N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective, More on Election

In the last post I was more concerned with the validity of Wright’s view of Election in the Hebrew Bible.  It is in fact true that Israel believed themselves to be the chosen people, and all the literature of this period struggles to explain why the chosen people are not being blessed as they might expect.  These attempts to define election range from a denial of Israel’s special place (Sirach, perhaps) to a radical condemnation of the status quo in Israel as corrupt and about to be judged by God (Qumran).

Wright places Paul into this discussion of what it means to be the chosen people of God.  Paul redefines the people of God which leads to a redefinition of election. Wright is clear that this is a redefinition, not a repudiation of the definition of election as found in the Hebrew Bible.  Paul remains within Judaism (128).  What is remarkable to me is that Wright states that Paul would have been appalled with scholars who see him as breaking away from Judaism and starting a new religion.  (Recall our discussion earlier about whether Paul was converted or not?)  He specifically denies “supersessionism,” the belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism completely and that the “people of God” are no longer Jewish.  He is thinking specifically here of the fact that Paul describes the church as the true descendants of Abraham in the faith and his discussion centers on Moses and the Law.  I think this opens up some eschatological questions, but he waits on those until the next chapter.

So far so good.  I think Wright is correct in his observations about first century Jewish thinking on their election, and I think that he is correct that Paul re-defines many Jewish ideas and practices for the Church in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I especially like his discussion Paul re-orienting the people of God around the idea of grace.

What could be potentially troublesome is Wright’s discussion of Gal 2:11-21, a critical text for the New Perspective on Paul, and a text that is at the heart of Pauline theology since it touches on justification and law in the context of practice – how do we behave since se have the belief that Jesus is the messiah?  Wright correctly comments that the discussion in Gal 2 concerns “what does it mean to be a Jew,” then deals extremely briefly with the “faith of Christ.”  This is a huge exegetical issue, but the gist of the problem concerns who “does” this faith, Jesus or us?  Is this the faith which Jesus demonstrated (the “faithfulness of the messiah”) or is this faith which we have “in the messiah?”  Wright says this verse ought to be understood as referring to the messiah’s faithfulness rather than our faith in Jesus which makes us saved?  Most modern translations add “in” to the line to indicate that Jesus is the object of our faith (the KJV does not, but that is simply because it is brutally literal and not aware of this modern exegetical issue.)  Does this phrase mean that the Messiah was faithful and therefore we are justified, or that we are justified because of what Jesus has already done on the cross?  Wright states that Gal 2:15 is not a statement about how one becomes a Christian (112).  This is highly controversial, but this does not mean that Wright denies justification by faith categorically, it only this text in Galatians which is under discussion.

If Wright reads Galatians correctly (and his other comments applying this understanding to Romans are correct), then there are some problems for the standard reformation view of justification – but I am not convinced they are as foundation-shattering as the more dramatic articles and books have claimed.

32 thoughts on “N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective, More on Election

  1. When Wright was discussing the fact that Israel had been unfaithful in the covenant as opposed to Jesus’ faithfulness. It made me think of something John Piper said concerning Jesus’ obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus prays two times to the Father that if it is possible for the cup to be taken from him. Then, in the next statements, we see Jesus’ obedience to the Father in saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will” and “may your will be done” (Matthew 26:39,42). I think that wright has grounds for saying that Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant through his faithfulness. When we look at Gal. 2 it is Christ’s faithfulness that saves us, and it is our faith that accepts his faithfulness.

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  2. I like the way that Zach put it in his last two sentences. Christ if faithful to His promise, and that is what saves us, “and it is our faith that accepts his faithfulness.” It would not be incorrect to say that this passage refers to God’s faithfulness, because that is how we are saved. We have to accept that gift, but it was because of God’s mercy (Rom. 9:16-18) that we have the opportunity to live with Him eternally. But we have to believe and accept what He has done for us. Either way that you look at it, whether as God’s faithfulness or our faith in God, you would be correct. Both are needed to be apart of God’s family.

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    • Wow, already some great quotes to work off of and a general consensus to boot!

