How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The logic of salvation for Jews and Gentiles in Paul

Read time: 10 minutes

The theologies that dominate the thought and practice of the modern church distribute their truths as flattened user-friendly doctrines. The Bible, however, gives us theological truth in the form of extended narratives mapped against the landscape of ancient history, as seen from the perspective of the covenant people. The overlap between these two modes of representation is actually quite small. That is the central issue that I have tried to address on this site.

In the New Testament it is the relation between Israel and Hellenism as a cultural force, on the one hand, and Rome as a political force, on the other, that determines the lie of the land. The Jewish scriptures provide the explicit narrative material for the interpretation of events, though we may perhaps also assume the influence of apocalyptic currents within second temple Judaism. Perspective gives rise to two dominant historical horizons—the fate of Israel as a subjugated people and the fate of Rome as an overweening pagan force opposed to the God of Israel. The theological content of the New Testament gets its meaning from this narrative-historical frame, not from more abstract, universal schemes.

So let’s consider the doctrine of salvation on this basis. What does “salvation” look like when it is removed from a generalised story about God and humanity and relocated in the story of Israel, mapped against the landscape of first century history, assessed from the embedded perspective of a Jewish apostle?

This can’t be a comprehensive answer. We’ll focus on Paul’s argument in Romans 3, which is the obvious “proof text” for a discussion of the relation between Jews and Gentiles in the narrative of salvation.

The argument about Israel

Perhaps the most important point to make is that Romans 2-3 is addressed to Jews and concerns the Jews. Paul has more or less reproduced the debates that he had in the synagogues in the course of his missionary travels. The condition of the Gentiles comes into the argument but only in order to clarify how things stand with Israel.

The basic point made in chapter 2 is that the Law of Moses was of no use to the Jews if they did not keep its commandments. In that case, they were no better—and no better off—than the Gentiles.

But doesn’t this make nonsense of the whole Jewish project? No, Paul says, because God remains righteous whatever Israel does. So he will “inflict wrath on us” (that is, on us Jews) in order that he may fairly judge the world (3:5-6). Before the larger eschatological outcome of the judgment of the nations can be achieved, YHWH must first judge his own people.

When Paul says that “both Jews and Greeks, all are under sin” (3:9), the rhetorical force of the statement is that the Jews are no less subject to the power of sin than the Gentiles. The Old Testament quotations strung together in 3:10-18 are an indictment of pagan humanity in the first place (3:10-12; cf. Pss. 14:1-3; 53:1-3), but also of the wicked in Israel, who oppress the poor and righteous (3:13-18; cf. Ps. 5:9; 140:3; 10:7 LXX; Prov. 1:16; Is. 59:7-8 ; Ps. 36:1). Yes, the Greek, but also the Jew.

Notice the strong socio-political context of the charge laid against Israel. Arguably it is Jewish society that is in view rather than every individual Jew. There may have been individual righteous Jews who kept the Law, just as there were some righteous Gentiles who kept the Law without realising it and who would put the Jews to shame (cf. Rom. 2:25-29). But the Jews as a people were inescapably under the power of sin, were subject to condemnation and destruction as a people, and therefore needed to be saved as a people.

The quotations are spoken to “those who are under the Law”, that is, to Jews, so that the whole world may be held accountable (3:19). Again, God had to judge his own people, where social injustices prevailed, before he could judge the nations. He would eventually come to rule over the nations, but first he had to put right or make righteous his own persistently sinful people.

But if Israel could not be put right by works of the Law, God had to find another way, which is exactly what happened.

This time there will be no distinction

At the time of the exodus God had made a distinction (diastolēn) between Pharaoh’s people and his own people, with the result that the Israelites were spared the plague of flies that ruined Egypt (Ex. 8:23 LXX). But this time there would be no diastolē (Rom. 3:22-23). The Jew would suffer the same punishment for sin as the Greek.

Nevertheless, God demonstrated his rightness, his faithfulness to Abraham, etc., by establishing a way of redemption for his people “apart from the Law” through the obedience of Jesus unto death. He redeemed his people from complete destruction by putting forward Jesus as a propitiation—an atonement sacrifice—for their sins. This was a “demonstration of his righteousness through the overlooking of previously committed sins in the forbearance of God” (3:25).

