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. 1:26-32 NET) 26 For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged the natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, 27 and likewise the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed in their passions for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done. 29 They are filled with every kind of unrighteousness, wickedness, covetousness, malice. They are rife with envy, murder, strife, deceit, hostility. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 senseless, covenant-breakers, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they fully know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but also approve of those who practice them.
Remember from the last post that Paul first points out that after Adam, mankind (pre-Abraham), with some unmentioned but understood exceptions, quickly forgot about God, and so they chose to worship created things rather than the Creator. Mankind fell into widespread, nearly universal idolatry.
Most people suppose that when Paul explains what is wrong with the human race, he focuses on “sin.” This is wrong. What he says about “sin” in Romans 1– 2 is secondary to what he says about idolatry. The primary human failure is a failure of worship. In Romans 1: 18– 25, “ungodliness” precedes “injustice” [JFG: or “unrighteousness”]: those who worship that which is not God will inevitably produce distortions in the world.
The point of “injustice” is not just that it means “wrong behavior” (for which the perpetrator would be culpable), but that it means introducing powerful rogue elements into God’s world. Like a foolish businessman who appoints to the board friends without the company’s best interests at heart, we have handed over control to forces that will destroy us and thwart our original purpose.
Consider how this works out. God is known, Paul explains, through the things that he made. The priestly calling of all humans was then to honor God, to thank and praise him.
Instead, however, humans “swapped the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of the image of mortal humans— and of birds, animals, and reptiles” (Rom. 1: 23). This results from a still more fundamental “exchange”: “They swapped God’s truth for a lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever” (1: 25). Paul here echoes the ancient Israelite insistence on worshipping the true God rather than idols. That is primary.
Sin does indeed have dire consequences: “People who do things like that deserve death” (1: 32). But his point is much wider than the fate of the human beings in question, important though that is (as 2: 1– 16 makes clear). Paul’s concern is that the Creator’s whole plan is put in jeopardy by the failure of humans to worship him alone. Only through that worship will they be sustained and fruitful in their vocation to look after his world.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 1455-1469). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
And so Paul lists the sins into which idolaters fall, having rejected the truth about God. This seems to be primarily a description of Gentiles.
Now, the point isn’t that these are wrong things because they spring from idolatry. Paul’s point is that idolatry leads to things that are so obviously wrong you shouldn’t need the Torah or visions from God to explain it to you. The general revelation of the Creation and our moral natures tells people enough to figure this out — and yet having left the truth about God, amazingly enough, the Gentiles not only commit these sins, they deny that these are sinful things at all!
Rom 2:1-5 [JFG]
(Rom. 2:1-5 NET) Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things. 2 Now we know that God’s judgment is in accordance with truth against those who practice such things. 3 And do you think, whoever you are, when you judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape God’s judgment? 4 Or do you have contempt for the wealth of his kindness, forbearance, and patience, and yet do not know that God’s kindness leads you to repentance? 5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed!
Paul here picks up a second basis for holding those who reject God accountable for their sins. Their own consciences declare their behavior wrong!
Here he likely intends to pick up the Jews along with the Gentiles. The Jews may not be idolaters, but they were not taking advantage of God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience designed to lead to repentance (that is, the condition in Deu 30 for the end of Exile). The Jews are repeatedly charged with being “stubborn” in Deu. (9 times and in very critical junctures of the book).
The logic of Paul’s argument is certainly broad enough to pick up Gentiles, too, but as to Jews, he does not pursue the argument based on idolatry and false worship. Rather, he later credits Jews with having the Torah and other blessings from God as an advantage that they have thrown away (Rom 3:1-2; 9:4).
Rom 2:6-11, Part 1
This brings us to this controversial passage:
(Rom. 2:6-11 NET) 6 He will reward each one according to his works: 7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, 8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness. 9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For there is no partiality with God.
Wright points out that Rom 1-3 introduce several themes that Paul expands on later in the book. Therefore, you may not find a complete understanding of a passage in chapter 1, 2, or 3. You have keep on reading! For example, to explain the early verses in chapter 2, Wright refers to chapter 8.
(Rom. 8:1-4 NET) There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This statement looks back at last to Romans 2: 1– 11, where Paul had warned about the “condemnation” that would fall on evildoers. He has already said that those “in the Messiah” have the verdict pronounced over them— the verdict, that is, of “righteous” or “in the right.”
He has already promised that those who are thus “declared to be in the right by his blood” (5: 9) will be rescued from the wrath that is still to come. [(Rom. 5:9 NET) 9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath.]
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 4612-4621). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
In Rom 2:8, Paul promises wrath for those who “do not obey the truth,” that is, those who deny God and so worship false gods, and “follow unrighteousness” (aren’t faithful to covenant with God) — all of which is “selfish ambition” because it’s the nature of rejecting the true God to become unlike the selfless YHWH.
The point is not primarily morality. Again, it’s about worshiping the true God as he truly is. Gentiles suffer wrath because they reject the truth (referring back to Gen 1:18 ff) and Jews suffer wrath for rejecting the covenant with God (referring back to Gen 2:1-5).
Hence, Rom 5:9 declares that the only people God considers righteous (faithful to the covenant) are those declared righteous (Wright would say “in the right,” but you are only in the right if you right under the prevailing covenants) by the blood of Christ.