      “When we look at Gal. 2 it is Christ’s faithfulness that saves us, and it is our faith that accepts his faithfulness.”- Zach

      “Either way that you look at it, whether as God’s faithfulness or our faith in God, you would be correct.”- Elyse

      It sounds like we’re nailing down a doctrine concerning salvation and how salvation is both God’s faithfulness toward his creation and the Christian’s faithfulness concerning God’s faithfulness. I decided to dig a little deeper into the idea of election and find out if its about the Christian choice or God’s and I came across some big names in theology right off the bat.

      John MacArthur (@ http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/GTYW02.htm) argued, “You must understand that your faith and salvation rest entirely on God’s election (cf. Acts 13:48). And yet the day you came to Jesus Christ, you did so because of an internal desire—you did nothing against your will. But even that desire is God-given—He supplies the necessary faith so we can believe (Eph. 2:8).” Its another both answer!

      Wayne Grudem (@ http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/misunderstandings.html) also argued both, although in so many words and so structured it was difficult to find a quote.

      It appears the concepts we have so far are not new, but confirmed by scripture and by fellow theologians. Hopefully these little insights help stimulate discussion.

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      • PJ – do not stray too far into election as “salvation,” since that is not what the chapter in Wright is about. It is about the election of Israel as God’s people. I’m not saying that MacArthur is wrong, but he is not commenting on the same issue at all!

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      • That is certainly an important clarification. Thank you.

        I gotta admit that after rereading chapter 6 twice I am a bit perturbed by the fact that Wright never accepts terms as they are defined and has to redefine the Greek in order that we can understand the context that Paul may have been inferring (i.e. p.111, “election… redefined”; 112, “pistis Christou”; 113, “dikaiosyne”…) I understand it allows him to make an argument but I miss the “this I believe” statements found in tradition theological volumes…

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  3. Wright says, “God’s faithfulness is fully and finally unveiled at the cross” at which the “Messiah has done that for which Israel was chosen to do in the first place (120) and all those people who believe are part of the elect of God, because of our belief in the work and plan of God. It seems to be a fusion or relationship that saves us, a completely saturated grace given and a gift gratefully received so that we share in the inheritance.

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  4. As with all texts, one can ultimately interpret them to say what is desired. When considering Wright’s translation of ‘faithfulness of Christ’ rather than ‘faith in Christ’ in Gal. 2:16, (“…even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law…”), the whole text must be taken into account. Upon rereading the passage in question I believe Galatians 2:20 has much to say on the issue:

    “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Gal 2:20, NASU).

    There is cause to say that Christ was faithful when he went to the cross and for Him to ‘live in me.’ Yet there is most definitely a response from the person who has been crucified with Christ: “I live by faith in the Son of God…” Therefore, I would disagree with Wright and say that this passage does speak of how one becomes saved. To bring in a dispensational thought that may bring clarity to the issue of salvation I will quote Charles Ryrie: “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement of salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.” (Ryrie 115).

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    • Caleb – I think that is the main problem people have with the whole “faith of Christ” debate. It does not mean that one is saved apart from faith, but only that in this pone particular instance Paul’s point is that it is the faithfulness of the Messiah that is in view.

      You and I both could cite a dozen verses that indicate that salvation is by Grace through faith (in Christ).

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      • Wright does affirm that he does not see justification as not having to do with sinners being saved from death and sin. The central drive of his argument is actually rooted in the Romans 3.21-26 passage where the Messiah’s faithfulness is to God’s promise to Abraham.

        Israel had fallen short and was unfaithful to their commission as a light unto the world. “He [God] has done in Israel’s place what Israel was called to do but could not, namely to act on behalf of the whole world’ (120). The context of his argument in this passage of Romans is not about a faith on our part thereby which inherits God’s grace and gift of salvation, but on God’s fulfillment of his promise to put such a gift in to place.

        The Greek in both Galatians and Romans does literally translate ‘faith of Jesus Christ’ as opposed to ‘faith in Jesus Christ’. ᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ (Jesus Christ) takes on the genitive form thus being possessive of the πίστεως (faith). This may be a brutally literal translation but does that necessarily make it wrong?

        As I have commented otherwise, I think that the argument is central upon a tension of terms, “justification’ and “faith[fullness]”.

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      • Justin said: This may be a brutally literal translation but does that necessarily make it wrong?