Those who believed that YHWH had done this in order to save his people and to maintain his own rightness were, therefore, justified (3:26). Here is one way in which the corporate and individual narratives intersected. YHWH saved his people by the action of Jesus; individuals who believed that this was indeed the case, were counted by God as being in the right.

But that meant that there was no ground for Jewish boasting. The Law, in which they might once reasonably have boasted before the nations, could not save them; it could only condemn them to destruction as a people. Moreover, a sizeable number of Gentiles had come to believe that Israel’s God had raised his Son from the dead and made him Lord and future judge of the nations. They had for this reason been counted in the right by God, their sins had been forgiven—as was powerfully demonstrated by the fact that they had also received the Spirit.

At this time of eschatological crisis, the only way that the Jews might escape the catastrophic condemnation of the Law, the wrath of God, was by believing that God had put his Son forward as an atonement for the sins of Israel and had raised him from the dead.

So much for the salvation of the Jews. What about the Gentiles?

Israel, or at least part of Israel, would be saved because Jesus, descended from David according to the flesh, had died and had been vindicated by his Father and given authority to judge and rule the nations (cf. Rom. 1:3-4). This was a solution apart from the Law, it did not depend on works of the Law, which meant that anyone who heard the story might believe it. Cornelius believed that Jesus had been “appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” when Peter told him the story of what had happened in Israel. Because Cornelius believed this, his sins were forgiven, and he received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:42-43). No saving significance is ascribed to Jesus’ death: it is belief in the resurrection and elevation of Jesus that gets Cornelius into the new covenant people.

Neither Peter nor Paul says that Jesus died for the sins of the Gentiles. Jesus died for the sins of Israel, but if a Gentile believed that story—and more importantly that he had been raised and exalted to the right hand of the Father—he or she was justified by this belief or faith and would be found to have been in the right when eventually the nations confessed Jesus as Lord. The Spirit was given to people who believed the apostolic announcement about what YHWH had done and would do through Jesus, on the stage of history, in order finally to establish his own rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Gentiles believed that Jesus was Lord, therefore their sins were forgiven, therefore they received the Spirit.

We can illustrate the narrative logic from three other passages.

In Romans we have the statement: “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9). Christ did something for Israel that demonstrated the faithfulness or righteousness of God (cf. 3:21-26) and gave the Gentiles cause to glorify God for his mercy towards his people. The faith of the Gentiles was demonstrated in their acknowledgment of what God had done for his people. This was their salvation. The upshot of it all would be that this son of David, who had been appointed Son of God in power, would rule over the nations (15:12).

Similarly in Galatians Paul writes: “Christ redeemed us”—i.e., “us Jews”—“from the curse of the Law… so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles….” Jesus died for the sins of his people to redeem them from the final destruction prescribed by the Law of Moses for inveterate rebellion against YHWH. Gentiles were not under the curse of the Law so did not need to be redeemed from the curse of the Law, but the redemption of Israel had the secondary benefit for them that they too could become, through faith, part of what YHWH was doing.

The argument is made in different terms in Ephesians 2:11-16. Until fairly recently the Gentiles had been excluded from the “commonwealth of Israel”; they had no hope, they were without God in the world. Now they have been included “by the blood of Christ”, not because his death was an atonement for the sins of the Gentiles—there is no atonement for the nations in the Old Testament—but because the “dividing wall” of the Law had been removed; it was no longer the deciding factor in the eschatological narrative.

In summary

1. God sent his Son to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel (cf. Rom. 8:3). Paul’s critique of his people is at heart the same as Jesus’ critique, but he has widened it to include diaspora Judaism.

2. Jesus was killed by the wicked tenants, but in order to show himself to be righteous—consistent, credible, faithful to his own purposes—God put this death forward as an atonement for the sins of Israel (Rom. 3:25).

3. God, moreover, raised Jesus from the dead, seated him at his right hand, and made him “Son of God in power” (cf. Rom. 1:3-4) in fulfilment of a slew of Old Testament prophecies about the eventual defeat of YHWH’s enemies and the establishment of his own rule over the pagan nations.

4. If a person in the first century believed that this story about Jesus was true, she was counted as being in the right, her sins were passed over or forgiven, and she received the Holy Spirit, becoming part of a new eschatological community of the people of God, living and witnessing in light of the coming transformation of the ancient world. It made no difference whether she was Jew or Greek. For eschatological purposes the Law of Moses was redundant, except insofar as it made judgment inevitable (Rom. 3:19) and predicted the positive outcome (Rom. 3:21).

