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.
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.