Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball": A Review

Every new release by Bruce Springsteen is a major event in my house.  Ever since his early, unreleased ('til 1998) R&B classic, "The Fever," was given substantial airplay on Philadelphia's WMMR and WYSP in 1974, the Boss has been among my favorite rock artists.  Indeed, by the time his nearly unparalleled string of classic albums, from 1973's "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" through 1984's "Born in the U.S.A.," had run its course, Bruce stood alone at the top of my personal rock pantheon.  What always separated Springsteen from his major competitors (for me, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones) was that the lyrics of his songs were not simply random vehicles for the music.  They actually conveyed a well-thought-out message, conveyed in character sketches few of his peers could ever hope to emulate.

"Wrecking Ball" is Springsteen's fourth rock album of the new millennium.  Each of these has had an almost prophetic relevance to events and trends in contemporary American society: 2002's cathartic "The Rising" to 9/11, 2007's "Magic" to the government's lies that led to the Iraq War, 2009's somewhat less-successful "Working on a Dream" to the vague "hope" inspired by the election of a new President.  So it is with "Wrecking Ball."  Springsteen has said it is his response to the "Occupy" protests of the past year, and one can see why.  Sprinkled throughout are scathing references to "fat cats," "gambling m[e]n" up on "Banker's Hill," not to mention "marauders," "vultures," "greedy thieves" and "robber barons" whose crimes have thus far gone unpunished.  Indeed, the Boss has chosen to articulate his anger less obliquely and with broader brush strokes than in the past so as to use it as a blunt cudgel against the economic and political powers-that-be who have failed to keep the "promise"—yet another classic Springsteen theme dating to the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" era—"to take care of our own" "from sea to shining sea," and thus expose us as a nation "on judgment day."  Yet not is all Sturm und Drang here.  Springsteen, at the close of the album, leavens his anger with a note of hope ("Land of Hope and Dreams") and, indeed, resurrection ("We Are Alive"), that we as a people will listen, as Abraham Lincoln said, to "the better angels of our nature" and thus reclaim the ideals for which he believes America has always stood.

I approached "Wrecking Ball" with not a little trepidation because of the advance publicity that spoke of its "experimentation" and hip-hop influences.  Yes, the album does use samples of old gospel recordings made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in the 1940s and 1950s.  Yes, it does make generous use of electronic drum loops.  Yes, it also shows the unmistakable influence of hip-hop on the distinctive "Rocky Ground," which even includes a 16-line rap by guest vocalist Michelle Moore.  Yet Bruce long ago used hip-hop rhythms in his award-winning "Streets of Philadelphia," and the rap is just as innocuous as that which graced John Mellencamp's hit "Peaceful World" a decade ago.  It may be a misstep—I, as a rock 'n roll dinosaur, tend to think it is—but it certainly isn't a major one.  Indeed, all the "experiments" do is serve to update the Boss's sound for a new generation, but the songs themselves remain classic Springsteen rock vehicles rooted in the foundational genres of country, blues, gospel, and folk. 

Three songs immediately stand out as potential concert staples for the great E Street Band.  The opening track, "We Take Care of Our Own," from the opening sledgehammer poundings of the snare to the sing-along chorus, masks its protest lyrics in a classic Springsteenesque musical idiom.  It may not be "Thunder Road" or "Badlands," but it certainly lives up to such latter-day openers as "Lonesome Day."  "Wrecking Ball" was originally written to commemorate the demise of Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, but its note of defiance in the face of seeming ruin fits the album perfectly.  Closest to the time-worn Springsteen sound is the great, gospel-infused "Land of Hopes and Dreams," well-known by virtue of its appearance on 2001's "Live in New York City."  Midway through I was brought to tears by the last recorded solo of the late, lamented Clarence Clemons.  His booming, throaty tenor solos will never be replaced or replicated.

Striking is the residual influence from his exploration of folk music in 2006's "Seeger Sessions."  Two of the best tracks on the album are the Celtic-derived hootenanny, "Easy Money," and the country-influenced folk song, "Shackled and Drawn."  Better yet is "Death to My Hometown," which not only alludes to his 1984 classic, "My Hometown," but sees Bruce channeling his inner Shane MacGowan.  Sporting tin whistles and all, this Irish wake of a song sounds like The Pogues meeting the E Street Band.

For my money, however, the best song on the album is the slow, melancholy, minor key waltz, "Jack of All Trades."  This, I would suggest, is one of the best songs he has written in the last 25 years.  As the title suggests, it portrays an aging working man who must make ends meet doing odd jobs, yet consoles his wife with the promise that "we'll be all right," hoping against hope that "we'll start caring for each other like Jesus said we might."  Yet his inner frustration ends up rearing its ugly head when he confesses, "If I had a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight."  Gracing this song, along with its achingly beautiful melody, are a deceivingly simple trumpet solo by Curt Ramm and a closing, slow-burn guitar solo by Tom Morello.  This is simply a marvelous song.

