Unity, Holiness, and the People of God – an Excerpt from The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life

The following is an excerpt from N. T. Wright’s essay “Paul and Missional Hermeneutics” in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica.

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One of the great benefits of some kinds of “new perspective” reading (note that there are many different kinds of reading which come under that umbrella) is that, without losing the importance of every person having a living faith (as some wrongly imagine), we can grasp Paul’s constant emphasis on unity, starting (for instance) with Galatians, where it is absolutely central. In addition, without going soft on Paul’s insistence on “faith alone” as the marker of justification, we can leave behind the threat of antinomianism that comes from a low-grade, would-be Reformational reading of that doctrine.

Cover ArtFor Paul, justification by faith is the demarcation of the sin-forgiven people of God. People in this category are, on the one hand, the “circumcision of the heart”: though not having the law, they keep it because the Spirit has written it on their hearts (Rom. 2:25–29). They are, on the other hand, the inaugurated new creation, living from within the resurrected Messiah. They stand under the mē genoito of Romans 6:2, and their lives are to embody before the watching world the signs of new creation, including kindness, generosity, abstention from anger and malice, and not least sexual purity, whether in marriage or in celibacy. This kind of a way of life, of community, was more or less unknown in the ancient world. This is why the church was, for Paul, the sign and symbol of the new covenant and the new creation.

But Paul does not mention mission—except perhaps in one passage to which we will come presently. This has worried me, because as a bishop I used to tell people that the church should be shaped by mission, and that mission should be shaped by eschatology. We used to warn against imagining that the first task was to sort out the church and only then, if there was any time left, which often there wasn’t, one might get around to some mission. But the more I have studied Paul, the more I have become convinced that for him the fact of this symbol—of the united and holy community in the Messiah—was itself the mission, or at any rate the heart of it.

Paul knows of other “evangelists”like himself; that was a specific commission. He never suggests that all Christians possessed that calling (another puzzle for some traditional readings). But he sees the church itself as the powerful sign to the watching world, and for that matter to the watching principalities and powers, that a new way of being human has been launched upon the world, and that this is because there is a new kyrios, a new sōtēr, embodying the power and love of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

©2016 by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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