        No, and I will tell you that the Greek might be a bit more complicated than your first year Greek allows for (no offense, I am impressed with your efforts nonetheless!) The nuance of the genitive can be either, and there is a rather long debate among scholars as to what Paul’s point was with the like “pistos christou,” in the commentaries and in several journal articles. Wright reflects the “new view,” following people like James Dunn on this.

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  5. Elyse you said something that really struck me. “Either way that you look at it, whether as God’s faithfulness or our faith in God, you would be correct.”-Elyse. I think you are correct when you say that. I think a lot of times we as Christians we try to make salvation way to complicating. We forget to go back to the basic, it is all about our faith in Jesus Christ, what He did for us on the cross, and excepting Him into our life to have a relationship with Him.

    I do not think that it is correct to say that Paul was turning to a different religion. I just think that he know a lot more about how god wanted every Christian to think about their faith in Him. It is not a religion, it is a relationship. We forget that a lot. It is a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior.

    Also, I do think that Israel lost sight of how God was going to use them. God wanted to use them in a very special way, but they turned away from God, so He could not use them the way that He wanted to; but they still thought that He was. They thought that they were better than everyone else, when they really were not. God can use anyone to do His will. We just have to trust in Him.

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  6. I think that the element of justificaiton through faith has been one of things that Catholics and Protestants have been arguing over since the Reformation. As far as salvation goes both religions believe that there is a faith decision. They also both believe that God requires us after that faith decision to do good works. These Good works show that we are saved. I think (on salvation) it is only a matter of symantecs. The following is a Quote by Peter Kreeft, from his book Fundametals of the Faith:

    “Perhaps God allows the Protestant/Catholic division to persist not only because Protestants have abandoned many precious truths taught by the Church but also because many Catholics have never been taught the most precious truth of all, that salvation is a free gift of grace, accepted by faith. I remember vividly the thrill of discovery when, as a young Protestant at Calvin College, I read Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent on justification. I did not find what I had been told I would find, “another gospel” of do-it-yourself salvation by works, but a clear and forceful statement that we can do nothing without God’s grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us.”

    I don’t know what truths he might think we are missing. He is right on though when it comes to faith.

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  7. “do not stray too far into election as “salvation,” since that is not what the chapter in Wright is about. It is about the election of Israel as God’s people” -P. Long

    But how can we not talk of election as ‘salvation’? We are the elect and the elect are saved, there is no Jew or Gentile, only the true ‘sons of Abraham’. Gentiles became the elect by having faith in Christ just as the Jews were elect in the Old Testament by having faith God would save them as he promised. “God’s people”, as you say, are the elect, which is not a ethnicity but people of faith.

    The only difference between Gentiles and Jews is that of cultivation- as mentioned in Romans 11. The Jews of Paul’s time were more cultivated and ready for the Messiah, while the wild Gentile branches had no history or knowledge of God. That is why Paul wishes the Jews were all saved- they would be a great witness for Christ!

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  8. Side Trail..I know.
    “do not stray too far into election as “salvation,” since that is not what the chapter in Wright is about. It is about the election of Israel as God’s people” -P. Long

    But how can we not talk of election as ’salvation’ – Ben T.

    Wright states that “this whole theology of election is stated classically in the Exodus story, and reinforced by regular repetition and multiple subsequent allusions. It is put to the test in the events of exile, but again and again reaffirmed through that tragedy. The bearers of God’s solution are themselves, declare the prophets, part of the problem; and as the OT writers address this problem they find ways of declaring that YHWH will nevertheless fulfill both the original purpose through Israel and the contingent purpose for Israel” [Wright, 110]. He goes on further to say that “election was closely bound up with eschatology” because Israel was the one people of God and they expected that God would soon vindicate them from the oppression [Wright 110].

    When thinking about Election, and Wright makes the connection between election and the Exodus, it makes it hard to separate the two. To the Jews, the Exodus was a clear sign of their salvation – their deliverance from oppression into freedom. One also must note that with God’s freeing of the people from bondage, the covenant HE makes between Himself and His chosen people is unmistakeable. This could very well be much more Eschatological than it is concerning the salvation aspect, although I tend to agree with Ben when he says that salvation and election are linked.

