Tom will also argue that when Paul talks about love, he does not mean just any kind of love but covenant love, love owed or given to those within the covenant community.

It must be seen from the outset that Paul is the apostle mainly to Gentiles. Not even mainly to Gentiles who had previous synagogue associations, but judging from what he says about them in texts like: 1) 1 Thess. 1; 2) 1 Cor. 8-10; 3) Rom. 11; 4) Gal. 3-4 Gentiles who were previously simply pagans. To these folk God owed exactly NO covenant love or loyalty or faithfulness. So when the theme of the righteousness of God is announced at the beginning of Romans, and then immediately in the very argument Paul stresses the negative expression of this righteousness in the present against the wickedness of the pagan world in 1.18-32, it should have been clear that this was not an expression of God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel, or anyone else for that matter. But that leads to the second main point.

What about Israel? Technically speaking did God owe Israel anything once it had repeatedly and continually broken her Mosaic covenant with God? If Biblical covenants worked anything like ANE covenants the answer to even this question should be no. Strictly speaking if the people do not fulfill their end of the contract, the king who made the contract has no ‘obligation’ to either keep the contract going, or fulfill his side of the bargain. It’s not a matter of ‘covenant faithfulness’ at that point. It may be a matter of grace, or deciding to keep one’s own promises come what may, but it’s not a matter of covenant faithfulness. You see covenants are not uni-lateral things, they are relational things. And in fact at various points in the OT we learn that the fulfillment of the promises of God are conditional on the responses of covenanters (‘if my people who are called by my name, will repent and turn to me…. then I will….’). It is a mistake to take conditional statements as if they were unconditional promises. Now still, out of pure grace, out of faithfulness not to a broken covenant, but to his own nature which is love, God may choose freely and without obligation to keep promises he made earlier, even if they were conditional in nature. And this I would suggest is precisely what Paul is arguing in Rom. 1-8 at length— he consigns all under sin, so that salvation for any and all persons is a matter of ‘by grace and through faith in the Lord Jesus’ including in the case of Jews, precisely because ‘all have sinned and lack the glory of God’. As Paul will say as clearly as he can in Romans 3— Jew and Gentiles were both weak, ungodly, and even enemies of God because of their misbehavior when God sent forth his Son. God did not owe it to anyone, nor was it a fulfillment of something God was obligated to do. The covenant was broken and the curse sanction of the Mosaic covenant was exhausted on Jesus in his death— taking the punishment for our disobedience. But to what end? To save us? Yes indeed, but that is not all. Salvation is all about our being formed by the internal working of God’s Spirit so that we mirror the character of God in Christ, and that includes God’s righteousness. God must of course ‘set us right/upright’ (justification) first, since we have fallen, but the goal is not just that– the goal is that we are remade in the image of a righteous and loving God who wants those qualities exhibit in our character and behavior. Indeed, as 2 Cor. 5 will say, the goal is that we ‘become the righteousness of God’ exhibit A on the earth of what God’s true character is like. It is because THIS is what Paul is arguing for in dealing with God’s salvation of sinners and trespassers, Gentiles and Jews alike, that the argument you find in pp. 880-92 does precisely what Tom does not want to do— ‘goes off the rails’.

Take in the first case his exposition of 2 Cor. 5.11-62 (which actually begins on p. 869). Tom is right that Paul is talking about his own suffering apostolic ministry for the Corinthians, but that is by no means all he is talking about. He is also talking about the beliefs and behaviors of the Corinthians. Tom urges on p. 880 that Paul is basically talking about how we view people (‘though once I viewed the messiah this way, I do so no longer’). Yes, Paul is talking about that, but he is also talking about an actual transformation of human character— ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is already a new creation/creature, behold the old has passed away’. The subject here is not just apostles but any Christian.

