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Romans and the Role of Israel in the Atonement

Mark Horne

Copyright © 2002

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5.7)

So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons Galatians 4.3-5).

He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth (Ephesians 1.9, 10).

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time (Second Timothy 2.5, 6).

Paul, a bond-servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior (Titus 1.1-3).

Question: What was so important about the timing of Jesus’ mission? What made that point in human history “the fullness of time”? I doubt that we can simply state that it was the fullness of time merely because it was the point at which God planned to send His Son. Some other texts that may be relevant:

…because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3.20).

And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5.19, 20).

And I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. So then, the Law is

holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful (Romans 7.9-13).

Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made (Galatians 3.19).

Now perhaps Romans 7 doesn’t really belong here, nor even Romans 3.20. I can’t help but think they do. Romans 7 would be, then, Paul speaking of himself as Israel; and the knowledge of sin in 3.20 would not simply refer to the cognitive information about what is sin but rather an intimate acquaintance with it. In both cases, the meaning would be the same as in Romans 5.19, 20: Israel became more sinful because of God’s gracious giving of the law.

But whatever quibbles we may have about how many passages have direct bearing, I have a hypothesis about the message of Paul regarding the fullness of time and the magnification of sin by the giving of the Mosaic Law: What if the Law was given to Israel so that Israel could sin and thus recreate the Fall of Adam? What if it was God’s intention to set up Israel as the representative of humanity so that Jesus could step into the path of God’s wrath on humanity?

Let us suppose that the record in the Gospels of Israel’s large-scale apostasy is not an accident that just happened to be the case, but rather an essential element of Christ’s atonement.

Honestly now, given the way we usually articulate the Gospel [1.], it seems to me that Jesus could have been born and Irishman, an Iraqi, or a Chinaman, and could have died in any number of ways, to complete his mission to die for the elect. But this leaves us with some problems. A minor one is in apologetics. The whole scheme seems fantastically arbitrary to many.

There is a more substantial problem for believers that I will break down into two related ones: First, it renders ninety-nine percent of the information given to us in the four Gospels actually superfluous to the message of the Gospel. Second, it leaves us with no explanation as to the entire history of Israel recorded in the Scriptures.

Let me put it this way: Why did God wait thousands of years and spend so much time working with the nation of Israel? What was the point? To give us moral lessons? That doesn’t make much sense. Why not simply choose Abraham and Sarah to give birth to the Christ child?

Let’s assume that history in Scripture matters. What is the Biblical history? I’ll summarize in three stages:

  1. From Adam to Noah the world grows in evil until God has to destroy it.
  2. From Noah to Moses the world grows in evil. After the nations are formed in the shadow of the ruins of Babel, Abraham is chosen to bring salvation to the nations. But we find Jacob’s sons are about to mix up with the Canaanites (the point of the story of Judah and Tamar). God curses the world with famine but provides a savior in Joseph from the famine and in Egypt from the intermarriage of the chosen people, since the Hebrews were abominable to the Egyptians. Nevertheless, in Egypt they fall into idolatry and become slaves.
  3. From Moses to Jesus. Three times the covenant unravels. The decline found in the book of Judges is corrected through Samuel and David. The decline under the kings is corrected through exile. But Jesus came to a nation worse than it had ever been. The demons alone, prove this. There is no precedent in the Hebrew Scriptures for widespread demonic oppression.

Thus, my hypothesis: God was about to destroy the world.

Israel was given the law and they had only become worse sinners as a result. To whom much is given much is required. And if Israel was under judgment–they whom God had given the task of being a light to the nations–then the rest of the world was surely doomed as well. The wrath of God was about to fall.

And Jesus stepped in its path.

He came at the right time just when the priestly people who had been given the covenant law had become the worst offenders. He literally came on Judgment Day. And the only reason there is a world of human beings today is because that judgment fell on him instead of the ones who deserved it.

A lot more could be said. My suggestion, for lack of time right now, is to read Paul as one who thinks the world, in principle, has been destroyed and then reborn. For what it’s worth, I have a couple of other suggestions about how this reading makes more sense of Romans as a whole.

I have a translation suggestion for Romans 3.1-3


Then what is the advantage of the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?


Then what is the advantage of the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted with the oracles of God. What then? If some betrayed their trust, their untrustworthiness will not nullify the trustworthiness of God, will it?

Then what is the advantage of the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision? Great in every respect. First of all, that they were entrusted [remember this has the same root as the “faith” words in this passage] with the oracles of God. What then? If some broke faith, their faithlessness will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?

Why would this matter?

It matters because what is at issue is that Israel has not fulfilled her commission to be a light to the nations, a city set on a hill. Yet Paul is pointing out that, if it was God’s intention to bless the world through Israel, that Israel’s unfaithfulness must have been part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the Gentiles [2.]. Thus, he goes on to write:

But if our unrighteousness demonstrates [or better: “commends” or [“establishes”] the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath is not unrighteous, is He? (I am speaking in human terms.) May it never be! For otherwise how will God judge the world? But if through my lie the truth of God abounded to His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner? And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say), “Let us do evil that good may come”? Their condemnation is just.