    In going on with this discussion of election, after Wright repeatedly makes his case, he says that the true mark of the elect now is the “badge of faith; that apart from works of Torah, but being justified by faith. This badge of faith is NOW open to all, jews and gentiles alike” [Wright 120]. I really like what Wright has to say further on in the chapter stating that the “election for the Gentiles has always been a part of God’s plan [Genesis 15] and that from Abraham all the way through to the present, the defining characteristic of God’s true people had been faith in God as the creator, and life-giver, the faith now shared by those who believe in the God who raised Jesus from the dead” [Wright 121].

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    • I guess I am going to add onto Moses’ and Ben’s post. Election is about salvation but if you leave it at that you seriously limit what election is. to me, election not only goes for those that God has called to be his own, whether that be Jew or Gentile, but also those that he has prepared for destruction and judgment. That is also his election. In the same passage that you guys see that Israel’s salvation comes from Egypt God is proclaiming and choosing Egypt to be judged and used. We cannot deny that this is a part of what God calls his election.

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      • Oh, I agree, we can’t leave it there, election is more than just salvation.

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  9. I would have to agree with your statement P. Long that Paul is re-defining what election really means. I like how Wright reshapes what election looks like back in the day. He goes on to say,”They now share this new life, not defined in terms of fleshly identity, that is, of Jewish ethnicity, but in terms of the Messiah’s own new life, a life in which all nations can share equally.”
    I think that is important that he state “share equally”, because in the case of Paul, and his battle of circumsicion and table fellowship, he wanted people to view both in the same light of believing the same God.

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    • >your statement P. Long that Paul is re-defining what election really means

      That was N. T. Wright, but people get us confused all the time ……!

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  10. I, as well as Jed, like how Wright explains the concept of election, for the most part. The only thing I did not like during the chapter, and maybe I was reading it wrong–I most likely am, is that he seems to equate the church with Israel. That has little to do with this post so I will leave it at that.

    My favorite part of either of any of the reading was in Romans 9:24 “Even us, whom he has called, not only from Jews but also from Gentiles? As he says in Hosea ‘I will call them my people’ who are not my people, and I will call them ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one.'” If I am not misunderstanding this verse, it shows a little bit of foreshadowing in the area of election.

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  11. This is how I understand election as far as God working with people. God chose Israel to be his chosen nation and as His chosen nation they were to be a blessing to the other nations. Hebrews 11 displays many people that were justified by faith. Many of these people are not part of the nation of Israel. In dispensational theology class with Professor Spike we learned that through all history humanity is saved through faith. Israel failed to be the blessing to other nations and God used that to display his honor and glory and power by Jesus who fulfilled the all covenants made with God and humans. Through Jesus faithfulness to God all the nations are now blessed with salvation through faith in Jesus the Christ. Romans 9 starting in verse 6 makes it clear that it is no for humans to decide who God will show mercy to.

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  12. To respond to Josh’s post on foreshadowing, yah, I would say that God does foreshadow what He will do in the future. God knew what was going to happen all along of course, we just were not informed on the whole plan yet. I am having a hard time understand what the word “election” means at the moment. Jack writes that it is “God working with people,” and then I read that Wright’s chapter was about the election of Israel as God’s people” (P. Long). My understanding of election was how God has dealt with humanities salvation. So am I wrong in what I thought?

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  13. I would like to politely call N.T. Wright to the table in formal disagreement. The point at hand being that Paul
    A. Would have been horrified at the thought of creating a “non-Jewish” religion.
    and
    B. Paul had “re-worked” the Jewish doctrine of election.

    On A. I would like to say that there are not sufficiently numerous accounts or detailed resources as to the socio-political or socio-emotional changes that Saul underwent in his conversion, or in regards to the manor or degree in context of said manor of his conversion. This is founded in that to say “Paul would have been horrified by such an idea” (N.T. Wright 128) in light of his formation of a Non-Jewish religion, would be to bold and direct a statement, claiming that which is not sufficiently supported with documentation or physical evidence necessary and integral to state. Thus I conclude, and with not direct or implied offense to the educated ability of N.T. Wright or any party reading, that a rather rash statement is a concrete description of this claim in regards to Paul.

