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)…” 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.’”
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. 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. . .” 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.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2, Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 268.
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.
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.