N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 2 (Worshiping According to the Truth)

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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 1:18-25

(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
with —

(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.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 2 (Worshiping According to the Truth)

  1. Mark says:

    “That is, the problem God needed to address was not first a sin problem (contrary to most preaching) but a worship problem.”

    I heard this explained by a priest who asked what people turned to when times got bad, Diana, Zeus, Hera, Artemis, or money, power, prestige, job, etc. Basically, it did not matter who/what you turned to (save God) as you were saying that God was not big enough to deliver or powerful enough to provide comfort and reassurance. Granted, most people in the US don’t go to the Pagan temples when times get bad, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t turn to something else.

  2. Gary says:

    Understanding worship as the essence of a relationship with God strengthens, it seems to me, the case for God’s grace being extended beyond those who have already come into a covenant relationship with God. While most Gentiles turned to idolatry there are more nuanced examples in Scripture of some who worshipped God in one way or another. Giving thanks to God is an important part of worshipping God. Even the Lord’s Supper is called a Thanksgiving or Eucharist by Paul. In Luke 17 Jesus commends the “foreigner” or Samaritan leper who was the only one of ten lepers to return and thank Jesus. It’s not likely that a Samaritan leper would have understood exactly who Jesus is but Jesus accepted his worship anyway.

    Even more remarkable is Paul’s affirmation that the idolatrous Athenians of Acts 17 were actually worshipping God “in ignorance” in their devotion to the unknown God to whom they had erected an altar. While they were also worshipping false gods Paul still acknowledges their worship of the true God. They were not the only ones to have worshipped both the true God and false gods. Remember the household idols that Leah and Rachel hid in their clothing when they left Laban? I have read that there is considerable linguistic evidence of the mixture of idolatry with pre-exilic Judaism including that every name for God in the OT was also used of pagan gods save only for the Tetragramaton (YHWH).

    If there is no hope for those who in good conscience worshipped both God and idols then the same would be true today for Christians who place their trust in secular government or in a secular leader or in material goods and wealth. We should be careful in excluding others from God’s grace lest our measure of judgment exclude ourselves.

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    Paul, in the books he as the author only mentioned “worship” 11 times, and those include the 5 times that the word “worship” is recorded in Hebrews, and in those verses he does not identify that “worship” was what separated mankind from God.
    On the other hand he mentions “sin” 69 times with 11 in Hebrews, search them and read them for an understanding of whether “sin” or “worship” was what separated mankind from God. Adam was not accused of not “worshiping” God, it was direct disobedience to instructions, this is stated as truth in both OT and NT. Pay close attention and I believe that you will see that even while “worshiping” men still sin and have to be cleansed. Is not that what Paul said about himself. Worshiping allows for the cleansing of the problem (sin).
    Rom 5:12-13 ESV Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (13) for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.

    Read again the letters to the Seven churches who were worshiping, and notice if worshiping is the opposite of being condemned by sin.

    “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!” The Jews rejected God by rejecting Christ, Those who accepted Christ were rejected as Jews. The Gospel was sent to the Jews first but the Gentiles did not become Jews by accepting The Gospel. The remnant of the Jews and the Gentiles entered into a New Covenant with The Savor, a new Nation given a new identity with better promises, totally different than either the Jews or the Gentiles. and the Jews as a Nation or identity became the outsiders, no longer “God’s chosen people” by their own rejection.

  4. Dwight says:

    IF we look at the true concept of worship, which literally means bowing down, worship can entail how we live in relation to God. A true worshipper of God would not sin or would not try to sin or live towards sin.
    I Cor.6 “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?

    So here we have Paul telling people not to engage in fornication because this would tarnish the Temple, which is man. So sin tarnishes the dwelling of God. The Temple is not only the place where God dwells, but the place where worship and service was at its highest point.
    So N.T. Wright might have a point if this is where he is going with this.
    A true worshipper of God will draw to God and would effectively solve the sin problem.

  5. David says:

    Dwight

    Good comment on a passage that is not easily understood.

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