The Revolution 6: What happened on Good Friday? Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapters 1–8

Sixth post on N.T. Wright, 2016. The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. London: SPCK.

The day the revolution began is divided into four parts, and this post is an attempt to summarise the fifth chapter, and bits of the sixth, of Part Three. This and the following chapter are the most complex chapters of the book, partly because Wright raises a number of issues early on, which the reader has to hold in memory for answers later; partly because (with good reason) Wright’s exposition does not follow the order of Paul’s presentation in Romans; and partly because, as is unavoidable with Romans, the argument is intricate. I recommend the interested reader not to rely on my summary in this and the following post, but to read what Wright has written.

The previous post (The Revolution 5) in this series on Tom Wright's book is here.

Wright sees Romans as ‘an extremely subtle and careful composition’ with four sections: chapters 1–4, 5–8, 9–11 and 12–16. But there are common threads that tie the whole letter together, and ‘ … we should beware of isolating any single section and treating it by itself as a statement of the “gospel”.’

Romans chapters 1–4

Chapters 1–4 are typically read as a statement of the ‘works contract’, but Wright is convinced this is mistaken. ‘For many years it was assumed that Romans 1–4 was an exposition of justification” [how one becomes righteous] and that Romans 5–8 was about “sanctification” [how one becomes saintly]’. But making Romans 5–8 a passage about how a Christian should live misses its main point. In particular, it underplays its climax, the goal of God’s rescue plan (8:18-25). Thus ‘the result of Jesus’s achievement is a new creation, a new heaven-and-earth world in which humans can resume their genuinely human vocation as the “royal priesthood”.’

Paul says in 1:18–31 that the central human problem is idolatry giving rise to sin—

They swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans – and of birds, animals and reptiles. (1:23)

—whereas the conventional reading makes it sin alone (see The Revolution 2). Sin in turn invites God’s judgment (1:32-2:3), but God is just and kind and invites our repentance (2:4-16). This is true whether we are Jews or gentiles (2:17-3.20).[1]  The difference between Jew and gentile is that Israel was entrusted with God’s promises and under the covenant was to be a light to the nations, and failed in this calling (2:17–3:9). But the pertinent distinction is between the ‘true’ Jew and everyone else (2:28–29). Finally, though, the fact is that ‘All sinned, and fell short of God’s glory’ (3:23), and the plan that started with God’s covenant with Israel has now come to fruition in the faithfulness of the one ‘true’ Jew, the Messiah Jesus (3:21-31). God now ‘declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus.’ (3:26)

Wright’s interpretation of 3:21–26 depends on his translation of it, and I return to this in The Revolution 7. For Wright this passage is not a central statement of Christian doctrine but part of the longer argument. It is a summary drawing attention to God’s ‘righteousness’, i.e. his faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham, ‘the promise that through Abraham and his family God would bless all the nations,’ and to the liberation from sin achieved on the cross. In Wright’s words, ‘Through this “new Exodus,” despite the failure of Israel (2:17–3:9), God has brought his long-awaited plan to fruition.’ This is restated in Paul’s closing summary of the letter:

The Messiah became a servant of the circumcised people in order to demonstrate the truthfulness of God—that is, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, and to bring the nations to praise God for his mercy. (15:8–9)

Conventional interpretations of Romans 3:21–26 play down the promise to Abraham and make him an advance example of someone who is ‘justified by faith’, But the chapter is actually about the establishment of God’s covenant, and takes up the theme of 2:17–3:9. Abraham was the original party to the covenant on behalf of his family and descendants (i.e. Israel) and he exercised truly humble faith in the face of overwhelming obstacles, responding out of total human weakness and helplessness to the grace and power of God (4:1–22).[2]  This was true worship, Wright says, and God considered Abraham to be ‘in the right’ apart from works (4:6). Paul reminds us that God had promised to give Abraham a worldwide family (4:13) and that through Jesus we share in Abraham’s ‘justification’, i.e. being considered to be ‘in the right’ (4:24–5:1). This part of Paul’s argument ends with 5:1-2:

The result is this: since we have been declared ‘in the right’ on the basis of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Through him we have been allowed to approach, by faith, into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate the hope of the glory of God.

This answers to 2:1–16, about the final judgment when people will be either ‘condemned’ or ‘justified’. Paul looks forward to this when he writes in 8:1:

So, therefore, there is no condemnation for those in the Messiah, Jesus!

God’s glory is mentioned twice in the verses above, in 3:23 and 5:2. In Jewish thought in the first century ‘the hope of the glory of God’ was the hope that God’s glory would finally return to his Temple (see The Revolution 2). But through Jesus the glory instead comes to his people.

