Predestination and Freewill: N. T. Wright

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Romans, Predestination, and Freewill.

N. T. WrightIn The New Interpreter’s Bible, N.T. Wright begins by writing that, “Romans is neither a systematic theology nor a summary of Paul’s lifework, but it is by common consent his masterpiece.”[1] Wright describes the main theme of the letter as “God’s gospel unveiling God’s righteousness,” which describes “Paul’s own summary in 1:16-17, and the letter does, indeed, unpack this dense statement…. The phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ summed up sharply and conveniently, for a first century Jew such as Paul, the expectations that the God of Israel… would be faithful to the promises made to the patriarchs.”[2] With this understanding of Romans, Wright argues that, “The flow of thought through the letter as a whole makes far more sense if we understand the statement of the theme in 1:17 as being about God and God’s covenant faithfulness and justice, rather than simply about ‘justification.’ It brings into focus chapters 9-11, not as an appendix to a more general treatment of sin and salvation, but as the intended major climax of the whole letter….”[3] For Wright, much like Dunn, there remains room within the larger theme of covenant faithfulness for other readings of major subjects, especially the salvation of humans.[4] However, “Paul’s [overarching] aim, it seems, is to explain to the Roman church what God has been up to and where they might belong on the map of these purposes.”[5]

In Romans 7, Wright understands Paul to be still unpacking the implications of Romans 5:20, in his translation, “the law came in alongside, so that the trespass might be filled out; but where sin abounded, grace superabounded.”[6] He argues that, “The theology of this passage is not to be played off against ‘justification by faith,’ either theologically or in terms of its background in the history of religions. It is part of the continuous, unbroken argument of the whole letter.”[7] For Wright, the “I” in Romans 7:7-25 does not represent the normal Christian, as he takes Roman 8:9[8] as normative, though “this is not to say, of course, that normal Christian experience knows nothing of moral struggle and frustration. Part of the problem in the history of exegesis is precisely that preachers and theologians have read Romans 5-8 as a ‘theology of the Christian life’ and , finding here a portrait of moral struggle that seemed familiar to the sensitive Christian striving after holiness and ever more aware of falling short, assumed that that was what Paul was talking about….”[9] Wright critiques Bultmann’s view of Romans 7, that when “Paul here spoke of ‘sin’ he did not mean so much the breaking of God’s law as the attempt to keep it and so to earn a ‘status’ for oneself independent of God and God’s grace…” and in so doing appears to critique Luther’s understanding as well.[10] Wright argues that “this theory gained its apparent force from the combination of the Lutheran critique of ‘human works,’ the attempt by human beings to make themselves righteous, and the existentialist critique of life lived inauthentically, by human arrogance. But it has little to commend it as exegesis of Romans 7. The problem of the ‘I’ is not that it can perform the law but ought not to try, but that it rightly delights in the law but cannot perform it.”[11] Key for Wright in interpreting Romans 7, one must remember that, “He [Paul] is not, after all, constructing an abstract soteriology, but telling the story of God and Israel, which reaches its strange, paradoxical, yet deliberate and consistent, climax in the sending of the Messiah and the sending of the Spirit.”[12]

Wright summarizes Romans 8:12-30 by writing that “This passage is also, therefore, the completion of the basic statement about God’s righteousness, God’s saving justice, God’s covenant faithfulness…. The passage, filled as it this us with rich themes about the Christians’ status, prayer, and future hope, follows a clear line of thought that could be summed up as ‘debtors to God’s grace.’ [Thus]… God is utterly and unalterably purposed to bring all those in Christ to their glorious Christ-shaped inheritance (8:28-30).”[13] Concerning the following chapter, Wright rejects the common use of the chapter to formulate the doctrine of predestination, saying “Chapter 9 has long been seen as the central New Testament passage on ‘predestination,’ though as we shall see the theological tradition from Augustine to Calvin (and beyond) did not grasp what Paul was actually talking about here. Subsequent debates about how people get saved have used the section to balance the options: In chap. 9 (it has been said) everything flows from divine sovereignty, in chap. 10 everything hinges on human responsibility, and in chap. 11 it turns out that God will in any case have mercy upon all. More broadly, those who have seen Paul’s view of God and salvation as being essentially outside space and time have discovered in this passage something that to them seems very strange: a ‘historical’ dimension to salvation…. The major topic that has come to the forefront of theological discussion in the second half of the twentieth century, and is obviously much closer to what Paul is really talking about, is the question of the ethnic people of Israel.”[14] Wright understands Paul to be recasting the story of Israel in light of God’s work through Jesus Christ and Israel’s subsequent rejection of the Messiah.[15] Wright concludes concerning Romans 9 that, “To revert to an earlier image: to ignore the fact that we have here a fully orchestrated ‘salvation history,’ and to suppose that one can then read the rest of the book as referring to an ahistorical salvation or Christian life, is to remain deaf not just to the structure and flow of the letter but to the subject Paul is dealing with. To imagine that one can bypass these chapters in the interest of a simpler or smoother reading of the letter is to settle, not just for second best here, but for a severely truncated view of everything else as well.”[16]

To understand N.T. Wright’s perspective on Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the soteriological implications of the letter, one must understand several factors. First, the major theme of the letter involves “God’s gospel unveiling God’s righteousness,” and not a central concern about justification. Second, in interpreting Romans 7 Paul did not write concerning normative Christian life in a manner than modern commentators may derive holiness codes. Third, Wright rejects the justification-centered interpretation of Romans 7, as he believed Paul to be constructing a retelling of the story of God and Israel and not an abstract soteriology. Fourth, Wright emphasizes in chapter 8 the justice, righteousness, purposes, and covenant faithfulness of God that will bring about salvation. Fifth, chapter 9 does not concern itself directly with predestination of individuals for soteriological concerns, but instead concerns itself with the question of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel. One must consider the likelihood of a people questioning the faithfulness of God after hearing that the same God had somehow rejected his earlier covenant people. Thus for Wright one cannot directly develop an individual soteriological theology from the passages of Romans 7-9, as Paul’s writing contains other concerns.


[1] N.T. Wright. “The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol. X. Sr. Editor Leander E. Keck. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002. 395. [2] Ibid., 397-8; Wright additionally places emphasis on the apocalyptic undertones of Paul: “He quickly came to regard the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the apocalyptic moment for which he and others had longed, and he rethought his previous was of viewing the story of Israel and the world as a result.” (401) [3] Ibid., 403-4. [4] Ibid., 403. [5] Ibid., 404. [6] Ibid., 549. [7] Ibid., 549. [8] “You are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (Wright’s Translation). [9] Ibid., 552. [10] Ibid., 554. [11] Ibid., 554. [12] Ibid., 555. [13] Ibid., 591. [14] Ibid., 620. [15] Ibid., 621-6. [16] Ibid., 626.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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