Does N.T. Wright Miss the Mark on “Forgiveness of Sins”?

One thing I’ve learned about N. T. Wright is that if he doesn’t like something, he calls it “abstract” or “ahistorical.” Regarding the “forgiveness of sins,” Wright’s aversion for de-historicizing causes him to reject any interpretations that “focus on piety (the sense of forgiveness) or the abstract theology (the fact of forgiveness, or the belief in it)…”[1]  According to Wright, forgiveness is not about remedying individual guilt or God’s bestowing of a private blessing.  Rather, Wright makes the following bold claim:

Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile.’[2]

Wright defends this position in Jesus and the Victory of God (pgs. 268–74), correctly arguing that Israel’s exile is a result of her sin, but then wrongly assuming that forgiveness of sin, therefore, must be the same thing as return from exile.  Wright’s logic seems off.  If exile were a result of sin, then would not return from exile be a result of dealing with the sin problem?  Wright argues his point by listing several passages relating forgiveness of sins and return from exile, but where the passages simply speak of inseparability, Wright assumes equation (Lam 4:22; Jer 31:31–34; 33:4–11; Ezek 36:24–26, 33; 37:21–23; Isa 40:1–2; 43:25–44:3; 52–55; Dan 9:16–19; Ezra 9:6–15; Neh 9:6–37). The result is that Wright collapses forgiveness of sins into return from exile, thereby losing the significance of forgiveness.[3]  Contrary to Wright, I believe that forgiveness of sins is distinct from return from exile (think of Leviticus) and is, in fact, one of the keys to bringing about the return from exile, or the new exodus, as the OT often refers to it. At the forefront of Isaiah’s vision for a new exodus culminating in God’s reign over the earth is the forgiveness of sins (Isa 40:2; 43:25; 44:22; cf. 33:24), echoing the great revelation of the royal redeeming God who is “merciful and gracious, . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6–7).  As Rikki Watts says, “Yahweh’s granting of forgiveness was the sine qua non of Israel’s release from exile. . .”[4] If sin is the problem that creates the need for a new exodus and restoration of God’s reign on earth, then the forgiveness of sin is central to bringing about that very solution.


[1]N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 268.

[2]Ibid.

[3]Others have shown how Wright omits the significance of forgiveness of sins in Romans and Galatians. Mark A. Seifrid, “Unrighteous by Faith: Apostolic Proclamation in Romans 1:18–3:20,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, Mark A. Seifrid, and Peter T. O’Brien, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 123; Peter T. O’Brien, “Was Paul a Covenantal Nomist?,” in Justification and Variegated Nomism: The Paradoxes of Paul, ed. D. A. Carson, Mark A. Seifrid, and Peter T. O’Brien, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 293.

[4]Rikki E. Watts, “Mark,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 132.

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About Jeremy Treat

I’m a doctoral student at Wheaton under Kevin Vanhoozer and writing my dissertation on the relationship between the kingdom and the cross in biblical and systematic theology. I’m from Alaska and Washington and have studied at Biola U., Seattle Pacific U., Fuller Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Somewhere in there I was a pastor for seven years. I married my basketball coach’s daughter (score!) and we have two little girls. My oldest daughter just learned how to tell me “I love you,” which might be the best analogy for theology I’ve come across.
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7 Responses to Does N.T. Wright Miss the Mark on “Forgiveness of Sins”?

  1. I’m sure I’m wrong (or maybe not), but the impression I get from this post is that you read one sentence of JVG and decided to write a blog post about it. Here’s why I get the impression. In JVG, Wright argues for precisely the point you are making in regard to the return from exile (supposedly contra Wright) in precisely the pages you cite. Perhaps the sentence you quote (“Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile.'”) could have been stated in a clearer way, but Wright does spend a significant number of pages clarifying what he means. If we read those pages poorly (as you have), then he is not the one who missed the mark.