Romans chapters 5–8

It is often assumed that chapters 1–4 form the heart of Romans, but chapters 5–8 contain more references to Jesus’ death. Wright has shown earlier in this book that the expectation of a new Exodus was fused with a longing for a real ‘return from exile’, ‘a ransom from the Deuteronomic “curse of the law”,’ involving the ‘forgiveness of sins’ which would liberate Israel from bondage and enable Gentile sinners to join the people of God.I Romans 5–8 Paul expounds this new Exodus.

Wright explains the outer framework of these chapters. Romans 5:1–5 announces the overall theme: those who are “justified by faith” (summing up 3:21–4:25) are given hope—hope of the “glory of God,” because of the gift of the Spirit. Romans 5:6–11 explains in more detail the line from justification to hope, anticipating the final celebration of 8:31–39: the logic of hope is that if the Messiah died for us when we were ungodly sinners, then it must follow that through him we will be saved in the end. And the divine love displayed in 5:6–11 is gloriously celebrated in 8:31–39.

In 5:12–21 Paul surveys the whole biblical narrative from Adam to the Messiah and his rescue of the world from its sin-bound plight:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one human being, and death through sin, and in that way death spread to all humans, in that all sinned — Sin was in the world, you see, even in the absence of the law, though sin is not calculated when there is no law. …… (5:12–13)

The law came in alongside, so that the trespass might be filled out to its full extent. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more; so that, just as sin reigned in death, even so, through God’s faithful covenant justice, grace might reign to the life of the age to come, through Jesus the Messiah, our Lord. (5:20–21) (Wright’s italics)

Wright says, ‘The “so that” indicates that this was God’s intention. It was not an accident. Nor was it a demonic intrusion into the divine purpose.’ Israel’s sin-filled past and its descent into the Deuteronomic curse of exile were part of God’s saving purpose.

The purpose of this rescue comes in the middle of this passage: rescued human beings are to ‘reign in life’ (5:17)’, i.e. to be a ‘royal priesthood’, and again in 5:21, where ‘grace might reign to the life of the age to come’, referring to God’s kingdom reign.

For if, by the trespass of the one, death reigned through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace, and of the gift of covenant membership, of ‘being in the right’, reign in life through the one man Jesus the Messiah (5:17) (italics mine)

Paul ‘has told the story of “how God became king” in such a way as to demonstrate that the death of Jesus was the clue to that result.’ This, Wright says, brings us very close to the ‘early Christian perception of what the gospel was all about and how its power was unleashed.’

Romans 6–8 is not Paul’s ‘description of the Christian life’, even though many have been taught to read it this way, despite the puzzling passage in 7:8–24 (‘ …… What a miserable person I am! …’). No, it is ‘the full exposition of what Paul meant in Romans 3:24 when he described the unveiling of God’s saving purpose as “the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus”.’ (italics Wright’s)

Romans 6:2–11 is about the death of the Messiah and about the fact that those who are baptised into him must “reckon” that they too have died:

The death he died, you see, he died to sin, once and only once. But the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way you, too, must calculate yourselves as being dead to sin, and alive to God in the Messiah, Jesus. (6:10–11 KNT)

‘“Sin” in this sense is more than simply individual “sins”.’ It is the “Sin” of 5:12–21 (above). Romans 7:4 summarises Paul’s argument to this point:

In the same way, my dear family, you too died to the law through the body of the Messiah, so that you could belong to someone else – to the one who was raised from the dead, in fact – so that we could bear fruit for God. (italics mine)

This looks forward to the climactic statement of Romans 8:3–4:

For God has done what the law (being weak because of human flesh) was incapable of doing. God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin-offering; and, right there in the flesh, he condemned sin. This was in order that the right and proper verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us, as we live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.

But none of this answers the question, ‘How does the death of Jesus, seen in this way, turn out to be the instrument by which God is accomplishing those long-term ends? How do these passages explain what happened when Jesus died? How do they help us answer our question about what was different by six in the evening on the first Good Friday?’

‘The theme of the defeat of the “powers” remains vital throughout chapters 5–8, and Paul returns to it at the close, declaring that

neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present, nor the future, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in King Jesus our Lord” (8:38–39).

Victory over hostile powers and the rescue of people from their deadly grip is clearly the “big picture”—the Passover picture, the kingdom-of-God picture. So how is this accomplished?’

In the transition from Romans 4 to 5, Paul moves quietly from talk of ‘our trespasses’ (τὰ παραπτώματα ἡμῶν) to ‘sin’ (ἡ ἁμαρτία):

… since we believe in the one who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was handed over because of our trespasses and raised because of our justification. (4:24b–25)

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one human being, and death through sin, and in that way death spread to all humans, in that all sinned … (5:12)

The latter verse is a shorthand summary of 1:18–2:16. “Sin” here seems to be a personification not just of human wrongdoings, but to include the dark powers unleashed by idolatry and wickedness. It seems as though, in 7:7–12 at least, Paul says “Sin” where he might have said “the satan”.