Springsteen, by his own admission, is a lapsed Catholic.  This has not stopped him from utilizing biblical imagery and themes heavily in his work, from 1978's blistering "Adam Raised a Cain" straight through to the present work.  And his work carries the unmistaken note of eschatology, though obviously of the secular sort.  Listening once again, after a few years' time, to the lyrics of "Land of Hopes and Dreams," I was struck by his cataloguing of the riders on the train to his mythical land: "This train ... carries saints and sinners/this train ... carries losers and winners/this train ... carries whores and gamblers/this train ... carries lost souls/I said this train ... carries broken hearted/this train ... thieves and sweet souls departed/this train ... carries fools and kings/this train ... all aboard."  That just about includes everybody—not only the winners this world celebrates, but the losers, who so often comprise the human detritus of our civilization, as well. 

As a Christian, I am immediately reminded of St. Paul's remarkable words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: "Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God."  There is a land of hope and dreams that is not mythical, and to which losers, whores, gamblers, and lost souls—and that means all of us—are invited.  I have no hope and faith in any human attempt, whether from the left or the right, to make things better in this world.  It is the kingdom of God alone that offers the hope for wholeness and community that humankind craves.  How sad it is, then, that so many of us who carry that kingdom's banner neglect to manifest the kingdom's priorities, preferring instead to enable and champion the causes of the very community-destroyers Bruce so devastatingly excoriates in this fine album.

Album Rating:  ««««

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hope for the 2012 Phillies? Try the 1965 Dodgers

The Big Three of the 1965 Dodgers:
(from left) Sandy Koufax, Claude Osteen, and Don Drysdale

I have been thinking a lot about the 1965 Dodgers recently, and with good reason: they provide the template for success on which I, as a Phillies fan, must hang my rapidly diminishing hopes for the 2012 baseball season.

Consider this:  The 1965 Dodgers won 97 games, the NL pennant, and eventually the World Series in a thrilling seven-game series against the powerhouse Minnesota Twins.  Yet they scored a measly 608 runs, good enough for 8th place in a 10-team league.  Their .245 team batting average placed 7th in the league.  By contrast, the Cincinnati Reds of Frank Robinson, Deron Johnson, and Vada Pinson scored 825 runs; the Milwaukee Braves of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews scored 708 runs; even the sub-.500 St. Louis Cardinals of Bill White and Lou Brock scored 707 runs.

The 1965 Dodgers hit only 78 home runs.  Compare that with the Braves who, sporting no less than six players with 20+ four-baggers, hit 196.  The Giants' Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, playing in homer-unfriendly Candlestick Park, hit 91 just between the two of them.  Lou Johnson and Jim Lefebvre—two names largely lost in the mists of time, though the images on their 1966 Topps cards remain vivid in my memory—led the team with 12 apiece.

How, you may ask, did the Dodgers manage to win?  The answer is simple: defense, speed, and pitching.  Maury Wills, their 32-year old shortstop, led the way with 94 stolen bases to go along with a .286 average (even so, the lack of pop in the Dodgers' offense limited him to only 92 runs scored).  But it was their transcendent pitching staff that deserves the bulk of the credit, led by the three horses at the top of their four-man starting rotation:
  • Sandy Koufax: 26-8 ... 336 IP ... 382 Ks ... 2.04 ERA
  • Don Drysdale: 23-12 ... 308 IP ... 210 Ks ... 2.78 ERA
  • Claude Osteen: 15-15 ... 287 IP ... 162 Ks ... 2.79 ERA
Back in early February I posted about my concerns about the upcoming season.  Perhaps hoping against hope, I suggested that the Phils should still be considered favorites in their division.  Indeed, I would not be terribly surprised if they win their sixth consecutive divisional title.  On the other hand, I wouldn't be overly surprised if they finish with between 80-85 wins and fail to reach the playoffs.

Since I wrote that post, Ryan Howard suffered a major setback in his rehabilitation from Achilles' tendon surgery. Though the team still harbors hope for a return of the big man some time in June or July, shortstop Jimmy Rollins opined that he wouldn't be surprised if Howard misses the entire season.  My hunch is that, even if he does return, his performance will be much diminished, for psychological as much as physical reasons.  Moreover, Chase Utley remains sidelined indefinitely with chondromalacia and tendinitis in both knees. But, I ask: Was hanging hopes on these two players realistic in the first place?  From 2005-2009, Howard and Utley were two of the best players in the game.  Utley, however, has slipped precipitously the last two years because of both his knees and the hip injury he suffered in 2008. He will never again be the player he once was.  Howard, for whatever reason, has failed to adjust ever since being exposed by the Yankees in the 2009 World Series.  Even though he has hit more than 30 HRs each of the last two years, his production is a far cry from what it was the previous five years, and his hefty contract appears to be a millstone around the franchise's neck for the foreseeable future.  At present, the team's best offensive player is probably Hunter Pence—a fine, eminently likable player, no doubt, but hardly a franchise player along the lines of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, or even the old Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

Like the Dodgers of old, the Phillies will have to rely on speed, defense, and pitching.  Their defense up the middle (Carlos Ruiz [C], Jimmy Rollins [SS], rookie Freddy Galvis [2B], and Shane Victorino [CF]) is good, and in Victorino and Rollins they have two good, though aging, base stealers.  Will Rollins and Victorino show patience at the plate and refrain from trying to be Ernie Banks and Willie Mays?  Will Rollins be able to avoid the hamstring issues that have plagued him the past two years?  Will the team become more adept at playing the small ball they have resolutely shunned in the past?  Phillies fans had better hope so. 

