Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Wrath 8

Yes, these texts from Paul about wrath are the sensitive spot for many today, but our task is to look at them, to look them in the eye, and see if we can make sense of them. Romans 4 has the next reference to wrath:

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us …)


Seemingly out of the blue, Paul says the “law brings/effects/produces wrath.” Well, we might ask, how? Since the next clause has the word “violation,” we are led to think the law brings wrath because the law brings a moral clarity that humans fall short of and that falling short leads to the just judgment of God against sin. In such a way law brings wrath.
Paul’s concern here is not universal but with the Jewish people whose sins were turned into transgressions by the Torah (Moo).
But, here is Paul’s bigger point, law brings wrath and faith brings salvation. And “faith” here is “faith in Christ, who himself brings that salvation.” So, Paul distinguishes what happens to the Jewish person who knows the covenant and does not follow Christ and the person who knows the covenant and does know Christ. Paul is pushing in this context against the adequacy of the Mosaic Torah — it is a wrath-slinging set of words.

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posted May 30, 2008 at 8:14 am

In the post-Shoah world this aspect of Paul’s reflections in Romans would make some people nervous, playing on Christian anti-Judaism. Unlike today when Paul is lionized in Protestant thought–de facto almost more important than Jesus–he was not such a popluar figure in the early church. He fought those in the church who wanted to keep what we call Christianity an ethnic-based or subset of messianic Judaism, which would have compromised the gospel,as he understands it. He is using his considerable rhetorical skills to make space for the Jew-Gentile communities of YHWH in Christ he is planting all over the eastern Mediterranean.
In this he has to deconstruct the very thing–or at their understanding of it–which Jews see as their possession which gives them spiritual entitlement and superiority: Torah. Paul is walking on a tightrope as evidenced by Rom 9-11 but he has to do it as a theological rationale of his larger ecclesial mission which there were those in the church trying to undermine at every turn.

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Terry Tiessen

posted May 30, 2008 at 11:04 am

You suggest that Paul?s point is that ?law brings wrath and faith brings salvation.? Is Paul?s concern the law, as such, or is it legalism, the attempt to justify oneself by law-keeping? (You?ve doubtless spoken to this in your books, so pardon my ignorance.) I am not yet persuaded by the many voices that deny that legalism was a problem in first century Judaism. Are you? I know that Paul says in this text that ?the law brings wrath,? but isn?t his bottom line concern, in the larger context, that some people misconstrued the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the Abrahamic covenant? They thought that the law replaced the principle of justification by faith which Paul sees so clearly demonstrated in the life of Abraham. People who misconstrued the purpose of the law were consequently unprepared to live by the grace through faith that even Torah enjoined upon them in the sacrificial system. Those whose relationship with God was not based on grace through faith, in old covenant terms, were consequently not ready to move on to faith in Jesus, who was himself justified by his law keeping yet whose perfect obedience was what made him the great exemplar of faith.
Am I missing Paul?s point or was this entailed in your own statement?

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Scot McKnight

posted May 30, 2008 at 11:52 am

If you are suggesting that by “law” Paul means “legalistic obedience apart from grace,” then I can’t agree. Gal 3:19-26, for instance, makes it clear to me that “law” was given for a limited time and for a limited reason. Attempts to live by the law brings what the law brings: not salvation but a curse (3:10-12). So, I would say that Paul means “law” when he says “law.”

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posted May 30, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Isn’t the point here not “law brings wrath” but that salvation is through faith ? before the law was given, while the law was in effect, and continuing into the future ? faith in God, faith in God through Christ, faith in Christ who brings salvation? In other words, it is a positive statement about faith ? the wrath piece could be left out altogether if not for the ethnocentric culture of Judaism which Paul had to contend with on occasion.
But on the topic of wrath ? I agree that this passage seems to indicate that wrath is just judgment. Only those who “know better” can fall short in a fashion leading to wrath. Of course earlier in Romans the point is made that everyone “knows better” and those who fall short are subject to wrath ? just judgment.

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Terry Tiessen

posted May 30, 2008 at 1:58 pm

Thanks, Scot. I reckon you are right. Hence your quote from Moo.
I think I was right to see the issue as misconstrual of the covenantal relationships established by God but wrong in the particular way in which I saw the particular error of those about whom Paul is concerned.
Your point about the temporary nature of the law (Mosaic covenant) is critical. The covenant with continuity is the one God made with Abraham which was a covenant of promise and grace, properly appropriated by faith. The law given to Moses was never intended to establish a different basis for Israel?s relationship to God. It kept Israel distinct as the covenant people from whom Messiah would come but, once he established the new covenant in his blood, it ceased to be useful in that function. The descendants of Abraham who understood that were his children also by faith but now, we Gentiles who have the faith of Abraham are members of the covenant people, without having to go through the Mosaic covenant to get there. Amazing. Having been justified by Christ?s blood, we will be ?saved from God?s wrath through him? (Rom 5:9). That could be where you were headed next. It is good news indeed.

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