In answer to Peter’s comments about my post on the “The logic of salvation for Jews and Gentiles in Paul” here’s another broad-brush attempt to clarify the thesis.
His basic point is that there is no real difference in the logic: “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.”
What follows won’t address all the issues that Peter raises, and maybe we can continue the conversation here. But I think that what’s missing from his analysis is the narrative or eschatological dimension. Arguably, this is a consistent and defining flaw in modern theological thought: we try to make sense of the theological content of the New Testament without taking account of the undergirding diachronic structure—the story told about historical experience culminating in realistic eschatological outcomes.
Abraham didn’t simply have faith. He had faith in the promise—that is, in God’s assurance that his family would have a significant future. He was not saved or reconciled to God in the general sense; he was reckoned to be in the right because he trusted in the promise, believed in the future.
The argument about the justification of Jews and Gentiles works in exactly the same way. First Jews, then Gentiles, were justified and would be found to be in the right simply because they believed in the new future that had been vouchsafed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. We have to keep in mind that wrath was coming on the ancient world, YHWH was about to intervene dramatically in history to reform his people and gain control of the nations.
But if Jews were judged to be in the right by YHWH for having this faith, then what did that say about their past history of national sin—the history of rebellion which Jesus had said would all “come upon this generation” (Matt. 23:36)? It must have been dealt with, clearly. So Jesus’ death could be seen as a propitiation for their sins; and God had forgiven them, or “passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:24-25). They were no longer under the eschatological condemnation of the Law.
Jewish-Christians would be saved from the wrath of their God by their faith or belief in the history-changing significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The back story for Gentiles, however, was different. They were getting involved in this new movement because YHWH was going to judge the Greek as well as the Jew and meant to establish his own rule in the place of the many gods and many lords that currently dominated that world. The inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people was a sign of the eschatological transformation to come.
But atonement for sin was not part of that back story. They were certainly alienated from the God of Israel. They also were coming to believe that this story about YHWH and his people was true; and they received the Spirit as a sign that they were justified in their belief, that they were also in the right as far as God was concerned. But since the death of Jesus, as a solution to Israel’s problem, effectively dispensed with the Jewish Law (cf. Rom. 3:21), the Law no longer served to demarcate the boundary between God’s people and everybody else. The only thing that separated the “saved” from the unsaved was the belief that a new future for the ancient world had been vouchsafed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some believed, others didn’t—it was a long shot, after all.
So Gentiles needed the death of Jesus as much as Jews did, but for different reasons—at least in this mainstream, apocalyptic New Testament narrative about the coming of the kingdom of God. In the more dualistic, a-historical Johannine universe it became possible to say that Jesus was “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2; cf. 4:10).
Jews needed to be saved from the destruction that was finally coming upon Israel because of its long history of disobedience (cf. Rom. 9:22). If the gift of the Spirit (replacing the Law) was clear evidence that their belief in the new future had put them right with God (“justification by faith”), then Jesus’ death could be seen as having been an act of atonement for that backlog of sin.
Gentiles, however, were “saved” from a pagan civilisation that was passing away and were becoming part, instead, of the new order of things that YHWH planned for the ancient world. They too believed that the new future was vouchsafed by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they had the concrete experience of the indwelling Spirit to prove it. That meant that their pagan sins, which were not the same as Jewish sins (cf. Rom. 1:18-32), had been forgiven.
But the significance of Jesus’ death for them was not that it redeemed them “from the transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15), because they weren’t under the first covenant. Rather, it removed the barrier of the Law that stood between them and participation in the commonwealth of Israel (cf. Eph. 2:11-16).
For more on this argument and how it works within the eschatological outlook of Romans see my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom (details below).