STUDIES IN ROMANS

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley

STUDY FOURTEEN: THE CHRISTIAN SURVIVAL MINDSET IN THE PRESENCE OF SUFFERING AND SIN - ROMANS 8:17-39

In this section Paul makes three important points at which we will look in this study:

  1. Christians share in the sufferings of Christ.
  2. Christian suffering, along with the suffering of the whole created world, is in anticipation of future glory; and
  3. Suffering does not and cannot separate the Christian from the love of God.

[1] Christians share in the sufferings of Christ.

Four things hold together: being children of God, being heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, sharing Christ's suffering, and sharing Christ's glory. The fourth is the goal of the other three, and each of the other three exists as part and parcel of each other. As indicated at the end of the previous study, the 'if indeed we share in his sufferings' does not indicate a conditional provision without which we are not Christians, but is a strong statement of an existing state:' Christians share in the sufferings of Christ.' We need to ask ourselves here 'In what way do Christians share in Christ's sufferings?'

[1.1] Obviously, we cannot and do not personally experience the suffering Christ experienced when he was dying the death penalty for our sins. He alone suffered that spiritual agony of separation from the Father. We do, however, share in the results of that suffering.

[1.2] We do share in the incognito factor of Christ's suffering: the world did not recognize that here in Jesus of Nazareth stood the Lord God Almighty (John 1:10-12; 10:33), rather it treated him as a blasphemous man and a common criminal. Similarly, the world does not recognize that those who believe in Jesus Christ are children of God (1 John 3:1-2), and it views with disbelief and scorn any claim we make to that effect.

[1.3] As a human being Jesus Christ shared in our human suffering, and by that learned what it meant to be an obedient human living in a sinful, suffering world; he, the holy One, lived in an unholy world; we, set apart by God and for God, God's special treasures, also know in part, the tension of living as God's people in a godless world.

[1.4] We share also, as the Holy Spirit does his inner transforming work to make us more and more like our Lord' (2 Corinthians 3:18), in the distress of heart and soul that Christ experienced when face to face with the wrongness of human sin and human suffering. He stood on this earth among the shattered, hurting fragments of his perfect creation, and he wept. The closer we come to him, the more we share this suffering, grieved by unrepentant hearts, grieved by broken lives, grieved by human tragedy. Moved with compassion. (Matthew 9:36; 17:17; 23:37; John 11:35). [We can add here a suffering that Jesus never personally experienced, but which is related to this suffering because of the wrongness of sin: we suffer the tension/torment of our own personal sin, which is in constant contradiction to what our hearts desire, as evidenced in Romans 7:13-25].

[1.5] We at various times and various places share in the opposition and persecution that he received from those who were opposed to him and to God. In becoming his, we are automatically the enemies of Satan and are attacked by this enemy in various ways, simply because we belong to Jesus (see references at the end of previous study).

[1.6] We share in his suffering when we, like him, are persecuted for bearing testimony to the truth.

Much of the above is a further aspect of the eschatological tension already expressed in 7:13-25. There this tension was expressed in relation to the fact that believers sin. Here, this eschatological tension is what we could term an essential tension a further tension set within the eschatological tension, but promoted by essential identity rather than by time. Apart from his final suffering by which we are saved, and which we never duplicate or experience, the sufferings of Christ in this world related to his essential identity he suffered because he is who he is; it is the same with those who believe in him. Below are the above points, and more, set in tabulated format:

CHRIST
GENUINE CHRISTIANS
PEOPLE OF THE WORLD

Belongs in heaven and is from heaven (John 3:13; 6:38,51; 8:23; 17:5, 8; 1 Corinthians 15:47)

Are born from above and belong in heaven (John 3:3,7 see NIV footnote; 15:19; 17:6-19; 1 Corinthians 15:47-49)

Are of the earth (John 8:23; 1 Corinthians 15:47-49)

Is the Son of God (Matthew 3:17)

Are (adopted) children of God (John 1:12; Romans 8:14-17; Gal 3:26-4:7; Ephesians 1:5).

Are children of the Devil and slaves of sin (John 8:34-35, 38, 41-47; Rom 6:17)

Is perfect (Hebrews 4:15)

Are perfect in Christ (Hebrews 10:14)

Are imperfect (Romans 3:9-18)

Is holy totally set apart

Are holy set apart by God, for God

(Colossians 1:22)

Do not belong to God (John 8:42-47)

Loves God

Love God

Do not love God (John 5:42; 15:18-25)

Is Spirit

Are spirit (John 3:6)

Are flesh (John 3:6)

Is the truth (John 8:12)

Know the truth (John 8:32; 16:13)

Do not know the truth (John 8:44-47)

Spoke the truth about God

Speak the truth about God

Won't listen to the truth about God

Hates evil

Hate evil

Do not hate evil

Obeyed God (John 6:38; 8:29; 14:31)

Obey God (John 17:6-8) and try to obey God.