5. The powerful charismatic experience of the Spirit that accompanied belief could be interpreted in different ways. It was the basis for a new covenant, just as the Law of Moses had been the basis for the old covenant; it determined how God’s people would live from now on (Lk. 22:20; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8). For the disciples in Jerusalem it was the Spirit of prophecy empowering the community to pick up and continue the ministry of Jesus to Israel. For Paul it was the power of God by which believers would “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13), by which they would confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3), which would enable them to bear faithful witness in the face of hostility, by which they would cry out to God as Father when persecuted (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:18-27), and which would give new life to their mortal bodies (Rom. 8:10-11).

Towards a new “evangelicalism”

Inevitably perhaps, as the church lost touch with its Jewish origins and forgot—or forgot the point of—the story that the apostles had told about the coming rule of YHWH, this logic of salvation was collapsed into a much simpler one-size-fits-all paradigm. As a response to the fall of Christendom, modern evangelicalism has reinvigorated the universal model to keep the numbers up, but we are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that it runs against the grain of the natural historical reading of the texts.

The only way to resolve this tension, in my view, is to let go of the theological paradigm and pursue the historical reading in search of a new “evangelicalism”, a new faithfulness to the biblical narrative, that will instruct and inspire the witness of God’s priestly-prophetic people from the margins of secular western society.

Takashi Kojima | Tue, 02/06/2018 - 08:29 | Permalink

Your (narrative-historical argument) is well put and easy to follow, I think. The logic of salvation works differently for Jews and Gentiles, indeed.

I’d appreciate If you could follow up on how “modern evangelicalism reinvigorated the universal model” as “a response to the fall of Christendom.”

Have you elaborated on this already somewhere, perhaps?

Milan Bizic | Tue, 02/06/2018 - 18:00 | Permalink

“The only way to resolve this tension, in my view, is to let go of the theological paradigm and pursue the historical reading in search of a new ‘evangelicalism’, a new faithfulness to the biblical narrative, that will instruct and inspire the witness of God’s priestly-prophetic people from the margins of secular western society.” I’m struggling to envision what this would look like.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 02/07/2018 - 11:35 | Permalink

Andrew: you are moving on too quickly from one post to another. It’s giving me too little time to process what you are saying before you change the subject!Thanks for the reprise of your narrative viewpoint. I think where it comes off the rails, if I can put it like that, is in two places.

First, Romans 2 & 3 are not addressed primarily to Jews. Following 1:18-32, which appears at first sight to be anti-gentile polemic, but in fact springs a trap for unfaithful Jews as well, the “You” of 2:1 is inclusive, not limited to the Jew alone. The “You therefore” of 2:1 would not make sense if it was separated from the flow of 1:18-32 and said to be addressed to the Jew alone. Anyone who judges anyone else, whether Jew or Gentile, is coming under judgment by ignoring their own shortcomings. A “stubborn and unrepentant heart” (2:5) will lead to “wrath and anger” for all: first the Jew, then the Gentile (2:10).

Paul only focuses explicitly on the Jew for the first time in 2:17 in an argument which runs from 2:17 to 3:8. Then he returns to Jew and Gentile, from 3:9 onwards. In 3:19-20, the law already stands against the Jew for breaking it (as already declared), so that now Jew and Gentile alike are equally sinful before God. Paul reinforces his argument about the law in 3:20, saying “through the law we become conscious of sin”. 

The real question on which your narrative theory hinges comes in the next section, 3:21-31. All, Jew and Gentile alike, depend on justification (being made righteous) “through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ” — 3:24. So for whom was “the sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood” — 3:25 offered? You say it was for Jews, and that Gentiles only come into the good of this (righteousness) by believing what God had done for the Jews, not Gentiles. You make this distinction in two or three key paragraphs in your outline. The last summarises the meaning of the others very clearly, so I’ll quote it:

Neither Peter nor Paul says that Jesus died for the sins of the Gentiles. Jesus died for the sins of Israel, but if a Gentile believed that story—and more importantly that he had been raised and exalted to the right hand of the Father—he or she was justified by this belief or faith and would be found to have been in the right when eventually the nations confessed Jesus as Lord.