Tom then goes on to translate 2 Cor. 5.21 as follows: “the Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant” (p. 881) In case you missed the following is actually what the text literally says “the one not knowing sin was made sin for us (us being the author and the audience) in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him”. Paul is indeed the goodwill ambassador of God, encouraging Gentile and Jew alike to be reconciled to God, as the previous verse says. It is also true that God is using the scapegoat idea to say our sin was placed on Christ who died for us because of that sin. The purpose of that was not just to atone for sinners, but “in order that we might become the righteousness of God in (or through) Him”. In other words, God wants to turn sinners into saint, the unrighteous into the righteous, through the saving death of Jesus. This, I would suggest is what Paul means when he talks about become new creatures in Christ. It is exactly this that he means in 2 Cor. 3-4 when he says inwardly we are being renewed day by day, while outwardly our mortal bodies are wasting away. In short, this is a discussion about salvation and its sanctifying effects. It is not a discussion about covenant faithfulness. When even Reformed exegetes like Schreiner and Bird (p. 881 notes) say this is a strange argument by Wright, you know something has gone badly amiss here. And partly the problems are :1) a misunderstanding of how covenants work; 2) a misunderstanding of election; and 3) a misunderstanding of ecclesiology, making it more central, and backlighting soteriology, when very clearly soteriology is in the forefront in these chapters. The problem with have a closely interwoven consistent systematic view of Paul’s thought of Tom’s sort, is that when you are wrong about one fundamental element in the view, that also taints or effects other elements in the system and tilts them in wrong directions as well. It is worth adding as well that while Paul sees Christ as the sinbearer, he simply sees himself as the sufferer, who is rejected for proclaiming the message about Christ’s death. Here I would remind that suffering is not the same as death, and only the shedding of blood in death atones for sin according to OT theology. So while there is a case to be made that Paul suffers an extension of the rejection of Jesus, the messianic woes, there is not a case to be made that he sees his suffering as an extension of the atonement. He embodies the suffering and dying of Jesus, but only Jesus is the atoner and atonement.

Note as well that in 2 Cor. 5.19 it is said quite bluntly that God in Christ was reconciling the ‘cosmos’ to himself, not reckoning our trespasses to us. Notice that it is the ‘world’ that is being reconciled, not merely the elect here. Furthermore, the language of reckoning here as in Rom. 4 is not juridical language, it is business language, the language of credits and Abraham’s righteousness. Similarly with us, our transgressions were not counted or reckoned due to the death of Jesus making full payment, and instead we were reckoned as righteous because of the death of Jesus, in order that we might begin the journey of actually becoming the righteousness of God on earth— Exhibit A. As Tom rightly translates ‘one died for all and so (in Him) all died’. Again not just for ‘us’ did Christ die, but for ‘all’ for the ‘world’.

More helpful is the material on pp. 885ff. where Tom stresses that the phrase ‘the faithfulness of Christ’ points to the death of Christ, the objective basis of our salvation. It was accomplished, to use the old Latin phrase ‘extra nos’ outside ourselves, but it then had to be applied to us through faith to benefit us. It will be seen in these same chapters that Tom takes the ‘pistis Christou’ formula not merely to imply that Christ was obedient to God’s plan to save the world through his death, which is certainly true, and implied (see Phil. 2.5-11) but he wants to add in the notion that Christ’s death is an example of the covenant faithfulness, Christ substituting for Israel and providing that faithfulness to God. I must confess, I do not think this further idea about faithfulness is implied in ‘pistis Christou’.

In regard to Rom. 5.12-21, Tom sees this as a reworking of the doctrine of election around the person of Christ. It is however worth asking who in this passage are the ‘people who did not sin by breaking a commandment, as Adam did’. Is this Israel? Surely not, since Paul has already said in Rom. 2 that Israel in fact transgressed– they commited willful violations of a know Law, the Mosaic Law. Sin reigned from Adam to Moses over all those who were ‘in Adam’ and it looks to me like the people who did not sin by breaking a Mosaic command, are the very people who were not in the covenant. If this is correct, then it is not quite right to suggest Rom. 5.12-21 is a reworking of the doctrine of election, unless by election one means — all those in Adam now have the possibility of being all those in Christ, with direct no discussion here of Israel per se. Note that Paul said here ‘sin reigned from Adam to Moses’, not from Adam to Christ, not from Adam through the time of Moses and the Mosaic covenant. No, this is not an argument about Israel being the elect people and Christ being Israel, it is a more broad and universal argument than that. What is true, is that when the Mosaic Law was interjected into the fallen situation, sin was turned transgression and thus in Paul’s language, sin began to be reckoned as transgression— the clock was ticking, and atonement needed to be provided at some future juncture because God could not pass over transgression forever.

Finally on p. 890 Tom says “the faithfulness of the Messiah was a way of referring to his death, making it clear that he was therein offering God ‘the faithfulness to which Israel was called but in which Israel failed”. The question to be asked about this is– did God ever require Israel’s death as an act of and to show faithfulness to Him? If the answer to this question is no— there is something wrong with this reading of the text. Christ’s death undoes the disobedience of Adam, which affects all universally. It is a faithful obedience to God’s plan for the salvation of the world. It is not however a substitute faithfulness for Israel, of whom God never required death. The issue here is sin, a universal human problem, not Israel’s disloyalty to the covenant. When you mush together the story of Adam and Israel or mush together the Abraham and Mosaic covenants, you’ve made a mistake.

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