Paul is not articulating a general response to the problem of providence but a specific defense that God is not wrong to have planned Israel’s failure to bring salvation to the world. N. T. Wright notes the cruciform nature of Israel’s failure:

Now if their transgression be riches for the world and their failure be riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! (Romans 11.12).

For if their rejection be the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11.15).

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Romans 5.10).

In one sense, the issue here is almost hyper-Lutheran in a way. Israel’s covenant was not to earn their salvation by any merit in law keeping, but it was to accomplish the salvation of the whole world by the obedience of faith. The problem was not that Israel couldn’t quite obey God perfectly, but rather that she entirely broke faith as a nation. But that was God’s plan all along and the fulfillment of Israel’s commission in a paradoxical way. Israel’s faithlessness brought on God’s judgment so that Jesus could bring about the salvation of the world by taking that judgment on himself. Instead of condemning the world through Israel, God condemned sin itself.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8.3, 4).

If the above is accurate, then perhaps the popular conception of Romans 5.20-6.2 is somewhat inaccurate.

I hear from several quarters that Romans 6.1 proves that the doctrine of free grace (equated with “the Gospel”) is supposed to raise suspicions and even accusations of antinomianism. If your hearer doesn’t think that Gospel means he can sin as he pleases, then you haven’t presented the Gospel accurately to him. To be sure, you are supposed to explain that somehow the Gospel is not antinomian, but initially he ought to think otherwise when he hears the Gospel.

But it seems much more contextually justified that Romans 6.1 is a question raised by the purpose of the Law in the history of Israel. God commissioned Israel to bring salvation to the nations and Israel contributed to the salvation of the nations precisely by transgressing the Law. Israel was made a new Adam and Israel reproduced Adam’s sin. So, someone might say, if that is how God fulfilled his purpose through Israel, should we not all try to fulfill God’s purpose by sinning?

Paul’s response is that now sin has been dealt with and we dare not extrapolate with what happened in the case of fleshly Israel. The doctrine of free grace is not precisely at issue.

This perspective on Paul’s message in Romans also might explain why what is often alleged to be Paul’s argument that all Israelites are sinners (2.1-3.20) sounds so incredibly lame for that purpose. To explain what I mean, allow me to quote what I have written elsewhere:

The Hebrew Scriptures explicitly declare that there is no man who does not sin. King Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple,

When they sin against you (for there is no man who does not sin) and you are angry with them and deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; if they take thought in the land where they have been taken captive, and repent and make supplication to you in the land of those who have taken them captive, saying, “We have sinned and have committed iniquity, we have acted wickedly”; if they return to Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to Thee toward their land which you have given to their fathers, the city which you have chosen, and the house which I have built for your name; then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive your people who have sinned against you and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against you, and make them objects of compassion before those who have taken them captive, that they may have compassion on them (for they are your people and your inheritance which you have brought forth from Egypt, from the midst of the iron furnace), that your eyes may be open to the supplication of your servant and to the supplication of your people Israel, to listen to them whenever they call to you. For you have separated them from all the peoples of the earth as your inheritance, as you spoke through Moses your servant, when you brought our fathers forth from Egypt, O Lord GOD (First Kings 8.46-53).

Solomon was not revealing some well-kept secret when he stated that there is no man who does not sin. One of the songs, sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for worship, confessed

If you, LORD, marked iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
That you may be feared (Psalm 130.3, 4).

And David’s prayer was also sung in worship:

Hear my prayer, O LORD,
Give ear to my supplications!
Answer me in your faithfulness, in your righteousness!
And do not enter into judgment with your servant,
For in your sight no man living is righteous (Psalm 143.1, 2).

Solomon in his wisdom asked the rhetorical question, “Who can say, ‘I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Proverbs 20.9). He also wrote, “there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7.20).

If this was a longer essay and a more detailed one, it might be worth pursuing how David and possibly another Psalmist, and Solomon arrived at this conclusion about possibility of a man or woman living without sinning. Apart from their observations on life, what did they read in the earlier Scriptures that enabled them to make such confidently negative assertions? While a great deal of evidence was undoubtedly available, my hunch is that Solomon’s prayer refers to a specific strand from Moses’ farewell sermon. He mentions that all men sin while speaking of those taken out of the Promised Land reflects Deuteronomy 28-30, which begins by promising blessings for obedience and threatening curses that include exile. By the beginning of chapter 30, however, the threat is transformed into a prophecy in which Moses simply predicts that the people will go into exile and then be restored after God circumcises their hearts. Except for the hope after the exile, the last seven chapters of Deuteronomy paint a bleak picture of the future of God’s chosen people. Perhaps this portrayal of God’s own chosen people unable to remain in such a gracious covenant with God was one strand of evidence that led the writers of the Kingdom period to deduce that no one could live without sin.

Now, if we keep these passages in mind, reading Romans 2.1ff raises an immediate question: Why doesn’t Paul use any of these Scriptures? Is Paul claiming that every single Israelite is one who either steals (2.21), or commits adultery (v. 22) or robs temples (v. 22)? Surely not.