Not interested in obeying God

King in God's kingdom

Members of God's kingdom (Colossians 1:13)

Not members of God's kingdom

Knows God (John 7:29; 8:55; 10:15)

Know God (John 14:7-9)

Do not know God (John 5:37-38; 7:28b; 8:19, 55; 14:17; 16:3)

Is life (John 6:35; 11:25; 14:6; 1 John 5:20, 26)

Have life and exist already in eternal life (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 1 John 5:12)

Are spiritually dead (John 5:24; Ephesians 2:1,5; Colossians 2:13)

Is light (John 1:7-9; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35, 46)

Live in the light of Christ (John 8:12; 12:36; 2 Corinthians 4:6), and are light (Matthew 5:14-16).

Is in the darkness (John 3:19-20; 8:12; 12;35-36 2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

Could not be explained in human categories real identity not recognized (John 1:10-11; 6:43; 8:14b, 25)

Cannot be explained in human categories (John 3:8; 1 John 3:1-2)

Can be explained in human categories.

The Christian believer, through the promises of God, participates in the very nature of God (2 Peter 1:4) and is intimately and indissolubly united to Jesus Christ (see all the NT references to 'union' with Christ, and being 'in Christ'). This essential identification and union with Christ creates inevitable tension and suffering for as long as the believer is in the world. This tension is typified in Abraham: 'By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. they were longing for a better country a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them' (Hebrews 11:8-16).

This earth was not the natural habitat of Jesus Christ nor is it, in its cursed and fallen state, any longer the natural habitat of those who, united to him by faith, have been redeemed and rescued from it. Here on earth the citizens of heaven are out of place. We are light in the midst of darkness. We are truth in the midst of error. We are God-lovers in the midst of God-haters. We are evidence of the fact that one true personal God is there, in the midst of a world which denies his existence. Here our very presence ' as salt and light (see Matthew 5:13-15) ' is offensive and condemnatory to those who do not believe.

Because of this dichotomy, this dissonance between the person regenerated by the Spirit of God and the world in which we still live, we share the suffering of Christ.

[2] Christian suffering, along with the suffering of the whole created world, is in anticipation of future glory.

In Romans 8:17-30 we are confronted by the eschatological tension on yet another level. Here the tension is evident in the presence and reality of physical and personal suffering, as well as the 'spiritual' suffering we share with Christ. If we, as those whose sins have been forgiven, have ceased to be related to God on the basis of merit, why do we still suffer? Why can sin still to impact us with its results if God no longer holds our sins against us? The presence of suffering, and the fact that believers suffer in the same way as non-believers, seem to contradict all that Paul has been teaching up to this point. Paul here teaches that suffering is part of the eschatological tension, an expression of the difference between the already and the not yet, the now and the then, between earth and heaven.? He puts it this way:

 
NOW
THEN

8:17

Suffer with Christ

Glorified with Christ

8:18

Present suffering

Future glory

8:19

Eager expectation

Sons of God revealed

8:20,21

Creation subject to frustration and bondage, in hope

Creation liberated

Glorious freedom of the children of God

 

8:22-25

Creation and us groaning, waiting eagerly, hoping, waiting patiently

Adoption as sons

The redemption of our bodies

8:26

Weakness

We don't even know what to pray about

 

Putting it at its simplest level: we are not in heaven yet. We are still in this world, where God has left us, but we don't belong to this world Any longer - a world in which the results and consequences of sin still surround and impact all who live here. The present 'normal' state of the world, which is in place from Genesis 3, is really 'abnormal it is not the way God created it, it is not its natural state. It is essentially an interim, in-between, state, which will be terminated and reversed when Jesus Christ abolishes sin and suffering forever.

Recognition of this tension helps us to realize that suffering does not indicate failure of our faith or punishment for sin - as the three friends accused Job, and as various current expressions of legalism regularly tell us. Rather, suffering is inevitable this side of heaven. In this world, because the effects of the fall still exist, we are constantly exposed to physical suffering from physical, moral and spiritual causes, because both the physical creation, including our own bodies, and the moral and spiritual condition of all human beings, including ourselves, are corrupt and imperfect. For the believer, the whole area of suffering is intensified by the eschatological tension, because the believer, over and above all people on earth, is sensitive to the gross incongruity and wrongness of sin and suffering. Paul identifies this tension: 2 Corinthians 4:7-5:8.

For your study: Go to the Studies on Suffering on this website and check out in particular studies two, three and four.

