A Summary of Chapter 6 of Paul: In Fresh Perspective by N.T. Wright

1. Introduction

Chapter 6 is entitled “Reworking God’s People”. It concerns Paul’s view of God’s people and how he went about establishing and nurturing his churches.

2. Election: Jewish Views of God’s People

In both Old Testament and second-Temple literature Israel is viewed as God’s chosen people. God gave the Israelites a land to live in and a law to live by. Israel was chosen as God’s people out of God’s love for her (Deuteronomy 7:8) and in order to, in some way, deal with the problem of sin. Exactly how this narrative would work out varied within second-Temple Judaism.

3. Election Reshaped around Jesus

N.T. Wright notes that Paul reaffirmed Israel’s election (Romans 3:1-4; 9:4). However, Paul also redefines what it means to be God’s people.

Wright first looks at Galatians 2:11-21. The Christian community at Antioch was composed of both Jews and Gentiles. The central issue is what it means to be a Jew, to be a member of God’s people (vv. 14-15, NIV): “I said to Peter in front of them all, You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” Peter is saying that Gentiles must follow Jewish customs such as the dietary laws and circumcision in order for them to be a part of God’s people. Paul responds by stating his belief in justification by faith (p. 111):

‘We’, affirms Paul, ‘are by birth Jews, not “gentile sinners”; yet we know that one is not justified by works of Torah, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah; thus we too have believed in the Messiah, Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faithfulness of the Messiah and not by works of Torah, because through works of Torah no flesh will be justified.’

Wright understands the Greek phrase pistis Christou to refer to Jesus’ faithfulness to the divine plan of Israel. Second, he believes the term “justified” refers to who belongs to the people of God, not who is a Christian. Third, he thinks the “works of the Torah” are about how one demonstrates they are a member of God’s people, not about how one becomes a member of God’s people (p. 112).

Verses 17-21 detail the results of Paul’s doctrine.

The Messiah represents his people, so that what is true of him is true of them. He has been crucified; therefore they have been crucified with him (in Romans 6 Paul ties this to baptism, which may well be in mind here too). They now share his new life, not defined in terms of fleshly identity, that is, of Jewish ethnicity, but in terms of the Messiah’s own new life, a life in which all nations can share equally. The energy driving this redefinition is nothing other than the love of the Messiah himself, just as in Deuteronomy the reason for election was simply the love of YHWH for Israel. (p. 113)

In verse 21 Paul states that rebuilding a wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles would be a rejection of God’s grace. According to Wright, in saying that righteousness is not gained through the Torah, Paul is saying that one’s status as a member of the covenant people is not defined by Torah observance. Therefore, the doctrine of justification by faith is “the key doctrine underlying the unity of God’s renewed people” (p. 113). Galatians 3 works out this implication in detail. The letter closes (6:14-16) by expressing this sentiment further: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.” (NIV).

N.T. Wright then moves on to Philippians 3. In verse 3 Paul says that we are the circumcision, “we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (NIV). He then gives a brief autobiography about how he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews” but that he counts it all as loss for the sake of Christ (vv. 4-7). Paul believes his righteousness comes through the faithfulness of the Messiah and not from the law (vv. 8-11). Wright also notes that “the status which Paul describes in verse 9 as belonging to those in the Messiah is not ‘the righteousness of God’, not God’s own righteousness, but he ek theou dikaiosyne, the covenant status which comes from God” (p. 116).

Moving on we note that in 1 Corinthians 10:3 Paul addresses a largely Gentile church with a statement about “our fathers” being under the cloud and passing through the sea. No explanation is necessary for the Corinthians already know that the family of God in Christ is the family rescued by God from Egypt, though it has been transformed and expanded. This renewed family is contrasted in v. 18 with “Israel according to the flesh”.

Ephesians 2:11-21 and Colossians 2, though possibly pseudonymous, provide lengthy redefinitions of election through Christ. Furthermore, in Colossians, the redefinition of election is based on the redefinition of monotheism provided in Colossians 1.

As a transition between this section and the next, Wright looks at Romans. In 2:17-25 Paul attacks the national, not individual, boast that Israel is God’s people by pointing out, in line with the prophets, how sin within ethnic Israel undermines its claims and even leads the pagan nations to blaspheme. This presence of sin means that Israel, as it stands, cannot be the people through whom God will accomplish his purposes in this world. Verses 28-29 redefine God’s people as those who are circumcised inwardly by the Spirit and not by the written code.

In Romans 3 Paul stresses that Israel’s faithlessness to its commission to be a light to the nations has not nullified God’s faithfulness to his covenant to deal with sin through Israel. God has remained faithful to the covenant by sending the Messiah, whose faithfulness, consisting of his sacrificial death, is the atonement for all nations. Since all are justified by faith one cannot exclude Gentiles from the people of God. Romans 4 expounds on Genesis 15 and shows that membership in God’s people always consisted of faith.

4. Election Reworked around the Spirit

As noted above, Romans 2:25-29 redefines election to take place in the Spirit and not in the letter. N.T. Wright then comments on 2 Corinthians 3, 6, 12; Romans 7:4-6; 8:5-8 but I have a hard time following his argument. Suffice it to say that Wright says “those in the Messiah and transformed by the Spirit are to be that which Israel was called to be” (p. 125).

5. Redefinition of Election Rooted in Scripture

Wright now turns to Romans 9-11, Paul’s longest treatment of Israel.  In 9:6-29 Paul states that what has happened to Israel is what God always intended.  Chapter 10 says the Messiah reveals what God’s covenant plan has been all along.  Membership in God’s people is now based on the Messiah and the Spirit.  What happens to Israel according to the flesh?  According to chapter 11, they can re-enter the people of God through belief.

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