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  14. To continue with my previous posting. I shall touch on my second disagreement.
    B. Paul had “re-worked the Jewish doctrine of election.
    I would agree without dispute that divine inspiration from God could lead Paul to reworking the Jewish doctrine of election and that God is not limited to my infinitely finite understanding. But I would say that, from my understanding of the Bible as a whole, that it is not in God’s nature to change in ways that contradict his spoken word or previous behavior. So I would have to say that Paul would not have “re-worked” the Jewish doctrine of election. This is based upon the grounds that re-working would involve significant change to the conceptual implications of this doctrine, and may involve contradictory statements whether they be implied or not. Thus, if the meaning of re-workingin N.T. Wright’s book, Paul, means a form of re-writing, then that would mean a high-risk situation for Biblical error. In God’s peace.

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  15. I also really liked how Zach put it “When we look at Gal. 2 it is Christ’s faithfulness that saves us, and it is our faith that accepts his faithfulness.” Jesus was the saving of Israel through Israel. The saving of the elect through the elect. Jesus was the light to the people who were supposed to be a light to the world. “One way or another, God’s purpose in election, to root evil out of the world and to do so through Israel, would be fulfilled” (111).

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  16. “Paul describes the church as the true descendants of Abraham in the faith” (Long).

    This seems to go far beyond just the simple idea of election, but also to the idea what is the Body of Christ. If we accept this view, then it would seem that all of salvation goes back to the Abrahmic Covenant and that this idea of “mystery” that Paul refers to is mute. Israel and Body of Christ are the same, both decendents of Abraham.

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    • Hm, I would have to disagree with you here shawn but I really do not think I will go all out on the explanation. First of all, there are many theologians in the Grace movement that hold to this principle and they do not think that it is saying that Israel = body of Christ. There must be some other explanation. Lot of the time we are defining things on just a phrase and jumping to conclusions without the rest of what the Bible has to say on that topic.

      I guess my question would be in what way are we the same as Israel? If we are the same does that mean we have the same promises as Israel? Do we live as Israel replaced because they have not believed? Do I get a piece of land in Israel because I am the body of Christ? I do not think so. There is a distinction between what our dispensation and who we are and who Israel is. To say that both Israel and I (and correct me if I am wrong) are in the same family because of what Christ did on the cross then I do not think that we are too far off. We are saved by what Christ has done for us on the cross and we all believe in one God but that does not mean we are absolutely the same. We are different in the way that God has worked it out and he is doing something with us that is different than what he has promised Israel.

      So to respond to us being the same as Israel: yes. We are both saved by our faith in God and are accepted into his family. However, we are different in the way that he has revealed himself to us and how we are called.

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  17. Caleb your right, I don’t think anyone here would argue the fact that it is by faith in Christ we are saved. As P. Long said, there are numerous verses that speak very clearly on that. The argument that has come up is simply regarding whether or not this passages refers to that or if it refers to the faith OF Christ. For the first time in my GBC enrollment I can actually look at it’s Greek translation and understand…I think, I’m sure you will correct me tomorrow or Tuesday when we get into Greek class P. Long. “δια πιστεωσ Ιησου χριστου” is what the text says in my Greek NT. Well…great Jesus Christ could be in genitive or dative. It could be of Jesus Christ or in Jesus Christ. Well luckily πιστεωσ is definitely genitive, singular, feminine which tells us so is both Jesus and Christ. Meaning that in the Greek text this actually says “through the faith OF Jesus Christ” I find this really interesting and I’m not entirely sure why its translated differently. P. Long you mentioned that only the KJV held this view and I’m curious as to why.
    However, this does lead me to agree with what Elise was saying that “Both are needed to be apart of God’s family” speaking of the faith OF Christ and our faith IN Christ. I believe this to be completely true. Obviously if Christ didn’t have the faith to fulfill the promise of the Lord by his death on the cross, then our faith in him would not hold the power that it does. The faith of Christ seems to be an essential part of our theology that is never talked about. Although our salvation comes through faith in what Christ did, if Christ didn’t do it then our salvation wouldn’t be true. Much the same way, if we take the deity of Christ, or we take away and aspect of who God is, or we take away part of our theology it has a ripple effect over the rest of it. If we take away what Christ did, it changes everything.
    What Christ did and our belief in what he did must meet as a point and together they both effect our salvation.

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    • > P. Long you mentioned that only the KJV held this
      > view and I’m curious as to why.

      Dumb luck, IMHO. The KJV is literal, without much nuance when it comes to things like this. They do not add the “in” to the text since it is a genitive construction, the (few) others I checked tend to add it in as a theological interpretation of what the Genitive means.

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