George Costanza, NT Wright & Angry God (Rom. 8:3-4) by Brad Jersak

George Costanza’s Angry God

George: God would never let me be successful. He’d kill me first. He’ll never let me be happy.

Therapist: I thought you didn’t believe in God.

George: I do for the bad things.

N.T. Wright’s Rejection of the Angry God

Brad Jersak’s Reflections on Wright and Romans 8:3-4

I like what N.T. Wright says here (summarizing a key point in The Day the Revolution Began). He rejects the notion that the Father’s anger must be appeased through the punishment of Christ on the Cross. John 3:16 does not say, “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” This is a paganizing of the gospel in Wright’s view. Rather, the gospel announces that “God so loved  the world that he sent his only Son.”  … But then it seems odd that Wright would immediately apply Paul’s words — “God condemned sin in Jesus’ flesh” — to claim that “the punishment for our sins matters as well.”
In context, Romans 8:3-4 reads this way: “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, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
It is nearly impossible for modern Evangelicals to hear that phrase as referring to anything other than penal substitutionary atonement. And I feel that NT Wright generally fails to communicate what he (or Paul) means by that phrase in a way simple enough to set them free of that problem. Wright’s grand narrative nuances it to death, but that won’t work for the Evangelical who pokes aggressively at these verses after I’ve preached ‘the gospel in chairs’ (see chapter 14 of A More Christlike God for the full script).
So, let’s work this out. If we refrain from imposing Calvinist atonement theory back onto the text, what else might Paul mean by “God condemned sin in the flesh”? How do we interpret Wright’s use of “punishment for sin” here? Or shall we simply disagree at this point?
To rephrase the question,
1. how did the Incarnation of God the Son condemn sin in Jesus’ flesh, and
2. how was the Incarnation of God the Son an offering for sin?
With Paul, early church theologians (a la Irenaeus and Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus) regard “sin,” not simply as law-breaking behavior in need of punishment, but rather, as the fatal human disease — the venom in the Serpent’s ‘bite.’ St Paul goes so far as to say, “But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:20). I.e. ‘sin’ is ‘not me’ but ‘in me’ like a virus that infects, enslaves and ultimately kills us. The one infected with sin needs medicine, not punishment; a great physician, not a judge, jury and executioner. How is God to eradicate the virus without killing the patient?
Enter the Incarnation! The virus called ‘sin’ was annihilated in Christ when he assumed human ‘flesh.’ To unpack this, when John 1 says, that “the Word became flesh,” the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers not only to Christ’s humanity, but to the miraculous truth that the divine Word united the deity of God to the fallen flesh (Romans 8:3) of humanity (contributed through Mary). When in Christ, the divine Word united with that flesh — at conception –the Incarnation (the hypostatic union) destroyed the virus ‘sin’ in Christ’s human nature. Further, in offering his life for us on the Cross, Christ also eradicated the prognosis of that virus — death itself — through his death and resurrection.
Think of it this way, perhaps: the fatal and incurable virus we all carry is more powerful than our will power, our religious striving, even our harshest punishments. You could incarcerate a man for life, end his life with the death penalty and even fry him in hell for all eternity — and it would not eradicate the sin virus from human ‘flesh.’ But what we were powerless to do (and what the law was powerless to do), Christ in fact did in two steps. First, he exposed the sin virus to the glory of his divine nature and utterly destroyed it (condemned it in his flesh). And second, he offers his life to undo sin’s fatal effects by entering death and returning in his resurrection. By virtue of Christ’s union with human nature (all human nature, not just human nature), he heals human nature.
In other words, Christ took on the likeness of human nature in order to restore the likeness of the divine nature in humankind. Yes, sin and it’s effects were condemned in his flesh — and this, so far as I can see, has nothing to do with punishment and everything to do with the exchange that happens our union with the God-man.
Am I on the right track? Is this what Paul means in context? Certainly he’s opting for a vicarious exchange rather than a penal substitution. I.e. not instead of us, but AS us (in the likeness of sinful human flesh), the sin disease is incinerated by divine glory, not simply ‘punished.’ And it it this lingo of punishment that I don’t think Wright is wise to retain.

Brian Zahnd’s response to Jersak

Yes, I wish that N.T. Wright would abandon any idea of a penal aspect to the Cross.

I mean, his careful nuance still got him thrown under the fundamentalist bus by gatekeeper John MacArthur, who labeled Wright a ‘false teacher.’

Yes, God condemned sin in the flesh at the Cross. What else can be said about the Good Friday revelation that our system of civilization is so corrupt that when the Sinless One entered it, he ended up nailed to a tree? Sin is condemned at the cross. But Jesus is not being punished by God. That’s nonsense. And pagan nonsense at that.

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Brad Jersak

Bradley Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More