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

The exposition of Rom. 7.1-8.11 is of a piece with what we have heard before. Tom thinks two stories are running simultaneously just beneath the surface of the text, the story of Adam (see Rom. 5.12-21) and of Israel. The attempt to see both stories for instance in Rom. 7.7-13 however is problematic in various ways, as we shall see. And I would remind the reader of this blog one more time— all the evidence we have suggests that the majority of Paul’s audience in Rome are Gentiles, not Jews, though this may include some Gentiles who were once God-fearers. Paul has the apostolic authority to address them, and he does so. His main concern in Romans is that the Gentiles have too low a view of Jewish Christians, and also of the future of Israel, something he will correct at length in Rom. 9-11. There, the story of Israel is frontlighted. There we have numerous quotations from the OT. Here in Romans 7 we have no such thing. One more thing– the word nomos was a perfectly ordinary term. There is no need to assume that it means Torah everywhere we find it, anymore than we need assume that Christos always is more than just another name for Jesus. Indeed, Paul has already spoken of the nomos that is written on the hearts of Gentiles in Rom. 2, and it is hardily likely there, or in the case of Adam himself that he is referring to the Mosaic covenant and its law. Sometimes the term ‘nomos’ simply means a ruling principle (for example in Romans 8.1ff. where Paul talks about the nomos of the Spirit). With this background, let us consider the particulars of Tom’s argument.

As is well known, the paragraph in Rom. 7.1-4 involves metaphor or analogy. Here it seems clear enough that Paul is addressing those who ‘know the Law’. This presumably is the Jewish Christians in the audience. Paul says that ‘the law’ rules a person as long as they are alive. He draws an analogy with the situation of a wife who is under the ‘rule’ of her husband as long as he is alive. She will be an adulteress if she gets involved with another man while her husband lives, but if the husband dies, and she remarries, she is not an adulteress. The question is— what is the point of this analogy?? Vss. 5-6 help us to see the point. Paul will draw a contrast between what he and his audience once was, and what they are now. Is this just a discussion between Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians in Rome? This is possible. He speaks of those who ‘while living in the flesh’ had their passions aroused by the law itself, and these passions bore fruit in death. Then Paul says ‘but then discharged from the law which held us captive so that we are slaves no longer under the old written code but rather in the new life of the Spirit’. Again, Paul may well be referring to himself and his fellow Jewish Christians. What he is not doing is addressing non-Christian Israel here in the abstract, who would not be listening to this discourse. Notice the contrast between written code (i.e. the Mosaic Law) and new life in the Spirit, which is the very same language Paul uses to talk about the contrast between his ministry and that of Moses in 2 Cor. 3. Once again we are dealing with a contrast between the Mosaic covenant and the new one. Even Jews in Christ have been set free from the Mosaic covenant and its demanding law. The earlier image of the married woman turns out to be the Jews who are now Christians, and have been set free from the ‘rule of the husband’ which in Gal. 3-4 is the paidagogos the child-minding slave. The Law rather than being life giving has the opposite effect on fallen persons, even fallen Jews– it stirs up their passions. The broader point is that Christians such as Paul and his fellow Jewish Christians are no longer in bondage to either the Mosaic Law or for that matter their own passions and sin.

Tom says about this context in general and this interesting paragraph in particular “the purpose which the covenant God had spoken of to Israel in terms of the new covenant (Deut. 30, Jerm. 31, Ezek. 36) has now been fulfilled by the Messiah’s death and the gift of the Spirit….You died to the Law through the body of the Messiah, so that you could belong to someone else. This is a further statement of election redefined around the Messiah.” (p. 892). We have died to the Law through the death of Jesus so that we might belong to the risen Jesus. Yes this does sound like Paul is talking about Jews who are now in Christ.

Tom goes on to suggest we have to read Rom. 7 in light of Rom. 6 adding “The clue is found in Romans 6 where the old ‘human’ refers back to Adam, the head of humanity characterized by sin and death. There in 6.6 the old human has died in baptism, so that the bodily solidarity of sin might be abolished and we should no longer be enslaved to sin. The marriage illustration develops the point of 6.3-14: the death that occurs (the Messiah’s death, shared by the believer through baptism) sets a person free from the old human, the old Adam to whom one was bound by the law. Without that death, the law still binds one to Adam, but with the death of the old Adam in baptism the law no longer has a claim. The law is not the first husband, but the thing which binds you to that first husband.” (p. 893).

There are a series of problems with this exegesis: 1) the Mosaic law does not bind anyone to the old Adam. The Mosaic Law did not exist in the time of Adam, only the single commandment ‘thou shalt not eat…’. 2) our old human nature is not Adam. It is our fallen nature inherited from Adam, and the release Paul is talking about in Rom. 6-7 is from our old selves and the inheritance from Adam. It is not a release from Adam himself as the first husband; 3) the first husband of a Jewish Christian is indeed the Law itself. He or She is betrothed in covenant to that Law, or to use the later image he is bar mitzvahed, he becomes a son of the covenant itself. 4) the death and burial of the old self through baptism is the subject of Rom. 6. So going forward is Paul just talking about the bondage of Jews? No indeed because as he has already said, a Gentile has a broader law already written on their hearts… Rom. 2. We are all in bondage to the rule of that law, all in bondage to sin, all in bondage to death. So instead of the story of Israel, Paul will switch gears and talk again about the story of Adam, as he had done in 5.12-21. Notice that all along Paul has been toggling back and forth between the story of Gentiles, and then the story of Jews (Rom. 1.18ff- Rom. 3) and then finally the story of Christians (Rom. 5). He has not mushed all the stories together as if the story of Adam is the story of Israel and the story of the church is simply the continuation of the story of Israel. No, distinctions are made along the way (see my Romans commentary).

