Gentiles needed the death of Jesus as much as Jews did, but for different reasons

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 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.

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).

Andrew, I agree with much of this post, but there are a few important areas of disagreement.

First, I don’t think the curse of the Law was eschatological condemnation. I think the curse of the Law was that it offered only death since it caused sin to increase by making Jews aware of Yahweh’s standards and their inability to meet those standards. On a related note, I don’t think the death of Jesus “effectively dispensed with the Jewish Law.” Paul said, “Do we then cancel the law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31).

Although Paul was vehemently opposed to Gentiles being told they had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses, he believed Jews could now uphold the Law in a way they never could before since through faith they died to the flesh and were now operating by the power of the Spirit.

The Law was not abolished, but as you pointed out, the inclusion of Gentiles by faith showed that the Law would no longer function as a tool of division and hostility since Gentiles could now be grafted into true Israel (Ephesians 2:11-16).

Second, Abraham was righteous because he had faith in the promise that he and his offspring would inherit the earth (Romans 4:13). But Paul’s point is that the promise was for all of Abraham’s descendants—those under the Law and those who didn’t have the Law but had the same faith (Romans 4:12, 16).

Third, although Jesus’ death didn’t redeem Gentiles from transgressions committed under the first covenant, it did act as a propitiation for all mankind so that Gentiles could also have their sins forgiven (Romans 4:1-9; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14, 2:13) and be in right standing with Yahweh (Romans 3:30; Galatians 3:8; Colossians 1:22).

Thanks for the responses. I’ll address your first point here. I don’t disagree with the second point. I’ll look at the passages that you cite in defence of the traditional view that Jesus died “as the propitiation for the sins of both Jews and Gentiles” in a separate comment.

In Galatians 3:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26: “‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” This certainly places the onus on the individual, which makes sense in the context of Galatians, where Paul has in view individuals being put under pressure to be circumcised. But it is immediately followed in Deuteronomy 28 with a lengthy account of what will happen to Israel as a nation if the people if they obey the voice of the Lord their God and, more importantly, if they do not. In the latter case, the outcome will national hardship and disaster, culminating in destruction and exile. It is this larger narrative perspective that controls Romans, I think.

I didn’t use the phrase “curse of the Law” in the post because I think the individual focus is something of a distraction. The larger narrative is determined by the eschatological prospect of invasion, destruction of the temple, and scattering that would eventually come upon rebellious Israel. This is clearly Jesus’ narrative, but my argument is that it makes much better sense of Paul’s teaching than the standard Protestant theology of personal salvation.

Of particular interest, though, in this regard is Daniel 9:11, where the “curse of the Law” has explicit and very pertinent eschatological significance:

All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. (Dan. 9:11–12)

This is very close to Paul’s perspective in Romans. But he thinks of Jesus’ death as a propitation for the historical sins of Israel that would bring such a destruction upon them.

On a related note, I don’t think the death of Jesus “effectively dispensed with the Jewish Law.” Paul said, “Do we then cancel the law through faith? Absolutely not! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31).

Notice that I said: “since the death of Jesus, as a solution to Israel’s problem, effectively dispensed with the Jewish Law”. Again there is the specific eschatological point: the Law could not be the solution to the historical crisis that the people of God was facing, simply because the Jews as a people, being human, had persistently failed to live according to the Law, so the “condemnation” built into Deuteronomy 28 naturally came into force. Paul upheld the Law as being determinative both for the life of Jews and Jewish-Christians and for eschatological outcomes.

I suspect one reason we’re interpreting things differently is that we are assigning different perspectives and motivations to Jesus and Paul. I think both Jesus and Paul expected Jesus to return to earth soon to establish his kingdom after a period of short but intense persecution at the hands of the Romans.

At his return, the righteous would be spared (saved), while the wicked would be destroyed so that the earth could experience the prophesied peace under the Messiah’s kingship.

I don’t think Paul saw Jesus’ death as something that would prevent another Babylon-type situation. I think both Jesus and Paul saw the death of Jesus as ushering in a new age unlike anything the earth had ever experienced.

I guess we’re both using a historical-narrative approach but with different narratives.

Yes, this is important. My argument rests on the assumption that what’s at stake is the continuing historical existence of the community of God’s people. For that the biblical-Jewish questions are determinative: how will God’s people survive the coming war against Rome? how will Israel’s God establish his own rule over the nations? In that scenario it is a matter of theological significance that Jewish and Gentile believers in the first century related to the history of God’s people in different ways: Jews were already part of it, Gentiles were becoming part of it. That accounts for the different emphases when it comes to the meaning of Jesus’ death. In your very compressed eschatology the historical distinctions quickly become irrelevant because it is not the historical existence of the community in history that matters but the imminent remaking of the world.

