N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
(Rom. 1:18 ESV) For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Wright points out that the relationship between God and man is broken, at its most basic level, by “ungodliness” rather than sin. Paul will get to sin, but he deals with ungodliness first.
It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows), but of worship. Worship the wrong divinity, and instead of reflecting God’s wise order into the world you will reflect and then produce a distortion: something out of joint, something “unjust.” That is the problem, says Paul: “ungodliness” produces “out-of-jointness,” “injustice.” [JFG: translated “unrighteousness” by most] Since this out-of-jointness clashes with the way things actually are, humans then suppress the truth as well, including ultimately the truth about God himself, and so the vicious circle continues; people continue to worship that which is not divine and swap the truth for a lie (1: 18– 26).
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4315-4320). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
“Ungodliness” translated asebeia, meaning per BDAG,
in general ἀσέβεια is understood vertically as a lack of reverence for deity and hallowed institutions as displayed in sacrilegious words and deeds: impiety
“Unrighteousness” can mean immorality, but I wonder whether it’s better to take it as “lack of covenant faithfulness” since Paul is using “righteousness,” when applied to God, to refer to covenant faithfulness. Using such a closely related word would seem to imply that Paul is borrowing his special meaning.
If that’s right (and Wright does not deal with this question) it would be the Gentiles who are ungodly, due to worshiping idols, while the Jews’ primary sin is violating the covenant with God — again, by idolatry but even worse because of their covenant not to do this. Just a thought …
In Paul’s other epistles, “truth” is the gospel. However, in Romans, it seems to mean the truth about God, which will include the gospel, but Paul spends some of his time addressing “the truth” pre-Jesus and even pre-Abraham. Hence, “the truth” is likely “what can be known about God” in v. 18: that God is the Creator and ought to be worshiped — exclusively. “The truth” is thus the opposite of idolatry.
(Rom. 1:19-25 NET) 19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for an image resembling mortal human beings or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to dishonor their bodies among themselves. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
The truth about God has been revealed in his general revelation, that is, the Creation itself and the moral nature of man (as Paul explains in chapter 2). So mankind worshiped the wrong thing. Rather than worshiping the Creator they became idolaters.
Paul is recapitulating Genesis, and so he’s thinking of nearly all people pre-Abraham and, thereafter, Gentiles, who did not receive the Law of Moses. That is, the problem God needed to address was not first a sin problem (contrary to most preaching) but a worship problem. Worshiping something other than God is, of course, idolatry and, as Paul will next show, leads to sin more generally.
He is speaking in broad terms, and so isn’t saying there are no exceptions. He would readily admit that Melchizedek, for example, doesn’t fit his understanding of atonement history.
Paul eventually concludes that the worship/sin problem begins to be solved for Christians by God’s covenant with Abraham. Now, covenant theology is new ground for most American Christians, but for Paul’s readers, this is how they thought. I mean, you can’t read much of the OT and not see how very many times God declares that he is acting (or not acting) due to his covenant promises. “Covenant” appears in the OT 290 times in the ESV translation!
Abraham is thus credited with worshiping God, not for living a good moral life (although he largely did) —
(Rom. 4:19-20 NET) 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God.
Thus, he credits Israel with the advantage of —
(Rom. 9:4 ESV) They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.
When Paul talks about how God has solved the problem through Christ, he concludes
(Rom. 12:1 ESV) I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Paul takes us from “they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks” to “your spiritual worship.”
When Paul deals with the practicalities of the weak and strong getting along in the same congregation — evidently a problem dividing Jews and Gentiles — he argues,
(Rom. 15:1-6 NET) But we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not just please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good to build him up. 3 For even Christ did not please himself, but just as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” 4 For everything that was written in former times was written for our instruction, so that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we may have hope. 5 Now may the God of endurance and comfort give you unity with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus, 6 so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To goal is not just peace but united worship of God. (Paul would be horrified at the thought of black and white churches in mixed race communities. How can we worship with one voice in separate buildings under separate leadership attending separate lectureships?)
Paul summarizes much of the book by saying,
(Rom. 15:8-12 NET) 8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised [the Jews] on behalf of God’s truth [the fact that God is the Creator and there is one God who deserves worship] to confirm the promises [to bless the nations] made to the fathers [Abraham, etc.], 9 and thus the Gentiles glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Because of this I will confess you among the Gentiles, and I will sing praises to your name.” 10 And again it says: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” 11 And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him.” 12 And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, and the one who rises to rule over the Gentiles, in him will the Gentiles hope.”
Jesus, on the cross, took on the burden of Israel to proclaim the nature of God to the Gentiles so that they’ll join wit the Jews in worshiping God! (This is Wright’s primary thesis in a single verse, which is beyond cool.)
The Gentiles have been taken from the worship of idols described in chapter 1 to glorifying God together with the Jews! That’s the point of God’s plan for Gentiles. It was all in accordance with the Scriptures. And they worship God as Gentiles, not as Gentiles made into Jews through conversion to Judaism.