Brief Review of a Not so Brief Book – Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N.T. Wright

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IMG_0891I started this book months ago while on jury duty and finally finished it last week. I have a hard copy but decided to read this via the kindle app on my iphone 4S. That was brutal! I think I would have to read this book several times to really get out of it half of what I am supposed to get out of it but I am not going to be doing that any time soon. There were a few takeaways for me from the book that I found particularly helpful.


First, Paul is complicated and so is N.T. Wright in this instance. Paul isn’t always complicated and neither is N.T. Wright but in this book I have to say “it’s complicated.” Wright attempts to get us in Paul’s shoes and how someone from a second-temple Judaism background who knew the Torah inside and out would wrestle to make sense of all of that through the good news of Jesus being the promised Messiah. In order to understand that there are multiple layers one must dig through to hear the text well and Wright attempts to strip those layers back in order to make sense of Paul’s message in several of his letters but in Romans and Galatians in particular because they deal with a special problem that was at the heart of Paul’s Torah-theology re-worked in light of Jesus.


So one of the main questions is this: How are Gentiles to be included into the community of faith and what does that say about the state of Israel as the people of God? That gets particularly interesting in Romans and Galatians where the churches he was writing to were struggling to live out the conclusions of Romans 15 in real time with real people. Wright basically concludes that Paul concludes what he should have concluded – that the covenant promises of the Old Testament (including especially the covenant with Abraham) were fulfilled in Christ and are now being offered (as was promised to Abraham and prophesied in Deuteronomy 30) to the Gentiles for full inclusion into the people of Israel, Abraham’s children.


Wright spends a considerable amount of time working through Paul’s argumentation in Romans moreso than Galatians dealing with the entire letter and camping out on Romans 9-11 in particular. He says that Paul didn’t say anything that would have been disagreeable to someone in his shoes in that day. God has always acted and chosen whomever He wanted to. That is no surprise. This new movement on God’s part to including the Gentiles is, then, no surprise…not only because God has always done wanted He wanted to do but also because God “called it” back in the Old Testament and He is really just doing exactly what He said He would do. The letter of Romans, then, is then seen by Wright as a retelling of the story of the people of Israel from Adam (1-3) to Abraham (4) to Moses (5) in Egypt through the Sea (6 – baptism) to Sinai (wrestling with the implications of the Law given there – 7) and on to the promised land (8). After chapter 8 comes a wrestling with the implications of a re-envisioned Israel as the very community God promised Abraham back in Genesis 12, 15, 17, etc. Here is his explanation,


“The ‘new exodus’ theme, like so much else in Romans and Galatians, is rooted in the divine promise made to Abraham. The covenant promises in Genesis 15 were focused on the seed and the inheritance; the patriarch was told that the seed would obtain the inheritance by first being enslaved and then being rescued and brought home to their promised land. This Passover-sequence – liberation from slavery by coming through the Red Sea, arriving on Sinai and being given the Torah (with all the resulting problems) and finally being led by the presence of YHWH himself in the pillar of cloud and fire until they arrived in the land – this sequence is now recapitulated, majestically (but to most commentators invisibly) in chapters 6— 8. Once the stage is set – the promises to Abraham now fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah (chapter 4) and the whole Adam-to-Messiah sequence revealed (5.12– 21) – then the story can begin. First, the crossing of the Red Sea. In chapter 6, the old-Adam people who were enslaved to sin are liberated through the water of baptism, in which the Messiah’s ‘death to sin’ and ‘coming alive to God’ is ‘reckoned’ to them. As the Messiah’s people they are therefore the new-exodus people, the freed former slaves, who have to learn new habits of heart and body commensurate with their freedom (6.12– 23). The old ways are ‘unfruitful’ (6.21); the new ways have their telos, their ‘goal’, in ‘eternal life’, the life of the age to come, which Paul will eventually describe more fully in chapter 8. With this, we are very close, though in different ways, both to Galatians 3.23– 9 and to Galatians 4.1– 7. The freed slaves then arrive at Mount Sinai, and that is the next stop in Paul’s narrative. Here in Romans 7, with such considerable and sophisticated artistry that it has remained opaque to most modern commentators, he weaves together the story of Israel at Sinai with the story of Adam in the garden – a classic rabbinic-style move, allowing two great scriptural narratives to interpret one another and to generate a third. In 7.7– 12 the ‘commandment which was unto life’, that is, the Torah itself (which really did promise ‘life’ 680), stands in parallel with the forbidden tree in the garden and, mysteriously, with the tree of life that remained untouched. Israel is lured by sin into breaking the commandment, just as Adam and Eve were lured by the serpent into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Apart from the law, sin is dead. 9I was once alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life 10and I died. The commandment which pointed to life turned out, in my case, to bring death. 11For sin grabbed its opportunity through the commandment. It deceived me, and, through it, killed me.’