In large measure, the hopes of this team and its fans rest on the arms of its three aces: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.  If these three pitch the way they did last season, the team should win at least 90 games and be in pretty good shape.  But if age and/or injury rear their ugly heads, watch out. It could be a long season in South Philadelphia.

The Phillies have pinned their hopes on the arms and shoulders of these three men:
(from left: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels)

One final thing has exercised me over the past few weeks of excruciating Grapefruit League games: the shape of the Phillies' bench.  Over the winter the team re-signed future Hall-of-Famer Jim Thome.  I think now, as I did then, that this was a smart move.  Despite his obvious limitations, Thome has looked good this spring, with a .296 BA and 3 doubles in 27 at-bats.  If for nothing else, his will be a positive presence in the clubhouse, and he will provide the ever-needed power threat in late inning pinch-hit situations. 

The same can not be said about the head-scratching free agent signing of Laynce Nix to a two-year guaranteed contract.  Nix is a big, slow lug with a .244 career BA, who hit 16 HRs a year ago for the Nationals in 324 ABs (with 82 Ks).  This spring he has inspired anything but confidence, with a .211 BA and one (!) extra base hit (a double) and 2 RBI in 38 at-bats.  What Nix brings to the table is anybody's guess.  At the same time the team has designated former phenom Dom Brown to the AAA Iron Pigs.  At one level this is understandable.  His production has been spotty, he has proven to be injury-prone, and for some reason he can't seem to master the "intricacies" of playing baseball's easiest position, left field.  But with Brown, the time is now or never.  Either play him or trade him while he still has any value left.

The apparent untouchable status of Nix has led to an interesting conundrum facing Charlie Manuel: should he keep Juan Pierre or Scott Podsednik to fill the final spot on the roster?  Neither Pierre nor Podsednik are youngsters, and Pierre is a far cry from the player he was from 2001-2004.  Nevertheless, Pierre has a .296 lifetime average and, as recently as 2010, stole 68 bases in a season.  This spring he has hit .289 with 5 stolen bases in 45 at-bats.  Podsednik, on the other hand, missed last year because of injuries, but has shown no aftereffects thus far in 2012.  In 2009-2010, Podsednik hit .300 with 65 stolen bases in 1076 at-bats. This spring he has been a beast, hitting .362 with 6 extra-base hits (5 doubles and a walk-off HR) in 47 ABs.

If I had to choose between Pierre and Podsednik, I would choose the latter.  If this spring has been an audition, he has clearly been the winner.  But my question is this: Why can't Manuel keep both?  To do so, of course, would mean that the Phillies would have to cut ties with Nix and eat his contract.  However, if small ball and speed are the necessary ingredients to complement pitching in the best recipe for the Phillies' success this season, it must be done.  So my (unwanted) advice to Ruben Amaro?  Do the right thing.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What is the Gospel, Part 8 -- Romans 3:21-26 (Part 2)

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26, NIV).

In our last post (here), we laid the necessary foundation for an adequate interpretation of this text, which Martin Luther called “the chief point, and the very central place of the Epistle, and of the whole Bible.”[i]  One might perhaps question the Reformer’s understanding of the literary function of this paragraph, but there is no denying its significance for Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-4:25, the first major thought “unit” of this letter.  In particular, it presents Jesus’ death as the decisive manifestation of God’s “righteousness” and, hence, as the solution to the universal plight of sinful humanity and the apparent conundrum of how to reconcile God’s impartiality and his covenant promise to save the world through the people of Abraham. 

No two words are more characteristic of Paul’s thought, or more significant for understanding this paragraph, than the deceivingly unprepossessing “but now” (nyni de) with which he opens the paragraph.  If the previous context were not enough, the inclusio found in verse 26 (“in the ‘now’ time [en tōi nyn kairōi]) indicates that the “now” must have a temporal force.  Paul, in other words, is contrasting eras, viz., the “present evil age,” in which sin, death, and condemnation reign under the old covenant, and the “age to come” inaugurated by the Christ event, in which the blessings of salvation associated with the new age have been inaugurated.[ii]  It is now, in the death of Messiah Jesus, that the promised and long hoped-for “righteousness of God”—his “righteous” saving action in faithfulness to his covenant promises—has been manifested.  Paul’s concern in verses 21-26 is to articulate how the ignominious death of a putative Messiah can legitimately be understood as the apocalyptic manifestation of God’s righteousness, and hence be the “good news” announced by Isaiah centuries earlier.

A full exegesis of these verses—a veritable minefield—would take us too far afield.  What I intend to do is trace the contours of the apostle’s argument and reflect on their significance for the current debate over the gospel.  The message of the paragraph as a whole may be summarized thus: God’s eschatological, saving righteousness has now been manifested in his gracious justification, on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, of all who exercise faith in Christ.  Paul’s argument proceeds in three stages.

1.         God’s eschatological saving righteousness, promised in Israel’s Scriptures, has now been definitively actualized apart from the old covenant and is experienced by all who exercise faith in Christ (3:21-22a).