We might ask ourselves: why did Paul suddenly start talking about suffering, when his purpose in writing is to get his readers to understand justification by faith and its implications' He talks about suffering precisely for that reason, because the legalistic mindset, which relates to God kata sarka, consistently perceives suffering to be an indication of God's displeasure and judgement. The truth of justification by faith, of the 'righteousness from God apart from law' sets us free from this daily threat of condemnation. For the believer, suffering can never again be viewed as God's punishment and condemnation, for the God no longer relates to the believer kata sarka ' on the basis of our own performance, but kata pneuma ' always, ever, and only in and through Christ. Therefore, when a believer suffers it never means a pay-out because we have little or no faith or some hidden sin. This common misconception about suffering cuts right across the good news of justification by faith, and annihilates the peace with God which the believer has in Christ. In verses 28 to 39 Paul continues to press home this important and impactive truth because he wants to liberate us from the common assumption that suffering is God's punishment, that suffering indicates a severance between the believer and God.

[3] Suffering does not mean the believer is separated from God's love.

In 8:28-29, rather than suffering being something contrary to and contradictory to the believer and his assurance of salvation, something indicative of judgement and condemnation, Paul here assures us that no such thing is the case. On the contrary, even in these things that are opposed to us and hell-bent on the destruction of our bodies and our faith (including our peace and joy), God works for us 'for the good of those who have been called according to his purpose'. Suffering does not nullify or invalidate our position as Christians, nor can it threaten us.

In 8:28-30 Paul gives his readers a great list of strong words, intended to assure us for ever that there is no way that suffering has the ability to disqualify the believer: called, foreknown, predestined, headed for conformation to the likeness of Jesus, brothers of his Son, predestined, called, justified, glorified. [Note that most of these verbs are in the Aorist tense, indicating once-for-all action in the past.] No suffering that we experience can undermine these truths: they are in God's hands, they are his work in us and for us. In his hands, suffering becomes just another tool by and through which he will bring about our 'good'.

In 8:31-34 Paul affirms that God is for us. God gave his Son for us. God justifies us. No one - neither God, nor Satan, nor people, nor ourselves - can legally bring a charge against us or condemn us.

For your study: Read these verses (8:31-34) carefully, taking note of each single thing God is teaching us here. Honestly identify ways in which you allow yourself to be accused and condemned ' by your own heart/mind, by fellow human beings, especially Christians, and by, so you or others think, God himself. What are these verses telling you? Grasp hold of and thank the Lord for the powerful truth they teach, and ask him to help you to believe his Word here.

In 8:35-37 Paul gives a list of physical suffering and states that none of these can separate us from Christ's love ' they can never mean God is condemning us. Even in the presence of these things 'we are more than conquerors'. How? Through our own sinless lives? Through our own perfect, unwavering faith? No! 'Through him who loved us.' Suffering is suffering. It is not punishment for sin ' Christ, who loved us, bore all of that for us. It does not mean God has cut off his love ' God loved us while we still sinners, he is not going to cut us off now that he has placed us in Christ (Romans 5:1-11; 8:32). Christians who believe that suffering is because God is withholding his love because of their sin, or that their sin has blocked God's love, are still perceiving their relationship with God as merit/performance based; they are assuming that God is still seeing them as they are in themselves ' kata sarka. They are not living with the grand and glorious reality that God no longer relates to them as individuals in their aloneness and nakedness, but relates to them always, ever and only in Christ ' kata pneuma.

8:38-39: Nothing in all creation can separate us from God's love for us in Christ. Nothing can deny or undo our salvation. Not sin, not law, not death, not the law of sin and death, or the fact we are not Jews. Because our relationship with God is not based on any thing variable or changeable but on Christ to whom God has united us by his Spirit.

All of this Paul intends as strong and unshakable assurance. The world, which continues to relate to its 'god' kata sarka, assumes that suffering undermines confidence in one's relationship with God, undermines and nullifies the doctrine of justification by faith, rendering it impossible for anyone to know without a shadow of a doubt that God accepts them. Everything is conditional, everything is uncertain, and the presence of suffering intensifies that conditionality and that uncertainty.

Sadly, many Christians, to whom God has ceased to relate kata sarka because they have believed in his Son, continue in their own hearts and minds and from their perspective, to relate to God kata sarka. Their awareness of peace with God is non-existent or fragile, they constantly fear God's condemnation and punishment, they still live as though trapped and enslaved by the law of sin and death, they have no assurance of salvation. To them suffering is God's punishment ' a payout for some demerit or some failure of faith.

To these Paul hammers it home: we rejoice in suffering! (5:3) It can never again be perceived as punishment. It has no ability to sever us from the love of God in Christ. Nothing can do that. Christ has taken all the punishment. Christ has borne all the rejection and separation. It will never be experienced by the believer. Never. All that could ever separate us from God has been disempowered forever.

Personal Thanksgiving and Commitment: Write out a personal prayer in response to what you have learned in Lesson 14: include thanksgiving to God for all that you have and are in Jesus Christ, and a commitment to live, with God's help, in the peace and joy of the salvation which he has so powerfully provided for you.