The Biblical narrative involves two basic issues in the need for redemption. Since it was through Adam that “the sin” and “the death” entered into the world of humanity, his “condemnation” prevented the possibility of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of the relationship that was lost in the Garden of Eden. As representative “head” of humanity, “all sinned” in Adam at the time of the fall. But the “seed” promise (Gen.. 3:15) was a promise of deliverance (salvation) from Adamic condemnation. This was true in life and after death since both the “righteous” and the “wicked” were all consigned to Sheol/Hades until the time of the resurrection.

The “promises made to the fathers” (Gen. 12:1-3) (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were to include that “all the families of the earth” would be blessed. Israel was a microcosm of the larger problem of “the sin” and “the death” (notice the significance of the Pauline use of the definite article) as determined by Adam. Prior to the giving of Torah, the PERSONAL sins were not charged to the account of the people (Rom. 5:12-14), however, the penalty of “the sin” paid the wages of “the death” (Rom. 6:23). From a corporate viewpoint, but Jews and Gentiles were equally guilty of because both were “in Adam” and there was NO way of escape. Likewise, nobody born into Adam was qualified to pay the “ransom” that would reverse the effects of “the sin” of Adam. Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah to “save HIS PEOPLE (Israel) from their sins (Matt. 1:21). Jesus entered into the Old Covenant “world” of Israel as the sacrificial “lamb of God” (John 1:29). Jesus as the “last Adam” (I Cor. 15:45) encountered the same temptation as Adam and Eve (Matt. 4:1-11), and in his death brought the “forgiveness of sins” for those who believe and repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19 et al). Even though people were released from the “consequences” of Adam’s sin, this did not and does not absolve them from responsibility or accountability before God.

The “remnant called according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5) was “called out” of the Old Covenant mode of sin and death and into the New Covenant mode of life and righteousness and since “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), the Gentiles needed to become partakers of ISRAEL’S “spiritual things” (Rom. 15:27). The Gentiles had NO Messiah, NO promised deliverance given apart from what was given to the fathers of Israel. Thus, the Gentile Mission of Paul was significance in bringing about the promised benefits through their inclusion into the “root” of Israel’s olive tree (Rom. 11:16-24). The problem of Gentile separatism that Paul alludes to in Romans was a wholesale attempt to displace Israel, and in believing they (the Gentiles) had taken the promises intended for Israel.

The covenantal “day of wrath” (Rom. 2:5) was approaching and the forty years between the Cross and 70 CE was a period of “grace” for Israel to repent and put their faith in Jesus. The inclusion of the Gentiles was designed to provoke Israel to jealousy. There is massive confusion today, especially with regard to the inability of believers to discern the distinction between “sins” (personal) and “the sin” (as determined by Adam). The whole premise of Universalism is rooted in this very misunderstanding.

I look forward to your continued research in these areas and appreciate your determination to stay within the historical framework of Scripture.

One thing I like about the Historical hermeneutic is the fact that it evaluates each text as a product of the time in which it was written and tries hard not to import later (or earlier) perspectives that might produce faulty interpretations. So I appreciate your desire to avoid importing ideas from Johannine texts that would have been foreign to Paul; however, I think “Jesus as propitiation for the sins of the world” is clearly found in Paul’s writings (and I seldom use the word “clearly” when discussing theology). :)

When I look at Paul’s carefully crafted argument from Romans 1-5, and I examine Paul’s teaching on this subject in his other epistles, I cannot not see Jesus as the propitiation for the sins of both Jews and Gentiles:

He raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thes 1:10)
For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. (1 Thes 5:9-10)
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Gal 1:3-4)
For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Cor 5:7)
For Christ’s love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised. (2 Cor 5:14-15)
whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins (Rom 3:25)
This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. As it is written: I have made you the father of many nations. He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist…. Therefore, it was credited to him for righteousness. Now it was credited to him was not written for Abraham alone, but also for us. It will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:16-17, 22-25)
Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 5:1)
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom 5:9-11)
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace (Eph 1:7)
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:13)
Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2)
We have * redemption,8 the forgiveness of sins, in Him (Col 1:14)
and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col 1:20)
He made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that He might create in Himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that He might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross and put the hostility to death by it. (Eph 2:15-16)

I’m sure you’ve considered all of these verses before and have decided they don’t show that Jesus died as a propitiation for the sins of Gentiles as well as Jews, but I’m unable to do that at this time.