N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 77 (Futility)

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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 accomplish our salvation.

Romans 8:20-21

(Rom. 8:20-21 ESV) 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope  21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Wright says,

Whereas, up until now, it might have been possible to think that Paul was simply talking about God’s salvation in relation to human beings, from here on it is clear that the entire cosmos is in view. Nor is this a strange oddity, bolted on to the outside of his theology, or of the argument of Romans, as though it were simply a bit of undigested Jewish apocalyptic speculation thrown in here for good measure. No: it is part of the revelation of God’s righteousness, that covenant faithfulness that always aimed at putting the whole world to rights. This is why, as we saw in 4:13, Paul declared that God’s promise to Abraham had the whole world in view.

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 596.

Paul expands a bit on his earlier statement. Clearly referring to the Fall of Man in Gen 3, Paul declares that Creation was subjected to “futility” in hope that when the children of God are redeemed, the Creation too would be redeemed. And this raises several questions.

Who subjected Creation to futility?

Is it Adam or God? Wright says God —

It has been “subjected to futility,” not deliberately (it did not rebel as humankind rebelled), but because God subjected it to corruption and decay, creation’s equivalent of slavery in Egypt (“the slavery which consists in corruption,” v. 21). God did this precisely in order that creation might point forward to the new world that is to be, in which its beauty and power will be enhanced and its corruptibility and futility will be done away. And, if one dare put it like this, as God sent Jesus to rescue the human race, so God will send Jesus’ younger siblings, in the power of the Spirit, to rescue the whole created order, to bring that justice and peace for which the whole creation yearns. (This cannot be reduced to the old liberal Protestant “social gospel”–from which the resurrection, which Paul here presupposes, was usually bracketed out.)

N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The Acts of the Apostles-The First Letter to the Corinthians, vol. 10 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 596.

Interesting … Wright sees saved humans as having a mission to redeem the rest of Creation. Jesus redeems the church so that the church will redeem the balance of Creation. This is strongly suggested by Paul’s statement that the saved with be redeemed in hope that the rest of Creation will be redeemed as well.

Now, there is an ancient argument about whether Adam’s sin caused the curse on Creation or God issued the curse in response to sin — making God in some part at fault for the suffering of mankind and the futility of the Creation.

Grammatically, Paul seems to put the blame on God by calling God “the one who subjected it”; but I think the idea is more subtle than that. If we would return to the idea of the heavens and earth being created as a temple for God, then the sin of Adam (and Eve) polluted the temple. Remember, Wright’s teaching from Simply Christian that the story of the Bible may be told terms of the uniting and separation of heaven and earth, God and man. And Adam’s sin in the Garden separated God from man, because sin pushes God away — indeed, that was very much Adam’s intent, to be wise as a god himself.

So if Adam’s free will decision pushed God away, then we should not be surprised to see the Creation suffer from being distanced from God. God hasn’t entirely left the building, but the close, intimate communion that man and God once enjoyed in the Garden is gone. But God allowed Adam’s free will sin “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” That is, God had a plan that would redeem both humankind and the Creation. We call it “atonement.”

What is “futility”?

The word translated ‘frustration’ [or ‘futility’] is one found frequently (54x) in the LXX, in the Psalms (14x), Proverbs (1x) and particularly in Ecclesiastes (39x), where it denotes futility and meaninglessness. …  A similar idea is found in the rabbinic literature: ‘Although things were created in their fullness, when the first man sinned they were corrupted, and they will not come back to their order before Ben Perez (the Messiah) comes’ (Gen. Rab. 12.6).

Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, PNTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 343.

I’m not happy with the commentaries here. Paul chose a word very closely associated with Ecclesiastes: “vanity” or “futility.” The word means “inability to accomplish one’s purposes.”  Here’s how Ecclesiastes uses the term:

(Eccl. 1:2-15 ESV)  2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.  3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?  4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.  6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.  7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.  8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.  10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.  11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.  12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.  14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.  15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

The essence of the idea seems to be that nothing about the created order can be changed by man.

(Eccl. 1:9 ESV)  9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

So the “futility” of Creation is that sin can’t fix itself, and God can’t be brought near man solely by man’s efforts. The world — and humanity with it — is broken and cannot be fixed by human effort. Even trying to fix it is pointless — which sounds a lot like Rom 7.

The solution to futility is Jesus — whose sacrifice changes everything and puts an end to futility. No longer is our service to God in vain. Jesus overcomes the brokenness of the Creation by allowing himself to be broken by the greatest powers on earth. God himself has to take the first step and pay the price to reverse the futility of everything — and he’s done exactly that.

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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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