The gospel, as Paul says in chapter 1, reveals God’s righteousness.  “Eschatological”—even apocalyptic—it may be, but it was also “preannounced” (proepēngeilato) by Israel’s prophets in Scripture (cf. also Rom 15:7-13).  The apostle makes the same point here: this saving “righteousness” about which he is writing was “attested” (martyroumenē) by “the law and the prophets.”  What God had lately done in Christ, in other words, was the definitive fulfillment of what he had promised in Isaiah (46:13; 51:5, 6, 8) and elsewhere, not least Psalm 143, which he loosely cited in verse 20.  This is not simply born of a desire to “prove” the gospel from scripture.  Rather, as we saw in 3:1-8, at issue in Israel’s beleaguered, exilic condition was the moral integrity of the God who had entered into a binding covenant with them.  God, in other words, had shown himself to be “faithful” and “true” despite the unfaithfulness and unreliability of his people.

Equally significant is the assertion that this righteousness was manifested “apart from the law” (chōris nomou).  This certainly implies that “works of the law”—it matters not whether they are interpreted as “ethnic/covenantal boundary markers” or “badges of moral achievement” at this point—play no role in either the manifestation or experience of this righteousness (3:20).[iii]  Paul’s point runs deeper, however.  As suggested by the temporal adverb “now,” what the apostle means to suggest is that God has revealed his righteousness entirely apart from the realm and influence of the Torah in a comprehensive sense.  Just as Paul takes pains to assert the salvation-historical continuity of his gospel, so he also emphasizes this corresponding note of discontinuity.  The old, Sinaitic covenant has now been superseded by virtue of the Christ event, which marked a decisive shift to a new, indeed climactic, stage of salvation-historical fulfillment; hence, those Jews who still sought to relate to God on that basis were, by definition, looking in the wrong place.  The law was not a necessary, let alone a sufficient, condition of mediating or maintaining a right relation with God.

Instead, this righteousness is experienced savingly only “through the faith of Jesus Christ” (dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou).  For once, I have quoted the text as translated by the KJV, not because of its accuracy so much as because of its literalistic ambiguity.  At this point we come to one of the most heated and intractable exegetical debates in current New Testament scholarship.[iv]  Simply put, should Paul’s expression be understood as referring to “faith in Jesus Christ” (i.e., Iēsou Christou is an “objective genitive”)[v] or to “the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ,” his “faithful” death on the cross (i.e., Iēsou Christou is a “subjective genitive”)?[vi]  I myself lean ever-so-slightly to the traditional view[vii], though—fortunately, in case I’m wrong!—for our present purposes a definitive decision need not be made.  It is indeed true, as Paul will detail in verses 24-26, that God’s righteousness was manifested definitively in Christ’s faithful death.  It is also true, as Paul immediately goes on to say, that this righteousness benefits all (pantas)—contextually, Gentile and Jew alike—who believe (sc. in Christ).  Just as “no flesh”—Jew as well as Gentile—is “justified” by works of the law (3:20), so “faith” in Christ (by virtue both of what he accomplished on the cross and his risen status as Messianic Lord) is the only means of benefitting from God’s saving righteousness.  Paul tells us why this is the case in verses 22b-23.

2.         God’s saving righteousness is manifested for all who believe because all—Jews and Gentiles alike—have sinned and fall short of God’s glory (3:22b-23).

Sin is the great equalizer.  God had chosen Israel and given them the Torah as a covenant charter to aid them in their priestly role vis-à-vis the nations.  But God, at the same time, is no respecter of persons (2:11).  Hence, he could not simply turn a blind eye to the Jews’ sinful failure to live up to their covenant obligations.  Indeed, the “righteousness” of God’s judgment of the Jews for their sin is Paul’s major point in 3:1-20.  Israel, despite their privileged position, demonstrated by their sinful disobedience to the law that there was really no “distinction” (diastolē) between them and the Gentiles: they were both, as Paul will argue in chapter 5, ín Adam, subject to the same death and condemnation.  All people—and here this must mean “all without exception”—“have sinned” (hēmarton)[viii] and thus “lack” (hysterountai)[ix] the “glory” (doxa) of God that was portrayed as being the eschatological condition of the people of God (cf. Isa 35:2).[x]

God, as the righteous, covenant keeping God, remained committed to his plan to bring universal blessing (i.e., the reversal of the Adamic curse) to the whole world through the physical seed of Abraham.  The experience of Israel under the law, however, simply managed to place the Jews in the dock along with the Gentile world they were called to rescue.[xi]  If God was to retain his moral integrity, he had both to judge sin and display his saving righteousness for the benefit of both Israel and the nations.  How God chose to do so is Paul’s concern in verses 24-26.  The “solution” lay in the atoning death of Israel’s Messiah, which simultaneously displayed the twin poles of God’s righteous character and vindicated his moral integrity.

3.         God graciously justifies Jewish and Gentile believers through the redeeming and atoning death of Messiah Jesus, which simultaneously displayed both God’s saving and judging righteousness (3:24-26).