This is the story of Israel under Torah, exactly as in 5.20: ‘the law came in alongside, so that the trespass might be filled out to its full extent.’ The arrival of Torah precipitates Israel into recapitulating the sin of Adam. Grasping this, and its range of implications, is at the heart of grasping Romans in general and the question of redefined election in particular. – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Location 26853). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.


And later he writes this,

More particularly, the exodus forms the main backdrop for one of Paul’s most decisive statements of God’s action in the Messiah:

‘When we were children, we were kept in ‘slavery’ under the ‘elements of the world’. But when the fullness of time arrived, God sent out his son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that he might redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.   And, because you are sons, God sent out the spirit of his son into our hearts, calling out ‘Abba, father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son! And, if you’re a son, you are an heir, through God.’

The ‘new-exodus’ language is clear: from slavery to sonship, by means of God’s ‘redemption’, resulting in this people being the ‘heir’ of the ‘inheritance’. 112 Paul develops this more fully in Romans 6— 8, where the narrative of the exodus stands, arguably, behind the entire exposition. In Romans 6, those who are ‘in the Messiah’ are brought from slavery to freedom; in Romans 7, the story takes us to Mount Sinai; then in Romans 8, with echoes of the Galatians passage, the Messiah’s people are ‘led’, not by the cloud and fire, but by the spirit, and, assured of that ‘sonship’ which is itself an exodus-blessing, they are on the way to the ‘inheritance’.” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 29858-29863). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.


This is a concrete reminder that even Paul’s letters are couched in the meta-narrative (think background story or underlying story) of Israel as God’s people. This also reminds us that as we study it is important that we connect with their “thought world” in order to hear them best. I have studied Romans through the lens of the New Perspective on Paul and totally missed this connecting thread that Wright says runs through these chapters in Romans.


I was also struck but just how strongly Wright pushed toward the importance of baptism as the event that gets us from slavery and death in Egypt to the Promised land. I am going to quote him here as much as to let you in on what he said as to give myself a spot to come back and find this later,

“All this can be seen on a large scale in Romans, taken as a whole. The ‘bookends’ of the letter, as we noted, are the twin statements about Jesus’ messianic resurrection and worldwide rule (1.3– 5; 15.12). And the letter that is framed in this way contains at its heart, in chapters 6— 8, the exposition of what it means to come ‘into the Messiah’ at baptism, and so to be ‘in the Messiah’ with all the benefits that thereby accrue.” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 22876-22879). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

“The clue is found in Romans 6, where the ‘old human’ refers back to Adam, the head of a humanity characterized by sin and death. 330 There, in 6.6, the ‘old human’ has died in baptism, ‘so that the bodily solidarity of sin might be abolished, and that we should no longer be enslaved to sin’. That is the picture which Paul has in mind. 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 (Adam).” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 24182-24188). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