I find this very far-fetched. We believe in someone else’s story, in which Paul goes to great lengths to explain how the sin which afflicts all mankind is atoned for and removed, apparently, for 1st century Jews alone. Everyone else is justified (made righteous) by believing in what God has done only for the Jews!

It is more reasonable to believe that Paul is making the assertion in Romans 3:24-25 especially that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus applies equally to Gentiles as to Jews. That makes sense of the entire section, in which Gentile inclusion on equal terms with the Jews is repeatedly emphasized. It also makes sense of Romans 4, in which Abraham, the father-figure of Israel, is asserted to have received the same justification by believing God rather than through works of the law (such as circumcision especially), as a Gentile, not a Jew.

It’s also questionable whether Romans 3:25 is describing primarily or exclusively a temple sacrifice. Redemption (3:24) is not directly associated with temple sacrifices, and the key association of the word is with the exodus. At the exodus, it was the blood which was the main instrument of redemption, in a very public manner. Temple sacrifice was hidden within the holy place of the building. Yes, the exodus was for Jews not Gentiles, but in the new testament, second temple setting, the exodus is the new or second exodus, which found its symbolic expression in the last supper, the (new) exodus meal. This was inauguration of the new covenant, not a reworking of the old, which was exclusive to Jews.

To my mind, the story of Cornelius and his household illustrates completely this direct Gentile inclusion in the death of Jesus for sins. Peter tells the story of Jesus, his death and resurrection, his appointment as judge of (all) the living and the dead. This inclusiveness continues directly to the next sentence (10:42-43): “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. Peter does not make any qualification: such as “everyone who is a Jew and not a Gentile”. It seems very clear; God was making no distinction: Gentiles were forgiven their sins as well as Jews by the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. How else were Cornelius and his household to understand what had happened and what Peter had said? The event makes sense of Peter’s vision. Clean and unclean were now included on entirely the same basis. The death of Jesus was for all.

What is true of Acts is true of Romans: the death of Jesus avails in the same way for Jews and Gentiles without distinction.

…the “You” of 2:1 is inclusive, not limited to the Jew alone.

I disagree. The “man” of 2:1 is one who judges others but practices the same things. Following on from the denunciation of pagan civilisation in 1:18-32, Paul must have in mind specifically the Jew who criticises idolatrous pagans but behaves in just the same way . The Jew believes that pagans will not escape the judgment of God, but Paul’s argument is that hypocritical Israel will also not “escape the judgment of God” (2:3). By the statement “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (2:2) he identifies himself, as someone who knows (the Law of) God, with the judgmental person of verse 1. Only a Jew, moreover, would think to “presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” (2:4). Note Fitzmyer:

The majority of modern commentators, however, agree that the interlocutor is a Jew who judges himself superior to the pagan because of his people’s privileges. (Romans, 297)

I agree.  We are saved by being “in Christ,” by being united with Him through the Spirit.  This has the result of being crucified with Him, and by being raised to life with Him.  He is now our life. We are forgiven because God considers His death, our death.  And since the wages of sin is death, the wages have been paid.   There is no difference.  Both Jew and Gentile are saved in this way, by being joined to Christ by faith.

Paul says in Romans 3 that Jews are not made righteous by the Law but by faith. And he says the example of Abraham shows this was always the case. Then in v25 he seems to be trying to show why Jesus’ death was necessary. After all, if people like Abraham were considered righteous prior to the Law, why was Jesus’ death necessary?

I think his point in v25 is the same point being made by the writer of Hebrews, although people could be counted as righteous prior to Jesus’ death, and although those under the old covenant could have their sins atoned for by animal sacrifices, without the death of Jesus, no one could be properly reconciled to God.

This appears to be different from your view. It seems you are saying Jews needed the death of Jesus to reconcile them to God, but Gentiles, who were never under the curse of the Law, just needed faith like Abraham.

However, it seems to me that the curse of the Law was simply that it kept Jews constantly aware of the fact that they were transgressors and deserving of death. But Paul says in Romans 2 that those without the Law were also transgressors since they knew when they acted against their consciences that they were sinning against God and their actions were therefore deserving of death.

So it seems that Paul’s argument was that Jews and Gentiles were in the same boat regarding sin and its consequences, but both Jews and Gentiles could be reconciled to God through faith as a result of Jesus’ death.