After the quasi-parenthetical 3:22b-23, Paul returns to the thought he had begun in verse 21-22.  The one way for both Jews and Gentiles to benefit from God’s saving righteousness is through faith in Christ.  The status all receive when they exercise such faith is that of being “justified” (dikaioumenoi).  As all theological students know well, “justification” has been a controversial topic since the time of the Reformation. Somewhat surprisingly, it remains so, particularly within certain strands of Evangelicalism.[xii] 

Nevertheless, justification remains a rather straightforward soteriological metaphor.[xiii]  It is a forensic or legal term that speaks of the verdict pronounced on a defendant.  As in human law courts, so it is in the cosmic assize: the judge pronounces the verdict.  If found “guilty,” the defendant is condemned.  If found “not guilty” or “innocent,” the defendant, having been vindicated, is acquitted or justified.  To “justify,” in other words, means to pronounce a person to be legally in the right.  The “righteousness” of the acquitted person thus refers, not necessarily to some measurable “moral” quality (a la the Latin iustitia), but rather to the right status of the acquitted individual in the eyes of the court.  Indeed, fuzzy thinking based on English connotations of terms such as “righteousness” and “relationship” has muddied the theological waters quite a bit.  Paul’s point, however, is a simple one: All people who exercise faith in Christ have a “righteous status” pronounced on them by God in advance of the final judgment.  Such people, by implication, have had their sins dealt with in some as yet unexplained manner.  Moreover, now that Christ has come, it is this Jew plus Gentile family who believe in Christ that serves as the new, eschatological covenant people of God.  God’s covenant with Abraham, of course, was ultimately intended to be the vehicle for the salvation of “all nations.”  In Christ, what was promised has come about, entirely by God’s free (dōrean) grace (charis).  Indeed, how could it be otherwise in view of the universal charge, supported by both experience and Scripture, that both Jews and Gentiles are “under sin” (3:9)?

In the remainder of verse 24 Paul explains how this justification came about: through the “redemption” (apolytrōsis) that is experienced via union with “Messiah Jesus.”  Redemption is a second metaphor used to good effect by Paul in these verses.  As Leon Morris demonstrated long ago, “redemption” refers to a release or liberation of a slave through the payment of a ransom (lytron).[xiv]  In the present context, which speaks of the “justification” of people formerly “accountable to God” (3:19) for being “under sin” (3:9), it would appear that believers, by being “in Christ,” are thereby released from the slavery to sin that led to their “guilty” status before God and that would have resulted in final condemnation apart from God’s free grace in Christ.[xv]

There may be another reason for Paul’s use of the “redemption” metaphor: the Exodus was portrayed in the Old Testament as a “redemption” (e.g., Deut 7:8; 9:26; 15:15; 24:18; Ps 78:35), and as such served as the pattern of the promised return from exile in the very section of Scripture from which the terms “gospel” and “righteousness” derive their significance (e.g., Isa 41:14; 43:1, 14; 44:22-24; 51:11; 52:3; 62:12; 63:9).  The point is clear: the eschatological deliverance anticipated by Israel had been secured by their Messiah, Jesus, and those “in Christ”—both Jews and Gentiles!—were now experiencing and enjoying it.

But how was this “redemption” secured?  To put the matter differently, how is it that God could maintain his righteous integrity while displaying his righteous covenant faithfulness in “delivering” condemned sinners from the just consequences of their sin?  Paul answers these questions in verses 25-26, two of the most important and inspiring verses in all of Holy Writ.

In these verses, Paul makes two points. First, God publicly displayed the crucified Christ as the one whose death turned away God’s wrath against sin (3:25a).[xvi]  The term Paul uses in verse 25 to denote the significance of Christ’s death is hilastērion.  Both this term and the related verb hilaskomai consistently refer, in non-biblical Greek, to the notion of propitiation or appeasement of the wrath of the gods.[xvii]  Hence, the prima facie meaning here is that Christ’s death (“in his blood”) is the event in which God’s wrath was turned away from sinners.

This notion is too harsh for the sensitive hearts of some New Testament scholars, however.  Famously, C. H. Dodd argued that the term was better understood in terms of expiation, i.e., the means by which sin is removed or wiped away.[xviii]  More recently, Judith Gundry-Volf objects because, supposedly, what is needed is not a transformation of God’s heart toward sinners but a transformation of their sinful existence before God.[xix] 

I would be the first to acknowledge that expiation is involved here (cf. also Gal 1:4; 1 Cor 15:3), but by no means does that fact necessarily exclude the notion of propitiation.  In fact, eliminating the notion of propitiation would be precarious in that God’s wrath is the centerpiece of Paul’s argument in 1:18-3:20, and is mentioned at key points in his argument (2:5; 3:5-6).[xx]  Better would be to acknowledge that the twin notions of expiation and propitiation imply each other in the death of Christ: the guilt and stain of sin were removed in the very act in which God’s wrath against sin and the sinner is turned away.  To put it differently, the execution of the just penalty against sin in the death of Christ[xxi] was the occasion and means of appeasing God’s wrath that had previously hung over the perpetrators of that sin.  And this was all accomplished on God’s own initiative.

The significance of Paul’s use of the term hilastērion is enhanced by the realization that, in 20 of its 27 occurrences in the LXX, it is used in reference to the so-called “mercy seat” (Heb. kappōret)[xxii], the golden lid of the Ark of the Covenant located in the Most Holy Place.[xxiii]  The mercy seat was the place of YHWH’s localized presence in Israel (1Sam 4:4), from which he revealed himself in a cloud and met with Israel (Exod 25:17-22; Lev 16:2).  More importantly, the mercy seat was the place where, on the Day of Atonement, Aaron and subsequent High Priests would sprinkle the blood of a bullock and goat as a sin-offering so as to “make atonement” (Heb. kipper; LXX hilaskomai) for the nation (Lev 16:11-19).