Tom’s analysis then of 7.7-12, 7.13-20, and 7.21-25 (he sees three instead of two divisions here), involves the following “Paul tells the story of Israel at Sinai in such a way that it echoes the story of Adam in the garden” (p. 894). No, in 7.7-13 he simply retells the story of Adam. There is no echo of the story of Israel at Sinai either. God’s people were given a law code at Sinai, not a single commandment. God’s people at Sinai could never says “I was once alive before the commandment but when the commandment came I died”. Not so. Israel at Sinai was already full of idolatry and immorality before Moses came down the mountain with the 10 ‘words’ as it is called in the Hebrew. What happened when Moses came down the mountain with the ten commandments was certainly not a recapitulation of what happened in the garden. And a further no to the suggestion of Tom that “the main topic of the passage is the Torah” all the way through Romans 7 (p. 894). No it is not. The main topic is fallen and redeemed human nature, whether under the Mosaic Law or not. The entire audience of Paul has a connections with Adam, including the majority of the audience which is Gentile. Only a minority of the audience has a connection with Moses, the Mosaic Law, and Israel.

Tom however is quite right that the ‘I’ of Romans 7 is not a matter of Paul recounting his own autobiography, though he admits we have something of a psychological portrait of the inward struggles of the fallen (p. 894 n. 331). Tom takes this to be then Paul speaking of Israel in terms of the kind of Jew he once was. “Perhaps one could say that he uses the language of psychology after a fashion to express what he now believes to have been theologically true of all those, himself, included who lived under Torah'”. Alas for this exposition, Paul did not even post conversion think this was true of him personally under Torah (see Phil. 4). Nor is he painting a picture of Jews laboring under the Mosaic covenant here. No this is a broader picture of all humanity under sin and in bondage to death, humanity who even in their first ancestor could not manage to keep even the one commandment, and no needs liberation from ‘the law of sin and death’, not to be confused with the law which is holy, just and good. Paul specifically distinguishes between the good Mosaic Law, and the ruling principle of sin and death which spiritually kills people.

However, and it is a big however, since Paul believes ‘in Adam all have died’ this of course includes Israel, though Israel and its Law is not the focus here, though it is just possible that Rom. 7.14-25 is about the devout Jew caught between the Law he knows in his mind and the ruling principle of sin and death in his members.

Nearer the mark is Tom’s conclusion that the Law of Moses was given to reveal sin for what it was, rebellion against God, and thereby to turn sin into transgression– a willful violation of known laws. Tom concludes “the divine purpose it seems was to allow sin to do its worst in Israel itself, precisely through Torah.” (p. 895). In other words, through Torah God’s purpose was to allow sin to swell to its full size, so it could be dealt with once and for all In the death of the true Israelite Jesus (p. 896). Reading Rom. 7.7-13 as if it were about Israel he says that sin seized the opportunity and displays just what havoc it can wreak in God’s people themselves through Torah. This leads to a startling conclusion on p. 897—

“Paul’s point is that Israel’s vocation in election was never to be the automatically good chosen people, always obedient and consciously and deliberately faithful…Israel was called in order to be the place where sin would grow to full height, so that it might at last be fully and properly condemned. If sin was to be defeated, this was how it had to happen.” (p. 897). This deserves a wow, but it certainly explains why Tom does not think God still has a purpose and a plan for non-Christian Israel when Christ returns. The death of Jesus himself put an end to God’s plan for old Israel by dealing with sin on the cross.

On p. 898 Tom does make the helpful distinction that Paul does not say that God condemns Jesus on the cross in our place, or in the place of Israel. He says that God condemned sin in the flesh of his son, which is an important distinction. Tom is right that Paul is talking about a representative death, a substitutionary death,a judical punishment kind of death. Tom however takes this distinction to mean “that the punishment, here at least, is not so much the punishment I deserve but the punishment that sin deserves” (still on p. 898). I’m not sure this distinction works. Jesus took the punishment for sinners, not just for sin. Sin, as an abstract idea can’t be punished. While it may well be true that God did not condemn Jesus because of course literally he didn’t deserve it, so instead he condemned sin in Jesus’ flesh, i.e. his death it is not true that sinners do not deserve judgment for their sins. Nonetheless, Tom concludes “the whole point of Rom. 7 was to distinguish the I from ‘sin’ and make clear that it was the latter that was at fault and deserved to be condemned.” This is worth pondering, but it is probably wrong. Paul everywhere assumes that a person must take responsibility for their own sin since it is ‘I’ who am doing the sinning. It is not just sin that is at fault, it is the sinner. If sin were just an abstract disease like cancer, then it could be rooted out without a dramatic transformation of the whole personality of the person involved. But it is not. The reason we need to become new creatures in Christ is because we were once sinners ‘in Adam’.

pp. 899-900 brings to the fore the concept of God the trickster, a concept I’m not wholly comfortable with. The idea is that sin was lured into the place where it could be trapped, destroyed. “Israel itself, was to be the place where sin… was to be overthrown,condemned,defeated. This purpose, Paul now declares has been accomplished in the Messiah… Torah had all along been the divinely appointed means of tricking sin, luring it to come and do its worst so that it might be condemned, much as the rulers of this world had been tricked into crucifying the lord of glory” (p. 899). Sin may be personified but it is not a person, it is not the rulers and powers and principalities. This being the case, sin can’t be lured anywhere.

Full marks to Tom for being bold enough to spin out fully his understanding of Paul’s thinking on such topics. What becomes clearer and clearer to me the further we go with this exposition is the problems with this whole impressive comprehensive way of looking at the Apostle’s thought.