Let’s remind ourselves, first, that in these chapters Paul has been recapitulating a dialogue with the Jews of the diaspora, for the most part about the Jews of the diaspora. They have failed to provide a benchmark of piety and right behaviour among the idolatrous Greeks; therefore, they face the wrath of God because Israel’s God could not otherwise judge the Greek world without being accused of partiality.
The demonstration of the righteousness or rightness of God at this historical moment is the key requirement. In the first place, the faithfulness of God is not nullified by the faithlessness of Israel, the righteousness of God is not contradicted by the unrighteousness of his people (3:3-5). But secondly, the righteousness of God has been manifested constructively apart from the Law in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, whose death must be considered as an atonement for the “former sins” of the Jews.
This development apart from the Law has become the basis for a radically new future for God’s people, but its unprecedented and paradoxical character means that participation or membership depends not on any manner of works of the Law but on belief or faith in the intrinsic promise.
Abraham believed God’s promise that his offspring would inherit the world, and this was reckoned to him as righteousness before he was circumcised. Now it is not the adherents of the Jewish Law (“for the Law brings wrath”) but those who believe that God is calling something new into existence through Jesus who are reckoned to be in the right.
The inclusion of Gentiles in this community of eschatological conviction points concretely to the fact that the God of Israel will in due course be embraced and worshipped by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
Justified by faith… and then what?
Still speaking as a Jewish apostle and still, I think, arguing in his head with the Jews (cf. 7:1), Paul briefly sums up the situation: because of Jesus they have peace with God and a hope of sharing in the future glory and renown that YHWH will receive in the Greek world.
This hope, however, is immediately linked to the experience of suffering, and it is clear that Paul’s focus is on the need for endurance in the face of severe opposition and hardship. When he says that “we boast in the sufferings” (5:3*), he means, in the first place, the sufferings that have characterised the ministry of the apostles. They are currently held in very low esteem (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:3-10), but when the nations finally turn to serve the living God, their reputation will be transformed; they will be regarded as heroes and martyrs of the faith, they will share in the glory that YHWH and, indeed, Christ will be accorded. This is precisely what happened.
What gives him this confidence is the sense of the love of God poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit, which was given to them. The same close connection between, suffering, and the profound experience of the love of God appears at the end of chapter 8: no amount of opposition or affliction will separate the apostles and those who identify with their mission from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
justified by faith… sufferings… God’s love poured into our hearts (5:1-5)
It is God who justifies… “regarded as sheep to be slaughtered”… nothing separates us from the love of God (8:31-39)
So here we have a clear interpretive frame, an inclusio, for this section of the letter. It opens and closes with the critical nexus of justification, suffering, and the love of God, and this reinforces the connection between the theme of justification by faith and a foreseeable future. Jews like Paul, and believing Gentiles, are justified by their belief in a promised future in which they will inherit the world as they know it. But this hope puts them directly in the way of severe opposition, and they will not make the journey without a deep and abiding sense of the love of God poured into their hearts through the Spirit. “Justification” is not merely legal or forensic; it names quite pragmatically the repeatedly tested certainty of being on the right side of history.
Christ died for the ungodly
The next paragraph (5:6-11) gives an account of the realisation of the eschatological love of God. We can easily draw general theological conclusions from it regarding sin and salvation, but I propose to read it as an integral part of a historically framed “dialogue with the Jews,” as we have been doing along. There is no reason to think that Paul changes his mode of address between the appeal to “our forefather Abraham according to the flesh” (4:1) and “I am speaking to those who know the Law” (7:1).
The Jews were weak, ungodly, sinners, at enmity with God (cf. 11:28), but at the right moment in history God reconciled some Jews, who were once enemies, to himself through the death of Jesus. There would have been no reason for Christ to die for righteous Israel. If the Jews had been righteous, if they had kept the commandments, they would not now be facing the existential crisis of the wrath of God. As it is, Paul affirms that “we” Jews have been reconciled to God by the obedience of Jesus unto death, so to speak, and will “much more… be saved by his life”—again, the future aspect is of critical importance.
From Adam to Moses to Christ
The complicated analogy that Paul then goes on to draw between Adam and Christ, I think, is meant to explain the “much more.” The transition from “while we were enemies” to “much more… shall we be saved by his life” (5:10) corresponds to the transition from “the Law came in to increase the trespass… sin increased” to “grace abounded all the more” (5:20).
Let’s try and follow the argument through.
The point about Adam is not only that “many died through one man’s trespass” (5:15). Running through this section is an argument about the Law, and I am inclined to think that Adam is presented as a “type” not of Christ but of Moses (5:14). Adam broke the commandment that had been given to him. There was no Law between Adam and Moses. Moses was given the commandments, which meant again that sin was counted. The Jews were held to account by the Law (5:13-14) so, indeed, the whole world might eventually be held accountable (3:19).
The introduction of the Jewish Law, therefore, has greatly aggravated or intensified the situation, but this intensification, as Paul sees it, has resulted in a super-abundance of grace—enough grace for righteousness to prevail in the age to come, when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations (5:20-21).
So the progression from Law to grace, by way of the failure of Israel to keep the Law and the advent of wrath against the Jew, is the mechanism of eschatological transformation. It generates a sufficiently powerful intervention of the grace of God to overturn the old cultural-religious order and inaugurate a new age of righteous monotheism.
And of course, just as the many suffered the consequences of Adam’s disobedience, so the many will benefit from the obedience unto death and share in the life of the coming age. But the point here is not, as is so often assumed, that those in Christ constitute a new or true humanity; it is that the many who identify with him in his suffering and resurrection will experience “life” and not death or destruction of obsolescence.
Baptism into the death and life of Jesus
Paul has established a causative link between the intensification of sin under the Law and the overflow of grace. So the question arises: should Jews continue to sin under the Law so that grace may further increase? No, Paul says, because baptism breaks the link between Law and grace.
Jesus’ death was a death to the sinfulness of Israel under the Law (I paraphrase, of course), and the resurrection life he now lives he lives to God (6:10). Baptism is a symbolic participation in the transition that Jesus went through.
Real death and resurrection are probably not in view here. The baptised person—the baptised Jew, in the first place—has become “grown together” (symphytoi) with the “likeness” of his death, but “also we will be of the resurrection,” Paul says (6:5*). Presumably, he means that believers will be “grown together” with the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection. The controlling narrative here may be the corporate one—that the Jews are now condemned to death or destruction by the Law but God will restore his people in an event that will include the resurrection of the righteous dead.
In any case, the main argument throughout this section is ethical: baptised Jews are no longer under the Law of Moses but under grace (6:14), they have died to sin, they are no longer enslaved to sin, they have been set free from sin; therefore, they live to God and should present their “members to God as weapons of righteousness” (6:13*) and make themselves obedient slaves to righteousness. Baptised Gentiles, I take it, participate in this at one remove: this is not strictly their story.
Believing Jews have been redeemed from the corporate dead end that they were in, under the Law, by the obedience or faithfulness of Jesus. But by claiming this freedom through baptism they necessarily commit themselves to becoming the benchmark of righteousness in the Greek world that diaspora Judaism had signally failed to provide.