The conceptual parallels are too significant to be unintended. Paul is transparently portraying Christ’s death on a Roman cross as the eschatological antitype of the mercy seat, the very place where atonement is made.  But whereas the Day of Atonement ritual was performed in the secrecy of the Temple, was repeated yearly, and had relevance only for God’s old covenant people, Christ’s sacrificial death was “displayed publicly” by God as a once-for-all atonement applicable to all, both Jews and Gentiles, who believe in him.[xxiv]

We are here at the heart of Paul’s solution to the question of theodicy raised in 3:1-8.  The righteous God must both punish sin and remain faithful to his covenantal—indeed, creational—commitments.  The solution is found in the sacrificial death of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, who vicariously bore the penal consequences of human sin and thereby turned God’s wrath away from all who rest and trust in him.  Paul makes this immediately clear, as he proceeds to make the second of his two points in verses 25-26: God displayed Christ as a hilastērion in order to demonstrate his judicial righteousness both in his former “passing over” of sins and in his present justification of sinners (3:25-26).

As Paul had argued, God’s “righteousness” entailed the justice of his display of “wrath” toward his unfaithful covenant people (3:6).  Consequently, he is entirely just to have placed them in the dock along with the godless Gentile world.  Nevertheless, before Christ God had not dealt thoroughly with Israel’s sins.  Rather than exacting full retributive punishment, he had “passed over” (paresis)[xxv] the former[xxvi] sins of his people, designing such “leniency” to be a goad to repentance (cf. Rom 2:4).  Christ’s death, however, “proved” or “demonstrated” (endeixis) that God was indeed a God of righteous moral integrity.

Christ’s death also serves to vindicate God’s righteousness in the present time (en tōi nyn kairōi), in which—as Paul will go on to say—he justifies the “ungodly” through faith (Rom 4:5).  For, the ultimate purpose (eis to einai) of God’s presenting Christ as a hilastērion was that God might be both “just and the justifier” (dikaion kai dikaiounta)[xxvii] of the one who has faith in Jesus (ton ek pisteōs Iēsou)[xxviii].  In Christ’s penal, substitutionary sacrifice, the demands of God’s judicial righteousness have been satisfied, thus allowing God’s saving righteousness to shine forth in faithful fulfillment of his covenant promises to Israel and, hence, the nations.  Soli Deo Gloria!

In conclusion, what does this have to say about the gospel?  Quite a lot indeed.  I would maintain that this passage, more than any in Paul’s letters, puts the needed flesh on the bones of the ancient tradition that confessed that “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3).  It demonstrates, as clearly as one could desire, that the sacrificial, substitutionary, expiatory, and even propitiatory death of Christ is an essential element of the gospel message that Paul could even designate “the word of the cross” 1 Cor 1:18).  To this extent the “soterians” are correct: the Pauline gospel speaks to the issue of the individual’s relationship to God.  Nevertheless, as I hope to have demonstrated, this gospel, though applicable to the issue of the salvation of the individual, is rooted in even more basic salvation-historical concerns, presenting as it does the death of Christ as the great apocalyptic act by which God proved faithful to his inscripturated covenant promises to Israel.

More tricky—and controversial—is the relation of the gospel to the doctrine of justification by faith.  Traditional, confessional Protestants are wont to identify the two, or at the very least, to see justification as a constituent element of the gospel.  Nonetheless, there have been dissenters.  Foremost among these has been N. T. Wright.  Fifteen years ago he wrote:

I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel’. It is implied by the gospel; when the gospel is proclaimed, people come to faith and so are regarded by God as members of his people. But ‘the gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved.[xxix]

As has been the case with just about everything he has said about justification, Wright has been skewered for this remark by theologians in the Reformed, confessional mold.  For instance, the Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson writes:

This is falsely to abstract justification from Christ, the benefit (the implication of what Jesus did) from the Benefactor (the person of Jesus who has accomplished His work). But as Paul notes, Christ Himself is made righteousness for us (1 Cor 1:30). Justification cannot be abstracted from Christ as if it were a “thing” apart from or added to Him. Christ Himself is our justification. We cannot have justification without Christ! Nor can we have Christ without justification! Insofar as this is true, we cannot say that Christ, not justification by faith, is the gospel.[xxx]

This argument has superficial plausibility, but on further analysis it is flawed in many respects.  Christ is “our righteousness” in that we have a righteous status (i.e., we have been “justified”) before God by virtue of our faith-union with him, because of which we are reckoned to have shared in his resurrection-vindication.  He is not our “justification” per se.  Nor does Wright “divide” the gospel of Christ, thereby imagining we can have “justification without Christ” or “Christ without justification.”  To think so is simply to mischaracterize what Wright actually says.  To criticize Wright for making a notional distinction between matters that cannot be separated is similar to criticizing a theologian for distinguishing the divine and human natures of Christ, as if making the distinction meant one thereby “separated” them or “abstracted” one away from the other.

The fact remains that Paul’s exposition here in Romans 3 is of a piece with what we have seen earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 and in Romans 1.  The gospel refers to the events of Christ’s sacrificial death and vindicating resurrection, interpreted as the climactic fulfillment of God’s scriptural, covenant promises made to Abraham.  The gospel reveals the righteousness of God, understood as his faithfulness to those promises.  The proclaimed gospel also is God’s power leading to salvation because it engenders, through the work of the Spirit who inspired it, the faith that leads to justification.  It is Paul, not N. T. Wright, who apparently distinguishes the gospel notionally from the legal status pronounced on people who respond in faith to its proclamation.