I know how to argue that everyone is individually guilty before God. I point out that a holy God examines even what goes on in the thought life so that even lustful thoughts are worthy of Hell. I point out that the ways we lose our tempers with our spouses is hateful in God’s sight and requires his forgiveness. I point out all sorts of sins that most if not all commit. What I don’t do is list a few major sins and ask rhetorically, “Is everyone not guilty of these?” but that is precisely what Paul does, throwing in, for good measure a Scripture citation which is hard to locate: “For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written.”

Paul is amalgamating at least a couple of texts in his citation:

“Now therefore, what do I have here,” declares the Lord, “seeing that My people have been taken away without cause?” Again the Lord declares, “Those who rule over them howl, and My name is continually blasphemed all day long (Isaiah 52.5).

When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, “These are the people of the Lord; yet they have come out of His land.” But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations where they went. Therefore, say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. And I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh'” (Ezekiel 36.20-26).

Now this undoubtedly shows that the nation of Israel was in deep sin, but Paul and all his readers new of Daniel and Jeremiah and many others who were not guilty of those specific abominations. As a direct argument for individual sin and guilt, the interpretation leaves us with more problems than answers. As an argument that Israel has not fulfilled her commission and is known for such abominations as theft, idolatry, and adultery, the argument works quite well. No doubt many of Paul’s contemporaries were wringing their hands over the state of their nation and the behavior of many of their kinsmen.

Incidentally, this helps us also understand the point of Paul’s argument earlier in Romans 1.18ff. Certainly not every Gentile was guilty of sodomy or of approving of sodomy. Again, Paul is talking about collective groups. The nations are headed in a downward spiral and the chosen nation which is supposed to be ” guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of the immature, having in the Law the embodiment of knowledge and of the truth” (Romans 2.19b, 20), is so full of sin herself that she cannot help show the nations the Way of the Lord.

If one is not yet convince, we need only glance at the proof texts used in chapter 3 to allegedly prove that every single human being is a sinner. “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one…'” (Romans 3.9). Paul is quoting (paraphrasing) from Psalm 14 and 53. Here is the former:

For the choir director. A Psalm of David

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good.
The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men,
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.
Do all the workers of wickedness not know,
Who eat up my people as they eat bread,
And do not call upon the Lord?
There they are in great dread,
For God is with the righteous generation [?!].
You would put to shame the counsel of the afflicted,
But the Lord is his refuge.
Oh, that the salvation of Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores His captive people,
Jacob will rejoice, Israel will be glad (Psalm 14; emphasis added).

In case you missed the point of my bracketed question and exclamation, to quote Steve Schlissel when I heard him preach in this passage, “Where did those righteous come from?” When David writes that there is no one who does good he is manifestly not speaking of all people. Remember, he does affirm that there is no one who does good in the sense of morally perfect works (Psalm 143.2) and Paul no doubt believes and preaches the same. But he does not appeal Psalm 143 here. He appeals to a passage that speaks of the fools in Israel who are oppressing the righteous generation. As a statement about the condition of the nation Israel, Paul’s proof works fine. As a statement first and foremost of the universal condition of every human being, the argument falls flat.

No doubt the apostasy of Israel is evidence for and a result of the depravity of man in general. There is no need to doubt the doctrine. But Paul has other immediate concerns here.

If Paul’s concern is to show that God gave the law to Israel to manifest and provoke further sin so that “at the right time” He could send His son to do what the Law could not do because Israel was weak in the flesh and through His Son condemn sin in the flesh. That is Paul’s argument and that is why he argues the way he does.

If anyone purchases the tapes “Romans in a Week” by N. T. Wright, from Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., they will find most and probably all that I have written there with much more. My problem is that I somehow could not understand what he was trying to argue. And maybe I haven’t understood it and my sudden insight is just a happy accident.

It happened, incidentally, while I was thinking about a sermon on Luke One and wondering why it was so important to Luke to give us clues that all was not well in the priesthood of Israel, all the while I had Wright lecturing on Romans 7 in the background.

Wright constantly speaks of how Jesus being Israel’s king is very important and that God wanted to heap up sin all in one place. But I never quite understood what he was getting at. How does one pile up sin? If I am right and Israel had reached the point that God was going to destroy Israel and, as a result, the world, then we have a way of understanding how God “condemned sin in the flesh.” Every single person on earth since that time is conceived, born, and lives because of Jesus stepping in the way of God’s wrath. It is as if Noah, instead of getting on the ark and being the lone survivor with his family, inhaled the entire flood himself and drowned instead of the wicked people around him.

This doesn’t mean there is no room for a future wrath of God. On the contrary, our sins now are much worse and we need the forgiveness of sins available only in Jesus all the more. To whom much is given much is required.

And God has given us more than we will ever understand.


1. Short-hand summaries of the Gospel are necessary, by the way, so don’t understand me to be condemning them entirely

2. This may be why it is theologically important for Deuteronomy to end on such a negative note regarding the future faithlessness of Israel.

Copyright © 2002

1 Comment »

  1. I am having dificulty to understan Rom 11.12.,15,Please try to clarify it for me .. What it mean how much more their fulness..Thank you

    Comment by NADIA — November 9, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

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