Would you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? How do you respond when you go through periods of struggle and suffering? Are you ever tempted to doubt God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance of you? Paul’s teaching on justification is crucial as we seek to persevere in our faith.
A Look at the text
V1 begins with a “therefore” linking us back to chapter 4 and its argument that justification is something we have already received by faith, not some thing we have had to earn or that we are still striving after contra some versions of the New Perspective of Paul which emphasise justification as a future, resurrection day event. We have been justified and that has implications for life now. The first being that we have peace with God. Justification is about right standing so that we are now God’s friends and not his enemies. God is not against us, hostilities have ended.
V2 The further implication of this is that we have access. Status leads to proximity. Peace means that there is no hostility but it goes further. We have access. The access we have is to grace. I would suggest that by this Paul means that we have access to a place where we may receive God’s freely given blessing, specifically in regards to the forgiveness of sin. Therefore, that pace where we receive Grace is at the cross or at the place of atonement. It is the equivalent of being able to approach the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies. So we may also say that we have access to approach God, to come into his presence and receive his provision. Remember that the OT Law indicates barriers as represented by the various dividing walls and then the curtain that separate off the outer courts of the Temple from the Holy of Holies. Remember too that life in God’s presence is the crucial privilege of being part of God’s covenant people. The death penalty of sin means to be banished from God’s presence. The Cross and Resurrection reverses sin’s curse.
This causes joy. We “rejoice in hope.” Our joy is both in the delight of experiencing God’s presence and glory now but it is also looking forward to the day when God’s glory will be fully revealed. V3. But rejoicing is possible now even in our sufferings. Notice that we don’t merely rejoice despite our sufferings. Rather, we can rejoice even through suffering and trial. Although suffering is experienced as harm and hurt, we can learn to see God’s hand at work in our struggle. God uses our suffering for good by producing endurance through it. The image that comes to mind here is of the athlete disciplining their own body building up stamina and strength for the race ahead. Somehow, the difficulties we experience, whether it is poor health, persecution, conflict, setbacks, poverty or emotional pain, play their part in enabling us to persevere through life. Suffering has a significant contribution to make to our assurance and security.
V4. “Endurance produces character and character hope.” Notice that the end goal of our suffering through this chain is hope. We can rejoice in suffering because our rejoicing is about hope and it is our suffering that is producing that hope. Here we see the refining affect of enduring suffering. The character we need is that of Christ. God uses our experiences, he disciplines us in order that through these things we may become more Christ-like. And this produces hope. In other words, it is as we look at our lives and see what God is doing now, how he is at work, changing us, refining us, sanctifying us, growing us that we become all the more certain that he will fulfil his promise, that he is able to complete the work he has begun in us.
V5. This hope won’t “put us to shame.” In other words, it won’t cause us disappointment or embarrassment, it won’t let us down. Remember that the contrast set in Romans is between things we cannot boast in (ethnic pride and self righteousness) and things that we do not need to be ashamed of, in other words that we can boast in, we can glory in. Specifically it is the Gospel that we boast in, therefore the Gospel is central to our hope. Why are we not let down by future hope? Again it comes back to what God has already done and is doing in our lives. God has poured out his love. This takes us to the past grace of the Cross, we have been touched by the eternal and unconditional love of God as we have received forgiveness. Moreover, his love is poured out because he has not left us alone but given us the Holy Spirit. We can look forward to a future day when we will be physically in the presence of the Father and the Son because God is present with us now through the Holy Spirit. This is why justification is so important. Whilst there will be a change to the nature and intensity of his presence with us when Christ returns, it is not that we have simply been given a ticket to use on a future date, a ticket to heaven if you like. The privileges of the covenant are not future dated. We enjoy the privileges of the Covenant now knowing that they will grow in degree and intensity.
Digging a little deeper
It is worth continuing to remind ourselves about how each part of Paul’s argument fits together. Remember that what we have learnt so far is that there is no excuse from sin and no exception from judgement. However, God chooses to justify by faith so that we can be reconciled to God. This means that both Jew and Gentile alike can be heirs of Abraham and beneficiaries of the covenant having a relationship with God. Their boast is not in ethnic identity or self righteous achievement but solely in the Gospel. Paul’s aim in re-sharing the Gospel is to bless the church by encouraging deeper fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers. This will come through greater joy and delight in the Gospel.