In 7:13 the purpose (‘so that’) of 5:20 above is repeated twice:

Was it that good thing [the law], then, that brought death to me? Certainly not! On the contrary; it was sin, in order that it might appear as sin, working through the good thing and producing death in me. This was in order that sin might become very sinful indeed, through the commandment.

This is part of the ‘difficult’ passage that begins at 7:8. ‘Who is the “me” here? The “I” and “me” of Romans 7 is a literary device through which Paul tells the life story of Israel under the Torah.’ (italics original) It is not a description of the pre-Christian life. Paul ‘is highlighting the outworking of the divine purpose in the deeply ambiguous nature of Israel under the Torah. Israel rightly embraced the law as the divinely given covenant charter, but found that all the law could do was to show “Sin” up and actually cause it to swell to its full extent.’ (italics original) This resonates with the four gospels, in which we see ‘evil of every sort was building up like a thunderstorm as Jesus went about announcing the kingdom. It gathered itself together and finally unleashed its full fury upon him.’

In Paul’s view, this was all part of God’s intention: ‘What God was doing through the Torah, in Israel, was to gather “Sin” together into one place, so that it could then be condemned.’ (italics original) Wright says that if there is anywhere in the New Testament that talks of ‘penal substitution’, then it is here, in 8:1–4, but it falls within the narrative of God’s vocational covenant with Israel, its falling into sin, and the need for deliverance from it, which finally was focussed on the Messiah as Israel’s representative.

Wright enjoins us to note that Paul does not say that God punished Jesus. The punishment is on Sin in the flesh of Jesus. Jesus’ death is in this sense penal. ‘Equally, it is certainly substitutionary: God condemned Sin (in the flesh of the Messiah), and therefore sinners who are “in the Messiah” are not condemned.’ And the purpose of this is defined in 8:4: “in order that the right and proper verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us, as we live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.” The concept of ‘penal substitution’ needs to stay firmly within the narrative of Israel, otherwise it becomes distorted.

‘It was God’s son, his own second self,’ Wright emphasises.’who was sent in the likeness of sinful flesh. It was God’s love that was demonstrated in action, as Paul insisted in 5:8 and reaffirms in 8:31–39. It is, after all, no demonstration of love if I send someone else to do the necessary but horrible task in my place.’

In this light, Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross poses an obvious problem. It appears to say that the Father has forsaken the Son, to contradict the claim that ‘the living God of Israel was personally present in and as Jesus himself.’ Does this mean a split in the Trinity? No, Jesus’ cry can be understood as the Son’s expression of agony to the Father who feels the agony himself as it is again according to his will. Jesus was, after all, the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15), ‘so the cry of dereliction was itself part of what it meant to be God, to be the God of generous love’.

Wright draws attention to two other elements in 8:1–4. First, Jesus’ death is described as a ‘sin offering’. It is wrong to think that the sacrificed animal is punished for the worshipper’s sins. It is worth quoting Wright’s explanation in full.

‘The point is that in the Bible the “sin offering” is, again and again, the particular sacrifice that has to do with sins that the Israelite performed either unwillingly (not intending to do them) or unwittingly (intending to do them but not realizing that they were sinful). And Paul has analyzed the actions of the “I” in 7:13–20 in such a way as to place Israel under the Torah in exactly that position. “I don’t understand what I do” (v. 15) is literally, “I do not know what I am doing”; this is unwitting sin, the sin of ignorance. “I end up doing the evil thing I don’t want to do” (v. 20); this is the unwilling sin. The remedy is suited exactly to the problem. The forgiveness of sins, the major return-from-exile theme in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, is now available. The exile is over. The slave master’s power is broken. The covenant is renewed in and through Israel’s Messiah. With that there is the assurance that the powers themselves are defeated, because Sin, the very foundation of their power, has been condemned.’

The second element follows directly from the first. If sin has been defeated, we are free to “live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit” (8:4), i.e. to follow our God-ordained vocation.

The next post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


  1. [^1]   Wright provides a careful analysis of the ‘Jew’ and the ‘Law’ in his 1996 article ‘The Law in Romans 2’, in James D. G. Dunn, ed., Paul and the Mosaic Law (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck).
  2. [^2]   Commentators have observed that Paul’s picture of Abraham is an idealised one, as Abraham’s faith certainly sagged and he displayed failings. This is true, but it doesn’t affect Paul’s argument.