    I quote from JVG with my own editorial comments:
    “The conclusion hardly needs restating [Apparently not!]. From the point of view of a first-century Jew, ‘forgiveness of sins’ could never simply be a private blessing, though to be sure it was that as well, as Qumran amply testifies [Notice that he brings back the readings you claim he doesn’t like. This contradict your claim that for Wright “forgiveness is not about remedying individual guilt or God’s bestowing of a private blessing.” For Wright is both about that and about more than that.]. Overarching the situation of the individual [but not obliterating it as you suggest] was the state of the nation as a whole; and, as long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, as long as Torah was not observed perfectly, as long as the Temple was not properly restored, so Israel longed for ‘forgiveness of sins’ as the great, unrepeatable, eschatological and national blessing promised by her god. In the light of this, the meaning which Mark and Luke both give to John’s baptism ought to be clear [This is the topic at hand in these pages, not a theological analysis of ‘forgiveness’.]. It was ‘for the forgiveness of sins’, in other words, to bring about the redemption for which Israel was longing” (271).

    As for Ricki Watts, he is arguing, once again in the page you cite, for precisely the same point, but in reference to the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2 and the language of ‘forgiveness’ as it is used there. To quote the passage in full: “To the extent that Yahweh’s granting of forgiveness was the sine qua non of Israel’s release from exile (Isa 43:25; cf. 40:1-2; 44:22), Jesus’ pronouncement is fully consistent with Mark’s assertion that the new exodus has begun with him and that God himself is specially present with him” (132). Wright’s point and Watt’s point is that ‘forgiveness of sin’ in the Gospels must be read not only at an individual level, but also on a national level as something like a ‘code’ or ‘sign’ that Israel’s long-awaited return from exile was taking place in the life and work of Jesus, or in other words, “Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile.'”

  2. Treat,

    I have to agree with the comment above on this. I feel that your reading has not taken into account both the broader context of Wright’s work and the immediate content of the passage you quoted. This is precisely the point at which Wright’s uber-conservative critics misunderstand him. I think he’s merely trying to say–as noted above–that one cannot understand ‘forgiveness of sins’ without reference to exile and the covenant community. And such an assertion, I think, is right on the money.

    JRG

  3. Jeremy Treat says:

    Michael,

    I’ve tried to read Wright charitably, and worked hard to understand his argument. I’ve read JVG in its entirety, and this particular section (268-74) multiple times, as well as many of Wright’s other works. There are many things that could be said, but I think it boils down to this: If Wright is simply arguing for…
    1) return from exile as the context of forgiveness of sins,
    2) return from exile as the result of forgiveness of sins,
    3) return from exile as inseparable from forgiveness of sins
    …then I am in agreement with him. But Wright goes much further than this (and too far, in my opinion) by equating forgiveness of sins and return from exile. If you equate two distinct concepts, then the unique significance of one will give way, and that is what I worry has happened when Wright says, “Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile’” (268) or “return from exile means that Israel’s sins have been forgiven – and vice versa” (269). If forgiveness of sins is the same thing as return from exile, then how can one be the context for the other?

  4. Jeremy,

    (1) Wright does not equate the two concepts without distinction like you claim. The word “is” does not necessitate 100% equation, as when I say, “My daughter is my life.” Moving beyond the sentence in question, the rest of that section in JVG makes clear what Wright means.
    (2) Your reading of Wright isn’t (IMO) charitable or uncharitable (you aren’t being intentionally gracious or malicious), it’s just shallow.
    (3) The good news is that you are, even if you fail to acknowledge it, in agreement with Wright, and that is (IMO) usually a good place to be.

  5. Jordan Barrett says:

    Michael, Wright may not equate the two without distinction, but he appears to favor or prefer the image of return from exile above others when it comes to forgiveness of sins. In essence, it’s a very strong equation even if not 100%, and this seems to be the problem that Jeremy has with Wright’s argument. You, on the other hand, seem to be softening Wright’s claim by saying that Wright is only arguing for return from exile as the context and result of forgiveness of sins. This makes it less of an issue, as Jeremy said above. Jeremy’s question, if I understand him correctly, gets at the degree to which Wright equates the two.

    How do you interpret “means” in “return from exile means that Israel’s sins have been forgiven – and vice versa” (269)? This seems to call for a strong equation that goes beyond exile as a mere context or forgiveness as a result.

  6. Enoch says:

    I think Wright equates the two because he adds “and vice versa” at the end. “my daughter is my life.” and “my daughter is my life and vice versa.” are clearly different, aren’t they? I would side with Treat.

  7. Pingback: Review: Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright | For Christ and His Kingdom

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