Paul’s theology insists that justification is received prior to and apart from works, further that any seal of covenant membership is consequent to receiving justification and therefore the benefits of the Covenant. Indeed, we might say that one is a member of the covenant people because he is right with God rather than that he is right with God because he is a member of the Covenant people. This is at odds with some of the trajectories which The New Perspective on Paul, paedo-baptism and Federal Vision thinking take us. Specifically
- Contra NPP, justification is a significant aspect to how we come into God’s covenant people not just a label or status for those who are already in.
- Contra Federal Vision and some forms of paedo-baptism there is no encouragement here to first treat our children as members of the covenant people in the hope that they will then move on to receive the full benefits of salvation through faith.
Now, it is important to be aware of where Paul is going in his argument. Think of his opponents holding to a kind of social distancing position, in order for God’s people to be holy and fitting for God’s presence. The Law is needed in their view to keep those boundaries and separations in place. Paul in effect is saying “We have something better, we have the vaccine, the Gospel is the antidote.” Coming up soon, is going to be the claim from Paul’s opponents that his Gospel is going to lead to a free for all, people will just do what they please, there will be no restraints on sin. We will see how Paul handles that argument in chapter 6.
However, building towards that point are two further considerations that combine together here. First of all, without the penal affect of the Law, what is there actually in place to bring about godly living and secondly, what role then does suffering play if not penal? Paul is showing here is that suffering for the believer is not evidence that they are under the curse of judgement.
This point is important as we consider two errors, one historic and one recent. In recent times, the prosperity Gospel has put an emphasis on the absence of suffering and the experience of physical prosperity in terms of health and wealth as evidence of God’s blessing and approval. Secondly, historically, the Roman Catholic Church has placed an emphasis on confession penance as the way to deal with sin. It is worth observing as well that outside of Christianity we see similar misconceptions of suffering as punishment for example in some views of karma and reincarnation and in some tribal religions with an emphasis on the ability of bad spirits to bring curses upon people.
Whilst we would overtly reject such beliefs, they can still have a subtle but serious influence on our thinking, culture and even in effect on our theology. This can be seen first of all when individuals live in guilt, fear and shame because they think God is punishing them through their circumstances. It is seen two when individuals or churches uses legalistic methods to control and cajole congregations and family members. Recent abuse cases such as those concerning Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth provide extreme and horrific examples of where such thinking can lead but it can also be present in less obviously dangerous but still toxic forms.
So, here it is important to revisit what suffering is and isn’t doing. Suffering cannot be penal because we have already been justified. Therefore, what Paul shows us is that justification results in hopeful joy by means of character forming endurance. Suffering is now used by God to teach, discipline and refine us.
How does that happen? Well, first of all, suffering strips away those things that we depend on. It takes away our idols. If I have grown dependent on material comforts or confident in my own strength or popularity, then suffering and persecution may lead to those things being removed. At the same time, suffering can be used to highlight the ugliness of sin and the deadly deception of our idols. For example, our society tends towards the idols of materialism, medical security and individualism. The pandemic has both taken away some of those things so we can no longer rely on them whilst at the same time putting a magnifying glass to the horrific end consequences of individualism and selfishness in isolation and loneliness. This has been most graphically brought home by the distressing scenes of burial services stripped of ceremony with pitifully few mourners present. Death without faith in Christ is ugly, lonely and hopeless.
Secondly, because we cannot lean on our idols and indeed having seen their true ugliness should not want to, we learn in our suffering to cling onto Christ. It is not that I manage to toughen up and endure but that Christ in me endures. AS I go through suffering I learn that because Christ lives in me and because I am filled with the Spirit that I am not alone and that Christ is faithful and dependable. I see Christ winning daily battles in my life so that I not only survive my suffering by thrive in it by growing in holiness. This grows my confidence in Christ that he is both willing and able to keep his promises. Suffering then leads to assurance and this is why I can be joyful and hold onto hope even during testing times.
To reflect on
In what ways have you experienced suffering throughout the past year? Have you been able to remain joyful and hopeful through this time? In what ways has God taught you through suffering? How could you encourage another believer who is experiencing tough times?