More stridently, the American Presbyterian, J. Ligon Duncan, claims:

So, the minute you accept that the Gospel is not about justification, as Wright does, and that righteousness is about “covenant membership,” as Wright does, then at the very least you have a huge hole in the historic Protestant consensus on and articulation of the Gospel in relation to human sin and divine justice …[xxxi]

One wonders if Duncan has ever bothered to read Wright’s commentary on Romans, where he repeatedly emphasizes that Israel’s problem (i.e., why they couldn’t be justified by works of the law) was sin, that the point of the Abrahamic covenant was to deal with human sin, that hilastērion refers to the propitiation of God’s wrath, that Romans 3:25 reflects the thought of the Isaianic suffering servant—including the notion of penal substitution—and that the death of Christ was necessary in order to demonstrate God’s judging as well as saving righteousness. 

Sadly, such caricatures are common today.  A former colleague once claimed in my presence that Wright—and, by implication, I—“soft-pedaled sin.”  Hopefully, anyone who reads this post will know that such an accusation is rubbish.  Hopefully also, more will come to the realization that the context in which Paul’s discussion of both the gospel and justification by faith must be understood is that of salvation-history (i.e., as entailments of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant) rather than the salvation of the individual sinner.  As important as the latter is to each of us at an existential level, it must be subsumed under the rubric of the former.