“There remains the seventh point, and it will come as a surprise to some – but not to those who know Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians. The actual event in the present which corresponds in advance to the actual event (resurrection) on the last day is baptism. Baptism does, outwardly and visibly (as the sacramental textbooks say), what justification says. Justification is the declaration made by the one God himself; baptism makes that divine word tangible and visible. Baptism, like justification, points back firmly to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the ground and means of the single divine saving action. Baptism, like justification, is inextricably linked with the work of the spirit through whom the whole church, now incorporating new believers, confess that Jesus is lord, affirm that the one God raised him from the dead and commit themselves to living under that lordship and trusting themselves entirely to his saving accomplishment. 525 Baptism, like justification, brings people from every background into the single family whose incorporative name is Christos, providing the basis for their common life. 526 In justification, the covenant God ‘reckons’ that all who believe are ‘righteous’; in baptism, Paul tells the Romans to ‘reckon’ that what is true of the Messiah is true of them – specifically, his death to sin and his coming alive to the one God. 527 Justification provides the solid platform, the new status of ‘righteousness’ as a pure gift, on which the entire edifice of Christian living is constructed; baptism reminds the whole church, and tells the new candidates, that they stand on resurrection ground. Justification brings the future verdict into the present; baptism brings the future resurrection into the present – and the future ‘verdict’ is of course the ‘forensic’ dimension precisely of that future resurrection. 528 Both ensure, when properly understood, that the entire Christian life is known to be ‘in the Messiah’, planted and rooted in his death and resurrection, and enabled by the spirit.” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 25693-25708). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

“Baptism is as it were the public celebration of justification by faith, the active and visible summoning up of the exodus-events which were themselves freshly encoded in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the constitution of the believing community as the exodus-people who have firmly and decisively left Egypt behind and are being led by the spirit to their inheritance. It emphasizes, as does justification, the emphatic ‘now’ of Christian faith and life and the equally emphatic ‘not yet’, and holds them in proper balance. Here, in Romans 6, is the true Pauline ‘imputation’: ‘calculate yourselves as being dead to sin, and alive to God in the Messiah, Jesus.’ 529 Though Paul does not mention baptism in Galatians 2, those who know Romans 6 will have no difficulty detecting the baptismal resonances of 2.19– 20.” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 25713-25720). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

“That is the statement of the larger reality within which ‘justification’ nests. All these things have to happen, and do happen, when someone ‘becomes a Christian’. ‘Justification’ is the declaration that those to whom they happen, those who now find themselves ‘in the Messiah’, with his death and resurrection ‘reckoned’ to them, are the single, sin-forgiven family promised by the covenant God to Abraham. And baptism is the action which turns that declaration into visible, concrete, symbolic praxis. Those who are baptized, in the ceremony that confesses Jesus as the crucified and risen lord, are therefore as it were in themselves small working models of inaugurated eschatology. They are also, in Paul’s mind, designed to be agents of that same inaugurated eschatology in the world;” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 25723-25729). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

“First, those who belong to the king, the Messiah, are fulfilled in him, that is, in the one in whom ‘all the full measure of divinity has taken up bodily residence’ (verse 9). That, as we saw in the previous chapter, is temple-language. Jesus is the true Temple, and those who belong to him somehow share in that identity. Second, the Colossian Christians have already been ‘circumcised’ – but it is a new sort of ‘circumcision’, which involves not cutting off the foreskin but putting off ‘the body of flesh’, the old solidarity of ‘fleshly’ identity. This has happened in baptism, in which they have died and been raised with the Messiah (verses 11– 12).” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 26346-26351). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

“Because of the Messiah’s death and resurrection, the ancient people of God has been transformed and its doors thrown wide open to people of all sorts and conditions, and the gospel message of Jesus’ scripture-fulfilling death and resurrection does its work of summoning people to the ‘obedience of faith’. The two events which Paul sees as tightly joined together, baptism ‘into the Messiah’ on the one hand and the emergence of faith on the other (calling God ‘Abba’; believing that he raised Jesus from the dead; confessing Jesus as lord), are the necessary and sufficient evidence that the spirit has been at work through the gospel, that this person has died and risen with the Messiah, that this person has the Messiah’s death and resurrection ‘reckoned’ or ‘imputed’ to them (Romans 6.11) and that this person has passed beyond the sphere where ‘sin reigns in death’ (Romans 5.21) and so is quit of any obligation to ‘sin’ as a power or a sphere.” – Wright, N. T. (2013-11-01). Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Kindle Locations 27164-27171). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

3 Responses

  1. I don’t know N.T.Wright from Adam (haven’t read anything past this article) and he seems to be quoted a lot, sometimes almost more than the Bible itself, but he is right on in his assessment of baptism. Baptism captures so many concepts (cleansings/washings, burial, new birth, new man, transformation, etc.) within it that to argue it as unimportant is ludicrous. Is it most important, no, but important enough to teach it and call for it in the same way Peter did in Acts.2.

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