[i] Margin of the Luther Bible (1545), on Romans 3:23ff. (cited by Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [NICNT; Grand Rapids: Cambridge, 1996] 218).
[ii] Thus the old antithesis between salvation-history (Stendahl) and apocalyptic (Käsemann) is shown to be a false, unnecessary one.
[iii] So, inter alia, Calvin, Cranfield, Murray, Schreiner.
[iv] The latest stage in the discussion has been marked by the appearance of The Faith of Jesus Christ: Exegetical, Biblical, and Theological Studies (ed. Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle; Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009).  As becomes obvious while reading this volume, no consensus is likely to be reached in my lifetime.
[v] This is the traditional view, reflected in almost all translations (e.g., NIV; NRSV; REB; ESV) and most commentators, including such recent ones as Dunn, Fitzmyer, Stuhlmacher, Byrne, Moo, and Schreiner.  For full bibliography up to 1995, cf. James R. McGahey, “‘No One Is Justified by Works of the Law’ (Gal 2:16a” (Ph.D. diss, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1996) 162 n. 106.  Of the older works, cf. especially James D. G. Dunn, “Once More, PISTIS CRISTOU,” in SBL 1991 Seminar Papers (ed. E. H. Lovering, Jr.; Atlanta: Scholars, 1991) 730-44; Roy A. Harrisville, Jr., “PISTIS CRISTOU: Witness of the Fathers,” NovT 36 (1994) 233-41.  More recent defenses include R. Barry Matlock, “Detheologizing the PISTIS CRISTOU Debate: Cautionary Remarks from a Lexical Semantic Perspective,” NovT 42 (2000) 1-23; idem, “Even the Demons Believe: Paul and pstiς Cristoῦ,” CBQ 64 (2002) 300-18; Moises Silva, “Faith versus Works of Law in Galatians,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism, vol. 2: The Paradoxes of Paul (ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien, and Mark Seifrid; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004) 227-34; and the articles by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts (pp. 33-56), Matlock (73-90), and Francis Watson (147-63) in Bird and Sprinkle.
[vi] This view has been increasingly supported in recent decades, though still less commonly represented in the translations (NET Bible) and major commentaries (Wright).  For bibliography prior to 1995, cf. McGahey, “No One is Justified,” 160-61 n.100. Most significant of the older works is that of Richard Hays (The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 [SBLDS 56; Chico, Cal.: Scholars, 1983]; “PISTIS in Pauline Christology: What Is at Stake?” in SBL 1991 Seminar Papers, 714-29) and Douglas A. Campbell (The Rhetoric of Righteousness in Romans 3:21-26 [JSNTSup 65: Sheffield: JSOT, 1992] 58-69.  More recently, cf. Ian G. Wallis, The Faith of Jesus Christ in Early Christian Traditions (SNTSMS 84; Cambridge: CUP, 1995), as well as the articles by Campbell (57-71) and Ardel Caneday (185-205) in Bird and Sprinkle.
[vii] Especially pertinent are the linguistic arguments offered by Porter and Silva, the arguments from the Greek Fathers made by Matlock, and the arguments based on the derivation of the expression from Habakkuk 2:4 (Watson).
[viii] This is a global, comprehensive aorist, summing up all the sins of all people into a single “moment.”  Stanley Porter helpfully describes the aorist as “omnitemporal” here (Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek [SBG 1; New York: Peter Lang, 1989] 222).
[ix] The present tense is gnomic here, characterizing the human condition rather than emphasizing progressive or repeated action.
[x] Second Temple Judaism characteristically understood Adam to have been stripped of God’s glory in the garden by virtue of his primal sin (cf., e.g., 3 Baruch 4:16; CD 3.20).
[xi] This eventuality was, as Paul argues in Galatians 3, part of God’s design in giving the law.
[xii] Witness the “debate” between N. T. Wright and Tom Schreiner at the 2010 ETS annual conference in Atlanta, which itself piggy-backed on the published back-and-forth between John Piper and Wright.
[xiii]Cf. McGahey, “No One Is Justified,” 138-50 for a full lexical discussion of the verb dikaiw.
[xiv] Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 16-55. Cf. also the earlier work of B. B. Warfield, “The New Testament Terminology of Redemeption,” in Biblical Doctrines (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1929 [1917]) 327-74.
[xv] Cf. G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) 484-86.
[xvi] The verb proqeto (< protqhmi), in the middle voice, as here, can be understood in two ways: (1) “set forth or display publicly,” “put forward” (BDAG; NASB; NIV; NRSV; Bruce, Fitzmyer, Moo, Schreiner); or (2) “to plan, purpose, intend” (REB; Cranfield).  A reference to God’s eternal purpose would not be out of place, but two factors suggest that the former is to be preferred: (1) in context Paul speaks of the display or manifestation of God’s righteousness in the crucifixion of Christ (3:21); and (2) the imagery is probably derived from the term’s use in the LXX of the display of the showbread (Exod 29:23; 40:23; Lev 24:8; Ps 54:3; 86:14; 101:3).
[xvii] Morris, Apostolic Preaching, 144-213.
[xviii] C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935) 82-95.
[xix] Judith Gundry-Volf, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1993), s.v. “Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat,” 282.  Similarly, James D. G. Dunn defends the rendering “expiation” because, in contrast to secular usage, in Hebrew usage God is the subject of the action and the object of the atoning act is the removal of sin (The Theology of Paul the Apostle [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997] 214-15).  His point is taken, but he gives back most of the ground he has taken when he admits, “Of course, the atoning act thus removes the sin which provoked God’s wrath …” (214).  Exactly!  Acknowledging the element of propitiation does not commit one to a crude, caricatured interpretation of the metaphor, but it does emphasize the penal element in the atonement, which is, one supposes, the real reason many scholars, like Dunn, are hesitant to embrace it.  Note his comment, in which he intentionally drives a wedge between the concepts of expiation and propitiation: “The imagery is more of the removal of a corrosive stain or the neutralization of a life-threatening virus than of anger appeased by punishment” (214-15). One wonders, why not both?
[xx] Cf. also Romans 5:9.
[xxi] Cf. Romans 8:3.
[xxii] The English expression is derived from Luther’s happy designation, “Gnadenstuhl.”
[xxiii] Hence the NET Bible’s appropriate translation of ἱlastrion in Romans 3:25 as “mercy seat.”  For a defense of the “mercy seat” as the primary conceptual background of ἱlastrion here, cf. esp. Nico S. L. Fryer, “The Meaning and Translation of Hilastērion in Romans 3:25,” EvQ 59 (1987) 99-116; Peter Stuhlmacher, “Recent Exegesis on Romans 3:24-26,” in Reconciliation, Law, and Righteousness: Essays in Biblical Theology (E.T.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) 94-109; Daniel P. Bailey, “Jesus as the Mercy Seat: The Semantics and Theology of Paul’s Use of Hilastērion in Romans 3:25 (Ph.D. diss., University of Cambridge, 1999).
[xxiv] Cf. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 489.  Many scholars have looked elsewhere for an alternate (or, better, additional) conceptual background for Paul’s use of ἱlastrion here, viz., to Hellenistic Jewish martyr theology (so, e.g., Sam K. Williams, Jesus’ Death as Saving Event: The Background and Origin of a Concept [Missoula, Mont.: Scholars, 1975]; J. S. Pobee, Persecution and Martyrdom in the Theology of St. Paul [JSNTSup 6; Sheffield: JSOT, 1985] 47-73).  The key text here is 4 Maccabees 17:21-22: “The tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified - they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of these devout ones and the hilastērion of their death, Divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated” (NRSV, altered to reflect the text of א rather than A).  This text is indeed helpful to understand how a martyr’s death could be understood by Jews in explicitly sacrificial terms.  It is imperative to realize, however, that this usage is likewise to be understood as dependent upon Leviticus 16: the martyr’s death was interpreted metaphorically as the place where substitutionary wrath was carried out in order to enact deliverance for the masses (cf. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 487 n. 38).  Most importantly, behind both 4 Maccabees and Romans 3:25 almost certainly lies the figure of the Isaianic Suffering Servant of Isaiah 52:13-53:12.  Cf. Wright, “Romans,” 475-76.
[xxv] BDAG 776.  Contra W. G. Kümmel (Presiς und Ἔndeixiς,” ZTK 49 [1952] 154-67), who had suggested the term should be rendered “forgiveness,” the term speaks of a deliberate disregard, hence “passing over, letting go unpunished.”
[xxvi] The participle progegontwn (“formerly committed”) demonstrates that Paul has the sins of Israel, committed in the days of the Old Covenant, in view.
[xxvii] Assuming the inclusion of kaὶ (omitted by F, G, the Old Latin, and Ambrosiaster), the particle is probably concessive in force: “that he might be just even if justifying …” (Cranfield).
[xxviii] Understanding Ἰhsoῦ as an objective genitive (contra, inter alia, Wright).
[xxix] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Saul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 132-33.
[xxx] “What Does Justification Have To Do with the Gospel?” (
[xxxi] “The Attractions of the New Perspective(s) on Paul,” 24 (emphasis his) (